Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Loose Construction



Recruiting is weird.

I don't need to rehash the ways in which it is weird, because if you're reading a college football blog, you are deeply familiar with the myriad ways in which it is but, needless to say, it is also the lifeblood of a program.  Recruit or die.

But what struck me in this recruiting season is that Jim Harbaugh is Alexander Hamilton-esque.

Allow me to explain, via the unlikely for me route of musical theater (oh and I'm sorry Jane).

As many of you know, Hamilton is the breakout musical of the 2015-16 Broadway season.  Created by MacArthur Genius Grant winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical tells the story of Revolutionary America through the eyes of future Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.  Hamilton went from a penniless immigrant from Nevis to what is now Columbia University to George Washington's right-hand man in the Continental Army to delegate to the Constitutional Convention to Secretary of the Treasury to his death in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.  But what Miranda centers on in his take on Hamilton is seen in the Act I closing number, "Non-Stop."

"How to account for his rise to the top?
Maaaaan, the man is
Non-stop!"

We know Harbaugh is a competitor.  We know that Harbaugh believes in the notion that if we're keeping score, if we're competing, then why not try to win.  Yes, you will ruffle some feathers along the way, you're going to make some enemies, but Harbaugh has zero fear about that.  In fact, what upsets Harbaugh's competitors is that he is non-stop.  He makes them work harder.  He forces them out of their comfort zone.  Harbaugh has sleepovers at recruit's houses to maximize his in-home visit time?  That just makes good sense.  But that also means other coaches have to decide if they want to do it.  Which brings me to another point.

One of the nuances that Hamilton can't convey readily is that Hamilton firmly believed in "loose construction" of the Constitution.  The document that he helped to explain to the American people in the Federalist Papers, he felt that as long as the Constitution did not expressly forbid him from doing something and the ends were legal and Constitutional, he could choose the non-expressly forbidden means by which to arrive at the end.  I feel like Jim Harbaugh looks at the NCAA rulebook the same way.  Does the NCAA say we CAN'T do this?  A rulebook and interpretive guide massive in size and scope to account for this exact kind of behavior; and yet, still Coach Harbaugh continues to find ways around it.  Whether it is satellite camps, the Sincerely Yours in Football camp, the Signing of the Stars event, recruit sleepovers, all of these things are perfectly within the rules, Harbaugh was just crazy enough to say, why not?  The competition hates this kind of thing, because it forces them to respond, and they know they don't have the motor to do it.  The man is non-stop.  Jim Harbaugh is boundless energy, he's Tigger in khaki pants and a sharp light blue pullover sweater.  He plays to win all the time and he doesn't really care whose feelings get hurt in the process.  It's a meritocracy, and he has the exact right school and fanbase to sell that notion.

The thing is, he won't have to do this for very long.  If he can convert this highly touted recruiting class into the expected results on the field, the results that Ohio State and Michigan State used this cycle to recruit their players (and, by the way, still the single best argument you can make in recruiting, winning and winning consistently), then he won't need stunts.  But for now, he is happy to leverage your curiosity into Harbaugh's next bold gamble, next outspoken moment, next unfiltered utterance, and use the media churn to keep the Michigan name in front of recruits.

Harbaugh may seem like to some that he assumes he is the smartest in the room (well, he went to Michigan, we sometimes do that.  It happens.)  Every proclamation gives ammunition to his enemies.  But history has his eyes on him, and he's not throwing away his shot.  Just you wait.

And if you don't know, now you know, Victors.

Friday, January 01, 2016

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful


There is a certain joy in watching your team pull away with a lead during its bowl game.  Like much of this season, it was a joy rediscovered during the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl this New Year's Day.  When Michigan got called for some pre-snap penalties, including a drive-extending illegal substitution penalty which led to what would be Florida's only score (and on a trick play, no less), it was a bit nerve-racking.  You don't want to see the season end and new year start on the wrong foot.  But then, a touchdown, an end zone pick, and a field goal and Michigan never looked back. Win with character, win with cruelty.  It wasn't a perfect game, but it did not need to be.  It was simply a well-executed game plan with improvement shown from the several bowl practices.  Hooray for bowl practices.

There will be arguments that Florida's heart was never really in this game and that may very well be true.  But Michigan took one of the nation's best defenses for a ride on this day.  Rudock made me regret that this was the only season we will have with him, but grateful for those thirteen games we as fans got with him.  It was so much better to see this game as the farewell for these seniors than the chill of Ann Arbor during the Ohio State game.  It's almost a perfect full circle, a cap to the eight-years-in-the-adidas desert era that after that wonderful New Year's Day 2008 in Orlando where Michigan sent Lloyd off into the sunset by beating Florida.

So this is where we stand.  Harbaugh will tell you it wasn't a rebuild or a righting of the ship, or however you may see it, and that is fine, but as a fan, it feels like something more.  We told ourselves this after 2011 and we ended up being wrong, but we can certainly hope, for any number of reasons, that this, this is different.  For starters, there isn't a game with Bama in JerryWorld looming to open the season.  It's not an optimal schedule, but Harbaugh will relish the challenge.

