Sunday, September 17, 2017

Some Days Are Better Than Others

Kicking it old school. (Photo AP/Tony Ding)
They won.  So, I mean, right there, after the last decade, that should be a good feeling.  Michigan swept through its non-conference schedule for a second consecutive year and heads into Big Ten play relatively healthy (we hope, waiting to hear on a couple of injuries) and with its young defense rounding nicely into the aggressive, attacking form we know a Don Brown squad would take.

But, eight trips to the red zone with but one touchdown, Wilton Speight having not completed a pass inside the red zone this season, it's a cause for concern.  All of the people who would know are throwing around the word "correctable", but I'm a little concerned that three games into the season, these correctable issues are seemingly no closer to being solved than when they first cropped up in Dallas.

So I don't know.  Expectations are a weird thing.  We feel like Michigan should have won by more, and I suppose if the two Ty Isaac touchdowns were actually touchdowns, we might feel differently about a 38-13 win (all other things being equal, of course.)  But instead, Quinn Nordin was like a Rockette during the Christmas season, kicking it on call for a Michigan record-tying five field goals in a game.  I suppose there is a positive in knowing that Nordin is exceedingly solid as a college kicker, but settling for three so often is going to cost Michigan down the line.  We know it, the players know it, and assuredly, the coaches know it.  So how do you fix it?  That I do not know.

There are two realities here that I cannot deny.  First, Speight has to be the best option at quarterback at present, or else he wouldn't be playing.  Harbaugh's track record indicates the truth of this statement.  It does not mean Speight is the best quarterback on the roster, simply that he is the best option at the moment.  To that end, you have to find a way to make him better and quick.  Part of that may be the protection on the O-Line, but he's got to be better.  But he knows that.  Everybody in the program knows that.  But as Mr. Rogers taught us so many years ago, wishing does not make it so.

So a date with a...resurgent? Purdue program in the Brutalist shrine that is Ross-Ade Stadium awaits.  Michigan's defense has been as strong as anything, they'll need to be again.  But let's hope that Nordin kicks more PATs than field goals next weekend.  Or else it could be a long day in the wilds of West Lafayette.

Additional Notes:

  • There was a time that Matt Millen was considered to be a top-tier color analyst for football, correct?  Have we all just gotten better at knowing what a good analyst sounds like, or was he never really that good?  Today was just brutal to watch on BTN, even trying to put my Lions' fan hat off to the side for Millen.
  • We should probably stop scheduling service academies and their Franken-Hydra offenses...except that Army comes in for Week 2 in 2019.  Fine, but after that, OK?
  • This is sort of a lousy column, but today was sort of a lousy game, so I think we're even.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Red Hill Mining Town

We know, Coach.  We know.  (AP/Tony Ding)
So this was a weird day.  I spent most of the morning, into the afternoon (and kickoff) at my father-in-law's farm retirement auction.  He had this planned for the last three years, so my only real hope of seeing today's game live was a 3:30 kickoff.  No luck.  It was the rare time I was cheering for a 3:30, but in what I saw on my phone, and later, on television indicated to me that I really didn't miss much.  I've said here before that the distance between "survived upset bid" and "lost at home while favored by 30+ points" is a chasm visible from space.  Today was a great pair of opening and final quarters, sandwiched around a less than delicious filling.  Yet, Michigan won by 22, so you know, we're back to being Michigan again.

So, instead, if you'll permit me, I'd like to diverge to a treatise on the notions of communities of which you are simultaneously a part, and yet, are completely anonymous within.  While I did not get to spend my Saturday at the Big House, I did get to spent last Sunday on the floor of Ford Field for U2.  This is the fourth time I've seen U2 live, and I am still one of the younger people in the crowd, which is a nice feeling when you've entered your 40th year on earth.  U2 was there to kick off the fall portion of the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree tour they've been on this year, which included for me, more than anything else, the knowledge that they would be playing the album the whole way through, which meant they would be playing "Red Hill Mining Town" live, something they had never done before this tour.

"Red Hill" is probably my favorite U2 song, with only "Bad" sitting right there in the conversation.  So while I waited in anticipation of the moment, U2 opened their set with "Sunday, Bloody Sunday", "New Year's Day". "Bad", and "Pride (In the Name of Love)".  The crowd was immediately into it, and I was struck that I was surrounded by people who were there to celebrate the band and their music and what it has meant to them.  It was in varying degrees, but it was the root of what was going on.  The most fascinating part of it was listening to the crowd sing along with songs they have known for over three decades, for the most part, hitting every syllable, every inflection, every moment in unison, even if Bono was playing around with the lyrics himself.  So, there we were, surrounded on a football field by music, by emotion, by a community, where instead of being alone with everyone, you were with everyone, but on your own.

In this sense, it struck me that communities of fans are simultaneously familiar and unknowable.  We have something in common with the person next to us, but the meaning for them may be completely different than that person than it is for you, or it might be very similar.  You will be lumped together by other people who don't really know anything about you, and yet, you may not like the fan next to you.  But we are united by that which you share, even if that which divides you is also frustrating.  That is fandom.

