Thursday, November 6, 2014

Embrace the Suck - Michigan vs Northwestern

I love football coaches who aren't afraid to say what they really feel and can be honest about the status of their programs.

Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald knows his team is not great this year. After beating Wisconsin and Penn State earlier, the Wildcats have lost their last three games by steadily increasing margins and they are only favored by about 2 points over Michigan on Saturday, likely because the game is in Evanston. After their recent 48-7 loss to Iowa, Fitzgerald made an interesting comment, as shown in the tweet above. He wants his players to harness their frustrations -- embracing the suck -- and turn them to their advantage as a motivational force.

I've read the transcripts of some of Fitzgerald's press conferences and if you have any imagination at all, you can almost envision the same talking points coming straight from the mouth of Brady Hoke. They share many of the same struggles week-to-week. They recruited talented players who, for whatever reason, are not consistently living up to their potential on the field this year. If you look at a word cloud of both coaches' last few pressers, it's pretty clear. Their vocabulary is the same, it's just that we're used to hearing it from the Hoke perspective only:

We need to play better. Great practices not translating to game day. It all comes down to coaching. My responsibility. I'm accountable. Kids working hard. Making progress. Need to compete. Execute. Tackle. Be physical. Seize opportunities. Be confident. Keep developing. Young. Injured. The ball (hold on to it, move it, protect it, strip it, throw it, run it.) 

"Embracing the suck" is one of the only concepts these two men don't share in their public statements. Brady Hoke will try to motivate his struggling team in any number of ways -- tent stake analogies, for instance -- but I don't think he'll ever have the courage to utter his own equivalent of "The kids and all of us coaches are trying to embrace our suck". That would be admitting something that no Michigan coach would ever, ever allude to. That our team is bad with more consistency than it's good.

Michigan and Northwestern have records that are nearly identical. Both are struggling to achieve a .500 season and gain a post-season invitation. The team that loses this Saturday will have a difficult time pulling off a bowl bid. Michigan still needs to face Maryland and make a very tough trip to Columbus. Northwestern follows up Michigan with a potentially mortifying trip to South Bend, then Purdue and Illinois. Saturday's loser would need a miracle to win out the rest of their schedule, essentially closing the door on a holiday bowl trip anywhere ... even to the new Ford Quick Lane Bowl in downtown Detroit.

I think Saturday's game is a toss-up in which the home field favors Northwestern, but momentum and confidence must favor the Wolverines. Both sides suffer from inconsistent special teams, weak offensive lines, and sketchy offensive production. Defense is the most solid element for both, though after a long day on the field propping up the offense even that may become problematic by the second half for either team. If both play like they have the past couple weeks, it may look a lot like last year's chaotic 3OT affair to determine a survivor.

Ultimately it may depend on which coach can get his team riled up and hungrier for the win on what promises to be a cold and possibly rainy day by Lake Michigan. Let's hope that the Wolverines stake their claim in Evanston and that Fitzgerald and his Wildcat team have another long week of embracing their suck.

MGoGirl! heart and mind:  Michigan 28  Northwestern 24 

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