Sunday, November 11, 2018

Goin' Down to New York Town

Oliver Martin finally won his battle with the end zone. (Julio Cortez/AP)
Oliver Martin finally won his battle with the end zone. (Julio Cortez/AP)

There was no way that anyone could have been happy with this game, save something in the realm of a return of the 78-0 defenestration, so a 35 point victory without a shutout, something that Michigan fans would have clamored for in their dreams just a season ago, will engender complaints, even if briefly.  In the final analysis, Michigan won by five touchdowns and after Chase Winovich's fumble recovery, the math was sufficiently convincing in Michigan's favor that even the AP Elections Bureau had called the game in the Wolverines favor, despite there being 17 minutes of football remaining to be played.

There were some nice moments in this game.  Karan Higdon went over 1,000 yards for the year, something he had sought since being disappointed on that front last season.  Oliver Martin caught his first career TD after being vigorously denied on several occasions.  Shea Patterson made some nice throws on the move while never once pulling and running, keeping himself on track to be healthy going into The Game, knock on wood.  Some of Shea's deep shots just missed, a couple of which were nicely defended by the Rutgers secondary.  The game was a much-needed reminder of the maxim that Scott Van Pelt likes to trot out "Well, they got some guys on scholarship too."  Rutgers played with some pride and it's to their credit that they still looked like a group of guys who wanted to see what they could do.  You get an early touchdown like that on a bust, you get the right to dream a little bit.

Beyond that, it's done and Indiana on the docket.  Let's see what happens.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

A Murder of One

The turning point when lunch money receipts were collected and reimbursement demanded (Kirthmon F. Dozier/Freep)
"Well, I dreamt I saw you walking
Up a hillside in the snow
Casting shadows on the winter sky
As you stood there counting crows
One for sorrow, two for joy
Three for girls and four for boys
Five for silver, six for gold
Seven for a secret never to be told."
"A Murder of One", Counting Crows, August and Everything After, 1993
For many years, I thought that the next line in "A Murder of One" (one of my favorite Counting Crows songs) was "There's a perfectness inside you" which not only made sense, it seemed like a nearly magical turn of phrase from Adam Duritz.  It turned out that it was "There's a bird that nests inside you." which is still pretty good, but not as good as I initially believed my false impression to be.  It makes more sense with the bird metaphor that continues afterward, but again, the notion of a perfectness inside you, sleeping underneath your skin always seemed like this wonderful notion of what can be achieved if we just pushed ourselves a little more.

What Michigan did to Penn State today was nigh on perfect.  It obviously did not finish as perfect as Penn State scored a garbage time touchdown, preventing the Don Brown shutout dreams from coming true, but still, it just felt amazing.  It was just brilliant.  Even though the script felt familiar, not enough points in the first half, potential missed opportunities, blood in the water being ignored, we also knew how that script flipped in the second halves of the last two games. 

If I'm going to be honest, writing about these kinds of games are difficult because they're works of art.  They stand on their own.  Each of us stands before the artwork, taking it in, processing our own experiences, our own feelings, our own personal aesthetic and comes up with something.  If we're skilled in communication or in the history of the medium, we can usually articulate why this particular thing makes us feel this particular way, but sometimes the sheer joy or exhilaration of the piece robs us of our words.  We look at it and words fail us.  This was a pure, unadulterated cackle with glee moment.

Chase Winovich has said a lot of things.  He has said many many things that would be worrisome if he was not out there every play, backing it up, leading the posse like Kurt Russell's Wyatt Earp in the last hour of Tombstone, and riding herd like he knows the exact amount in his bank account so he can start writing checks all over the Big Ten.  I am sure that he annoys the hell out of the rest of the Big Ten and probably the country, but I don't care.  The guy who can destroy opposing quarterbacks but still take time to let the Drama Department know that he really enjoyed their performance of Sweet Charity, he's the Winovich, and we love him.

A trip to New Jersey next week awaits.  Onward.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Mr. Jones

Strike a Pose: 2018 Edition (Dustin Johnson / DJPhotoVideo)
We all wanna be big, big stars
Yeah, but we got different reasons for that
Believe in me
'Cause I don't believe in anything
And I wanna be someone to believe, to believe, to believe
Yeah!
"Mr. Jones", Counting Crows, August and Everything After, 1993

We can safely say that this was by no means as pretty or as fun as last week's outing.  It was far too close for comfort, even when the numbers said Michigan was comfortably in control, well, we all know what those ESPN numbers can actually mean in the real world, but especially in this game.