Sports are not necessarily a form of art, but they inspire passion and evoke emotions in people.  This builds communities of fans and followers.  Nick Hornby explored this ground in a number of his early works, after all.  This game was a mediocre album, maybe one or two solid singles, but lacking the depth to make it a classic.  Let's hope next week is a return to form.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Songs of Innocence/Songs of Experience

It took perhaps a bit too long, but the final nail eventually came, fittingly, from the defense.
(Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier/DFP)
(A personal note, to start:  One of the best conversations I ever had on Twitter was regarding what the was largest city in California not mentioned in "California Love".  It was silly, off-beat, but genuinely seated in curiosity.  It came from a question by Rick Freeman, a former AP sports editor and 1999 Michigan alumnus who was genuinely one of the best people I have ever had the chance to make myself acquainted with.  He died on Thursday from an aggressive form of brain cancer known as glioblastoma just a month after his diagnosis.  At a time where I seek the bright lights of people who seek to make the world a better place, the world is a little dimmer for having lost his.)

All summer, the focus was on what was missing, the ten starters on defense gone, the opportunities at the end of the season lost because of a failure to be able to close out with a lead.  It makes sense, they were, after all, things that were objectively true.  But at the same time, they were also misleading.  Michigan was missing a lot of starters on the defense as it headed down to Arlington, true, but Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary were not starters last season, to focus on one really positive interpretation of facts as Michigan headed down to Arlington to face Florida and perhaps exorcise some of the demons of JerryWorld.  After all, it was five years (and one day) since "The Hammer".

We quickly were reminded of the joys of targeting calls on the first play, when Devin Bush hit a Florida player late out of bounds, and then it was determined that he did not, in fact, lead with his helmet.  That ten-minute delay as we sorted things out lead to a big Florida passing play, and while the defense stiffened in the red zone to hold the Gators to a field goal, it was not a welcome potential portent of how the day would go.  It also turned out to be a false reading of the defense's abilities.

Michigan put together a solid opening drive that ended in a Quinn Nordin field goal, which came only after the officials called an ineligible man downfield penalty that was misidentified on Khalid Hill, who had motioned out of the backfield.  That Michigan fan doubt crept in, would it be a loss where all of the moments could be written down in a bullet pointed list that led to a game that just slipped away?  Shortly after Wilton Speight found Tarik Black for 46 yards on a busted coverage for a TD, it felt like that was just all paranoia.

Until it didn't.  Two pick sixes, one off a deflection from Kekoa Crawford's hands, the other from a Speight overthrow of Grant Perry, all within 79 seconds of each other, and it really began to feel like Michigan was going to give Florida the win rather than use their aggressive defense to stifle a Florida offense that never really got moving and was missing a bunch of playmakers due to suspensions.

One of the things I most love about the Harbaugh era is that I know halftime adjustments are coming.  I know they are coming like the article of faith that it was in my youth, that Bo's teams were second half teams, they would adjust at halftime and the depth would wear you down, and they would seize control again.  For a long time, even going back to the Carr era, this was not as much the case.  Scholarship limits played a role in that, but it also comes down to having a staff that can see things and finding ways to adjust, knowing that the other team will be adjusting as well.  When Michigan came out and took the opening possession of the second half 75 yards on ten methodical plays and took a lead they would never relinquish, it felt like things were going to be OK.  Nordin's steel toe was bombing field goals from beyond 50 yards, and while it would be nice to turn these drives into touchdowns, Florida wasn't exactly moving the ball, even with a switch the Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire at quarterback.

But Michigan was stuck on a nine-point lead for 23+ minutes of game time. Nordin missed a couple of field goals that would have made it a two touchdown lead, but Florida's offense ran 21 plays for 36 total yards before a series where a Michigan punt had pinned them deep in their own end of the field.  Finally, the combination of Khaleke Hudson (with the sack), Chase Winovich (with the strip), and Noah Furbush (with the recovery for the TD) attacked Zaire one last time, and Michigan put the game away, one in retrospect they had dominated save a terrible 80 or so seconds.

It is our nature to want to draw conclusions from the limited data we have at this point, it's only slightly less foolish than making predictions based on the data we have on paper about teams.  But this was one of the four big tests (on paper) Michigan was looking at this season, and it passed it.  It was not perfect, but the errors made were not uncorrectable.  This can be a great team if it can correct those errors and if the innocent freshmen turn into experienced veterans sooner rather than later.  I trust that they can and will.  Michigan comes home to face Cincinnati next week and hopefully cleans up the mistakes.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Encomium

Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey

Roughly ten years ago, as I was writing this post, I told Geoff that I did not know what I was going to do when it was time to do the same for Red.  I suspected it would come along sooner rather than later, but like so many of my suspicions in 2007, I was very wrong.  To put this in perspective for me, in the time between that post and this one, I have met, got engaged to, and married to my wife, and we have a son in kindergarten.  And yet that is less than one-third of Red's career behind the bench at Michigan.

Red Berenson did not invent Michigan hockey, that's Vic Heyliger and Al Renfrew.  But Red did save Michigan hockey, first with the Regina Regiment, then by coming home to Ann Arbor in 1984.  He was hired by Don Canham, and he, slowly but surely, brought Michigan back from the abyss.  He won 848 games in the NCAA, fourth most in college hockey, and starting in 1990-91 when Michigan posted a 34-win season and its made first trip to the NCAAs in 14 years, an event they would not miss for the next 22 seasons, Michigan began a streak of 8 straight 30-win seasons, with 6 Frozen Fours and 2 national titles, Michigan's eighth and ninth all time.  And in all of this, in the down seasons, after the Hunwick fueled miracle run in 2011, after Mel left, and we wondered when would this moment come.  Then came last year, when Michigan hockey was fun again and four NHL-caliber players were lighting the lamp and Michigan won the conference tournament, there was the notion of maybe the old magic had been recaptured, let Red have one more run this year and then hand the reins off after one more season.  But, wishing doesn't make it so, and Michigan Hockey Summer took its toll, as it is wont to do.