Mostly, I just want to savor this feeling.  This moment of knowing it's not perfect, but it's better.  It's no longer unfounded hope and belief, it's not "where we are going from here."  Let's head off into the sunset of the 2015 season knowing that what lies over that next horizon is much better than what lies behind us.  Fair winds and following seas friends.  Hail.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

No Light, No Light

History never looks like history when you're going through it.  (Photo by Bryan Fuller)

You want a revelation,

You wanna get it right.
But it's a conversation,
I just can't have tonight.
You want a revelation, some kind of resolution
Tell me what you want me to say.

History can be instructive, but we must remember that it rarely repeats itself.  It echoes, it begs for comparison, it tells us what has been and what might be again, but in the final analysis, we cannot predict the future simply by looking at the past.  If we could do so, we would be far less likely to repeat foolish mistakes.  We would just make awful new mistakes.  Which, really, is what we do.

As much as we want to think so, it is hard to pinpoint "the single moment" upon which the result of a football game turned.  Of course, I say this knowing full well that Michigan had three games in which one could readily point to a single moment.  But if I wasn't already in "this does not bode well" mode after the drum major dropped the mace after throwing it over the crossbar, but no, it was the photo above.

Punt block attempts are high risk/high reward.  Michigan already had one punt block effort blow up in their faces this year, against Maryland.  That penalty, though bad, ended up being meaningless in the grand scheme of that game.  This one, on 4th and 7 from OSU's own 9 handed the Buckeyes a first down on their own 24 and two plays later, Ezekiel Elliott was off to the races for 66 yards and Ohio State figured out they just needed to run the Indiana offensive game plan writ large, coupled with a more solid defensive performance, and they would have this one.  A game that was 14-10 at the half was 28-3 after the half and could have been worse if not for a solid stand late in the fourth after the game was well out of hand.  No one can say for sure what would have happened if Michigan had not been flagged for a personal foul on that play (which I still think is specious, but, you know, biased.) but it did feel like that was going to be "the mistake" upon which the game would turn.

It is not a failing to acknowledge that Michigan just ran out of gas down the stretch,  The stretch, in college football, is what separates great teams from good teams, and national championship contenders from great teams.  Michigan's 9-3 mark this year was better than even the wildest dreamers would have allowed ourselves to believe in, even when Harbaugh landed at DTW eleven months ago.  That doesn't mean we have to like that of Michigan's three losses, two were to rivals at home.  But I think in the end, when you can reflect calmly upon it, it's just that Michigan did not have enough at the end, the attrition of football being football got to them.  That will change.  That will get better, but for now, we don't have a whole lot of answers.  We await a likely New Year's date in the Florida sun against an SEC team.  And that is certainly not the worst way to end Year 1 of a new coaching administration.  More to the point, it was fun again.  There were far few of these "what is the lesson of this terrible thing that has befallen our team" columns, far less gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.  It was fun again, even when it wasn't on the scoreboard.  But for the first time in a while, we end a season with hope, realistic, grounded hope.  Not flights of fancy, not longings for that which is gone, but seeing a process and knowing that there's a foundation upon which to build.

Until we know where January takes us, as always, we fight for better days.  My thanks to you for reading again this season and a blessed holiday season to you and your family.  Go Blue!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Never Let Me Go

"Dad" Rudock.  It's like Dad Rock, but less Steely Dan, more Dan Fouts. (Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports)

I don't know that I would want the B1G to schedule like this forever, but the fun of the last two weeks of the B1G East have the Michigan/Ohio State/Michigan State/Penn State parallelogram of peril playing against each other (with the first leg having also been played on the same weekend back in October.  Now let us not speak of it again.)  As a fan, it was great knowing that I could watch a Michigan/Penn State road tilt at noon and then enjoy the Michigan State/Ohio State showdown at 3:30.  It felt fantastic to know I could watch both.  What ended up happening on Saturday became a tale of four coaches and their quarterbacks.

For Michigan, the progress that Jake Rudock has made since Week 1 has been nothing short of astonishing.  Rudock has gone from a liability to an asset, becoming one of the singular reasons that Michigan has won the last two games.  He is making good decisions (OK, the interception was suboptimal, he didn't look off his receiver and threw a laser right at the Nittany Lion defender.), he's making good use of the field position granted to him when the special teams unit breaks a return, and he has removed the sense of "waiting for the other shoe to drop" paranoia that has haunted Michigan's quarterbacks of recent vintage.  Coach Harbaugh has proven his quarterback whisperer bonafides yet again.  You hate to look ahead, especially with a season that has been so rewarding still in progress, but man, is it exciting.  So exciting.

For Penn State, the devastation wrought upon Christian Hackenberg yesterday by Michigan's defense, though not as statistically present as it was physically and emotionally (Michigan got pressure on 65% of Hackenberg's dropbacks according to PFF), with Wormley and Charlton doing most of the dirty work.  Hackenberg looks broken, and its understandable.  He came to Penn State when he could have changed his mind, got coached up by Bill O'Brien and looked like an absolute world beater his Freshman year, only to see BOB head to Houston and James Franklin come in to Happy Valley and go anchor down on his draft status.  Penn State is not a bad football team this year, all four of their losses are completely explicable, but I am sure that is cold comfort to the Nittany faithful.  Franklin's utterly bizarre coaching decisions, though grateful as I am for them as a Michigan fan, have to just make Penn State wonder what they did to deserve...oh, right.