It was moments after the feeling that Michigan State's legendary luck, it's perma-horseshoe, was going to help them pull off another miracle was settling in when Shea Patterson got a super clean pocket, waited for a beat, then launched a beautiful arcing throw to a racing Donovan Peoples-Jones, who beat his man, slipped a last-gasp tackle attempt, and found paydirt for a 79 yard TD.  DPJ then proceeded to pose like the Paul Bunyan Trophy and while the game was not over by a longshot, it felt much better for the remainder of the day, because Michigan's defense was not going to allow a weather-induced slopfest stop them from making Michigan State if not regret, then at least question several of their life choices on the offensive side of the ball.  While a flag festival on MSU's final drive was enough to make a vexillologist convention happy, Michigan's relentless defense held Michigan State under 100 yards of total offense and won back Paul Bunyan and continued its revenge tour.

There will be people frustrated that Michigan has "lowered" itself to Michigan State's level, cries of "We're better than this!" and "Act like you've been there before!"  In the past, I might have even agreed with this, but I realize now, Michigan needs to loathe Michigan State as much as Michigan State loathes them.  They need to feel it deeply and completely, allowing it to permeate every membrane of their collective selves, seeping into every crack, and filling them with the same devotion to getting the job done.  Michigan State has made a living off trick plays and luck that defies math for the last decade (seriously, Mark Dantonio may actually have assembled all of the pieces of the Weather Dominator, having successfully stolen them from GI Joe), Michigan could not afford to say "Ohio State is the only rival that matters" any longer.  They understood it.  They heard the narratives, 1-5 against rivals, haven't beat a ranked team on the road since 2006, they knew the world needed to erase those narratives and the only way that you can do that is to win this game.

It was not a given.  Even after taking the 7-0 lead on the longest TD drive in Michigan history (because of the weather delay, it took forever.  Yes, this is a lame joke, we don't care.) and just as Michigan's defense forced Lewerke into bad pass after bad pass, the inescapable feeling that Michigan had left points on the field, gifted with great field position and failing to cash in each and every time, including a disturbingly bad looking kick by Quinn Nordin, and headed into the locker room sitting on the 7-0 lead.  Grumblings about conservative play calling, burning downs, and Shea's indecision swirled like the hot dog wrappers that tornadoed around Spartan Stadium during the weather delay.  The rain returned, the strip fumble of Chris Evans inside the Michigan 10, and a trick play later, the 7-7 tie made it seem like all of those premonitions and predictions of doom were about to come true.  So when the shot that people had been begging for all game paid off, when the running that had looked to be going nowhere had finally worn down the Spartan defense and was rewarded with a Ben Mason touchdown, it was a reminder of one indelible truth of football: Defense Travels.

So Michigan enjoyed the win, their second in three years over the Spartans, Michigan Twitter maybe enjoyed it even more (OK, not as much as Chase Winovich) and Paul returned to his rightful home in Ann Arbor, and the joy of an open date coming off two straight big wins laid out ahead of the team and of us fans.  Order has not yet been restored, but you can't start a winning streak without winning one.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Good Time

"We didn't know it at the time, but this would be foreshadowing the rest of the evening." (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

"I want to have a good time

Just like everybody
And I don't want to fall apart"
--"Good Time", Counting Crows, Hard Candy, 2002


There exists a fine line between "making a point" and "trolling".  Both were on display during the Michigan-Wisconsin game, Under the Lights VII at Michigan Stadium.  "Making a Point" is when you have 25 or so Michigan offensive line alumni who were captains, all-Big Ten, or played five years in the NFL as your honorary captain, reminding Wisconsin, the conference's current farm-to-NFL table for offensive linemen that Michigan knew how to do that once upon a time and would like to do that again, preferably sooner rather than later.  Trolling is when you play "Jump Around" late in the fourth quarter, leading some Wisconsin fans to laugh and shake their heads simultaneously.  Either Special K has been summarily dismissed from the press box and replaced with someone who has a better understanding of what will get a Michigan Stadium crowd hyped, or he took some continuing education classes in that realm.

For a change, Michigan didn't get off to a slow start (though there are those who would grouse about the missed Nordin field goal and worry that it was going to come back to bite Michigan later.  When it was 13-7 at halftime, it was entirely plausible to construct scenarios in one's head on how the destruction was going to come to the strains of the MMB version of the Turtles' "Happy Together".  I reminded myself, aloud, to the approbation of the good people of the upper levels of Section 7 that we got to halftime with a lead and Don Brown makes adjustments at halftime like whoa.)  The fear remained persistent.  Jonathan Thomas was being contained, but still getting 3, 4, 5, 7 yards despite multiple large men in navy blue shirts attempting to tackle him.  It was a tip your cap moment to both parties, Taylor's sheer power and his shiftiness as a runner, the Michigan defense's assignment discipline (and overall discipline, just the one unsportsmanlike penalty after the game-sealing pick-six) that they were meeting Taylor where he was to prevent the chunk play. 

