Saturday, November 18, 2017

Some Days Are Better Than Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Raised by Wolves

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Electrical Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Sort of Homecoming


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now

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

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

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Running to Stand Still

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 08, 2017

11 O'Clock Tick Tock

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 05, 2017

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Michigan Defense Theater: The Return - Experiment 1704: Purdilicus




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

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

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

Maurice!
Gary!
Chase Wino!
Mooooooone!

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

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

Sunday, September 24, 2017

In A Little While

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hawkmoon 269

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.