Friday, April 06, 2018

Base Camp

"Don't look back, you can never look back."

The most fascinating thing about getting close to the goal while failing to achieve it is the feeling at the end of it.  Sports provides so many winners and losers, as is the nature of competition, but of the 68 teams in the NCAA basketball tournament, only one ends their season with a victory.  Even if a team that has won five games before succumbing, once more outperforming its seed, it still ends its season on a loss.  After all, loss is the business of determining a champion, and perhaps it is much more meaningful to dissect what went wrong rather than what went right.  We have statistical analysis to tell us what should happen, given what has happened before, but as any good financial services commercial is required to advise you, past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

If sports is just a weighted random number generator around which we construct narratives, it is probably still OK because the tales are fascinating if some effort is put into the construction.  Triteness, that fast trope, is easy, quick, and the friend of someone on deadline.  It requires no real depths to be plumbed, it uses the familiar horizons of the well-worn path to allow its reader a quick understanding of what happened.  If there really are just seven basic plots in the world (overcoming the monster; rags to riches; the quest; voyage and return; comedy; tragedy; rebirth); Michigan's basketball and hockey seasons actually featured snippets from all of them to create a sophisticated narrative that I am not strong enough, as a writer, to fully elucidate for the reader.  We create our own meanings, we reflect our own biases in what this meant, trying to understand the seasons as a means of understanding ourselves better.  We look into a maize and blue tinted mirror and hope that we know ourselves a little bit more for the first time.

To get close enough to see the mountain top but fail to complete the ascent is frustrating in metaphor and potentially tragic in reality.  So much of literature tells us that it is the journey that matters, not the destination (Big Ten Network has made a narrative flourish on that very premise).  But it is a matter of perspective.  If one had fully prepared to make the ascent, had the best guides, the best hear, the best training, it would be effortless to feel the depth of disappointment and realize the abjectness of the failure.  It is another thing to be climbing and climbing and climbing and realize too late, like a mountaineering Wile E. Coyote, that you are at a more considerable elevation than you ever thought possible, and truth be told, is probably not healthy for you.  That moment where it all evaporates is painful, but the journey, every handhold, every crevasse, becomes etched into your memory because you don't know if you'll ever be back up this mountain, and even if you are, it won't be with this team of climbers.

We wanted more, so did they.  We didn't get more for reasons of which they are all too fully aware.  We also got more out of the climb than we would have allowed ourselves in the first place.  Pride and disappointment can safely coexist, if for no other reason than both have stakes attached.  Just as we told ourselves that we weren't sure what Poole's shot meant at the moment because we had to see what played out after that, we aren't sure what this season means without knowing if it was a prelude, or a missed opportunity, or both.

But since January, man, it was fun while it lasted.

Thursday, March 29, 2018


Hockey and basketball are better than football in one important regard: There are enough games played to develop a fairly robust Bradley-Terry probability model, and the main virtue of this model is that it allows us to get a reasonable idea of how likely one team is to beat another. So let's jump in and see what the numbers predict.

In college hockey, the Bradley-Terry rating is called KRACH (Ken's Rankings for American College Hockey), and I've pulled the latest numbers from College Hockey News.

Team KRACH Prob. to win
Prob. to win
Notre Dame 468 66.64% 40.00%
Michigan 234.3 33.36% 14.39%
Ohio State 370.2 61.25% 30.54%
Minnesota-Duluth 234.2 38.75% 15.07%

The bad news: According to KRACH, Michigan has the worst chance of any team to win the Frozen Four. This is because they face the hardest path: KRACh thinks Notre Dame is significantly better than Ohio State, and Michigan is worse than both of them. If Michigan made it to the final and found UMD there, they would be a slight favorite on truly neutral ice.

The good news: Hockey Plinko is still Hockey Plinko. A hot goalie can steal a game, and a single weird bounce can make an enormous impact. Meanwhile, nobody has been playing better hockey than Michigan recently.

Bradley-Terry rankings for college basketball (and football can be found at dbaker's site. You can find either ratings that care about margin of victory or ones that don't.

Basic Bradley-Terry

Team Rating Prob. to win
Prob. to win
Villanova 21.619 61.38% 41.36%
Kansas 13.600 38.62% 21.83%
Michigan 11.483 55.24% 21.53%
Loyola-Chicago 9.3029 44.76% 15.29%

Margin-Aware Bradley-Terry

Team Rating Prob. to win
Prob. to win
Villanova 11.277 68.20% 46.87%
Kansas 5.2574 32.80% 16.13%
Michigan 5.9095 58.80% 23.69%
Loyola-Chicago 4.1399 41.20% 13.32%

Both sets of rankings give the basketball team a better chance of winning a title than the hockey team. Bare bones, who-did-you-beat Bradley-Terry gives Michigan a 21.53% chance of winning it all. If you add in margin of victory, Michigan squeaks up to a 23.59% chance of winning.

The rankings also show how good Loyola's resume is looking these days. Michigan is somewhere between a 55.24% and 58.80% favorite in Saturday's game. That's not much! Villanova, meanwhile is either a 61.38% or 68.20% favorite against Kansas. People would rightly view it as an upset if Kansas wins, but it wouldn't have the shock value of a commuter school beating a name brand team, even though the numbers say Michigan is closer to Loyola than Kansas is to Villanova.