It's difficult to tell a legend that it's time to move on, which is why legends very rarely end their tenures on the highest notes.  Coaches, especially, generally want to believe that they guys they recruited can do it for them one more time, that the lows were not a new normal, but a blip, and when you've had so many great years, you think you can find your fastball again.  But it was not meant to be this year.  Michigan staggered and stumbled every which was during the 2016-17 campaign, never looking sharp, never looking crisp on the simple things.

Through all of this, I looked for one signal on the moment: My mother.  My mother adores Red.  My love of hockey is matrilinear, I got it from my mom, who got it from her mother.  My grandmother was obsessed with Gordie Howe, my mom adored Red.  Even five years ago, when I would talk to my mom about the possibility of Red retiring, she would say something like "No, no, he's a young seventy-something."  (I will not dissent, everyone seems to agree on this point.  He is still in great shape.)  But as I was talking with her this morning, about the final game at Joe Louis Arena, and she said to me "I saw Red at the game last night and he looks old.  Red has never looked old."  This is true, Red has never looked old, always classic.  But I think that moment last night, it allowed my mom to finally conceive that the coach that had always been her reason for loving Michigan hockey, and passing that love on to me, could finally be riding off into the sunset, and it would be OK.  When so many things are changing in the world, the desire for constancy is understandable.  But time marches on, torches are passed.

Red has given me, on the whole, more joy as a fan than any other coach.  Not Bo, not Scotty, not Sparky, not Babs, not Harbaugh, not even Coach Carr. I will always appreciate Red for that simple fact.  Michigan hockey has also given me more heartbreak, but that is part of the package.  Being at Yost, watching those teams zip up and down the ice, playing good old fashioned firewagon hockey, and filling the faithful with an innate belief that Michigan was in every game they played.  For most of my formative years as a Michigan hockey fan, that wasn't just an article of faith, it felt like it was sincerely possible.  Red was the architect of that feeling, of those teams, of those moments.    We should all be so lucky to have that as fans.  #thankyoured

Saturday, March 25, 2017

V1

The MD-83 turning onto Runway 23L at Willow Run International Airport (KYIP) would never be able to takeoff, but no one on board knew that. The right elevator was jammed in the down position, and the pilots had no chance of ever being able to raise the nose enough to lift off.

Designing and flying a safe airplane is about delicately balancing huge forces. Gravity's remorseless tug must be balanced by lift; thrust is balanced by drag. If you do this right, you get steady level flight. To turn, you have to slightly perturb this arrangement. The ailerons on the wings bank the airplane (this is called the roll axis). The rudder rotates the plane left or right (yaw). The elevator, meanwhile, rotates the nose up or down (pitch).



The tail (or the empennage, if you want to sound fancy) on most conventional airplanes consists of a vertical stabilizer, sticking up like a shark fin and housing the rudder, while the horizontal stabilizer sprouts from either side of the tail, each containing half the elevator.



With the right elevator jammed in the down position, the most that the pilots would be able to do would be to cancel it out by pulling back on the control yolk until the left elevator was in the full up position. Even by doing that, they could only get back to zero net effect on pitch. They couldn't overcome it and raise the nose to takeoff.

What's more, they wouldn't be able to figure out there was a problem until they were already at a high enough speed to takeoff. On the DC-9/MD-80/MD-90 family, the full elevator isn't controlled by the yolk. Instead, only a small servo tab at the trailing edge of the elevator is actually controlled. Once the tab is deflected into the airstream, the airstream creates lift on the tab. Since it has a lever arm relative to the rest of the elevator, it uses this torque to pull the rest of the elevator in its direction and into the position desired by the pilot. This GIF is for a trim tab, but it works on the same principle.



The upside is that this significantly reduces the force needed for the pilot to move the big elevator without requiring hydraulic assistance. This directly translates into a weight savings. In aviation, weight is everything. A pound of extra weight is a pound of load you can't carry. Worsey, you also have to buy fuel to haul that extra pound of dead weight around with you.

The downside is this exact scenario. If the elevator is jammed but the servo tab is free to move, it's hard to tell that anything's wrong. The pilots would have no idea: I can move the controls back and forward with no problem.

The big question is one that I can't answer: Should the pilots have known that the elevator was jammed prior to beginning their takeoff roll? I don't know. I'm not a pilot, let alone an ATP (Airline Transport Pilot) with a type certificate for the MD-80. I don't know if part of their pre-flight inspection is verifying that the elevators are both in a neutral position / can freely move. It's possible that those big, gusty winds jammed the elevator during taxi. The NTSB's prelimary report lays the blame on damage to "right elevator geared tab inboard pushrod linkage". I can imagine a scenario where it was already fatigued and a gust of wind on taxi or while parked on the ground finished it off.

I will, however, contend that the pilots did everything right once they began their takeoff. The captain pulled back on the controls at 152 kts. Nothing happened. The speed rose to 166 kts, when the crew decided to abort takeoff. At this point, they had to know that they were above a speed known as V1. V1 is the maximum speed at which you can abort your takeoff and have enough runway left to safely stop without runnning off the end. They knew they didn't have enough room to stop, but they also correctly decided that they had a better chance of staying alive even if they ran off the end of the runway. They reached this conclusion probably less than 3 seconds after first trying to pull back on the control yoke. Between the decision to abort and braking / activating the thrust reversers, the plain gained another 7 kts of airspeed, but the speed dropped quickly as they approached the end of the runway. Without accidentally rolling the airplane, they also managed to veer left and avoid the metal structures of the runway lighting and instrument landing systems as they came to rest balanced over a ditch. Everyone walked away, which is the best thing you can say about a plane crash.