For Michigan State, the chicanery and legerdemain of whether Connor Cook would play this weekend was a handy bit of subterfuge by Mark Dantonio, one for which I do not blame him in the least.  The only people who benefit from knowing injury information ahead of time are gamblers.  Why in the world would you tip your hand before you absolutely had to do so.  And this ignores the fact that Dantonio was hoping that things might get better before Saturday.  He might have suspected, but didn't know for sure until Cook got out to warm ups.  So you prepare like he can't go, but reserve hope that Cook might be able to pull a Willis Reed.  In the end, the supreme irony is that Dantonio didn't need Cook.  He took the chip on Michigan State's shoulder, drove it into the collective Trapezius of the Spartans and emerged from the Horseshoe with a win that put the Spartans in the driver's seat for the B1G East despite not having led for a single solitary second of either of their two most critical games, both played on the road.  That is impressive, even if it is your rival and you hate to admit it.

For Ohio State, the tyranny of too many choices finally came home to roost at the most inopportune of times.  It would be easy to say that Urban Meyer had the kind of problem you want to have, three excellent quarterbacks, all of whom had proven themselves in critical situations.  But it wasn't the quarterback or the choices that was going to be the issue.  It was the departure of Tom Herman to become Houston's head coach (true story: I had talked myself into Herman as my leading choice to replace Hoke if Harbaugh was not coming.  I am obviously thrilled beyond belief with how it turned out, but I don't think Herman would have been a bad consolation prize.  Well, you know, until he lost to UConn this week.  But I digress.)  that derailed Ohio State's machine.  The warning signs had been there, we knew it, the playoff committee even gave you a sense that they knew it, but we don't want to discredit the defending champions until they lose.  It's fair on some level, but completely different team, completely different circumstances, we should really start with a clean slate.  But we don't, essentially, defending champion until proven otherwise.  But now Michigan gets either an angry Ohio State team, or an unraveling Ohio State team.  Either one is a wounded animal, but at least, for Michigan, it's not a wounded animal defending its home turf.

In the end, the stakes seem pretty straight forward to me, and absolutely downright thrilling.  If Michigan wins, as every Michigan team has whose first year at Michigan coach has brought them into a season ending Ohio State game with a winning record has done in the past, then it is possible, verging on likely that a 10-2 Michigan gets picked to go to the Rose Bowl, potentially to face Stanford in what would be an easy and obvious storylines game for an NY6 bowl that wasn't a playoff game.  If Michigan wins and Penn State wins, Michigan heads to Indy for the first time ever to face an Iowa team where the obvious storylines would be overflowing.  It's been a strange college football season.  Almost anything that can happen has happened.  Michigan takes care of business at home, it puts the rest in the hands of other people.  Control your controlables, make your free throws, beat Ohio State.

Happy Thanksgiving. Go Blue.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Caught

Find the target, hit the target.  Precision Rudock passing leads to a banner day for Chesson.  (Photo by Bryan Fuller)
Popular history books, or at least a certain genre of them, make a living on people who survive seemingly insurmountable odds and survive to recount the story.  There's a logic to this that makes sense.  The old nautical saying "Dead men tell no tales" applies.  We don't know how well someone fought, even unto death, unless someone else can emerge on the other side to tell the circumstances.

In three of Michigan's last four games, the ending has been in doubt up to and including the final play.  The Michigan State game, well, you know.  The goal line stand in Minnesota.  But the double whammy of the game tying touchdown (see photo above) where Jake Rudock found Jehu Chesson for a fourth time hitting paydirt (and then Kenny Allen slipped an extra point through after another bad long snap.  Because, you know, maybe that play where the long snapper got bowled over and it wasn't called has had a lingering effect on the Michigan season more than we could have expected.)  One more quick kickoff and Michigan was off to overtime against #TEAMCHAOS.

One of the hardest parts about being a head football coach, on any level I suppose, but certainly a Power 5 head coach or an NFL head coach, is knowing that you are going to make choices that will not work and thus will be second guessed.  After an opening overtime played at the student section end where IU gashed Michigan's depleted and exhausted defensive line with run play after run play and UAB transfer Jordan Howard leaped in to the end zone (after a replay that showed Michigan had actually stopped Howard short of the goal line on third down.)  Michigan then went two plays, a quick run then a Jake Butt 21 yard TD forced the second overtime.  Michigan then realized that they held air superiority and dropped a beautiful 25 yard dime into a bucket to Amara Darboh to put Michigan up and force Indiana to match the touchdown.

It did not look too reassuring when Jordan Howard broke for 17 on the first play down to the Michigan 8, forcing goal to go.  But, Michigan has been great with their backs against the wall this year.  Howard went for 3 on first down, then no gain on second.  Now facing 3rd and goal to go from the five, Indiana set up and  Michigan smartly called a late timeout.  Indiana showed pass, then, given a chance to think about it, got Sudfeld scramble to the two and one last play.  Then Indiana called timeout to think about it and outsmarted themselves.  Discounting a punt and a field goal attempt, Indiana had called 20 consecutive run plays for 159 yards, two touchdowns, and a field goal.  It was working.  So yes, Durkin and the Michigan defense were probably expecting run, but they never sold out to buy into it.  Delano Hill stuck on his man, fought him tooth and nail, broke up the pass, and Michigan survived 48-41 and walked out of Bloomington with their 20 game winning streak against Indiana intact.

