Sunday, September 17, 2017

Some Days Are Better Than Others

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Notes:

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Red Hill Mining Town

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Songs of Innocence/Songs of Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 10, 2017

Encomium

Photo by Michael Caples/MiHockey

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

V1

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

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



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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 27, 2017

Moe Weasley, No Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

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

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

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

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

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

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