To get into the numbers a little deeper, both sets of numbers give Michigan about a 34.5% chance of beating Villanova in a final. They disagree about whether Michigan is a favorite or a dog to Kansas. the basic numbers have them at 45.78%, while the margin-aware numbers are at 52.92%, so that sounds like an even battle.

Finally, the big questions: What are the chances we win everything that's up for grabs? What are the chances that we win at least one title? Well, the chance that we win either of two independent events is the sum of their probabilities. Therefore, depending on which basketball rating you use, we have either a 35.92% or 38.07% chance of one team bringing home a title. And to compute the probability that both happen, you multiply them together, giving us either a 3.10% or 3.41% chance of bringing home a truly ridiculous amount of hardware. So I'm saying there's a chance.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018


Just that kind of day. (Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press)
I don't run a sports blog as an enterprise as much as I check in here after Michigan games to talk about what I felt and what I saw during the Michigan football game, by and large.  The posts have come less frequently over the years, as when you get married and have a kid, priorities change.  Technology changed the nature of how I reacted to the games as well.  But the old habits are hard to shake, Michigan played a football game yesterday, I am supposed to give you a reaction.

Yet, I really didn't want to do so.  There didn't feel like there was much new to say.  This, I suppose, had not stopped me before, the archives of the Hoke era would show the widespread repetition of themes, ideas, and even outright echoes of other posts.  But this just felt awful and numb.  It felt like everything that needed to be said had been said by people wiser than me, more thoughtful than me, or more seasoned than me.  The defense was great until it faded a bit at the end.  That fade may have been because the offense perpetually let them down.  That offense was missing three starting offensive linemen, on its third choice at quarterback, and missing its top receiving playmaker.  After being gifted with several turnovers in the first half, the offense returned the favor back to South Carolina, in crucial spots on the field, in critical situations, in all of the worst times, places, and moments.  In the final analysis, Michigan lost a game it had a 90% probability of winning in the moments before the Higdon fumble.  That's what five turnovers will do.

But I suppose the worst part is that it's the last image of Michigan football we have for eight months, the long desert without college football reminding us of a punt going off a returner's facemask, or a pick in the end zone on a play that could have swung momentum back in Michigan's favor.  It's hard to conceptualize (and it purposefully accentuates the most negative concepts), but Michigan is 9-8 in its last 17 games, and yet somehow, this is still an improvement over the Hoke era.  I worry on some existential level that Jim Harbaugh is the best coach Michigan football could have for its program and that it may not be enough to achieve the hopes and dreams of the Michigan faithful.  There are plenty of examples in the college football landscape, this year alone, of quick turnarounds from dreadful to solid (see Notre Dame and Michigan State as two examples).  But if college football lives on hope, it also wallows in self-doubt.  One hopes for the turnaround, but fears that it won't happen.  Without new data points to interpret, we curve fit based on the mood we're in.  For now, the season is over, and perhaps not a moment too soon.

Monday, November 27, 2017


A year ago, following Michigan's 30-27 double-overtime loss to Ohio State, Jim Harbaugh was fined $10,000 by the Big Ten Conference for his post-game comments regarding the game's questionable officiating. Michigan football blogger Justin Potts from 
Maize & Go Blue decided to try and turn a negative into a positive by creating a fundraiser to match that $10,000 fine with donations to the ChadTough Foundation which raises awareness and money for DIPG research.

Last week, November 23rd, marked the two year anniversary of Chad Carr's passing after a heroic battle with this dreadful disease for which there currently is no treatment.

Justin, along with 
Brad Muckenthaler from Maize and Blue Nation, Kerri from SupportUofM and ourselves are proudly making this an annual event. Last year our goal was to raise $10,000. In just one week, we surpassed $28,000 in donations of which 100% went directly to the ChadTough Foundation. The loss to OSU a year ago was hard, but the fundraiser was very useful in helping me get over the loss and like Justin said, turn a negative into a positive.

Let's do it again!

And after you donate...SPREAD THE WORD!

Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday. Please make it a point to check out the ChadTough Foundation and the amazing work being done by them. DIPG is an absolutely horrible disease. However, in just a couple short years, new research has made some incredible discoveries and uncovered possibilities where none previously existed. It is not hyperbole to say that these discoveries may have not been realized without ChadTough!  We know there are a lot of worthy causes out there, we encourage you to follow your heart, but I know as a father of a six-year-old son who loves Michigan football with all of his heart, I cannot imagine anything harder than what the Carr family faced and their exceptional grace in turning this tragedy into hope for others.

Thank you and forever Go Blue!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Every Breaking Wave

It was going well until it was not. (AP Photo)

"There is an old Romulan saying that tells that if all around you lies in ruins, either fault yourself, or seek the serpent. Are you the serpent?" -Aventeer Vokar

You want to blame somebody for this.  I get it.  You actually want to blame everyone for this but yourself, because you clearly wanted this win more than anyone else.  Which is bullshit and you damn well know it, but you're already ignoring me and "reasonableness".  You demand explanations and you demand vengeance and you demand everything but lex parsimoniae, because you know the moment that you reach for the simplest explanation, you will not like the conclusion.  Michigan was on its third choice quarterback and when it needed a big play in the fourth quarter, its offense coaching staff inexplicably called three straight passes when the running game had been flashing brilliant all afternoon.  It had third and four from plus territory (after one of those "really?" moments where O'Korn was tripped up on the center/quarterback exchange, costing Michigan three yards when Evans and Higdon had been ripping off nine yard runs on said same drive.)  Those passes went wide, high, and lastly, directly to a waiting center fielder.  You want an explanation for THAT, (even though there's Zach Gentry streaking wide open up the middle of the field if read correctly.)