Kevin Wilson had to know people would ask questions about why he chose, with the game on the line, to abandon the run that had been working so well.  He had in his mind, more than likely, a belief that Michigan would not be expecting a tendency breaker at that exact moment.  This is entirely fair.  If it had worked, it would have been seen as a particularly keen bit of gamesmanship.  But Indiana now stares at having dropped six conference games, five of which they were close or ahead at the third quarter break.

Michigan, on the other hand, is now 8-2, still in the hunt for the Big Ten East championship, still facing a tough matchup with a stout Penn State defense in Happy Valley next week, but able to tell the tale of survival.  They got out of Bloomington with a win, even when that win seemed highly improbable at best.  Good teams find a way to win games they shouldn't.  Michigan's a good team this year.  Whether good can be upgraded to any higher superlative will be figured out over the course of the remaining three (possibly four, fingers crossed) games.  But for now, sing to the colors that float in the light.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Fire and the Flood

Two great things close to Geoff's heart: the MMB and WWII military aviation. (Photo by Bryan Fuller)
Rutgers has been playing football since 1869.  They call themselves "the birthplace of college football."  They are the oldest program in FBS.  During that time, they have won 641 games.

Michigan has been playing football since 1879.  They claim the record for the most wins in college football.  They are the second oldest program in FBS.  During that time, they have won 922 games.

A lot has been made of  how we motivate ourselves, the fixed mindset vs the growth mindset.  It is possible, we cannot know for certain, that during the Hoke years, Michigan's football program was stuck in a fixed mindset, that they could only be so good, that talent was innate and not developed.  It appears that in the Harbaugh philosophy is the growth mindset, never satisfied with being good enough, always looking for ways to improve.

For that mindset to work, you need motivation. Intrinsic motivation is good, because it is, theoretically, a never ending wellspring, always bubbling under the surface of one's demeanor.  But most of us need extrinsic or outside motivation and if you can't find it, sometimes you have to make it up.  If you're Michael Jordan, you turn virtually every time someone breathed incorrectly in front of you into a form of motivation.  If you're Tom Brady, you're leaving a trail of devastation in your wake all in the name of the Ideal Gas Law.  For each of us, the source and amount of the slights are sometimes a mystery.  Molehills become mountains that spoke ill of your mother.

So when Rutgers decided to celebrate a field goal that brought them within 19, on a day where their only touchdown came on a kickoff return and said field goal was set up largely because the officials picked up a flag for targeting (while missing two blatant blocks in the back) on another return, it was opening a fuel line and dumping it directly in to Coach Harbaugh's internal fires of competitiveness.  Michigan won the second half 14-0, playing its reserves only very late because the notion of Kyle Flood's players celebrating a field goal that didn't even change the fact that it was still a three score game in Michigan's favor must have been abhorrent to the competitive soul of James Joseph Harbaugh.

My favorite thing is the sense of wonderment some of the current Michigan players express towards Coach Harbaugh's competitive fire.  These young men, by virtue of being Division I football players, are blessed with talent that most of us can never dream of possessing, and even then, they speak in curious, awed tones of just how competitive their coach is.  It is not mocking, it is not reverent, but it is appreciative.  It is "OK, this guy, wow, I can't be him, but maybe I can be a little bit like him."  We're not all wired like that, and I think that's OK.  Those who are need to find a way to channel that competitiveness in to positive avenues for growth, lest they become self-destructive.  Coaching is definitely one of those realms where that competitiveness can be rewarded, as soon as you can get buy-in from those whom you lead, your players, your coaching staff, your fans.

Harbaugh's faith in Jake Rudock, the things seen in practice unseen in games thus far, resulted in Rudock's best game as a Wolverine.  We probably haven't been fair to Jake Rudock, but then again, we're rarely fair to any athlete, but quarterbacks especially.  We look at every pass, every handoff, every moment and critique, even though we know that cannot ourselves do better.  But the game plan of this Saturday, the offensive game plan gave Rudock a lot of chances to look competent and he did just that.  Screen passes galore, like the Rutgers defense had not heard of them.  Snags by Jake Butt that made the simple seem sublime.  Add it all together, throw in a nice little corner scramble for a TD and another for a "you did it to yourself, Rutgers" two point conversion and all of the sudden, your mind starts going "OK, it's Rutgers, but what if...what if..."

I do not know if Michigan can get better this season.  The mastery curve, like below, reads like this:
The moves within "expert" are less noticeable because there is simply less room for improvement.  It takes longer to go from great to sublime.  But if Michigan can find a way to move into that third zone in the next three weeks, well, maybe Pasadena awaits.  Who would have thought that a year ago today?  Well, maybe some of us.  

Until the next one.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

St. Jude

Embedded image permalink
"Where is the Jug?"
"We have top men working on it. right now. Top.  Men."
(Photo credit: Patrick Barron)

I spent a lot of time helping set up my church's VBS this summer.  The theme was the 12 Apostles and I was reminded of my affinity for Thaddeus, who is also known as Jude.  In Catholic tradition, St. Jude is the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, in part because his intercession was rarely invoked due to the similarity of his name to that of Judas Iscariot, that he basically was so happy that when anyone called upon him, he was eager to please.  I'm not totally sure that's how that works, but you know, I really can't argue with Catholic tradition.




