Saturday, September 25, 2021

Hold On, Hold On

You know, if Sainristil makes this catch, I really feel the second half feels very different. 
(Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press
Compared to some, I've been around
But I really tried so hard 
That echo chorus lied to me with its
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on

--"Hold On, Hold On" by Neko Case from her 2008 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood 

So...

There is something to be said for the idea that winning a game where you look terrible for an entire half.  Michigan fans certainly have a number of these wins during the Harbaugh era that we can point to [gestures wildly towards 2019 Army], but it doesn't mean we have to like them.

Four home games in a row is a lot to ask of fans, especially after a year off.  First one, WOO, we're back.  Second one, WOO, night game.  Third one, OK, um, well, we're scoring a lot.  Four one, Homecoming, and...Rutgers.  So there's something to be said for looking really good in the first half.  A 17 play drive that takes up a full 1/8th of the game, and ending in a Haskins touchdown.  And sure, Rutgers went on their own six-minute, but that ended in a field goal, so we're good. Then a fast 4 play, 72-yard drive thanks to two big passing plays, a personal foul for a horse collar, and another Haskins touchdown.  So a stop on downs, an exchange of punts, and a field goal after the throw pictured above just missed, and then Michigan taking advantage of some...interesting Rutgers decision making, only to make some interesting decisions of their own in the last fifteen seconds, including a near miss to Schoonmaker, lands another Moody field goal and Michigan up 20-3.  Sure, Rutgers got the ball first to start the second half and Josh Ross had gone off with a stinger, but, Michigan was up 17.

3 plays for 0 yards.
3 plays for -1 yards.
3 plays for 7 yards (which came on a third down QB scramble).
3 plays for 5 yards.

While this was happening, Rutgers scored 10 points and missed a field goal.  Also, Michigan Stadium was doing the wave, because we have had a complete breakdown in Wave Discipline due to the pandemic.  Look to your elders, people.

Rutgers gets the ball after a punt on their own 34 with 7:57 left in the second half. After six yards from Isaih Pacheco and 13 on the ground from Noah Vedral (side note: I love that players can wear #0, but man it looks wrong on a quarterback), Rutgers is first and ten on the Michigan 47.  Michigan's defense is gassed because the offense can't seem to stay on the field for more than 90 seconds at a time.  Now it's third and one, and Michigan's defense finally shows up and gets a stop for a loss.  Now fourth and a long two, the defense comes up big again and gets the ball back on downs, again.

So when Blake Corum went outside for nine yards, it felt like Michigan finally remembered there were multiple ways to move the ball, then followed by six up the gut, and another two.  Then a gift of a face mask penalty and Michigan is first and ten on the Rutgers 30 with 3:14 left.  At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking "OK, a few more yards, center it for Moody, and we'll get out of this damn thing alive."  Well, you could be forgiven that unless you were the Michigan offensive staff, because that's what they apparently did, only to see Moody miss a 47 yarder.  104 seconds left, can Rutgers do it?

No, they could not.  The last king of Scotland himself, David Ojabo, forced the fumble, Junior Colson scooped it up, and Michigan survived.

"Hang on tight and survive.  Everybody does."


There's no great lesson for the fan here beyond scoring a lot of points is way more fun than not, that the running game is not as vaunted as it may have seemed in the first three games, but ugly wins are still wins and Michigan gets out of September unscathed.  But the things to work on this week are plentiful, and Camp Randall, a place Michigan has not won at in 20 years, looms.  But for now, be glad that 20 points was enough.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Last Lion of Albion


This might have been the most challenging touchdown Michigan scored all game.
This might have been the most challenging touchdown Michigan scored all game.
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Last lion of Albion
They'll use you for centuries to come
Your wound is the main road into London
You'll feel extinction
When you see your face on their money
--"Last Lion of Albion" by Neko Case from the album Hell On (2018)

Walking from the parking garage to the Big House, I turned to Dave, my college roommate and frequent seatmate for the last 25 years, and said "I miss the old days when there would not be a sense of doubt about the result of this game.  It would be a standard game against a MAC team."

About that...

