Michigan’s Quarterback Woes; or how Ryan Mallett became QB at Arkansas
story by Chris Benjamin, College Sports Matchups (CSM is a content partner with The City Wire)
Michigan’s current quarterback conundrum is the latest episode of a drama themed by the Wolverines’ misfortunes in placing a star behind center. That’s not to say that any of the current contestants for QB couldn’t emerge as future leader, but a look back at the last few years is a tragedy for The Big House marked by a strange web of missed opportunities and lost hopes that extend far beyond the drama of Ann Arbor.
Sept. 1, 2007 — It was the beginning of the 2007 football season. Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr delivered an 11-2 season in the previous year against all expectations. The Big House was rocking for the season opener against FCS team Appalachian State; by all estimates a warm-up for the #5 ranked Wolverines. At the end of the game, the score was 34-32 in Appalachian State’s favor. The Big House was stunned into silence. Michigan football was dropped from the polls the next week.
The night before in the Western Pennsylvania town of Jeannette, the high-school football Jayhawks opened their season against the Brownsville Falcons. Leading the Jayhawks to their 60-0 victory was their highly recruited quarterback, #11 Terrelle Pryor. A few hours after the upset in Ann Arbor, the Arkansas Razorbacks opened their season in Fayetteville against Troy. Then Razorback coach Houston Nutt relied on Heisman hopeful RB Darren McFadden for the win after losing the highly recruited freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain to USC in the wake of off-the-field conflicts during the 2006-2007 season.
Sept. 8, 2007 — The Big House was ready for another home game and fans were trying to shut out the memory of the previous week’s epic fail. Unfortunately for Michigan football, the Oregon Ducks would add insult to injury. At the end of the half, Michigan could not improve on their initial seven points, but the Ducks racked up three times that many points. Senior QB Chad Henne was injured during the first half, so a freshman from Arkansas nicknamed “Big Tex” took his place for the second half. It was Ryan Mallett’s first appearance in a college game.
After the loss to Oregon, the Wolverines were booed by their own fans. The 0-2 standing dashed all hopes of winning the Big Ten conference crown. Fans were demanding that Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr resign or be fired.
Sept. 15, 2007 — The Big House was the site for the game unofficially dubbed the “Toilet Bowl.” Chad Henne did not return due to injury, which left newcomer Mallett responsible for leading Michigan. Fans were fearful of another embarrassing upset — worse yet from the likes of Notre Dame! Mallett was criticized for being “immobile” and all hope was on senior RB Mike Hart. Hart would do his part putting in two touchdowns, but Mallett delivered the three last touchdowns to shut out the Irish 38-0.
Sept. 22, 2007 — The first conference game for the Wolverines pitted them against Penn State. The Nittany Lions had lost eight in a row to Michigan, and Big House fans are praying that the Irish took all the bad luck with them the previous week. The still injured Chad Henne sat on the Michigan football bench mentoring his replacement, Mallett. The so-called immobile giant rambled into the end zone with the ball to score the first points of the game.
The next week, Chad Henne was back for the Northwestern game with help from Mallett. It appeared that Carr was grooming Mallett to follow the senior. He gave the freshman a chance to start and finish against Minnesota. The last two games of the season for Michigan broke the winning streak. The psychologically worse of the two losses was the defeat to Ohio State on the anniversary of Bo Schembechler’s death. The Buckeyes won the Big Ten title while Michigan, though finishing with a winning season, was buzzing with talk of Carr’s possible retirement. On the following Monday, Carr officially announced he was retiring from football after Michigan’s bowl game in January.
Meanwhile, south of Ann Arbor, another winning season coach was also working on breaking news for a press conference. Houston Nutt struggled with popularity and support after losses that knocked Arkansas football out of the AP Poll and jeopardized McFadden’s chances with the Heisman. On Nov. 26, Nutt announced he was leaving Arkansas. The next day he accepted the head coaching position at Ole Miss. This move opened a door that would result in another missed opportunity for Michigan.
Dec. 15, 2007 — The undefeated Jeannette Jayhawks won the title in the Pennsylvania state high school championship. The previous week, during the semi-final game, QB Terrelle Pryor became the first football player in state history to earn 4,000 yards running and 4,000 yards throwing.