But slowly, the fears began to dissipate, like a fog burning off in the morning sun.  The 75-yard drive, kept alive by the first roughing the snapper call I've ever seen in person (the Wisconsin fans near us were incredulous, they didn't even know it was a penalty.  The fan near him said "We did, it should have been called in the 2015 Michigan State game) and capped off by Shea's bootleg right where he puts the ball down in the end zone like it's a rugby try, and the two-point conversion where I did not see Nico Collins at all until he had the ball in his hands.  It began to feel like Michigan, with a two score lead, on a team that had only mustered 25 passing yards on the night, might be on the way to changing the narrative about Michigan in big games.

Then the Lavert Hill goes pick-six for a 21-yard ramble*, and a new narrative began to emerge from the ashes of the old one.  It's not fully formed yet, it needs similar excellent performances in the next couple of games against Michigan State and Penn State to truly be a new argument, but this team is clicking.  The offensive line, the source of much hand-wringing, has opened holes to allow Karan Higdon to run for 100 yards in five consecutive games.  The much-maligned receiving corps has grown up, bracketed by tight ends who move the chains.  This is not the Michigan team that looked like it would frustrate the hell out of the fans once more after the Notre Dame game.  But this is college football, chaos can rear its head on any given weekend.  Michigan avoided it with a statement win, but next weekend's chaos can loom as large if a team is not prepared for it.

So the new week arrives.  Beat State.

(*Though Hill's touchdown was the dagger, it was McCaffery's touchdown that led me to say "Oh that's just egregious" like Puppet Michael Floyd from Stuffing the Passer.  Gratuitous would have been the better word in this spot, but that's where my head was at at that moment.)

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Raining in Baltimore

Good things happen when you can actually start a game, Mr. Hudson. (Paul Sancya/AP)
"And I get no answers
And I don't get no change
It's raining in Baltimore, baby
But everything else is the same."

--"Raining in Baltimore", Counting Crows, August and Everything After, 1993


Another game, another slow start. Another game, another strong finish.  The major differences today were that the Big Ten seemed to have maybe looked at a copy of the chart that said Michigan wasn't having any holding calls on its defense, and that Shea Patterson's outstanding characteristic is his elusiveness, not his speed.  There's a major difference there.  Patterson isn't Denard Robinson, he's not a run-first quarterback, but if he can elude and evade oncoming defenders, extend plays and while his decision making isn't always perfect (I'm trying to decide how much the interception was his fault since it did hit the receiver's hands and pop into the air.  Simultaneously, his TD pass to Ronnie Bell was probably not a great decision until it was.  The margins on some of these things are very thin.)  Whereas Michigan's defense showed its fangs in the second half last week, it faltered slightly, giving up fourth quarter drives of 75 and 78 yards, but perhaps the injuries being suffered in the D-Line both before during the game were finally shone through and caused some consternation.  But it was the 9 play, 81-yard drive and the 46-yard pick six between them that made this a cover of a 17.5 point spread and not a nailbiter that it could have been.

Karan Higdon ran for over a hundred yards again today, the fourth straight game where a Michigan player ran for over 100 yards, the first time that has happened since 2010.  There are those who bemoan Michigan's slow, deliberate offensive style, but it felt, to me, today that Michigan does blend a deliberate style with some big-play ability (some of which was called back, like the 40-yard strike to DPJ early in the third called back on a specious holding call on Tru Wilson) that I think might be frustrating to others.  The defense is so solid, so strong, that people desire an offense to match it.  I understand that feeling, but I also feel, I don't know, the offense is fine.  Perhaps it needs a better, faster, start would help people feel like the offense is something that can click on all cylinders, but again, we're asking for evidence of things unseen.

For a game delayed by rain for an hour, the end result was what the stats, the sharps, and the analysts had been telling us the whole week.  Now comes the stretch, the defining stretch, the one that has been looming since the schedule makers first presented it to us all those years ago.  Home to the Badgers, then a road test against the Spartans and then Penn State at home coming off a bye.  BPONE tells you that Michigan comes out of this with at least one loss, maybe two, but maybe, just maybe, Michigan has it figured out, gets healthy enough, and makes some noise.  It certainly would be nice to ponder.  But for now under the lights against the Badgers next week should be some real data on what this Michigan team actually is.  We'll finally get some answers, the question is, will we like them?