I was not expecting this.  I didn't even know I could hope for this.  The most relaxing day I've had at the Big House in the 21st Century.  The moment NIU chose to kick a field goal on 4th and 2 from the 3, having driven the ball pretty well on their second drive, I knew this was just a matter of Michigan picking the point total and the matter of how they arrived at that point.  I do not know I have ever seen a day where every single aspect of the game for Michigan looked like it was clicking.  Over 600 yards of offense, a 60-40 rushing yardage/passing yardage split, 7.8 yards per rush, 13.7 yards per pass, this is just an absolute destruction of a MAC team that already has a win over a P5 team on the road this year.

I spent a lot of time over the summer fretting about Michigan's best days as a football program being behind them.  It would not be that hard to argue, in part due to the lofty heights of the earliest years of Michigan football as "the West's" leading program.  It would be impossible to ever reach that again, but even the Michigan of the 1940s, the Michigan of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s seem like reasonable goals to aspire to in the modern era.  It is easy to point at the struggles of 1990s powers like Nebraska, Tennessee, and Florida State and feel like Michigan might be consigned to that glorious past.  There are no guarantees that this season won't end in heartache and disappointment.  Truth be told, most seasons do for most teams.  But for one warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, that felt like it was the furthest thing from the realm of possibility.  Michigan handled its business in the non-conference schedule, won more games than it did last year before September was over and allowed even the most cynical among the fanbase the chance to at least consider being willing to dream for a bit.

Three running backs who look like they can maul, burst, break tackles, get yards after contact, and slip through the holes being opened for them.  Solid passing with a group of receivers who look like they can adjust and go.  Playcalling that looks like it is taking what it is given and going from there.  A defense that does not look confused and remembers how to finish tackles after the first or second drive.   
Homecoming against Rutgers next week looks like it could be a fun one, with "football weather" on the docket.  

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Set Out Running


I mean, 173 yards on 21 carries and three TDs is a pretty great day at the office.
(Kirthmon Dozier-Detroit Free Press)

And if I knew heartbreak was coming
I would've set out running
'Cause I just can't shake this feeling
That I'm nothing in your eyes 
--"Set Out Running", Neko Case, Furnace Room Lullaby (2000) 

I sat there on that bright, crisp day in late November 2010 watching Montee Ball and James White combine for 354 yards rushing and six touchdowns as Bret Bielema decided that he would run the ball down the throat of the Michigan defense until it showed it could stop it.  It could not.  It had no answer, and Michigan lost by 20.  I remember the lament of the Michigan fans that it was so maddening that the Greg Robinson coordinated defense could not do one of the fundamental tasks of defense, but also, with the gallows humor of that era, respecting Bielema's basic decision that "this plan is working, why mess with it?"

Last night, Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum ran for 326 yards, and four touchdowns as Michigan handled its business against Washington before an eager and enthusiastic maize crowd and a national television audience in prime time.    Even taking away Corum's one massive 67 yard TD run, both backs averaged over 5 yards per carry.  I am not an advanced stats expert, but that feels like it's pretty good.

There is a segment of fans who are deeply, garment rendingly concerned that Michigan did not show much of anything in the passing game.  Against what might be the best secondary they face all season.  While trying to figure out the new wide receiver depth chart after losing Ronnie Bell for the season last week.  While averaging 5 yards per carry on the ground.  I can understand the gnashing of teeth that "they won't be able to get away with this in the Big Ten."  OK, maybe?  But also, maybe?  I understand the feelings of hurt and concern that there's been too much in the way of false hope and glimmering early promises that fade as reality sets in as September becomes October.  But, my goodness, this worked.  You're allowed to enjoy this!  There are no fandom bonus points for being worried about things the coaching staff is doing.

But, to stay focused on the positives, a win where both sides of the ball looked good, but with some clear room for improvement in practice, a Michigan Stadium atmosphere where it finally looked like The Big House was a challenging environment to play in for an opposing team, an MMB show that was fascinating to watch, and the rare feeling that while traditional blue bloods around the country lost (Ohio State, USC, Florida State, Tennessee) while Michigan did not.  Michigan may not be where the exceedingly lofty expectations would like us to be, but we're also not as far off the cliff as some other late 90s powers have fallen.  So there's that.

There was one thing during last night's game that made me very happy.  After the Corum touchdown, which seemed to be the football gods rewarding Harbaugh for being willing to go for it with a "fake punt" in Michigan territory, the entire team was feeling it deeply on the Michigan sideline.  There was a level of Dani Rojas-style "football is life!!!" joy being expressed, the jumping, the dancing, the hyping of the crowd.  There have been many grumblings about the team's bad chemistry in the past, and winning does cure a lot of ills, but that moment, among a tapestry of other positive moments last night, felt like a that was enjoying being a football team.  If this football team enjoys football and enjoys their teammates, that's a victory in and of itself.