    Bullets
  • The pilots were some grizzled veterans. The captain for this flight "had accumulated 15,518 hours total and 8,495 hours on DC-9 type aircraft" and his co-pilot was the charter company's chief pilot (9,960 hours total, 2,462 hours on DC-9s). The captain had spent almost an entire year of his life aloft in DC-9s alone. Combined they'd spent almost 3 years in the air.
  • The wind might have damaged the aircraft. But it probably helped them stop in time. Airspeed is the measure of how fast the wind is going over your wings. With the winds reported at KYIP at that time, they had an effective 30-43 kt headwind, meaning they could be going 30-43 kts slower relative to the ground when they tried to take off. So that 173 kt max speed turns into about 140 kts of ground speed, which may have saved them a critical amount of stopping distance before the trees and ravine ahead of the plane.
  • Pulling the yolk all the way back would only cancel out the effect of the jammed elevator on pitch. The elevator would also have smaller but notable effects on roll and yaw that would have to be canceled by movements of the ailerons and rudder.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Moe Weasley, No Problems

Let's go, Moe!  (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
As many of you know, I am not, first and foremost, a basketball fan.  It's not that I don't enjoy it, as much as it's just not my favorite sport.  But my son loves it.  He started playing this year, and his love for the game is true.  He loves dribbling, he loves shooting, and he loves being part of his team.  As his season wrapped up on Saturday, we decided it would be fun to take him to the Michigan/Purdue game, especially when it ended up being a 4:00 PM tip.

My wife asked me if I had cautioned our son that Michigan may not win this one, that Purdue was atop the Big Ten standings and ranked, that Michigan has been well, inconsistent to say the least this season, but I was more hopeful after the last two weeks, even after the hiccup at Rutgers, that Michigan could keep it close.

My son has an amazing knack for remembering things and noticing things to which I am not even paying attention.  (To wit, he not only told me yesterday that Louisville and Syracuse were playing for a second time yesterday, he told me the restaurant we were at when they were playing the first time.)  "Daddy, Michigan has never been behind in this game!"  "Daddy, Michigan has made all of their free throws!"  "Daddy, Duncan is in the game!"  (His current favorite player since he wears 22, his favorite number.  That's how these things work when you're a kid.)

I was focused deeply on Moe Wagner, and how he just seemed to be so at ease in the first half.  He was locked in, and even from the high perch of the upper bowl of Crisler, you could just see he was active, focused, and feeling it.  He didn't even need heat checks because everything was clicking.  Michigan's game prep saw something in Purdue's bigs they could exploit with Wagner, and while that's a great plan, Wagner still had to make it happen and he did.  He had "a game in a half" to borrow a phrase from Sunday morning's episode of "The B1G Show" and even though Purdue's adjustments lead to foul trouble for the big man, he had got Michigan off to the start they needed for this game.

So, in some way, the second half became Derrick Walton time.  It wasn't that Walton had a huge second half, just two field goals and three free throws, as much as he made the biggest shot of the day, an absolutely dreadful looking three-pointer on a dying shot clock with 1:46 left to stop the bleeding (Michigan had led 66-44 at the 8 minute mark and now it was 76-67 thanks to a 21-10 Purdue run over five and a half minute.) and put a bow on the game.  Walton's leadership, rebounding, and confidence helped Michigan prevent a dreadful collapse and likely, hopefully, put Michigan on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble.  There's a reason Walton was Kenpom's MVP, after all.

In the final analysis, it was a great day at the new Crisler, one that showed what Michigan can do when everything is clicking on both ends of the floor.  Michigan has now won five of its last six, a February flip of the usual Beilein script, and has two winnable (but also losable) games on the road against a very desparate Northwestern team (that will be very important for B1G Tournament seeding as well as Northwestern's NCAA tournament hopes) and the final game of the B1G regular season, an 8:00 PM tip against Nebraska on Sunday evening.  If Michigan can take its recent efforts and build upon them, maybe this season will be more than we could have hoped for just six short weeks ago.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

All aboard the Chris Evans hype train.  Human Torch indeed. (Credit: AP / Lynne Sladky)

Having a McCray Day! (Credit: AP / Alan Diaz)
They could have quit.  They could have packed it in, failed to make adjustments (looking at you, 2007 Rose Bowl).  But they didn't.  They didn't look great, they didn't have their all-everything Heisman finalist on defense, they lost Jake Butt in the first half, and they still score 26 points in the second half and lead in the final minute of the game, as they had done in every single game this season.

The disappointment comes in knowing that in all three of Michigan's losses, all away from Michigan Stadium, Michigan led in the final minute but could not find a way to close it out.  At Iowa, it was the inability to make a first down.  At Ohio State, it was a gassed defense not having enough to prevent OSU from driving for a game-tying field goal.  In Miami, it was the confusion of Florida State's Keith Gavin hesitating to take out Kenny Allen's kickoff, only to return it 66 yards, setting up FSU's touchdown.  Even then, Josh Metellus returning the blocked PAT for a defensive two-point conversion gave Michigan a chance.  Not much of a chance, but still a chance.  But it still couldn't close when it needed to do so.  So, it comes to be how you look at the game: A loss being a loss or a loss where at least Michigan showed life when the chips were down.