One additional note: Given our outrage over the Shane Morris incident, I have some minor concerns about how quickly Donovan Peoples-Jones was back out there after his mouthguard went flying on the targeting hit.  I presume that the concussion protocol was followed, but I would like to know what the minimum essential time it takes to run the concussion protocol is so I am not feeling like we're playing fast and loose with it to get our players back out there.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Time and Time Again

Daybreak was a long time coming, but when it arrived, it stayed light. (Jim Young/AP)

"I wish I was traveling on a freeway
Beneath this graveyard western sky
I'm gonna set fire to this city
And out into the desert
we're gonna ride."
--"Perfect Blue Buildings", Counting Crows, August and Everything After, 1993



They're not always stupid games in Evanston.  It just feels that way.  History does undoubtedly show to us that there have been plenty of stupid games in Evanston in recent vintage. [gazes sidelong at M00N].  This wasn't a stupid game as much as it was a frustrating game because it didn't need to be that way, but a slow start by Michigan, an excellent opening script by Northwestern, and penalties upon penalties upon penalties made it so.  It would be really nice to just focus on the second half, where the defense looked much more like the unit that we have come to expect but to ignore the first half is to...well, sort of do what Michigan looked like it was doing yesterday.

Michigan won the toss and chose to receive, which was an initial point of confusion.  Coach Harbaugh has spoken previously of his love of the opportunity for the "wrap-around" score, where you get the ball at the end of the first half and score and then get the ball back to start the second half.  Certainly, you could argue that after last week Michigan perhaps felt that they did not need the wraparound score, after all, the experts in the desert had Michigan as roughly 15 point favorites, so come out, take the ball, get a score, and put an offense that lost its leading rusher during the week in a hole early.  But if that was the plan, then it went awry very quickly, with Michigan going three-and-out then Northwestern marching down the field and scoring to make it 7-0 early.  The Wolverines would spot Northwestern another 10 on the next two possessions and found themselves staring up from the bottom of a 17-0 hole as the second quarter began in earnest.  All of the possibilities and realignments of expectations that happened in the last three weeks felt ephemeral, another Michigan team that looks amazing against lesser competition at home but cannot find its way forward on the road, a very daunting prospect given the trips to East Lansing and Columbus that remain on the schedule.

But steadily, the things that Michigan does well came back into alignment, including the all-important halftime adjustments.  Karan Higdon ran hard, even if on his final touchdown drive, Northwestern had figured out that he was getting the ball up the middle on first down (four runs on first down on that drive, none for more than a yard.)  His final touchdown (illustrated above) came after nearly 56 minutes of Michigan not holding the lead.  Then defense bared the teeth of the wolf and kept up the pressure that saw Northwestern held to 61 yards on just 27 plays in the second half.  That is getting off the field, and that is how you give your team a chance to make a comeback.

I almost feel like Michigan fans don't appreciate this kind of thing because it's been the nature of the Don Brown defense: dominant, aggressive, and gets off the field on third down.  It doesn't always happen, but when it needed to, admittedly against a team that has offensive effectiveness issues.  It would be nice to see fewer penalties, but Gus Johnson served up a stat yesterday that essentially said that almost all of the most penalized teams in the nation also had winning records.

All of the consternation about yesterday comes back to "what does this mean for WisconsinMichiganStatePennStateOhioState????" and I understand that line of thinking.  The future is what we care about because it has yet to be written and we're trying to use what is happening in the present to be instructive.  If Michigan wins those games, then a game like this is the springboard to improvement and renewed focus.  If Michigan loses those games, then this was the harbinger of what happens when you start slowly and take foolish penalties.  We don't actually know anything, we won't really know anything until the games themselves are played.  I realize this is trite, I realize this is not useful, but attempting to extrapolate the future of a college football team is also very difficult.

Now, to find out what the Big Ten has to say about the penalty from Mars.  Because I would really like to know about that one.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Perfect Blue Buildings

Devin can hear you, he's just trying to make a larger point.

"You got an attitude of everything I ever wanted
I got an attitude of need."

--"Perfect Blue Buildings", Counting Crows, August and Everything After, 1993.

Admit it, when Adrian Martinez found Stanley Morgan, Jr. for 32 yards on a third and nine play on the opening drive, you thought "Here we go again."  I thought it, the crowd at Michigan Stadium clearly seemed to feel it, the warnings about how the 18 point spread was too generous, how Martinez was better than we suspected. and that this would be a dogfight.  The panic lasted all of two seconds when Martinez's next pass was tipped and once more, Josh Mettelus came down with it and six plays later, the rout was on.