One set of Huskies in the books, a new one comes to Ann Arbor next week.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

That Teenage Feeling

Get well, Ronnie Bell.  (Mike Mulholland | mmulholl@mlive.com)
Get well, Ronnie Bell.  (Mike Mulholland | mmulholl@mlive.com)

And nothing comforts me the same
As my brave friend who says,
"I don't care if forever never comes
'Cause I'm holding out for that teenage feeling
I'm holding out for that teenage feeling"

                                --"That Teenage Feeling"  Neko Case 

 I think it's the small moments that get you, the ones you thought you saw coming but they hit you in an unexpected way.  This week, plus four days, marks the 25th anniversary of my first Michigan game as a student, a weird, but fun 20-8 Michigan scorigami (still) win over Illinois in the dying August heat of Michigan Stadium.  Though I had been to the Big House before, there was a sense of culmination, that everything I had wanted up to that point in my life had been validated.  Not by getting into Michigan, not by moving into my dorm room in Bursley, but sitting in the student section for an actual game on my 18th birthday.  Those feelings seem perhaps naïve and misguided in retrospect and with the benefit of lived experience, but they were genuine then.  I chose to wear my recently acquired from eBay Jarrett Irons #37 home jersey to the game today, because it felt right, honoring a true Michigan great who just happened to graduate right before being able to be part of a team that went down in history.

There was a whole long section here, written in the vein of other very good recent season openers, that dealt with what we have lost, what we're missing, the challenges therein.  I felt that deeply and I hope that perhaps in getting my thoughts down on paper, I would be able to sort them all out.  While what I said was good and somewhat cathartic to me, it also doesn't need to be shared, because it doesn't really solve anything for me.  But I appreciate and respect the friends and writers who have been putting those feelings out there and the folks who have been reading and seeing themselves in those pieces.  But that is a piece that should have rolled out when 2021 was still an unknown.  We have limited data now; we can't stare into the shapeless abyss any longer.

This game, this opener, doesn't really solve anything.  And you know what, that's OK.  Because it doesn't need to solve anything.  It is preferable when Michigan looks like it knows what it's doing against a G5 school, the hand-wringing can wait for another week, that's nice.  There were big plays on offense by players that the collective us were hoping would be there.  There was Ronnie Bell with a big score followed by a visit with the men's basketball team in the end zone, a play that came after a ridiculous catch that was wiped out by an OPI call so questionable Bell should be allowed to file a defamation lawsuit against it.  (Our best to Ronnie Bell and hoping for good injury news, but not expecting it.)  There was Blake Corum, on a swing pass, on a kickoff return, on yard after yard after initial contact, being the muscleball we knew he could be.  There was Hassan Haskins just running in that punishing style of his.  There was AJ Henning, getting one touch but making the most of it.  There was Cade McNamara, playing within himself, but 9/11 for 136 and 2 TDs when they didn't really need him to do more.  There was JJ McCarthy, 4/6 but making absolutely absurd throw across the hypotenuse of the field to find Daylen Baldwin for a very nice touchdown to put Michigan up by 40.  These things felt good for players who labored in an uncertain silence last season, to hear the roar of approval from the Big House crowd.

We know all too well the dangers of reading too much into one game of a season, but let's not worry about what this portends, good or ill.  Let's not worry about where this will fit in the historical context of Michigan history, as the 1,349th game of Michigan football.  Let's not fret about next week, that's for the coaches and the players to handle, and they will.  For this moment, for this one moment, let's savor being back in the Big House, watching a team of players who love Michigan as much as we do, play with the vigor and enthusiasm that one hopes for.  The story of the season will be written in time.  It will unfold, page by page, and it will be inked indelibly in the record by January at the latest.  College football lives too often in the past and in the future to truly enjoy the present.  Let's resolve to do that, if just for this one week.  We can go back to being who we are next week, heck, probably by Monday, maybe Tuesday because of the holiday.  But for now, enjoy it, relish it, it's the kind of feeling we long for during the long months of the off-season.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Foros

Read It!