You want to scream your fool head off at O'Korn, because how could he do this to you?  You see the press conference, you see how much it hurt him, how he knows its on him, how it's going to sting, how people are going to criticize him, berate him, mock him, and what hurts him worse is how he let his teammates down.  But you want more from him because it clearly means more to you than it does to the players, because they're just here for four years and you've never left.  You are assured it's always about you.

Nobody bakes an untasty pie.  This bit of accidental wisdom has stuck with me for nearly two decades.  When discussing whether "tasty" was a necessary adjective for pie, it was argued that "Nobody bakes an untasty pie."  This morphed, in my mind, over the years, to become philosophically, that no one sets out to do a bad job. A bad job may be the end result, but no one actually stands there and says "I am going to bake an untasty pie."  No one on Michigan set out today and said: "Yep, I'm going to screw this up."  A person can argue whether some of the players had the necessary talent to be successful in this situation, whether they were in the optimal position to be successful, but it is, at best, unkind, to question the heart and desire of players on the field. Their finished product may have left one wanting, but the intent was there and should not be questioned.

You are kind of being a jerk about this, because what you want (which is not to say that I don't want it too) is for the bleeding to stop. You want the hurting to stop. You want the tides to turn.  You want to know when Urban Meyer's insane horseshoe will finally run out of luck.  You want to know how Ohio State can lose their starting quarterback and somehow end up playing better.  You want to know what Ohio State's secret recipe for holding Maurice Hurst without getting called is so you can send Michigan a formula to attempt to replicate it.  You want to know the unknowable. You want answers to the unanswerable. You deeply desire to understand what is ultimately inevitably irrelevant.  Things will get better when they get better.  You will know when it happens because everyone will.  You don't have to be happy that it isn't now, but you also made the choice to love Michigan, so you have to decide whether its worth it.  Is the pain, the anguish, the frustration, the emptiness worth it?  Only you can decide for yourself.

One additional note
Having sat near a large contingent of OSU fans in their usual spot in the visitors' seating area, they were their usual selves.  I understand this, to want them to be anything but themselves is asking a leopard to change its spots.  However, I did not particularly enjoy how so many Michigan fans around me became a dark mirror of Ohio fans. It's as if being around them draws the worst and darkest aspects of Michigan fandom out of people.  I do not ever want to tell people how to conduct themselves in person as a fan, that's not my place.  All I would ask is that people take a look at how they act in these situations and whether they were acting as their best possible selves.  That said, I know this request will fall on deaf ears.  The people who will read it are likely the ones who do not need to course correct and those who do would never see themselves needing to change their ways.  So perhaps I am just saying it to say it, knowing it won't do any good.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Some Days Are Better Than Others

There were moments.  You wanted to believe.
"You wonder why. It occurs that at some point the Michigan program acquired the traits you hold dear -- loyalty, honesty, tradition, victory. And you wonder: if you were a different person who valued other things would you care so much? It occurs that at some point the Michigan program acquired other traits you share but do not hold particularly dear -- cantankerousness, stubbornness, an inability to suffer fools gladly. And you wonder: do I like Michigan because of the way I am, or am I the way I am because I like Michigan?"  -Brian Cook, "Eleven Swans", MGoBlog, November 18, 2006

Only speaking from my own experience, I cannot see much joy in defaulting to pessimism, other than life would rarely disappoint you.  If you expect the worst, it's hard to be disappointed when the world shows its true colors to you time and again.  Some might even call it realism, a life view based on experience.  But my experience with college football, and specifically, with being a Michigan fan, is that I choose to be optimistic until the exact moment where it just starts to feel impossible.

At 2:06 of the third quarter of the game against Wisconsin, sophomore quarterback Brandon Peters was left in the open as an unblocked Andrew Van Ginkel ran straight at him and proceeded to bury him in the Camp Randall turf moments after Peters released an incomplete throw in the direction of Chris Evans.  No penalty was called, but Peters would need a cart to be removed from the field and would later be transported to the UW hospital for tests.  Even the most optimistic Michigan fan would look at the situation and think Michigan might still be able to pull off an upset.

The sad part was, however, that ten minutes of real time before that moment, most Michigan fans were, if not believing in the upset, at least trying to plot a course to it.  Through the rocky shoals of defeating a highly ranked team on the road, something Michigan has...struggled with for, well, most of this millennium.

It would seem to me that you have to want to believe that things like this can happen, even if you academically know in your mind they are unlikely or improbable.  College football presents you with a veritable buffet of this kind of thing each year, and the math rarely, if ever, checks out on it.  But hope isn't about math, it's about the art of the possible, even if that potential seems like a faint glimmer of light on an endless field of blackness.

You come to realize that most things fade into that blackness of your mind because they are not memorable.  The replay challenges that go your way, the penalties that don't get called because they weren't there, they just recede into memory.  In fact, it's almost worse than that because fans tend to ascribe favorable breaks for their side as "skill" or "karma" or "justice" and ill fortune as "a vast, multinational conspiracy designed to destroy your team." So you worry if you wonder what the B1G schedule makers were thinking when Michigan had to face Wisconsin on the road before Ohio State while Ohio State got Illinois and whether you're just being paranoid or angry or lost because you honestly just don't know any longer.