It was a moment where the promise of the off-season started to actually look like it wasn't just lies told to comfort a nervous fan base.  The offense produced more than 44 points for the third straight game.  The defense looked like they had taken offense at the doubters and put on a show, four sacks, 14 tackles for loss, and feeling much cleaner on the penalty front, well, almost (looks at Khaleke Hudson).  Nebraska would maybe get one decent play on a drive, trying to get something going and the defense appeared to take it as an affront to propriety and snuffed it out.  It was only when the second and third string got some reps that Nebraska would actually do anything with the ball.  It's the rare 46 point victory that was not as close as it would seem and Nebraska is 0-3 for the first time since 1945.

As miserable as last week was at the Big House to watch, this game was a delight, proving two things, football weather remains undefeated and routs are fun when you're not on the receiving end of said rout.  I've sat in football weather at Michigan Stadium for the receiving end of a rout and it wasn't fun, but it wasn't miserable.  This was just fun.  Even the silly things that made no sense: the drum major doinking the mace toss for the second times in three weeks or the refs and Carl both making weird misspeaks on penalties and yardage, were more on the funny side than bad omens.  The fullback getting three touchdowns, well, thats's just Harbaugh reminding you that fullbacks matter.  Dylan McCaffery looking like his brother while running out a broken play ultimately called back on a penalty, well, that's just a glimpse into the future.  Ambry Thomas taking a muffed punt back for a score, only to have it called back because you can't advance a muffed punt, well, that's just an obscure rule that you didn't know about until just now.  Meanwhile, Will Hart is out there AVERAGING nearly 60 yards a punt for the day.  I mean, come on, that's just a thing of beauty.

Of all the moments of today's game that will stand out to me is Donovan Peoples-Jones punt return for a touchdown.  There are several reasons, not the least of which is the notion that so many people have groused that DPJ only ever fair catches and it makes no sense why he is back there.  Today was the answer.  Oh, sure, it was the critical score that made it 46-0, but still, picking your way through 60 yards of traffic, with a full reverse of field across from the east to west sideline including a spin move that should not have worked, and yet, did, well, it was just excellent.  It's even more so when you do it on a day when Charles Woodson is in the house to get his College Football Hall of Fame plaque.

All in all, as miserable as the day was last week, today was its diametrical opposite.  It's nice to feel good at the Big House.

I couldn't find a photo, but dang it was nice to see the broad smile on Coach Carr's face when he handed Charles his plaque.  Also, Coach Carr still sporting the quarter-zip, the outerwear of champions. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Hanginaround

 Yeah Coach, that's about the size of it.  (Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)


"Way, way, way, way too long."
--"Hanginaround," Counting Crows, This Desert Life, 1999

Fun fact:  Michigan's lowest win probability in this game was 95%, about the middle of the second quarter.  There was, statistically, never any real danger that Michigan was going to lose this game.  So perhaps that wasn't the feeling.  It was more mild annoyance that Michigan wasn't putting more distance between themselves and SMU during the course of this game.  In the stadium, the heat/humidity was relentless, much warmer than any of the weather lookaheads would have seemed to indicate.

After the last decade of Michigan football, it seems particularly petty to complain about a 25-point win, but I am sure there will be those in the fanbase who are more than happy to disabuse me of the notion.  I am very happy that Shea seems to have found a new toy in "The" Peoples-Jones.  As the gentleman sitting behind me said as DPJ raised three fingers after finding the end zone for the third time: "You get a hat trick any day, any sport, you get to celebrate it."  I am loathe to disagree.  For so many people waiting for Peoples-Jones to live up to the hype and the stars, today's performance definitely was more than flashes.  I am very happy that Josh Metellus decided to immediately make up for the PI penalty he drew on a 2nd and 17 late in the half by returning a pick 73 yards to cap off the first half.  Fully, a third of SMU's first downs came courtesy of penalties, which made the game feel like it was dragging on interminably.  We had reviews of targeting from the booth that hadn't been called on the field.  We had reviews that we knew the press box knew weren't going Michigan's way because the video board wasn't showing a replay immediately.  I am only surprised that we didn't have reviews of reviews, which given this crew, didn't completely feel out of the realm of possibility.