Historical analogies are always imperfect because no two situations are exactly alike.  The fine-grain details differ, even if the contours are generally the same.

With that said, I've been reading a lot this summer about the Gorbachev era and the end of the Soviet Union.

Let me tell you a story: A large empire built on its terrifying ground game finds itself stagnating after the rule of two brief and ineffectual leaders.  In a year ending in 5, a new and energized leader ascends to power and, using a series of slogans and catchphrases, captures the world's attention.  Initial results are strong even if the leader is somewhat polarizing.  After a couple of calamities, the leader is forced to reckon with diminishing returns, all while its superpower rival continues to grow in strength, even through a transition in leadership.  In the end, the leader tries to salvage his reform program, leading to ever-growing discontent within the populace.

On the plus side, the likelihood of a coup, failed or otherwise, inside the program is where this analogy ends.

Due to the nature of Michigan "men" (Michigan man embraces all gender identities) being stereotypical "war dads" who love nothing more than curling up with a good book on some long-ago conflict and sharing our knowledge with others, whether they want to hear it or not, there is a tendency to see Michigan's football program in terms of "empire" and "historical epoch."  It might just be me.  But the reality is, any large enough entity with enough history and enough success will start to follow well-worn paths forward.  Sometimes the cycles are slow and long; sometimes, they are much more compact.  But one of the key elements is that most of these things happen because people are human, and humans are fallible in very predictable ways.

From Michael Dobbs' outstanding Down with Big Brother (p. 310):
"The secrets were stuffed in large envelopes, tied with string, and sealed with wax. There were around two thousand of these envelopes, all neatly filed away in cupboards in the Kremlin apartment once occupied by Stalin, down the corridor from the general secretary's office. This was the celebrated osobaya papka (special file), containing documents so secret that they were circulated and preserved in one copy only. Anybody who checked the documents out was obliged to sign for them. Many of the envelopes in the osobaya papka could be opened only by the general secretary himself or with his personal authorization."
Any sufficiently large organization has secrets.  Dark secrets that they do not want the public to find out.  The nature of secrets, however, is that eventually, they do come to the surface.  The question then is, how do you deal with your past?  Do you confront it?  Do you ignore it?  Do you try to explain it away?

Most organizations tend to ignore for as long as possible, explain it away if plausible, and then when all other options have been exhausted, confront the past.  The threat of legal action usually brings about this cycle and can be a catalyst for accelerating said cycle. 

There is a very unpleasant reality that the story of the past of Michigan football has been built on an obscuring of many dark secrets, hidden away for a long time by those in power.  But, like so much of history, especially when the figures in question are dead, the answers and the decisions are unsatisfactory.  But the reality of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, we cannot flinch when new information comes to light, even if it means reshaping our understanding of the past and of people.

For someone who celebrates the understanding of history to help us understand the present, this may seem like an odd moment to advocate, but perhaps it is time for us to start over again.  This is not to bury the past and pretend it never happened, not in the least.  Rather, it is a chance for us to ask: What could we be if we were not burdened by tradition?  Would we still value the same things because they are who we are in our DNA, or would we choose to move in new directions?  A look at the broader landscape of the moment says that this is an improbable path for Michigan.  There's too much money and too much power wrapped up in the specific version of the past that ignores the new and difficult reality.  That is a shame, but if things broke differently, I would count myself as pleasantly surprised.  But in the end, how the Anderson scandal has played out has shown us that ignoring the reality of the past for as long as possible in favor of the legends is the plan for a majority of those in power.  The shame of this is tremendous but unsurprising.  It is the nature of empire.

There's no neat bow for me to wrap all of this up in.  This is entirely my attempt to unburden my thoughts about where Michigan is and where it is going ahead of this football season.  I frequently said that my best writing came in the seasons where I was looking for some nobility in defeat.  But now, in the part of the year where hope springs eternal, there are just too many of us looking around and wondering what to believe and whether we're just too pessimistic.  We can't know.  But we're going to find out again, together.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Ozymandias

CW: Sexual abuse

The first game I remember was against Maryland. It was probably the one in '89. My dad and I were in the 85th row in the southeast corner of Michigan Stadium. My dad pointed at one of the dots on the field. "That's Bo!"

