“I thought our time was coming and we didn’t get to finish the job. It’s like you made a cake from scratch and put it in the oven. Someone else is putting the icing on and eating it.”
- Rich Rodriguez speaking on Michigan’s 11-2, Sugar Bowl-winning season
per ESPN.com senior college football writer Ivan Maisel
Now the head football coach at Arizona, Rodriguez saw players he recruited enjoy vast success under first year head coach Brady Hoke. There’s validity to Rodriguez’s sentiment. While his was a classic case of square peg-round hole, as detailed in John U. Bacon’s book Three and Out, Rodriguez faced another issue that shortened his stay in Ann Arbor.
He was attempting to bake his cake without his top sous chef.
Several Rodriguez assistants made the pilgrimage from Morgantown to Ann Arbor. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel was not among them, and his absence resonated loud and clear.
The spread option offense West Virginia had flourished with running under Rodriguez began to click at UM by 2010. The problem was that while Denard Robinson was guiding the Wolverines to nearly 33 points per game on the offensive end, the defensive counterparts were surrendering over 35 PPG. Of BCS conference teams, only Duke, Wake Forest and Washington State were more porous.
Michigan’s defense transcended merely being bad. The Wolverines were meme bad. Google the term “Gerg.” Aside from three of four acronyms, the top hit is ESDBS.com’s description of UM defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. Rodriguez had coached opposite Robinson in the Big East, as Robinson served as Syracuse’s head coach from 2005 through 2008.
Robinson attempted to run the 3-3-5 stack that WVa. suffocated foes with in the Big East. The problem was Robinson was completely out of his element trying to run the relatively unorthodox formation. Robinson had been an NFL coach for nearly a decade before spending one season at Texas, and his unsuccessful tenure at SU. It could have been a case of UM lacking the personnel to run the 3-3-5 — bear in mind, changing to a more traditional 4-3 under Greg Mattison this past season, the Wolverines ranked No. 6 in points allowed. That’s a turnaround of 102 places.
Awkward personnel fits would have only exacerbated the issues Robinson had overseeing the scheme, though. Its nuances require a keen insight — the kind of insight Casteel refined in nearly two decades running the set.
Rodriguez learned to love the 3-3-5 while Casteel ran it at Shepherd College. By 2002, Casteel’s second season at WVU and first as defensive coordinator, the Mountaineers were installing the system. In his first year as Mountaineer DC, the defense was No. 40 in points allowed. WVU ranked 44 in 2003, but actually improved its yield by nearly one point fewer an outing. By 2005, the Mountaineers were among the nation’s top 15 defenses and peaked at No. 8 in 2007.
There was a process to fine tuning the defense, including recruiting the right personnel. Obviously patience was not a virtue in Ann Arbor, but the difference between Robinson’s poor man’s version of the 3-3-5 and Casteel’s would have almost assuredly been another year.
Michigan reached a bowl game with seven wins in Rodriguez’s final season, the bottoming out of the Wolverine defense. In its worst season under Casteel before 2010, WVU surrendered a little over 23 points per game — or, two touchdowns sans PATs fewer than the 2010 yield of UM.
The 2011 Michigan defense was far more experienced. Players like Ryan Van Bergen, Jordan Kovacs, and Kenny Demens had developed into forces. Again, perhaps their success is attributable to Mattison’s shift to a 4-3. However, Van Bergen could have functioned much like West Virginia standout Bruce Irvin blitzing from the three-down front of a properly run 3-3-5.
UM’s upperclassmen figuring out and thriving in the 3-3-5 in ’11 would feed into an explosive offense. The Wolverines continued to put up big points this past season, but the possibilities for Denard Robinson remaining in the option with an emergent Fitzgerald Toussaint could have amounted to more.
There were moments when Robinson looked lost in Al Borges’ hybrid offense. Borges ran a mix of the behind-center traditional sets the coach ran elsewhere and the shotgun formation that best suited Robinson. The square peg-round hole analogy that described Rodriguez’s tenure as head coach felt apropos regularly for Robinson and Borges.
With a strong defense and more developed weapons around him, Robinson could have had a Heisman candidacy campaign in an offense that accentuated his strengths.
It’s hard to discount Hoke’s first season at Michigan, and realistically the ceiling he reached might have been the pinnacle for a Rodriguez/Casteel-coached team. But tasting that cake makes one salivate.