It feels wrong to complain about a win on a day when so many Big Ten teams fell, including Wisconsin and Nebraska.  There are no style points.  Many of the voters in the polls are going to see 45-20 and not dig any deeper.  Michigan won by 25 at home against a G5 opponent.  But I will say, this game was one of the least, if not the least, enjoyable Michigan Stadium experiences I have had where the end result was a victory. (Advisory note: I was not at Cincinnati or Air Force last year, because I can already hear you "ahem"-ing me.)  It was just a joyless, superheated slog that would not seem to end.   So many of the problems that we worried about on defense from the Notre Dame game showed up.  On the plus side, Shea Patterson clearly showed some moxie.  One that particularly stood out to me was on the 3rd and 4 from the Michigan 38 with 6:13 left in the 4th quarter.  Flushed out of the pocket, he scrambled to the left side.  Patterson was still directing receivers on adjustments before finally deciding at the last possible moment to just go and picking up 18 yards and a first down on the scramble.  He had just four incomplete passes, which I didn't even realize until I started looking at the stats.  The upgrade at the quarterback position this year is what made this game a 25 point win on a day when the defense was not its usual, expected self.

I don't want to be BAWWW, and I'm trying hard not to be.  So I'll just take the win and look forward to the start of the Big Ten season next week.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Recovering the Satellites

No. 21 Michigan bounces back with win over WMU
Sean McKeon wasn't told that bodies were not meant to bend that way.  (AP/Tony Ding)

"So why'd you come home to this faithless town?
Where we make a lifetime commitment to recovering the satellites
And all anybody really wants to know is
When are you're gonna come down, down, down, down, down
When you're gonna come down?"
--"Recovering the Satellites," Counting Crows, Recovering the Satellites, 1996
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I got a pal in Kalamazoo.  I flashed back to seven years ago when the Hoke era was new and in a rain-shortened game, Michigan rolled over the Broncos thanks to some turnovers and a touch of Denard.  I wondered if we could find that feeling of hope, however shortlived it was, once more.

Today's weather was almost perfect, save perhaps a little too much wind, for a Michigan Stadium experience and after a quick hiccup on both opening drives, Michigan settled in on both sides of the ball and looked much more like the team we had heard about coming out of camp.  Yes, they were at home.  Yes, it was a MAC opponent, but this is the kind of performance you wanted to see from Michigan to have any kind of momentum swing toward optimism.  Michigan was up three scores before the drum line did its thing and this tremendous feeling of relief washed over me.  It wasn't completely out of the BPoNE, but I felt like we were somehow digging out.

(OK, side note, I've always wondered about digging out of a hole.  It seems counterintuitive.  I suppose you could start hacking at the sides to try and get a ramp going, but all I hear in my head is Wiggum saying "No, no, dig UP, stupid." from "Homer the Vigilante".  I digress.)

There were so many things that happened today that you wanted to see.  An elusive Karan Higdon breaking tackles, Chris Evans getting some carries and doing the same.  Nico Collins doing the dang thing again, but this time getting six points out of it.  Shea Patterson eluding, scrambling, and making some questionable decisions (the shovel pass while going down worked, but it could just have easily been picked.  The throwaway when going down that could have been intentional grounding could have easily been much worse.  You can get away with that against Western, I don't know if you want to do that against a Wisconsin or an Ohio State. I like the moxie, I want smart moxie.)  The defense played well, not a bunch of sacks and such (just two, one in garbage time) but held Jon Wassink to a QBR of 11.3 (I know, it's an ESPN stat, but when Shea's was 90.5, you can see the difference.)  When today's biggest Michigan Stadium drama was trying to get my ESPN app to update to see if EMU could pull off the upset at Ross-Ade, well these are the kind of problems you want to have.

What this felt like, more than anything else, was something closer to "normal".  I know a couple of readers on MGoBlog made an argument against my concern last week about worrying that Michigan would never be Michigan again and while I am respectful of their points, I also would say that it is, perhaps, more about a feeling that facts or data.  Yes, the world is never going to go back to an NCAA football without scholarship limits, television appearance limitations, and all of the other things that have changed since the days of my youth, but that feeling that you could look at the schedule before the season and know the record, which died in 2007, that's what I miss.  That sense of invincibility, which was never real, which was never earned, was lost forever, perhaps for the better.  I know it can never go back to "normal", we've learned too much, too much has happened between then and now to ever return to what was, but there is something to be said for coming back to a facsimile of that feeling like it once was.  This win doesn't change that there are still major concerns about what happens when the opposition gets tougher, there is no doubt about this, but at least it wasn't like last year when the struggles against Cincinnati and Air Force were a harbinger of the difficulties to come that we almost willfully refused to acknowledge at that time.  This game doesn't solve everything, it maybe doesn't even solve anything, but at least it was fun to watch, and that is at least better than a deathly slog.  Let's keep recovering the satellites.

"Gonna get back to basics
Guess I'll start it up again
I'm falling from the ceiling
You're falling from the sky now and then"
--"Recovering the Satellites," Counting Crows, Recovering the Satellites, 1996

(Also, two notes: First this is our 800th post.  That's pretty cool because we like round numbers.  Secondly, sidenote to the Michigan Student Section, Classical Art Memes has your back over the last couple of days.)