This season is a disappointment, in the final analysis, but one which I am OK with, solely because you cannot be disappointed without expectations.  Michigan's senior class was 12-13 in its first two years and 20-6 in its final two years.  Harbaugh has been as good as advertised, even if Michigan does not have the hardware yet to show for it.  But I have resolved to enjoy this, good and bad, because tying your emotional state to college students is rarely a good idea.

I love a sport where two of its best coaches are grown men who go by Dabo and Jimbo.  I love a sport where the national media of the professional version cannot understand why one of the most successful coaches in the sport would want to go back to his alma mater, but everyone from that school understands it.  I love a sport which has a hilarious Twitter subculture, if you know where to look for it.  There are dark sides, there are complications, there are difficult questions that the sport faces, in the immediate future and in the longer term, ones I do not know we're prepared to answer.  But I think we can resolve to be better, kinder, less jerkass towards other fans, and especially towards the players and staff themselves, we can go a long way to getting rid of one of the most insidious parts of the game over which we actually have control.

The long desert without college football is here.  The offseason will provide its usual storylines and chaos, and efforts to answer questions that cannot fully be answered until the fall.  We salute the senior class that made us proud.  We look forward to that Saturday in Arlington, and hope it goes better than the last time.  For now, always leading, forever valiant.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Hope

I'm moving forward because there's only two choices: wallow in bitterness or accept the whims of cruel fate and hope the universe sees fit to balance them out in the long run.

But it is better to take action than just to say you're moving forward.  Thankfully, our friends at the Big Ten office have decided that, in addition to a "public reprimand" for Coach Harbaugh for his postgame comments, they have fined Michigan $10,000 for violations of the Big Ten's sportsmanship policy.

Now, we're not worried about Michigan's ability to pay the fine.  In fact, I'm pretty sure Warde Manuel has a small piggy bank in Weidenbach Hall labeled "Harbaugh Says Something Fund" filled with the petty cash overflow from Michigan Stadium popcorn sales that will cover it no sweat.  But, it gave our blog friend Justin at MaizeandGoBlue an idea, one supported by Kerri from SupportUofM and Brad from Maize & Blue Nation as well as us here at the HSR, to launch a fundraiser benefiting The ChadTough Foundation.

This is a chance for all of us to turn a negative into a positive, to turn disappointment into hope, and to prove that the power of the Ann Arbor money cannon is a force for good.
The plan is as such:
Step 1: Raise $10k for The ChadTough Foundation by kickoff of this Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game
Step 2: Once we raise $10k, let’s challenge the Big Ten to match the donation
Step 3: Let's make this a conversation piece during the Big Ten Championship Game
We’re all part of a big Michigan family, so let's show that when a family faces disappointment it can come together and make big things happen.  Spread the word on your social media channels, get the snowball rolling.

Visit the fundraiser to donate now.

No amount is too large or too small.  (We personally like $27.00 for what the winning score would have been had the spot been adjudicated in Michigan's favor or $17.00 if you're old school and think the tie would have been perhaps more fitting an outcome for a battle of this magnitude.)

Then, once you donate, please share via social media to help generate awareness. Full details on the fundraiser page.


We thank you in advance on this "Giving Tuesday" and as always, forever Go Blue!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Wrongs Darker Then Death or Night

Hope dies last.  (Credit: Getty Images / Gregory Shamus)
In retrospect, they should have gone for two.  Speight wanted it.  It would have met with widespread approbation, win or lose, like a similar decision three years ago.  The defense was gassed because of the offense, led by the wounded Wilton Speight; one that managed five meager yards in the fourth quarter.  They had just found Amara Darboh in the back of the end zone at the end of the first overtime period.  But they did not, putting the game back on the offense and it nearly worked until Grant Perry was mugged on third down, forcing Michigan to settle for a field goal.

The defense damn near did the thing.  Curtis Samuel ran the width of the Horseshoe on third down and somehow still came up a yard short of the 15. Confusion reigned.  Urban Meyer didn't trust his kicker (with good reason) and initially tried to just punch it on fourth and 1, then thought better of it, called a timeout, then thought better of that and sent the offense back out to try and get that yard.

That yard.  For the remainder of my days, likely in spite of whatever epistemological evidence presented to the contrary, I will never fully believe that J.T. Barrett made the line to gain.  The spot was generous, and there is no way that the officials, who had somehow seen fit to only reprimand Ohio State with six penalty yards for the entire game, were going to reverse that call on replay at that stadium.  The next play was just the denouement.  It didn't matter how, it didn't matter who, it just mattered that it was the only logical conclusion at that point.

So it's disappointing, bitterly so, and I wish I had some "Well, let's look on the bright side." notion to present this day.  But I do not.  Michigan played well enough to win, except for the turnovers, which is like saying I ran the marathon well except for the 12 miles I used a Segway.  It's a rather large exception, one that cannot just be blithely overlooked.  But I think it's worth remembering that few of us expected Wilton Speight was going to play in this game, and he was limited.  Michigan did not complete a pass over 20 yards downfield.  Speight not at 100% was still the best choice, but it was not necessarily enough to win.  We're left with so many "not enoughs" during the course of this century.  It is almost worse than the Rodriguez or Hoke eras.  This team is a great team, it beat both of the Big Ten's division winners, as well as the winner of the Pac 12 South.  But it couldn't win on the road, even if it was a one-point loss at the last second in one case, and a three-point loss in double overtime in the other, it's still cold comfort and it's still a pair of L's on the standings board.  Ohio gets to feel superior for another year and questions remain, what ifs abound.