You want to be optimistic heading into The Game, because what would be the point of getting excited about it otherwise.  Even if you know the numbers will tell a story that runs contrary to that optimism, you still want to believe otherwise because it is a part of who you are.  You aren't sure why you are that way, the conundrum presented to open our piece, so correctly stated 11 years ago today.  Like so many things when you get older, you find yourself less and less sure of the reasons why things happen, something that a younger you would be befuddled by because you expected the world to make more sense as you got older, not less.  It's why we long for the nostalgic past, the one cast in the gauzy haze that allows you to forget that things similar to this happened then too.  You've just had more time to process it, but more importantly, to come to terms with it.

Some days, a solid but unspectacular quarterback starts lacing ultraprecise laser passes into impossible spots.  Some days, the replay official can't see that a foot got down inbounds before the one went out of bounds.  Some days, your offensive line struggles with stunts and twists. 

Some days are better than others. 
Some days you feel ahead; 
You're making sense of what she said.  
Some days are better than others. 
Some days I hear a voice taking me to another place. 
Some days are better then others.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Raised by Wolves

By leaps and bounds (Brad Mills | USA TODAY Sports)
I have been sick for roughly the last ten days.  Nothing serious, just the low-grade crud you get when you work around 1800+ people who are not always overly concerned about hand washing protocols.  But yesterday, at approximately 1:00 pm, I had to go to bed because I had such a nasty set of chills, I needed a pair of blankets to make me feel even remotely warm.  I was, therefore, kind of hoping that Michigan would just jump out to an early lead and cruise to victory and maybe I could get a nice little nap in.

Maryland was in a generous mood, gifting Michigan field position like a kid playing Madden who says "Yeah, I never punt." without realizing that's a really solid way to lose winnable games.  In the space of four minutes, Michigan scored 21 points, oddly each one at X:21, and put the game into cruise control.  No reason to put anything new on tape for Wisconsin or OSU.

Maryland had plenty of opportunities in this game; certainly, Glen Mason would like you to believe that Maryland was a play or two away from an upset in a game that they lost by 25.  But while Maryland was putting together drives, they were also kicking field goals from the 25 (on 4th and 2) and the 2 (on goal to go) and were not really deeply invested in trying to win the game with their fifth different starting QB of the year.  I don't know if I can blame them

Yes, Maryland did cut Michigan's lead to 28-10.  Yes, Michigan twitter proceeded to have a panic attack.  Yes, Chris Evans caught wind of said panic attack and said: "I got this" and with plays of 20, 14, and 17, put Michigan back up by 25 and once more on cruise control, if too late for a nap.  This game served merely to reaffirm that Michigan has the talent and coaching to beat teams of lesser talent, but it did nothing to answer the questions of whether it can go toe to toe with Wisconsin or Ohio State in the final two weeks.  But, Michigan sits at 8 wins for the season, with at least a puncher's chance in its next two games.  I find myself more intrigued than anything else about what can happen going forward from here, which is a lot more than I can say for the last few seasons of the Hoke era (enjoy your new interim coach Tennessee!).  Mostly, right now, I just want this sinus headache to go away and the body aches to cease.  I'll take that in a heartbeat.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Electrical Storm

Jug security is at a premium.  Always (Two hands good, unlike Winovich.  Man...) (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
It wasn't perfect football weather at noon on Saturday, November 4, but it was darn close.  It was cool, crisp, and a bit cloudy, but it was looking like when the game should have been played, especially when Michigan State/Penn State went into a lengthy lightning delay in East Lansing.  I was pondering all of this as I sat in the concourse of the Crisler Center, next to the Mr. and Miss Basketball trophies for the state of Michigan, whether I would be completely soaked during the Battle for the Little Brown Jug, or just moderately wet.

It turned out that while there was a subtle mist that lingered over Michigan Stadium for most of Saturday night, it was not a particularly annoying weather game.  It wasn't cold, per se, it wasn't raining, just damp, and once I cleared off my seat with a tried and true method of water removal on a Michigan Stadium bench;* it was just a game at night, later than we thought, but in the end, a regular old-fashioned B1G game.

*-(the keys are dabbing rather than pushing the water off and getting the front and back lips of the bench to not get the runoff catches)
There were plenty of things to be annoyed about, between the officiating and some pass protection issues that led to Peters taking a couple of nasty looking sacks, but for the most part, this was a night of run, run, and run some more.  Karan Higdon was finding holes, hitting holes, and flying out of those holes where they lead, going for huge runs and getting the Michigan Stadium crowd on its feet.  Chris Evans followed Higdon's example and arguably had one of the best "break some tackles and stay in bounds" runs I have seen in a while.  It was almost spoiling, by the end of the game, one was nearly disappointed in a five or six yard run because you knew it could have been more with one more cut (even if that wasn't true.)

But moreover, the defense was just its usual crushing, attacking self.  Khaleke Hudson spent so much time in the Minnesota backfield, he was getting Amazon Prime packages delivered to him there by the fourth quarter.  (He also made my choice of my #7 jersey as the extra layer between quarter-zip and raincoat feel like an excellent choice.)  Much like the offense, it was almost a disappointment any time Michigan did not get into the Minnesota backfield to wreak havoc.