Sunday, September 02, 2018

August and Everything After

Shea tried. He really did. (Photo: Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY Sports)
"Well I've been watching you for hours
It's been years since we were born
We were perfect when we started
I've been wondering where we've gone
All your life is such a shame, shame, shame
All your love is just a dream, dream, dream."
--"A Murder of One," Counting Crows, August and Everything After, 1993
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There's a notion I cannot escape, something like existential dread, but for your football team.  I try to push it out of my head and from time to time, I feel like I'm successful but then, unbidden, it creeps back in, sometimes without warning, but more and more lately, I see the contours of the landscape, and it arrives once more.  I hope that it is a dream, but it is not.  It exists somewhere in the ephemeral space between conscious and unconscious thought.  You reach out to chase it down, to see its face, confront it, and banish it, but it always slips out of your grasp, like a confident running quarterback eluding your best pass rush.

I worry genuinely that Michigan will never be Michigan again.  That this is the permanent new reality, relegated to being a perpetual also-ran in the Big Ten East while schools that have sold their souls to the machine move ahead with no actual real price paid.  That even the best possible coaching candidate for this school could not save us from the long decline.  Then I worry that I don't care enough about other people's suffering and that the smallness of this feeling makes me petty and cheap.  I know I am not alone in this latter worry, Geoff excellently trod upon this ground last week.  But we arrived back where we started without ever knowing the place we left, or at the very least, appreciating it.

I worry about dumb things, like the fact that Harbaugh's presence at the 2016 World Series somehow transferred the Cubs curse to Michigan football.  You laugh until I point out Michigan is 10-9 in games since November 2, 2016, since the day that the Cubs curse ended.  I worry about the idea that Michigan hasn't beaten a ranked team on the road since Bo passed away.  I worry about trying to find supernatural reasons to explain things that come down to Michigan doesn't have a great offensive line and Michigan's defensive aggression, while usually a good thing, can also be used against it by a team with time to plan for it.

August is the season of hope for football.  The reports trickle out from Fall Camp by design, giving the fan base a taste of the meal they so desperately want to feast upon, wafting the aromas of anticipation and expectation.  Everyone is putting their best face on what they are seeing and hearing, and when you are in charge of getting growth performance out of a group of people, it's not that you fool yourself into thinking that things are better than they are, you just convince yourself that it's there when maybe it is not.  No one is lying as much as they're just optimistic in the face of a lack of evidence to the contrary.  As a teacher, I know I have had this happen to me a number of times, even when I have done my best to temper my enthusiasm to avoid disappointment.

Then again, perhaps it's too early to go gloom and doom.  In 2015, a transfer quarterback lost his first game in a tight spot on the road and that season went pretty well.  Maybe it's all just a little bit of history repeating.  We look to the past because we want to understand the future.  The problem is that history doesn't repeat.  Patterns of history do, but it isn't exactly the same.  The changes

During the frustrations of the Rodriguez and Hoke years, I felt that there was a silly nobility in writing through them, that you were sticking with something because you loved it, for better or for worse.  I don't know if I feel that any longer for reasons I can't (or don't want) to suss out.  I still want this to matter as a diversion, as an escape, but I also know that collectively, people who watch football know so much more about how football works not than they did in the past that it becomes easier to diagnose what we think is wrong than in the past.  Knowing what ails us doesn't cure the problem.  Let's hope those in charge of fixing it make it happen.
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She says, "I've forgotten what I'm supposed to do today."
And it slips my mind what I’m supposed to say
We’re getting older and older and older
And always a little further out of the way

--"August and Everything After," Counting Crows, cut from the album of the same name for time, 1993.

Friday, August 31, 2018

MGoMix 2018

I can't forget anymore. From about age 10 through my late twenties I could do that, and on Saturdays in the fall nothing would invade that space. The only thing that mattered was what happened between the end zones and the sidelines and it received my whole being. In hindsight, I realize the enormous kind of privilege that requires. I can't go back there, and while I can get nostalgic for it, I don't want to.

When I see people begging to keep politics out of sports, or any other space, I see a hunger for a place where it's acceptable to live with unearned, unchallenged, and unexamined privilege. I think it's the sort of desire that politicians and other authority figures exploit when they proffer endless bad-faith arguments and CYA statements. We want a world where we don't have to examine our failures and how we're complicit in the exploitation of others. It's easier to let someone with power say that everything we like is fine and we should all keep doing exactly what we want to do. Everything that's wrong is the fault of some outside person or group who must be punished.