After some early jitters, it looked like Michigan was going to cruise.  When they went up 14-3, it felt as if Minnesota was running on emotion and adrenaline and if Michigan could weather the storm of the first quarter, they'd be OK.  But then, in a weird Halloween fashion, Minnesota caught a series of breaks that had to be seen to be believed, encapsulated in a ball late in the first half where it went through Dymonte Thomas hands and right in to those of a Gopher receiver.  The Gophers kicked a late first half field goal and went into the locker room with a two point lead.  The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, Michigan looking very sharp on the opening drive of the half, then returning to a posture of flailing and "Hoke Year 5".  Then Jake Rudock went down awkwardly after a rushing attempt and much seemed lost, ennui began to make itself at home once again in the collective souls of the Michigan fanbase.  But Wilton Speight finally settled in, hit a couple of nice passes, moved the ball down the field relatively effectively, and after a moment where it looked like Jabrill Peppers was going to try and throw for a touchdown, because why not, Speight hit Jehu Chesson from 12 yards out, then hit Amara Darboh for a two point conversion when things looked really lost, and just like that, Michigan was up three with just under five minutes left to play.

The longer you watch college football, the more that you come to realize that even familiar tropes and scenarios can have surprise endings.  On Minnesota's final drive, Michigan couldn't get off the field on third and long in the shadow of the Gopher end zone, well, you start wondering what form the destroyer is to take, because God doesn't forgive poor tackling or coverage too readily.  When the "go for broke" pass beats your coverage, you're shocked when the replay review actually correctly showed the receiver down at the half yard line and the officials got it right.  When the Gophers wasted 90 percent off their remaining clock on the restart for reasons that were not immediately and readily apparent, "narrative" dictated that the team playing for their beloved, recently retired coach would still be rewarded for playing to win.  But narrative still must give way to physics, and the fundamental theorem of football physics says "low man wins."  Michigan correctly presumed a QB sneak, sold out like Roger Daltrey hawking Heinz baked beans on it, and in doing so, brought the Little Brown Jug home for the next three years.  What felt like a lost cause just five minutes of real time early was suddenly found, saintly intercession or not.

Wilton Speight becomes the unlikely hero.  Though spouting the cliches of next man up and constant preparation, as he should, few of the Michigan faithful were going to be looking to Speight, who was 0-for-2015 coming into the game yesterday, to lead Michigan to victory.  Their eyes were fixed on Jabrill Peppers, who was working in mysterious ways in all three phases, but Speight, eager to prove himself, becomes the patron of this seemingly lost cause.  Michigan gets one that maybe they shouldn't have on the heels of losing one they all but had.  Michigan's bowl eligible, coming home to play Rutgers, and looking ahead to the next challenge.  Yesterday went a long way to exorcise some of the specific demons of 2014, and little by little, you start to think that, maybe, maybe, the Game might be a dogfight.  We'll see.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Heartlines

"Oooh, ahh, that's how it always starts.  Then there's running....and screaming."
(OK, yes, that's The Lost World, but I don't care at this point.)
The short answer is, of course, it hurts.  No one denies this.

And yet...

This wasn't even my worst day at the Big House.  I've had plenty worse in twenty years of going to games.  I was there for Appalachian State 2007.  I was there for Northwestern 2008.  I was there for Utah 2014.  That is to name but three.  This hurt, but it's the dirty secret of college football...it's chaotic.  It's chaotic and it doesn't have to make a whole lot of sense, because order is the way in which we try to find patterns in the chaos.  The problem with patterns are is that we cannot ever necessarily know if they are truly patterns because even as we string them out in to eternity, all of the sudden, there is a blip that you didn't expect and the pattern no longer exists.  And the universe would smile at your newfound knowledge, but it doesn't care.  It's the universe, and it does what it wants.

99.8%.  By now you've probably seen the stat that Michigan's win probability before the snap on the play with 10 seconds left was at 99.8%.  Mathematically, that means that if that play were run 500 times, Michigan would have won the game 499 of them.  This universe, this quantum reality, it happened.  Why?  Chaos.


(In retrospect, we really should have put locking mechanisms on all of the vehicles.)

For all of the awfulness of this game, and there were layers upon layers of awfulness, Michigan was in this game due, in no small part, to special teams.  It was in this game despite miscues, despite a suboptimal performance on offense, despite officiating which will likely not grade out very highly with Collegiate Officiating Consortium people who grade these things, despite replay reviews which made me lament the invention of the digital video recorder.  In spite of all of this, Michigan had a lead late.  This is significant progress.  Michigan can tell itself that it's Michigan and we don't find or need moral victories, but that isn't what this is about.  Michigan had made so much progress so quickly from where it was at the end of 2014 as a team that it was easy to tell yourself that Michigan had this one, no problem.  But, in the end, it did not.  Whether it was a bad snap, cold fingers, worries about an all out punt block attempt, we'll never probably know for real, but in the end, it happened and Michigan State took its only lead of the game with no time remaining on the clock.  Sometimes, when you root for chaos, you bring the house down upon your own head.  It's the price you pay for that deep seated desire to see something you've never seen before.  Sometimes the universe just says "Next" and points the finger at your team.  It doesn't have a schedule or an agenda or a rotation, because it's the universe and the universe doesn't care.