The next day, West Virginia head football coach Rich Rodriquez announced he would accept the position at Michigan vacated by Carr.
Jan. 1, 2008 — Lloyd Carr coached his last football game. The Wolverines traveled to Orlando to play the Florida Gators, led by the most recent winner of the Heisman, Tim Tebow. The Gators were favored by 10½ to win what was essentially a home game. Chad Henne played his last game as a Wolverine finishing a college career that put him in the top three for stats at Michigan. Henne earned the MVP Award in the Capital One Bowl. Michigan also won the game, 41-35.
Two weeks later, the heir apparent to Chad Henne’s role, Ryan Mallett, transferred to the University of Arkansas. His move followed the hiring of Bobby Petrino a month earlier to fill the vacancy left by Houston Nutt. Supposedly, Big Tex’s skills did not synch with Rodriquez’s plans to implement a spread option offense, which is ironically the same sort of offensive strategy Houston Nutt and Gus Malzahn allegedly quarreled about the year before Nutt’s final season at Arkansas.
Now Rich Rodriquez was staring at an inexperienced Michigan football depth chart at quarterback. But there was that kid in Jeannette, Penn., everyone was talking about — and that kid was talking about Michigan.
Feb. 2, 2008 — The East Allegheny Wildcats and the home team Jeannette Jayhawks are playing basketball. Among the fans are die-hard high school basketball enthusiasts Jim Tressel (along with five assistants) and Rich Rodriquez (with only three assistants). Rumor has it that they are pulling for the Jayhawks. That’s because National Signing Day is right around the corner (Feb. 6) and Terrelle Pryor is expected to choose either Ohio State or Michigan.
The next day, Justin Feagin of Deerfield Beach, Fla., commits to Michigan. Feagin is a dual-threat QB who appears to fit well into Michigan’s new offense. He is also considered insurance that Michigan desperately needs if Pryor chooses Ohio State.
March 19, 2008 — The Jeannette Jayhawks boys’ basketball team won the state championship four days earlier. Terrelle Pryor had not yet decided where he would attend college. In a greatly anticipated press conference, Pryor announced his decision to be a Buckeye to the great disappointment of Michigan fans and Coach Rodriquez who seemed to be missing an important element to his offense.
The 2008 season of Michigan football opened with another loss at Michigan Stadium, this time to Utah. Over the course of the season, Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet switched out at quarterback. The season ended for Michigan with a 7-42 loss against Ohio State. Terrelle Pryor became the first freshman quarterback at Ohio State to beat Michigan.
August 2009 — Now enters the dark horse quarterback Tate Forcier. A true freshman who enrolled earlier in the year, Forcier is quickly moved into the role of QB. What about that insurance in Feagin? The policy lapsed it seems. Feagin did not fare so well at quarterback in 2008 practice and was moved to slot receiver. Then in July 2009 he was dropped from the team for alleged drug charges.
Nov. 21, 2009 — The Ohio State Buckeyes triumphed again, this time in Michigan Stadium. Forcier turned the ball over five times in a frustrating display before the Wolverine’s arch-rival. It was Terrelle Pryor’s second victory over the team he almost picked.
August 2010 — Rodriquez is about to start his third season and Michigan needs a quarterback who feels permanent. Steven Threet transferred to Arizona State; just one of many that began about the time Ryan Mallett left. Forcier was a member of the second-string in the Spring Game. Denard Robinson, from Feagin’s hometown, was in Forcier’s old place. And now there is yet another hope in a true freshman quarterback, Devin Gardner.
One wonders, could the Wolverines have done better if they had kept Mallett and abandoned the spread option? Could RichRod have built a little more solidly on the foundation left by Carr? Would Pryor have chosen Michigan if Coach Rich had brought more assistants than Tressel to that basketball game in Jeannette? The torture of “what if” is accentuated by the fact Pryor, the would-be Wolverine, and Mallett, the former Wolverine, are considered front runners for the 2010 Heisman.
Will there be cheers or tears for the season opener at the Big House? Consider the pressure on any of the three young men who will start behind center on Sept. 4. If your heart is heavy, I warned you that this would be a tragedy.
If not, you are probably a Buckeye.