So I don't have the words right now, I don't know if I will ever have the words.  I want there to be some grand epiphany about this result and what it means, but this just feels like a "life isn't fair" moment and sometimes the universe just needs to remind you of that fact, even if it has done so repeatedly over the course of this year.  There may be a lesson someday, down the road, where the dots connect in retrospect, but I am reminded of something Nate Silver said in The Signal and the Noise, which I just finished last night:

However, the context we provide can be biased and self-serving. As Cicero warned Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, "Men may construe things, after their fashion / Clean from the purpose of the things themselves." We may focus on those signals which advance our preferred theory about the world, or might imply a more optimistic outcome.

Another edition of The Game is in the books.  Some will call it a classic.  I will call it over.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Kohn O'Jorn

Wilton Speight's injury could not have come at a worse time for anagram makers. He missed the snow game! There are 385 anagrams of Wilton Speight that contain the word snow! But Speight's shoulder prevents us from enjoying them, just as his shoulder prevented him from doing snow angels after Saturday's win.

Fortunately, I was somewhat prepared for this contingency, as I had considered the possibility of the O'Korn-meter before the season, as August, much like now, was a time when Harbaugh was being very coy about who the starting QB is. So I had a system sketched out to rank the offense according to songs by Korn and their nü-metal compatriots. Fortunately we were reprieved from having to do that for 10 weeks!

My heart has, by Sunday night, convinced myself that the entire game was played in a blizzard and thus O'Korn's 7/16, 59-yard day was perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. My brain knows, however, that the first three quarters of that game was not played in a winter wonderland, and that Ohio State is going to require a much stronger QB performance. A kickass day from De'Veon Smith only goes so far.

The O'Korn-meter starts off at a 3. I think Trapt's "Headstrong" was the third-worst nü-metal hit, but I'm not going to listen to a bunch of nü-metal to find out for sure.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Cold Front

A beautiful sight, we're happy tonight... (Photo by Isaiah Hole)
Chaos, we must be reminded, disguises itself as normal, but just ever so askew.  It does not walk up to you as a manic street preacher, foretelling the end times and calling for your repentance.  That would be too easy.  Then again, maybe it wouldn't.  The person telling you the truth that you didn't want to hear could be and would be easily dismissed and then you would be shocked, shocked, to learn that they were, in fact, telling you the truth.

For all of our calling Indiana #CHAOSTEAM, we tended to presume that Michigan would bounce back from the disappointment of that night at Kinnick, and rally behind John O'Korn and figure out how to get by Indiana, a team Michigan has not lost to since 1987, and has not lost in Ann Arbor to since 1967.  But the same problems from last week, from the last month, really, were cropping up.  Slightly off target passes, bad luck on spots, every toss-up ball to an Indiana receiver managing to be good for a solid gain.  By the end of a cold and blustery first half at Michigan Stadium, only Kenny Allen's punting seemed to be going right and Michigan and its fans felt fortunate that if this was the first time all season that they were going into the locker room at halftime down, it was only a 7-3 margin.

So the Chaos did come, but, as chaos is wont to do, it came from something seemingly random.  On a third and eight, John O'Korn used his feet, the one part of his game that everyone seemed to agree was stronger that Speight's, and scrambled for 30 yards into Indiana territory.  After an injury timeout, one handoff to De'Veon Smith saw the senior find the end zone with a little fancy leaping at the end, Michigan retook the lead and would never look back.  A second Smith touchdown, following a second blocked punt and a "missed it by that much" dagger from O'Korn to Darboh and there was some breathing room.

No, the chaos came in the snow late in the game.  It snowed.  Goodness did it snow.  In five minutes of game time, Michigan Stadium was transformed from a chilled November in the gloaming to a snowglobe of wonder, the flakes reflecting off the high-powered stadium lights in a way that was more calming that anything else.  Concurrent to this, Michigan did something it had not been able to do against Michigan State or Iowa in the fourth quarter, as they milked a 15 play drive for 51 yards, but more to the point, over eight minutes of game time, assuring that Indiana would have to move the ball in Hoth-like conditions to mount any form of a comeback and reminding them that we would see them in Hell when their Tauntaun died before they reached the first marker.

The snow swirled, the joy of a perfect home season settled over the crowd, a reminder that not every season at Michigan Stadium must end in disappointment, as had become familiar over the last decade or so.  The first snowfall of the season is a reminder of the joyful feeling that snow can provide before the cold, harsh realities of a long Michigan winter settle over you.  But, as a symbol of an ending, for this massive senior class, for those who have seen lows and highs in somewhat equal measure,

Now comes Ohio State week.  A truncated work week as we celebrate that which we are thankful for while simultaneously what we both covet and dread.  There is no reason to believe that Michigan can't go down to Columbus and get a win, but that knowledge comes with the caveat that it's going to require virtually everything to go right for Blue and a lot of things to go wrong for the Buckeyes.  But that is likely more the realities of the 21st century speaking in the back of my mind.  Never stop fighting until the fight is through.  Here endeth the lesson.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

All Good Things...

And now, a symbolic moment from the evening's proceedings. (Credit: AP / Charlie Neibergall)
There's no great lesson in this one, because this is, virtually, a textbook loss.  So I suppose that it is ironic, that there is no lesson.  Michigan had any number of chances to capitalize on opportunities, failed to do so, and left the game in the hands of the team that had the ball last.  We've seen this book all too often.  Michigan State 2001 comes to mind.  Iowa 1985 comes to mind.  We could make a list of them and we would look at that list, smile, nod, and say "that's the way it goes, sometimes."