Ten years later, I was a freshman in the Michigan Marching Band. After two long weeks of drilling the basics of marching into our heads, we practiced our parade down to the stadium as the evening cooled us off. We filed down the tunnel and into our section. The directors praised us for our hard work, and then revealed a surprise: The Man Himself was here to speak to us. He spoke for maybe 10 minutes, dodging sprinklers on what was still natural turf. Bo was electric; I forget what he said, but not how he said it.

On the eve of The Game in 2006, he died, and I tried to hold it together in my cubicle. The next day, Michigan lost an intolerable third straight game against OSU.

Take down the statue. Rename the building. He knew. Either he didn't believe what he was told, or he didn't believe that it was abuse, or he didn't care. None of those are worth celebrating.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

All Kinds of Time

Cade McNamara made the most of being inserted at QB for the second half.
Cade McNamara made the most of the opportunity. (Detroit Free Press)


Betting lines should not set narratives in sporting events, but when Michigan was rolled out as an 8-10 point favorite in the early line this weekend over Rutgers, it was simultaneously seen as an indictment of where Michigan is right now because a). I mean, they should be way more of a favorite over Rutgers in a normal circumstance and b). it still seemed pretty generous even with how Michigan had been playing this season.

So when Michigan was down 17-0 in the second quarter and the college football watching portion of the internet began bird-dogging the trainwreck, in stepped Cade McNamara to take the reins at QB from Joe Milton.  Milton's 5 of 12 for 89 yards performance was not inspiring, and several drops or near misses were a source of frustration.  But Michigan needed a spark and McNamara did exactly what was needed.  He hit Mike Sainristil for 14 yards to get Michigan into Rutgers territory, then found a wide-open Cornelius Johnson for 46 yards and Michigan's first score of the game.  Though the two-minute drill left a lot to be desired, Michigan at least had stanched the bleeding and would get the ball back to start the second half.

Giles Jackson's kickoff return for a touchdown to start the second half will be somewhat muted by the fact that Rutgers countered with their own touchdown just three plays later.  But it set the tone for the methodical 8-play drive of its own that Michigan countered with, especially the hard yards by Hassan Haskins to get Michigan first and goal on the Rutgers 10.  Michigan would score two plays later and pull within three.  The offense had settled into some kind of rhythm, and the defense holding Rutgers to a field goal felt like the tiniest of victories.  An exchange of punts later, it was McNamara moving the ball down the field again with a mix of well-executed passes (and a bonus gift of 15-yard penalty for a facemask by Rutgers) and Michigan took its first lead since the end of the Minnesota game.  Hope slowly began to seep back in, like water into someone's unfinished basement, unwelcome but undeniably present.  

When Michigan forced a six and out, aided immensely by a sack by Little Boss Josh Ross, it began to look like Michigan could run a long drive that would salt the game away.  They did just that, to an extent.  A 12 play drive with a solid mix of run and pass burned six minutes of game clock but still left five minutes in the fourth quarter, even as Michigan sat up 8.  Could the defense, as banged up as it is,  find the old magic and get out of New Jersey with an ugly, but still meaningful win in regulation?

No.  It could not. Rutgers made the most of both third and long and fourth and long situations, slipping through the Michigan defense to get a score, and then Noah Vedral dragging Michigan defenders through on a QB draw for the 2-point conversion to knot the game at 35.  It felt like once again the dam of negative feelings was about to burst.

Quinn Nordin's third missed field goal of the day in the opening half of 1OT certainly seemed to confirm the worst.  No way Michigan could hold Rutgers and even if it could, Valentino Ambrosi had been money all night.  The math even backed up the despair (well, not despair, the resignation.)

But Michigan did hold Rutgers to -2 yards on the sequence and Ambrosi missed a 45 yarder to send the game into a second OT and push the game closer to finishing on Sunday morning.  So when Rutgers used a clever pass to get into the end zone on one play, Michigan needed to counter.  And it did, thanks to McNamara continuing to find receivers, Haskins continuing to find ways to get extra yards, and Rutgers continuing to get facemask penalties.  McNamara kept the ball and flipped into the end zone and we headed for 3OT.

Thanks to a DPI prayer on 3rd and 18, Michigan was inside Rutgers 10 once more, and after a pair of Haskins run, they were inside the 1.  People much smarter than me explained why, based on Rutgers' defensive strengths, Michigan did not want to sneak the ball, but it was still maddening to a long-time football observer that Michigan was lined up in shotgun when they needed six feet to get the ball in the end zone.  After McNamara was stopped for no gain on third down, it looked it would be the reasonable question of the day.  But Haskins got in, but the two-point conversion failed when McNamara threw the ball to the wrong side of Ronnie Bell, and now Michigan needed to hold Rutgers off.  Would the defense finally get it done?

