If ever a season merited a postmortem, it was Michigan's 2013 season. To call it disappointing would be putting it mildly, as the Wolverines took a step backward, rather than forward, as many expected. Among the preseason favorites in the Legends division, instead of competing for a Big Ten title, Michigan stumbled to a 7-6 record. But it wasn't the Wolverines' record as much as it was the manner in which they played that defined their season, one that ultimately cost offensive coordinator Al Borges his job and head coach Brady Hoke most of the goodwill leftover from his 11-win debut season in 2011.
It's not as if there weren't any highlights, as 2013 featured a valiant, if uneven performance by Devin Gardner. Gardner received more than his share of criticism over the course of the season, some of which was justified, but he was also the Wolverines' biggest difference-maker on an all-too-often anemic offense. Few quarterbacks were forced to do more with less than Gardner was, and without his playmaking ability, there's no telling how far the Wolverines would have fallen. Look no further than his performance against Ohio State, when he passed for more than 450 yards and accounted for five touchdowns, some of which, it turns out, was accomplished on a broken foot, to see the kind of impact Gardner had. Sure, there were the turnovers, some of them spectacular in fashion, but Gardner gave the Wolverines' their best chance for victory each Saturday.
But that's not to say Gardner didn't have any help, as Jeremy Gallon excelled in 2013, putting together one of the best receiving seasons in Michigan history. Gallon hauled in 89 receptions for a school-record 1,373 yards, highlighted by a 14-catch, Big Ten-record, 369-yard performance against Indiana. Named team MVP, Gallon leaves Ann Arbor at or near the top of most of Michigan's single season and career receiving records.
But the bad outweighed the good in 2013, and the story of the season wasn't Gardner or Gallon, but a disappointing defense and an even more disappointing offense, one that ranked 86th in total offense, 102nd in rushing offense, 105th in sacks allowed and 121st in tackles-for-loss allowed, as Michigan ran an almost unthinkable 120+ plays that resulted in negative yardage. As Michigan's offense seemed to perform worse with each passing week, the cries for Borges's head grew louder, but play calling was not Michigan's problem, it was that the Wolverines were simply incapable of generating a traditional, between-the-tackles running game.
The most disappointing aspect of the 2012 season, offensive line play sunk to new depths in 2013. How poorly did the offensive line play? Forget that the it had difficulty protecting Gardner, surrendering 36 sacks and forcing Gardner to run for his life on countless other occasions, but its run-blocking was so ineffective that even the stubbornly run-heavy Borges eventually gave up, calling a mere eight running plays designed for tailbacks in Michigan's bowl loss to Kansas State. Anyone who watched the Wolverines play doesn't need any statistics to illustrate how bad their offensive line play was, but here's one anyway - Michigan rushed for a combined 56 yards against Michigan State, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas State. Or, if you'd prefer, the Wolverines averaged less than 15 yards on the ground in those four games. And that's not considering the Penn State game, a game in which Michigan tailbacks tallied just 28 yards on 30 carries. Whether it was due to youth, inexperience, lack of development or simply lack of talent is up for debate, but there's no disputing the results. Michigan, a team with designs of pushing people off the line of scrimmage, got pushed around all year. And as a result, the Wolverines were never able to mount a consistent offensive attack.
A struggling offensive line shouldn't have been completely unexpected, though, as Michigan played three first-time starters on its interior, all underclassmen, at that. The same cannot be said, however, of Greg Mattison's defense. Sure, the Wolverines' best defensive playmaker, Jake Ryan, started the season on the sidelines, but Mattison was thought to have worked miracles with lesser talent his first two years on the job, and now that he had at his disposal an abundance of young talent, the defense appeared primed to take the leap from good to great.
Or so it was thought. The defense started the season well enough, keeping Michigan in most games, but it was never dominant. And after bending and sometimes breaking for the majority of the season, the defense finally collapsed under the strain of trying to support an offense that went backward as often as forward, and finished the season by surrendering nearly 400 yards on the ground to Ohio State and forcing just one punt against a Kansas State offense ranked in the bottom half of Big 12. It wasn't just Hoke's reputation that took a hit in 2013, it was Mattison's, as well.
But now that it's over, what does it all mean? Was 2013 just a bump in the road or a glimpse of the future of Michigan football? Michigan's play was troubling, but it's a little early to throw in the towel on Hoke. After all, the Wolverines are one of the younger teams in the country, as Michigan started the season having 61 freshmen and sophomores among its of 82 players on scholarship. Hoke acknowledged that it would take time to overhaul a roster built to play such a drastically different system, so growing pains should be expected. This season was definitely disappointing, but until Hoke's first recruiting classes matriculate into fourth and fifth year players, it's too early to make a judgment on Hoke's success or the program's future.
But youth can't continue to be used as an excuse for Michigan's play. There are too many good, young players making contributions on too many campuses around the country for that excuse to continue to hold water.
If the firing of Borges did anything, it showed that Michigan is not complacent nor is it satisfied with its recent performance. Replacing Borges won't cure all of Michigan's ails, but the move shows that Michigan acknowledges a sense of urgency, which is a good thing for Wolverine fans. However, patience should still be exercised in Ann Arbor, because any improvement shown by the Wolverines will likely be gradual. As the fourth season of the Hoke era looms, the focus should be on improved play rather than simply wins and losses. Will the Wolverines continue to get pushed around in the trenches or will they hold their own and start pushing people around? That, more than anything, will determine the direction of the program.