So I want to be mad, I've tried to be mad, but I can't be.  Mostly, I feel really bad for Blake O'Neill.  He had an 80 yard punt, a thing of beauty, and several other punts which put Michigan in a position to win.  Now he becomes to people who don't care about this team, a punchline.  But to only be judged by our worst moments is unfair.  But, as the universe reminds us, it's never really about fair.  Deserving to win does not guarantee victory.  Doing everything right leading up to a moment does not assure us that it will continue.  All we can do is our best every time and learn from the bad moments.  After all, as Kierkegaard said, "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."  In the middle of the story, we cannot always see the end.  We can speculate, we can estimate, but we are rarely the masters of our own fate.  It'll be a long two weeks, but on Halloween night, I foresee Minnesota getting quite a scare.

We fight for better days.  My sense is that they will be here sooner rather than later.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Drevnometer adopts Collective Rule

A colossal performance by the offense against Northwestern deserves a colossal ranking, so the Drevnometer shoots back up to seven. It's jumping up and down like a heartbelt because the offense finally has a pulse.


This offense has been a joy to watch and also a sign of false nostalgia. Harbaugh and Drevno are providing us with the MANBALL offense we're nostalgic for, the one that could not only run roughshod over opponents, but also adapt to take advantage of their weaknesses. The real historical Michigan offense at Tennessee, and that's a lot more exciting. No lead is safe, and you'd rather be behind after three quarters than ahead. I don't miss that feeling of dread in far too many fourth quarters.

The Drevnometer's Three Stars of the Game



Massive props to the offensive line for a true team performance. Unfortunately for Jehu Chesson, the Drevnometer's Three Stars do not incorporate special teams performance.

Previous Three Stars

Maryland: ★★★ Drake Johnson ★★ Graham Glasgow ★ Jehu Chesson
BYU: ★★★ De'Veon Smith ★★ Amara Darboh ★ Jake Rudock
UNLV: ★★★ Ty Isaac ★★ Jehu Chesson ★ Sione Houma
Oregon State: ★★★ De'Veon Smith ★★ Erik Magnuson ★ A.J. Williams
Utah: ★★★ Jake Butt ★★ Amara Darboh ★ Graham Glasgow

Sunday, October 11, 2015

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

Desmond Morgan is an airplane. (Photo by MLive's Melanie Maxwell)

Hey Northwestern, you like apples?
Michigan's got its third straight shutout, how do you like them apples?
(Photo by MLive's Melanie Maxwell as well)

Homecoming is a chance to tell yourself a story about the past, even if it's, if not a lie, not the whole truth.  You leave out the parts of those four years of your life that you'd rather forget and focus on the good stuff.  If you do think about the bad stuff, you either frame it as a growth experience, or look back in bemusement.  That class you probably should have gone to more often to get a better grade, well, it taught you the importance of actually showing up for your job on time, every day.  That time that the dude puked all over your back as you were leaving S'keeps on the opening night of the NCAA Tournament?  Well, at least your jacket was GoreTex and it washed right off.  That girl that you went out with during your senior year from Northwestern?  Well, it helped you learn who you were as a person.

In reality, it's not that much different than being a Michigan football fan.  You remember things from the past as better than they were.  Unless the loss was particularly soul-crushing, you can almost explain everything from the past in the gauzy halo we give to the past.  The bizarre sequence of Michigan/Northwestern games over the last four years, for instance, can be chalked up to learning experiences, or gallows humor, but the reality is, they were four wins in an era of ever diminishing returns.

So as Michigan stared down a match-up against Northwestern, it was billed as a showdown between two of the best defenses that anyone had seen this year.  The computers, as much as they could, were gushing over the statistical profiles.  Michigan coming off two straight shutouts, Northwestern over impressive winning efforts against their "academic peers" in Stanford and Duke.  This felt, all week, like it was going to be a tight one.  The sharps in Vegas tried to tell us.  The computers tried to explain it to us, that it might not be what it was billed as.

It was not.  From the moment when Jehu Chesson found the seam and engaged the slipstream drive, this one was never in doubt.  The profound joy of knowing that 7 points, the way the defense has been playing, might be enough to win the game, is exceptional.  Just tremendous.  That Michigan went on to run a meticulous series of offensive plays against a very very stout Northwestern defense, go up 21-0 at the end of the first quarter, add a logic and science defying Jourdan Lewis pick six late in the second quarter and then after a great halftime featuring the Alumni Band and, oh yeah, the New York Philharmonic's brass section, (for what it's worth, playing "Ode to Joy" might have been a little on the nose, but, nah, it's all good.), it was time for classic "dull and boring football" in the second half, where all Michigan fans (and the Michigan defense) wanted to see was a preserved shutout.  That a mostly full Big House was chanting "defense" with less than a minute to go in a game where Michigan had a 38 point lead, well, it reminded me of the good old days.

One of the funniest things about defying pre-season expectations is that Michigan is in a constant "prove it" mode this year.  Losing to Utah, well, see, Harbaugh's got some work to do.  Beat Oregon State, well, they're a Pac-12 cellar dweller.  Beat UNLV, well, their coached by a guy who was a high school coach last year.  Shut out BYU, yeah, well, BYU had a nightmare travel schedule and maybe they weren't that good.  Shut out Maryland, well, I mean, they're coached by Randy Edsell.  Shut out #13 Northwestern, yeah, well, um, let's see how you do against Michigan State.  The thing is, I actually think this is perfect for a Harbaugh team.  Perpetual doubt means constant discomfort and no satisfaction.  It means constantly chasing the improvement and the dream.  It's a rivalry game, it's a measuring stick, and it's probably a battle of Top 15 teams.  GameDay is coming.