Yes.  They did.  They held Rutgers to net one yard on their four plays in 3OT, sealed by a Dax Hill interception in the end zone, to mercifully bring this game to a close, over four and a half hours after this whole affair had begun.

There is no great lesson from this game just as there is no great lesson from this season.  Michigan has a bunch of players injured in the middle of a global pandemic in a season that probably shouldn't be being played, but here we are.  We still came together to suffer collectively but we did it collectively.  It was the most Michigan football thing possible.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

New Routine


Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh reacts towards a game official after a call during the second half of U-M's 38-21 loss on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Bloomington, Indiana.  (Doug McSchooler/AP)

It doesn't hurt at all and I couldn't figure out why.  It's not because I don't care, because I do.  Perhaps not as passionately as I did in my youth, but I still care, but it is a level of caring tempered by realities both small and larger. It's not that it wasn't expected, hardly, I was going to be fully and completely shocked if Michigan managed to pull this off.  No, it was just, it was a game, one of several, being played at noon on Saturday, and Michigan, like a lot of teams in 2020, did not look very good in their playing of it.

It was the last connection to be severed.  Every connection to the Bo era had been broken but one.  That Michigan's last loss to Indiana was in 1987.  A winning streak begun in the dying embers of the Schembechler era, carried through Moeller and Carr, inexplicably moved through the direst ebbs of the Rodriguez and Hoke years, and in spite of some wild endings, carried through the Harbaugh years.  All things must pass* and yesterday in Bloomington, it finally did.  That cutting of that link did perhaps reminds us, finally, that the past is truly in the past.  We can honor the past, celebrate the past, but we cannot be beholden to the past, held prisoner by it.

Indiana earned it, there's no doubt.  Indiana looks like a team in control of what it wants to do and making it happen.  Michigan looks like a team that thinks that they can show up and play and that should be enough.  I am sure that people much better versed in interpersonal group dynamics and 
the like can explain better what is going on with Michigan, but right now, it's just not a very good football team and time is running out for it to get better.

Until next week.




*-unless you're Ohio State, which it was pointed out in an AFLAC trivia question last night that they are they only team in the AP Poll era to never have a 5 game losing streak.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Troubled Times


Well, I mean, at least Blake Corum looked good. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

And it takes a lot of nerve to ask how she is doing. 
Start with a weak foundation, you will end in ruins. 
The ways the days and hours pass you'll never understand 
Falling like rain through your hands

"Troubled Times" by Fountains of Wayne from their 1999 album Utopia Parkway

It was more troubling than a blowout might indicate because it was a thousand deaths in the margins.  Michigan decided that it would keep doing what it thought it should do on paper, despite the evidence facing them in the game.  Michigan's defense relies on superb DB play to cover in man, and it showed time and again yesterday that it was going to be difficult.  Michigan State's receivers made some absolutely difficult catches, but they made them when they counted, and that was enough.

Michigan's offense kept running up the middle with little to no discernable effect, lighting first downs on fire like they were trying to keep warm in the old abandoned stadium, then looking confused when they were off schedule on third and longs.  Joe Milton did his damndest to keep things going and did a lot more than he didn't, shades of poor damn Devin Gardner. Still, in the end, Michigan State looked like they wanted to win more, were playing looser and freer, and Michigan couldn't get things together for long enough to get out of their own way and try to win the football game.  When you run a wildcat pass inside the five instead of using your 6' 5" highly mobile quarterback, a play that costs you four points in a three-point loss, maybe you're just too committed to clever?

We're looping back to the feeling of being lost, like in 2014, but without any real sense of where to go next.  That sense of dread that Michigan is slated to forever be something like boring Auburn or store-brand Wisconsin.  Good, very good, but not top tier, and maybe not even second tier.  And there's nothing that can be done about it.  Michigan got the best coach it could get, one that everyone agreed would be a great fit and a great coach, and it's basically still what it was for a long time.  This is, admittedly, a significant improvement over the seven years of RR and Hoke, but it's just not going to happen.  In other years, it was more explicable, a loss to Notre Dame to start the season or twin losses to Wisconsin and Penn State on the road.  But this one, this loss, makes no sense on paper.  When things make no sense on paper, people look to intangibles, and there's a lot of not liking what they see.