Yes, all of the usual caveats apply, Minnesota's a program in year 0.5 of a rebuild (and I do suspect they will be good at some point in the near future, but I like PJ Fleck, so that could just be projection) and Michigan's strengths matched up nicely to Minnesota's weaknesses.  We still need to see more out of the passing game if we're going to have any real shot in the last two games of the year.  But securing the Jug for the next three years, setting it up for a sweet long-term lease in Schembechler Hall is always a good feeling.  Another step forward in the Peters era next week, the first road start in Maryland looms (Maryland may be on its fourth quarterback of the year, so we kind of understand where they are coming from.)  But for one night at Michigan Stadium, a winning season was secured, reminding us that most of the time, the magic of Michigan Stadium comes from what happens on the field, not when it happens.

Side notes:
  • I love The Killers, so I am simultaneously pleased and confused as to how the Mr. Brightside singalong became a Michigan Stadium "thing".  (I know the link is from the MSU game, but it was the same basic bear.)
  • For goodness sakes Chase Winovich, TWO HANDS!
  • Cell signal inside Crisler was spotty, thankfully the eruptive cheers from the crowd watching Ohio State/Iowa were quite instructive.
  • I don't fault PJ Fleck for going for the field goal after the long drive against the backups, and I do credit him for not calling his three TOs on the Malzone "drive" when he was down 23 points.  I suspect this may be in part because he knows Harbaugh has a long memory and would remember something like that.
  • The jazz-based halftime was solid, I did enjoy that I now know that someone is likely majoring in jazz vocals at Michigan.  This means, on some level, she's majoring in scatting, whereas someone in the biology department is, on some level, majoring in scat.  I feel like these two people should meet.
  • My six year old son made it through the whole game in his rain gear that made him look like he had to go from The Big House to work his shift on a crab boat.  A solid investment.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Sort of Homecoming

Man, he looks young...oh, right. (Mike Mulholland |
Homecoming is an odd duck when you attend football games on the regular with your college roommate in that it should feel like a chance to be nostalgic, but, I mean, literally, I'm sitting with the same person I sat with for four years of games as a student.  We have all the same in-jokes, all the same reference points, and so on.  It's not a blast from the past, it's Season 21 of the same show (and like The Simpsons the first 11 seasons were much more fondly remembered by the masses.)

It is also comforting to know that the same general miasma that surrounded Michigan Stadium during the first 20 minutes of the Rutgers game was not just one's self perhaps being too pessimistic.  Even after a thirteen play, 80-yard drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock that broke the seal, the 65-yard bust by Janarion Grant off the direct snap took all of the wind out of Michigan Stadium's collective sails.  The alumni (and the half of the student section that showed up) were cold, wind-burned and frustrated.  So when you get a fumbled snap that leads to an O'Korn scramble that ends with a seemingly random slide, and two incompletes, you couldn't blame the defense for thinking "What the heck?" because it was seemingly the general thought among the Maize and Blue faithful, especially after Rutgers allegedly missing in action passing game saw Giovanni Rescigno hit Josh Hicks for 28 yards into Michigan territory.  If not for a supremely mediocre punt by the Scarlet Knights, Michigan could have been pinned deep without a lot of room to work.

Then it happened.  It was a small burst of noise, coming from the most observant in the stands, and then it rose as a murmur, then finally a crescendo as the crowd realized what had happened.  Brandon Peters was in the game at quarterback.  The noise became so much that the scoreboard had to make a "Quiet Please: Offense at Work" request, which might have also been "Can we please not put any undue pressure on the kid, OK thank you?" request.  The whole of the stadium was picked up, it seemed, as the offense perked up, hitting on runs of 8 and 12 yards, then Peters finding Tyrone Wheatley, Jr for 15 for another first down.  Then a Walker run for 4, hitting Poggi for 10 and another first down, Ty Isaac for 6, then a wonderful find of Nico "The Velvet Underground" Collins for the sideline for 12, and finally Karan Higdon in from ten yards out and all seemed right with the Maize and Blue world.   This assertion was only reaffirmed when Michigan pulled together a wonderfully executed, if short, two-minute drill, finished by that most beautiful of all plays, a wheel route to Chris Evans and Michigan went into the locker room up 21-7.

One of the concepts I am finding the most difficult to deal with in my life as it stands now is the difficulty in converting mindset into success.  There are those who have argued (and this is WAY oversimplified) that if you believe you have room to grow, to improve, that you can get better, that there are no practical limits to what you can achieve.  While this is a wonderful and noble goal, sports are a painful reminder that talent still plays a role.  If wanting to be good at something was all that mattered in being successful, Brady Hoke would have a much better shot at still being Michigan's head coach.  A desire to be good and a commitment to improvement are not enough, you still need to have some talent to do it, especially when you are surrounded by other motivated, driven, and talented individuals.  So I think it has to be hard knowing that you wanted to do everything you can to make the most of your shot as a starter and it was just not enough.  As much as people tell you to tune out what the fans and the media are saying, it's so much easier said than done, you know your own shortcomings, and as much as you are working to overcome them, it's just not happening.  You know that you don't have many more chances, which possibly makes you press more, press harder, make bad mistakes precisely because you didn't want to do so.  But college sports are a ruthless meritocracy, as much as loyalty should be rewarded, if you're not getting the job done, you're not going to keep getting opportunities.