Let's Go Blue.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Walk the #M00N

GIF via EDSBS's Erase This Game.


Oh won’t you take a sack
Make it 4th and 23
I said “Stuff my tailback”
She said “Shut up and punt with me”
Turnovers are my destiny
She said “Oooooh, shut up and punt with me”

We were victims of the night
The end zone is our kryptonite
Helpless tries to pass and fading routes
Oh we were bound to fail together
Bound to fail together

He took the snap, I don’t know how it happened
He hit the ground and she said

Why can’t you hit the gap
Get stuffed for a loss of three
I said “You’re holding my defensive back”
She said “Shut up and punt with me”
A touchback is my destiny
She said “Oooooh, shut up and punt with me”

A bottled-up run and some failed sneaks
Downfield completion is my third-down dream
I felt the ball hit my chest since he threw to me
I knew we wouldn’t hit the ground together
Go out of bounds together

He took the snap, I don’t know how it happened
He hit the ground and she said

We’re going to march backwards
We’re too close to scoring three
I said “You’ll lose thirty yards”
She said “Shut up and punt with me”
Five and seven is my destiny
She said “Oooooh, shut up and punt with me”

Overtime, can’t let it be the future
I realize this is my last chance
He took the snap, I don’t know how it happened
He hit the ground and she said

Oh don’t you scratch your back
Forget this game could ever be
Please don’t happen again
She said “shut up and punt with me”
A new coach is my destiny
She said “Oooooh, shut up and punt with me”
Don’t you dare look back
It’s now 2015
Forget about last year
She said “shut up and punt with me”
Jim Harbaugh is my destiny
She said “Oooooh, shut up and punt with me”
”Oooooh, shut up and punt with me”
”Oooooh, shut up and punt with me”

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Drevnometer discovers Replaceable Parts

When the offense dominates in the first half and goes to sleep in the second half, they get the benefit of the doubt. When they sleep through the first half and wake up in the second half, not so much. So the Drevnometer falls back to a 4 this week. We're back to the pyramids, but maybe we'll find Neferiti's grave.

The chart has a new picture this week, courtesy of Patrick Barron at Mgoblog! It also has icons along the x-axis now, which is surprisingly hard to do.


The Drevnometer's Three Stars of the Game



Previous Three Stars

BYU: ★★★ De'Veon Smith ★★ Amara Darboh ★ Jake Rudock
UNLV: ★★★ Ty Isaac ★★ Jehu Chesson ★ Sione Houma
Oregon State: ★★★ De'Veon Smith ★★ Erik Magnuson ★ A.J. Williams
Utah: ★★★ Jake Butt ★★ Amara Darboh ★ Graham Glasgow

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Raining in Baltimore

"I am waving my hands in the air, as if I just don't care."  --Jim Harbaugh, maybe?  (CSTV)
One of the truly great pleasures of being a Michigan fan is underrated, well, perhaps it was until it went away for a while.  Michigan plays in the early game, wins the game over a lesser opponent, and you can watch the rest of the afternoon and evening's games without worrying about seeing the highlights or analysis.  You can sit back and watch everyone else and mentally start thinking about the next opponent.

I can't underrate a shutout, because they are rare and they are a beautiful thing.  If the other team doesn't score, they can't win.  It's the fundamental theorem of sport. So if your defense does not allow the other team to score, you're going to win the game (well provided you can get some points yourself.)

I had a mild repiphany this past week.  A repiphany, of course, is when you remember a life changing revelation that you had about yourself previously but had allowed to fade in to the background.  But my realization is that I am fundamentally about defense.  If you ask me to choose which I like better, offense or defense, it's going to be defense.  (This is mildly ironic because quiz bowl, with which I have been involved for nearly a quarter century as a player, tournament director, and coach, is one of the few competitive activities of two teams facing each other simultaneously where you cannot play defense, except by playing offense.)  In football, offense is about imposing your will on the other side.  I want to do this particular thing to achieve this particular goal, and this is how I will go about doing it.  Defense is about guessing what the opponent wants to do and preparing for any and all contingencies as best as possible.  You array your players on the field to maximize your strengths and disguise your weaknesses.  So if you have a lockdown secondary, you can be more aggressive in the pass rush.  If you have a stout run defense, you can force the opposition into throwing more, even if they don't want to do so.  Offense is planning, defense is constant adaption, but, if you have superior defense, you can impose your own will on the offense.

The 1997 Michigan defense is, of course, the gold standard of great modern defenses* in Ann Arbor.  This defense isn't there yet.  But...That 1997 unit gave up 26 points in the first five games of the season.  Michigan's defense has only given up 29 (the Rudock Pick 6 against Utah can't be held against this defense, can it?)  This Michigan defense has given up fewer yards than the 1997 unit (admittedly, that 1997 team played all Power 5 schools in their first five games, but still.)  Anything this Michigan team is going to do is going to come from what the defense can do.  Michigan turns the ball over?  No problem, defense forces a three and out.  (OK, admittedly, this is not a viable long-term strategy, but it's much less annoying that feeling doomed because the offense just screwed up again.)  Put in your back up quarterback to find a spark?  Willie Henry blasts through your offense line to stand over him looking like a hungry bear that has stumbled upon a campsite of unprepared urbanites trying to be "rugged."  Move the game up eight hours because the hurricane sitting in the middle of the Atlantic might be headed for Maryland?  Michigan gets the job done well ahead of schedule and comes home to start prepping for Northwestern.  