As I watched last night, I hoped this would fall into the category of the "near death experience" game, where everything goes wrong and Michigan somehow manages to hold on (think Iowa 1997, as one example.)  Especially when it looked like the fickle finger of fate that is the John O'Neill officiating crew gives you the gift of "roughing the center" (which, same crew, did NOT call at the end of Michigan State last year when it was far more obvious.)  You hope for the best, but the fear never really leaves you.  When a field goal can win it, it's almost all too easy to see it coming.  The facemask, that may or may not have happened, essentially sealed Michigan's fate.

My hope is that this is not a harbinger of how things can fall apart, but rather the "OK, we're not as good as we thought we were" reminder.  We won't really know anything this week (unless we lose, which, ugh) but we're back to where we were, needing to win at Columbus to move forward.  We shall see.

One serious note: Dear Michigan players.  I know you are happy when you score, I am happy as well.  Please, however, stop headbutting each other.  With an actual focus on concussions and head trauma, even these small impacts, which are wholly unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, are just not a good look.  Celebrate, but do so responsibly.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Concerning Flight

They just spent like two or three weeks out the country / Them boys up to something, they just not just bluffing (AP Photo)
It is joyful.  It may not be joyful in the future, there may be rough sledding yet to come.  Joyful does not mean perfect, there are obviously things to correct.  But it is joyful.  It is joyful to watch this team.  So well coached, executing at the highest level, running interesting and dynamic play calls, showing interesting concepts, connecting on passes in rhythm, and generally making it fun to watch Michigan football.

Yes, winning makes everything better.  But as someone who remembers the Carr years, there was not this joy.  Michigan football, for so many years, even when it was winning football, had hints of joylessness.  It felt, at times, like a thing that had to be done.  But Michigan was winning, so it was good.  Then came the Rodriguez years, which had flashes of brilliance, but more of chaos and of agony.  The early promise of the Hoke years died in the rain of Utah and the Shane Morris incident.  Happiness came in the form of gallows humor and knowing nods at the other members of the tribe.

This changed with Harbaugh.  We saw flashes of it last year, we could not sell ourselves the notion that they would be this much better from Year 1 to Year 2.  We got that bill of goods sold to us, hard, in 2009.  We're wearing scars of wounds we only remember we have when something reminds us of them in a way we were not expecting. We didn't know if the quarterback would be an issue.  Instead, Speight has become a quietly efficient machine, eluding pass rushers and dropping pinpoint passes into buckets.  He leaped across the goal line because he thought he saw a tackler, but ended up with style and flair points.  We didn't know if Michigan could establish the run.  Instead, we get a seemingly infinitely headed hydra of options, with De'Veon Smith shaking defenders off his foot, and Chris Evans blazing into the secondary like he was leaving flame tracks in his wake.

This is why Harbaugh is worth every dollar he gets.  He understands how to get the players to execute and to excel and to want to find ways to be better.  But he does not suck the joy out of the process.  Harbaugh's teams are teams.  They are loose, they are light, and they are supportive of each other.  It is easy to mock Michigan for the things we want to believe we are and the stories that we tell ourselves that we are, but it is clear that this team is keeping in the best traditions and proper spirit of what Michigan holds itself out to be.

The oddness of a Kinnick night presents itself as the next challenge.  Michigan will be ready for it.  We are hopeful that the joy will follow.

(Additional joy notes from the Maryland side: the Maryland kick return duo of D.J. Moore and Jake Funk wins the prize for "kick returners that sound most like a Macklemore knockoff.
Similarly, Perry Hills wins the current B1G prize for "Quarterback whose name sounds most like an MHSAA Division 5 football playoff qualifier, edging ahead of Tyler O'Connor.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Look at Lord Autumnbottom over there


Pies in the face are only funny is the sap has dignity, but this, on the other hand, is only funny because the sap doesn't have dignity:



The man desperately striving for dignity and failing to achieve it is an American archetype. Willy Loman fantasizes about Uncle Ben. Fredo Corleone insists, indignantly, that he is smart. And much like Fredo, this year Michigan State is being passed over for its even younger brother (WMU).

Going for two when you know you're going to lose is football's version of saying "I'm smart and I want respect. As
Spencer Hall said about the Illinois game, there's something uniquely sad about scoring 8 points in a blowout loss, about having a permanent record that you thought you had a chance. In art, the striver can be a tragic figure, a sign of wasted potential or of the agony of living with a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world works. Football rarely goes for the kind of existential tragedy. It's just funny instead.

Oh, the Speightmeter was delayed this week. Speight is John Navarre this week in honor of the classic Lloydball second half. The offense tried for about 70% of the game, so 7/10 on the Speightmeter seems about right. The extremely conservative fourth-quarter offense may have been strategically sound, but I wonder if there was a little more to it. Out here is civilian-land, saying you took your foot out the gas might be considered an act of mercy, but I can't escape the feeling that for Jim Harbaugh, easing up at the end is the most contemptuous act he could ever imagine inflicting on an enemy. Being considered worthy of the effort necessary to get your butt kicked 78-0 is more dignified than that.