What Brandon Peters did yesterday was a glimmer of what is possible.  I do not expect that this is the start of some magical end of season run that rights the ship completely, but I do think it gives Michigan a realistic chance to see what it has in Peters going forward, earning him and the other young players some valuable game experience, and hopefully winning some games along the way.  The Wolverines still have to play the #4 and #3 teams in the country at the end of the coming month.  They have a defense that will, hopefully, keep them in any game.  The question is, can the offense find a way over the next two weeks to be ready for those matchups and give Michigan a chance.  Logic says "Probably not."  Hope says "Sure, why not?"  Hope's more fun here, and I'm going to run with it for now, knowing full well logic probably wins out in the end.  Then again, maybe not, it's college football, and if there's one thing that college football has proven time and again to not be, it's logical.  We shall see.  But for now, it's Minnesota week and as always, Jug security is at a premium.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now

This was nice...(AP Photo/Chris Knight) Photo Credit: AP
There is no great lesson in this one.  Michigan lost to the #2 team in the country, on their field, in a "White Out", at night, on national TV, in a game in which they were not favored.  They allowed touchdowns to the presumptive Heisman Trophy favorite, and they lost a game in which they were once again without their starting quarterback.  They showed they are a solid team, but not a great team.  The lesson is there is no lesson.  Sometimes, you lose a game you are expected to lose.

I don't have any answers, other than to plead patience, no suggestions other than to see how things play out over the next five games of the regular season.  Wanting things to be different does not make it so, but there may have to be changes made somehow to get better results.  Mostly, right now, it's just sitting with the disappointment of what could have been and hoping to get the most out of the remainder of the regular season.

So yes, this is where you can reach me now.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Running to Stand Still

"Higgy, Higgy, Higgy, can't you see, sometimes your runs just hypnotize me."  (AP/AJ Mast)
"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
--Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass

I was hoping to never use "Running to Stand Still" as a title in my themed year of U2 column names, but sometimes the mix of results, feeling, and the weather put you in a mood.  I think any reasonable observer of Michigan football knew, or at worst, strongly suspected that this week's game would be a microcosm of the same issues we saw last week, perhaps just without the squall line blowing through in the second half.  Michigan's defense would look all-world, Michigan's offense would be hard to look at.  For the most part, this was on point, but there were some surprises.  Karan Higdon got to be the workhorse out of the backfield and was rewarded with 200 yards (the first Michigan player since Denard to do this) and three touchdowns, a couple of which were honest to goodness attractive plays.  The defense continued to be disruptive, but the surfeit of penalties from a flag-happy crew, including what felt like a moment of "I've never seen this before" three on one play made it difficult to know if the defense was playing well in spite of the penalties or if the penalties were a symptom of a larger issue.  Having survived an ugly second half rock fight, Michigan was up 10 points with four minutes left to play.  

Then things fell apart.  A 53-yard punt return on a 46-yard punt is suboptimal when you're trying to nurse a lead.  Giving up a 12-yard pass on third down, suboptimal.  At that point, the Indiana touchdown was a mere formality and after the chaos of an onside kick that could have gone either way on the review, one still felt that a three-point lead with three minutes left should not be worrisome, except Michigan's offense had not exactly shown that they could burn clock and get the one first down they needed to ice the game.  So when Brad Robbins punt went into the end zone AND the long snapper gets called for holding, next thing you know, Indiana, who just needs a field goal to tie, gets the ball on their own 30, needing to go about 45 yards in 65 seconds, and sure enough, Griffin Oakes (current Big Ten leader for "player whose name sounds most like a MHSAA Division 5 football playoff qualifier since Perry Hills has graduated from Maryland) put a 46 yard field goal just inside the right upright, and we were off to overtime for the second straight trip to Bloomington.

Overtime began and Higdon pulled a Barry Sanders-esque "nothing doing here in my original running lane, hit my blocker, bounce, bounce, burn, score" run to open overtime.  It put me in mind of Tom Brady's pass to Shawn Thompson in the 2000 Orange Bowl, getting the ball first and getting the touchdown and saying "OK, your turn."  Michigan's defense responded after an initial, Michigan school record-setting sixteenth penalty calling a pass interference that would move the ball to the 12, (which the ESPN play-by-play on the website does not acknowledge), standing firm, getting into Peyton Ramsey's face, and finally forcing an interception, with Tyree Kinnel grabbing the ball and allowing every Michigan fan to finally exhale after something like four hours of hoping things would not go sideways.

It is not fair to complain about a win, because ultimately, that is the goal of any game, win the game.  There are no style points, win the game, minimize the number of people hurt, and move on to the next one.  Yet, in discussion with another Michigan fan, I was struck that this team is not "fun."  The defense is fun because it's aggressive and makes plays, (how could you not enjoy the Hurst/Gary/Winovich pursuit machine) but the positives of that group are essentially wiped out by the...I am loathe to say ineptitude, but the just general sense of ennui one gets in watching the group.  The offensive line hole left by the late-Hoke cliff, the youth of the receivers, the...interesting decision making of the quarterbacks, all of it negates the positive feelings of some excellent runs by Higdon.  It's not fair of me as a fan to want things to be "fun", because that isn't the job.