We keep recalibrating expectations for this season, in part because we spent the summer trying to tamp them down because the last seven seasons wouldn't allow us to dream.  Next week will be a huge test for this Michigan team, in large part because Northwestern might be an even better defense than Michigan's.  But Michigan's at home, and maybe that might be just enough. 

But, hooray for having faith in two of your three units.  Trust but verify on the third.

(*-I mean, Yost's 1901-1903 teams went 26 straight games without allowing a point.   Just sayin'.)

(**-My initial plan for this season was to use all Florence + The Machine song titles for the names of the columns, but then the Killers column happened, so it's just all song titles this season.  But were I going for a F+TM title for this one, it would have been "Hurricane Drunk.") 

Friday, October 02, 2015

The Drevnometer discovers aesthetics

A dominating second-quarter performance from the Michigan O pushes the Drevnometer to new heights: an 8! This is higher than the Nussmeter ever reached, and the Borges-O-Meter usually exceeded these heights only due to Denard-related exuberance.

Much like the Michigan offense, the Drevnometer chart is adding new wrinkles each week:


Picture showing that Tim Drevno's knot-tying game is off point from mgoblue.com.

The Drevnometer's Three Stars of the Game



Previous Three Stars

UNLV: ★★★ Ty Isaac ★★ Jehu Chesson ★ Sione Houma
Oregon State: ★★★ De'Veon Smith ★★ Erik Magnuson ★ A.J. Williams
Utah: ★★★ Jake Butt ★★ Amara Darboh ★ Graham Glasgow

We're now using the Americans for Amara Darboh. And, based on that tie, being slightly left-of-center is a very Drevno thing to do.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Daily 125

On the occasion of The Michigan Daily's 125th anniversary.  (And as always, I could probably use a good editor.)

My time at Michigan was built around four years (plus some mentoring) with UAC's Michigan Academic Competitions.  So much of my Michigan life, including almost all of my long-term friendships formed at Michigan, came from my days on MAC.  Of the three men who stood up in my wedding, one was my brother, one was my friend Geoff, who was a fellow MAC member, and one was my best man, my friend from high school, my college roommate, Dave Wallace.  It is through Dave that I first came to understand The Michigan Daily and that which is 420 Maynard St.

To many a Michigan student of my era, and I am sure of eras before and after, The Daily was the thing you grabbed to read before class started and maybe kept around to do the crossword.  (OK, I did a lot of Daily crosswords while sitting in the back part of the NatSci auditorium.  No one denies this.)  But from Dave, I understood it was something more.  It was long hours.  It was hard work.  It was craft.  It was dedication.  Though I was always told in high school that I had a knack for writing, but it was well and truly agreed that Dave had the gift.  Dave wrote in a way that a high school student should not be able to do, but he had a gift.  (True story: My mom would read our high school paper and she was always very complimentary of my writing, she would tell me how exceptional Dave's latest column or article was.)  So I would always look for what Dave wrote in The Daily and I would appreciate that the he was surrounded by some other exceptional writers, and that they were all writing for this student paper that we could pick up for free in the stairwell of the MLB.

(My only contribution to The Daily when I was a student was helping Dave name his column when he earned one in his junior/senior year.  We threw around a lot of names before landing on "Exile on Maynard Street", which was a wonderful combination of pun, nod to the Daily, and Rolling Stones reference.) 

Like many things from college, you move away from things as you leave college, but around the same time that Twitter burst into prominence around 2009-10, I started following some of the Daily sports writers.  They were insightful, they were funny, and they were always willing to listen and interplay on topics.  Just like watching college players move through their careers and grow and mature, I got to see and read these articles, which were so polished, so concise, so clean, giving a perspective on Michigan athletics that doesn't always get picked up by a local beat writer (I would argue that not only did The Daily fill the void after the Ann Arbor News stopped publishing a printed daily paper, they became a wonderful complimentary piece to MLive.)

So when, due to some very complicated issues, the high school I teach at stopped having a newspaper, it disappointed me because I wanted to send some of my kids to write for the Daily.  But, just as not having a journalism major hasn't stopped the Daily from turning our great journalists, not having a newspaper wasn't going to stop me from trying to connect my future Wolverines with The Daily.  It thrills me to no end that four of my former students are currently writers for The Daily and that through them, I get a vicarious view into the wonderful world of 420 Maynard Street as it is in 2015.  I am thrilled to see these college kids become even more than they were when they first showed up for a Daily mass meeting as freshmen.  Some of them have and will go on to  great journalism careers, like so many of their predecessors.  Others maybe will not pursue journalism, but will treasure their time at The Daily just as others treasure their time in college on the stage, or in a club sport, even if it is a part of their past without being their future.   The knowledge that you were a part of something larger than yourself, and you're connected to the past and the present and the future of something that has been around for a 125 years, well, that's kind of amazing.

So to you, The Daily, the kids who give us something great to read every day, five days a week, a bunch of weeks of the year, thank you.  Wherever the road leads you in the future, we appreciate the moments you had when you were exiled on Maynard Street.