The Big Ten East has been working overtime the last off-season to prove that institutions don't care about individuals as long as even larger institutions don't levy consequences.

Ohio State was never going to fire Urban Meyer. I entertained that possibility for about 5 minutes, and I hoped it would be true, but his enabling of Zach Smith's abuse and other bad behavior pales next to his 73-8 record. He will serve his 3-game suspension, learn absolutely nothing, and then win a bunch of football games while Very Serious People congratulate him for "rising above adversity." The lesson is clear: Lie, dissemble, and muddy the waters enough and you can survive, because one woman's abuse doesn't matter enough to threaten a winning team. Jimbo Fisher could've told you that. And because it wasn't abuse of a player or recruit, you'll still get the talent you need.

Michigan briefly looked like they were going to join the defaulters' list with a shoe scandal: A lot of player-exclusive Jordan brand gear was showing up for sale online, which is still a violation of NCAA rules. Fortunately for the team's season, the investigation ("investigation"?) didn't turn up any gear from current players. Which just points up how much money is washing through this program and that players see little to none of it. Modern amateurism is a fiction some Europeans came up with to make it easier for "gentlemen" (read: rich white guys) to get Olympic medals. It has no value in a revenue sport other than to keep players working at below-market wages.

And I don't think that means Michigan's clean. In an institution that large, something somewhere is festering, and I can only hope that it isn't too bad, and that we get lucky and have a few key people who do the right thing at the right time. It isn't Michigan's Simon-pure virtue that has let us escape this off-season without major scandal. Even having an administration that takes these matters seriously only gets you so far. When it bumps up against public scandal and threatens revenue, or touches a personal friend, even people who care will still bend on occasion.

Maryland literally worked a player to death. DJ Durkin and his staff made this kid so afraid of disappointing them that he ran until he dropped dead. This wasn't someone with an undiagnosed heart condition: Jordan McNair pushed himself beyond the breaking point because player safety came second to finishing a workout. Durkin may yet face consequences, mostly because he's unproven enough to be expendable, and if they can fire him for cause it would nullify his buyout. Jim Harbaugh's refusal to comment on DJ Durkin's coaching tactics is incredibly disappointing. I understand that coaching omerta is going to keep him from discussing what may or may not have happened at Maryland. What I want to know is what happened at Michigan. "DJ Durkin didn't do anything that made me worried about our players' health." "DJ was passionate about players getting the most out of their talent, and on a couple occasions I asked him to take it down a notch, but I was never worried about player safety." "We rely on our trained medical staff (who are the best in the world) to help us keep our players safe. DJ never questioned their judgment when they thought a player needed rest or water or anything." Those are all acceptable answers that don't mention Maryland at all. "No comment" isn't good enough.

Michigan State's actions to sweep under the rug anything remotely resembling accountability for the decades-long enabling of Larry Nasser is an affront to anything a public university should represent. From the beginning, they've been committed to token investigations designed solely to maintain plausible deniability and to look no further at the rot pervading the university's power structures. John Engler's instincts as a politician are at the forefront here: Instead of an issue of the alumni magazine that at least attempts some soul-searching, he had it replaced with the Everything's Fine Now (Nothing To See Here) issue. The playbook is Deny, Deny, Deny. The last two decades of Republic politics, from climate change to the Russia investigation, suggest that he will get away with it, and the bill will simply be passed on to Michigan taxpayers and MSU students. If enough people want to believe an idea, evidence to the contrary will be ignored. Mark Dantonio will still be their most celebrated coach since Biggie Munn no matter how many "unity councils" let racists back on the team or how many players are reinstated as soon as they walk out of jail, because winning cures everything. Michigan State only has to say enough of the right words in public and then rely on a critical mass of alumni and fans to keep their identities as Spartans ahead of the victims. The university's coffers won't suffer substantially in the long term and only a bare minimum number of egregiously bad actors will lose their titles, but they'll probably get to keep their pensions.

The best thing and the most damning thing about football is that it can make you forget all of this and live in that moments between the ball leaving the quarterback's hand and it landing; between the crease developing and what happens to the runner. Infinite possibilities live there and invite you to surrender your entire being to them, and from there to construct a larger narrative. It's exhilarating and exhausting, and football invites you to pour your whole being into it. But as a human whose conscience requires that I live in the world, I can't do that anymore. Being a functional adult who's worth a damn comes with that obligation.

I've been trying to end this post for four days now, and I can't get there. I don't know. Anyway, here's Wonderwall.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Base Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 29, 2018

KRACHing Up

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


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

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

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


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


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


Basic Bradley-Terry

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

Margin-Aware Bradley-Terry

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

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


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


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


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

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Exit

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

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

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