But, if it's "not fun", Saturday can turn into a frustrating slog of mostly hoping Michigan doesn't lose.  Hoping Michigan doesn't lose is not the same as hoping Michigan wins.  When you're rooting for Michigan to win, there's joy.  When Michigan doesn't lose, there is only relief.  But, there should have been joy today.  Winning today earned Michigan its 500th win in Big Ten play.  Winning today kept the streak alive, dating all the way back to 1987, the 22nd straight win over Indiana, the only major streak started by Bo that persists to this day, having somehow survived the RR/Hoke years.  These things are worth being happy about, even if it feels like relief is the primary sentiment of the day's result.  But the return of Harbaugh to Ann Arbor has brought higher expectations than just "survive an Indiana upset bid". The balance of expectations and possibilities within this year are creating a frustration that is palpable in ways I did not think possible.

Night in Happy Valley looms.  The defense will hopefully keep us in any game, even if the odds seem long.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

11 O'Clock Tick Tock

It shouldn't have even been this close, and yet, here we are.  AP Photo/Tony Ding | Photo Credit: AP
There will be no looped highlight from this one to torment Michigan fans in the future.  There will be vague uneasiness as we remember the sheets of rain, the five turnovers, the picks on three consecutive second-half drives, and mostly just that notion a game that statistically Michigan should have had no business being in, Michigan was still in because it has a nigh-unstoppable defense and a couple of Michigan State errors (a holding penalty that stopped the clock, a wholly unnecessary late hit out of bounds penalty) gave Michigan one last chance to win.  Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit were almost openly rooting for a karmic reversal of 2015's conclusion, a last-second heave by O'Korn from 37 yards out that would add another chaotic chapter to the rivalry.

But it was not to be.  Michigan had no one to blame for their struggles but themselves.  Michigan State came in with a game plan, executed the game plan, and did enough to win.  That is Dantonio's MO when it comes to Michigan and he and his staff should be credited for it.  Michigan came off an open date, and looked like they were going to put things well in hand on the first drive, until it stalled in the red zone and settled for a field goal.  But hey, no problem, there would be plenty more chances.  All Michigan had to do was not turn the ball over...well, not turn the ball over repeatedly...Well, let's just be astonished by the fact that Michigan State only scored 7 points off 5 Michigan turnovers.  Ty Isaac's fumble killed Michigan's momentum and put the Spartans in a mindset that they could win this game, and once in that mode, they never looked back.  Simultaneously, Michigan's offensive line continued to struggle, with O'Korn's escapability being one of the few reasons why Michigan State wasn't racking up a double-digit sack total.  Michigan State then used the defense's willingness to be aggressive against it with a brilliant play call and another ill-timed fumble trying to extend a play and Michigan was down 14-3 going into halftime.

The hope held by Michigan fans, I presume, by and large, was that, like the Purdue game, there would be adjustments at halftime, the defense would clamp down, and Michigan would find a way to get a couple of scores and that would be enough.  Except for the massive squall line bearing down on Ann Arbor, slated to arrive at 10 PM and putting a swirling rainstorm into the Big House.  Though Michigan used the field position game to close the gap to 14-10.  Though the defense was its usual stalwart self, O'Korn's poor decisions (and the inexplicable playcalling in buckets of rain) ended three straight Michigan drives before they could get going.  That was all there was, and Harbaugh drops to 1-4 against MSU/OSU.

The gnawing feeling I cannot escape at the moment is that Harbaugh may be one of the best coaches in the nation, and it still may not be enough.  That the defense may be otherworldly, but the sub-sub-par execution of this current offense will stymie any progress Michigan wishes to make.  That for all of our hopes that things would be better, there's still a lot to fix.  That the single-mindedness of Michigan State towards beating Michigan works well for them and must be met.  Many of us strongly suspected that something like this would happen, and sadly, it happened against Michigan State, the second straight ABC night game where Michigan's offense let the defense down, and no solution seems to be in sight.  There's still time to find a way forward on offense, but that time is running out.  Beyond that, there are no grandiose takeaways from this game, just a sad sensation we've become all too familiar with in the last decade.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Review: Playing Hurt by John Saunders, with John U. Bacon

On Saturday, I got the call: My dad had collapsed at a restaurant, and he was on his way to the hospital. He was fine - no heart attack, he just fainted for an unknown reason. But as I sit down to write this review, I can't help but think of Playing Hurt through that lens.

I always thought of John Saunders as one of the best in sports broadcasting. He was a pro, a steadying presence, and always welcome on my TV screen. I knew he'd briefly been on the hockey teams at Michigan and at Western, but I had no clue about so much of his life. This book is deeply honest and revealing, and much of the focus is on how the turmoil in his early life led him to dark, despairing places. How suicidal ideation was always a threat, and how the disease of depression impacts your life and your loved ones.

John paints a vivid picture of how depression works as a chronic disease: How it ebbs and flows, creeping up to knock you down, but how it can be managed with a good therapist, the right combination of medications, and figuring out how to build in processes to minimize its triggers. He also shows how sometimes that doesn't matter.

Before I started this book, I only vaguely remembered that John had been sidelined at ESPN due to a medical issue. I completely forgot that he had collapsed at work. He wasn't as lucky as my dad. John hit his head, giving him a traumatic brain injury (I completely agree with John that calling those things "concussions" minimizes how severe these can be). The aftermath was severe, forcing him to learn how to walk again. And like many TBI sufferers, it threw his emotional controls out of whack. Everything was on a knife edge, and small things could flare his depression to dangerous levels. The episode he recounts on the Tappan-Zee Bridge is nothing short of harrowing. I'm lucky: my dad didn't hit his head. He was talking with our long-time dentist when it happened, and he lowered him to the floor. I've been thinking about what the road ahead could have looked like.