Sunday, October 30, 2016

Heart of Glory

And every Michigan fan exhaled.  Finally. (Michigan Athletics)

I wanted to believe.  I wanted to tell myself that the numbers were right and I was being needlessly scarred by the waning seconds of last year's game and that the computers had everything sorted out.  But data, for all that it can tell us, is retrospective.  It can only tell us what has happened, and potentially what may happen, but not what will happen.  That does not mean that data is not instructive, it's deeply so, especially if you take the time to study it and understand what it means.  It's just that "models are opinions embedded in mathematics."

What Michigan State has been this year is utterly surprising to virtually any college football observer whom I have read.  It doesn't seem like it's real, even when you account for the issues like losing a quarterback like Connor Cook or seniors on the O-Line, it just appeared that Michigan State's collapse was inexplicable.  Without getting all cliche, however, there was no way that Michigan State was just going to roll over in this game. A win over Michigan would, if not save their season, could easily mark the moment when they turned their season around.  They were going to take their best swing at Michigan, and for the opening minutes of a swiftly paced first quarter, they looked like they had connected.

Michigan, however, tasted the blood in their mouth, smiled, and proceeded to put 27 points on Michigan State by halftime and had their biggest lead at Spartan Stadium that anyone seemed to be able to remember.  It had been a long, long time.  But the fear remained.  For as great a day as Amara Darboh was having, grabbing nearly everything thrown in his general vicinity, there was still trepidation.  Michigan hadn't looked great last week in the second half against Illinois, for a relative definition of great, would this be the case again.

So when Wilton Speight threw a pick on a wheel route, (which I didn't even know could happen because wheel routes are blameless, holy creatures) and Michigan State took the ball inside the ten-yard line, the fear began to rise once more.  When Jabrill Peppers was called for a meh defensive pass interference in the end zone, giving Michigan State new life and a new set of downs, the fear rose up again.  This was calmed when Michigan stopped them yet again on four straight plays inside the two-yard line, and there was a realization that this year was not all of those other years, Michigan State was not going to out tough Michigan this year.

Except, Michigan really couldn't get anything going as they had to that point.  After the 14 play drive that ended on a nicely placed Kenny Allen field goal to make it 30-10, Michigan went three and out for its first punt of the game, which was followed by a Michigan State touchdown.  Michigan then went six and out, which was followed by a ten play MSU drive that ended in a turnover on downs thanks to a Jabrill Peppers sack.  

Michigan got the ball back with 1:46 left and MSU had two timeouts remaining.  They used both after two Michigan run plays, the second of which looked like Karan Higdon got it but a meh spot, and then a run for no gain had Michigan punting again.   A cleanly handled Kenny Allen snap and punt put Michigan State on their own 25 with 37 seconds remaining.  Time to breathe easy.  Except no.

Michigan State traversed the natural surface of Spartan Stadium quickly (on the clock, the interminable fourth quarter took forever, thanks to reviews, penalties, and general shenanigans) and with one second remaining, scored a touchdown to make it 30-23.  Without warning, Michigan was facing the possibility of a kick with one second remaining where Michigan State could potentially win the game, especially if they converted the try for two.

So when Jabrill Peppers scooped up the loose football from a failed pitch and raced to the end zone for Michigan's own defensive two-point conversion, putting Michigan up an insurmountable nine points with one second remaining, there was a collective exhale from the Michigan fanbase.  The onside kick attempt sailed harmlessly out of bounds and Michigan was, once more, the rightful possessor of the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

There should be no grand proclamations of order restored, or Michigan being back.  Michigan is playing well, the defense, while perhaps no longer on its heretofore historic trajectory that it was before the most recent sixty minutes in East Lansing, is still formidable.  At a time of the year when the chaos begins to swell and swirl around the college football landscape, Michigan went into a stadium that has been a nightmare for them for the last decade and got out with a win.  Style points may matter, but style points don't make the Paul Bunyan Trophy any more beloved when it is displayed in the Towsley Family Museum.  Michigan remains undefeated as the calendar turns to November.  That hasn't happened in long enough that we should pause and reflect on the excellence of that fact.

By happy coincidence, today marks the tenth anniversary of my first HSR post.  Though it took me some time to find my voice, and eventually start these columns, essentially my dairy of my thoughts on the most recent Michigan football game, looking back at these ten years, these eleven seasons spanned in that framework and you realize just how odd they really have been.  Michigan has had as many head coaches in this time frame as it did from 1959-2007.  We have seen the end of the Lloyd era, one that was as confusing at the time as anything. We have seen the high hopes for the Rodriguez era dashed on the rocky shore of tradition and "fit".  We have seen the early promise of the Hoke era collapse under the weight of a lack of competencies. We have seen our way through three coaching searches, each more chaotic than the last.  We have seen our belief in the power of home mocked by everyone outside the tribe except for the one person to whom it actually had to matter.  We have seen the chaos of the Harbaugh era mitigated by the grace of a return to the past, an odd combination of the movie series reboot that works, retaining that which we loved about the original while giving it the right modern twist.  We have seen the staggering highs of Denard running wild, and the dismal lows of well, there was a lot of them.  The final analysis is simple: The last ten years are a rich tapestry, filled with more heartbreak than a Michigan fan is accustomed, but one that has made us more grateful for the small graces.  Like when Michigan's do-everything linebacker runs a two-point conversion back in the final second of a rivalry game.  The small graces matter, and that's why we write about them.  We're trying to capture in words what we feel in our hearts, in our heads.  Something beyond the data, something beyond the metrics, not because those things don't matter, but because we need to give them context.  

Onward to Maryland, onward to November.