Of course, John Saunders is gone now. He had a heart attack due to complications from his Type 1 diabetes. I wish he'd had more time with his family, and if we got some of it, we'd all be the better for it. I'm glad John U. Bacon got a chance to finish this book to add to Saunders' legacy. Playing Hurt is a compelling read, and it's well worth your time.

Note: Da Capo Press provided a copy of Playing Hurt for this review.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Michigan Defense Theater: The Return - Experiment 1704: Purdilicus

NOAH FURBUSH is piloting a spaceship while hitting a huge pile of AEROSPACE ENGINEERING textbooks.
What is he doing?
That's Noah Furbush, one of our top linebackers. He's probably working on a drone control algorithm for his capstone project. He's returning with the largest cache of Stephen Ross donations the world has ever seen.
That's really going to help with our funding problems at Schembechler Institute.
[blows nose with $100 bill]
A DISTRESS SIGNAL appears on the radar.
Five, four, three, two, one. Blog trap initiated. Mayday!
Someone needs my help. This is Noah Furbush from the Schembechler Institute, I'm preparing to land.
A PNEUMATIC TUBE appears and sucks up NOAH FURBUSH.
In the not-too-distant future, next Saturday A.D.
There was a guy named Noah, so much taller than you or me
He worked at Schembechler Institute
Just another guy in a maize jumpsuit
A distress call came it at five past noon
But an evil Sparty trapped him so he'll have to be a dude

I'll send him speedy runners, the best I can find
He'll have to stop, tackle them all, while I monitor his mind

Now keep it mind that Noah can't control when the runners begin or end
He'll try to keep his sanity with the help of his D-Line friends

Chase Wino!

If you're wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts
He's got a meal card and it's set on Earth so you should really just relax
For Michigan Defense Theater 3000!

Hi everyone, welcome to the Satellite of Yost. I'm Noah, and these are my friends Chase Wino and Mone.
You're not my friend!
Come on, Mone, Noah is our friend and trusted ally on the rare occasions that a runner gets to the second level.
Since we've last been here, we've made a few upgrades. I've added an appetite simulator to Maurice - the good news is that he moves even faster but the bad news is he's always hungry. Gary handles all the higher functions on the Satellite of Yost so I've upgraded him to bigger and faster than you can possible imagine.
And everyone can fly now! But only on the football field.
A RED LIGHT flashes.
Dammit, Moon 3-9 is calling.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

In A Little While

Purdue quarterback David Blough (11) picks up his own fumble in front of Michigan linebacker Mike McCray (9) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in West Lafayette, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Michigan defeated Purdue 28-10. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
I don't really know what to make of this game.  It feels like a slightly upgraded version of the last two weeks.  The offense struggles until it doesn't (thankfully not in the red zone today), the defense is fast, furious, and aggressive, making life difficult for everyone on the opponent's offensive side of the ball, and Michigan fans are nervous and angsty until they're not. 

We only fret about things we care about.  Even if those things are seemingly foolish or ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of things, when we care, we worry.  We worry when things don't seem to be going the right way, we are uneasy when something feels "off".  So when Wilton Speight goes down (on an uncalled late hit) and is escorted out of Ross-Ade Stadium on a peripatetic search for an X-ray machine, we worry.  When there are turnovers, we fret.  When O'Korn looks OK, not great, we grouse.  But I have a new working thesis, in re Harbaugh.

I don't think Harbaugh intends for his teams to come out of the gate not necessarily firing on all cylinders, that would be foolhardy and potentially dangerous in the longer term of a game.  I do think Harbaugh is OK with taking the best punches from an opponent, letting them show their cards, and then adjusting at halftime.  I think this is the coach's son in him, or the Bo acolyte or some combination therein.  It's not enough to have a plan, it's summed up in von Moltke the Elder's statement from On Strategy (1871): "The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle."  Every game has its own character.  Harbaugh could not have planned for Speight to go down.  He would have O'Korn ready to go in, but that is not the same as "OK, Speight's gonna get taken out on a sack."  He allowed the game to find its ebbs and flows and was likely displeased, but not dishearted to be down 10-7 at the half.

To everyone's relief, Michigan's defense flashed its claws.  It allowed Purdue a grand total of ten yards in the second half, having given up 179 in the first half.  But it was also the simple pitches and catches between O'Korn and the tight ends, coupled with some "find the hole, hit the hole" runs by the running back by committee and Michigan was cruising.  (A couple of timely, if wholly fair, targeting ejections on the Purdue defense may have also helped things along.)  People who didn't see the game, that will only see the final score, will see a Michigan team that went on the road against an upstart Purdue team and handled its business.  They won't see the hiccups, or if they do, they'll see 21-0 second half, probably keep them around #7-8 in the polls and let Michigan head into the bye week 4-0 with the Battle for Paul Bunyan looming.

Quick notes:
  • I don't know how I feel yet about CFB on Fox, but that bumper that showed a flip-through of Michigan legends that ended in the Block M was nicely done.
  • So, if Twitter is to be believed, Purdue's opposing locker room has no A/C and there's no X-ray machine at Ross-Ade.  I think when we focus on mocking Rutgers, we do a disservice to our rightful questioning of Purdue's continuing position in the Big Ten.
  • We keep calling Chris Evans "The Human Torch", because "Captain America" status must be earned, but man, we're getting close to handing him the shield.