For so long, Michigan has taken solace in the past, that once was could be again.  "The world has changed, and none of us can go back. All we can do is our best, and sometimes the best that we can do is to start over."  What was isn't any longer.  We can celebrate the past, and we should, but we must remember that it is not a guarantee of the future because no one's future is guaranteed.  You have to work hard to earn what you want, and too often, there is a sense that Michigan presumes a birthright path to the top of the heap.  We want to tell ourselves that we're different, but it's a delusion built on years of arrogance.  We refuse to get out of our own way because we so desperately want that world back, a world from many of our GenX childhoods where Michigan was ultra-reliable as long as it wasn't bowl season.  But even the historical record since World War II doesn't bear out this sense of entitlement.  There is a strange simultaneous tendency to get mad at anyone who dares point these things out and gets mad at anyone who dares not give Michigan its perceived due.  Michigan doesn't hold up its end of the bargain in "the best rivalry in sports" and has trouble holding up its end in the in-state rivalry.  We're wandering aimlessly, hoping for a sign that will lead us forward, a sign that will never come, but instead chasing after false prophets, destined to let us down, time and time again.  Yet, there is no sense that the signal is coming, or will ever come to us.  

I often point to the fact that one of the hallmarks of Michigan fandom is the Michigan fan community, the ties that bind us, in person or virtually, across the years, the good times, and the tough ones.  This just feels different because it's just this strange sense of "I'm not angry, I'm not disappointed, I'm just sad."  When so many people tie up their belief in the possibility of something, only to see those ideas slip away from them, sadness becomes the primary feeling, because we've already been through the other notions of what we can do about it.

This column is probably too pessimistic, too forlorn, probably tapping into other strains of sadness that are running parallel but very close to this stream.  In this strange year, it is difficult to see individual notions of what is making one sad, all of the colors are bleeding into one.  It was perhaps too much to expect and even too much to ask to have Michigan football be something more than it's been in decades to lift our spirits; fervent hope still runs headlong into the limitations of reality.

But it would have been nice to keep Paul home and save the football existential crisis for another week.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Radiation Vibe


The Big Ten returned with, among other things, a fullback diving for the pylon for a touchdown.  Welcome back.
(David Berding/Getty Images)



"Are you alone now
Did you lose the monkey
He gave you backaches
And now you slouch"
"Radiation Vibe" by Fountains of Wayne  from the 1996 album Fountains of Wayne

Like so many of you, I want to start by acknowledging that playing football in a global pandemic is probably not a good idea.  I respect those of you I know who have opted out of your fandom this season on principle.  Were that I had the willpower to do it.  But Michigan football is back and I want to talk about it because, once more, it has brought me joy.

It has been a long road to get here and for many a challenging road with unexpected twists and turns.  The feeling that time has lost all meaning struck me as I was trying to determine which musical artist to use as the theme for this year's game columns and I was reminded that it's only been just a shade over six months since we lost Adam Schlesinger, the multi-talented songwriter known best for his work with Fountains of Wayne, but also a multitude of other projects, including writing "That Thing You Do" for the movie of the same name and being a leading member of the tremendously underrated Ivy.  We've had so much loss, so much anguish, and so much unknown in the weeks and months since all of this began.

Over the last week, I opened up the window to Blogger and began to try to write a column about how everything about this season felt unknown and unknowable.  There was a tempering of the excitement, not just coming from the circumstances of the delay to the start of the season, but the sheer number of things that Michigan was having to replace.  I felt validated in this thinking when Raj said as much, and so much better, in Punt/Counterpunt on Saturday morning.

Could you blame the well-worn Michigan fan for going into a shell when, following a nice run by freshman Blake Corum, Michigan saw Ben Mason earn a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct flag for excessive blocking, then an incomplete, then an eight-yard loss, and then a blocked punt and a quick Gopher touchdown later, everything felt bad and wrong.

So thank you to Zach Charbonnet, who hit a gaping hole in the line and just went for 70 yards and a score in all of 11 seconds to tie the game at 7.  Michigan would never trail again, thanks in part to Michael Barrett's monster hit on Tanner Morgan leading to Donovan Jeter's fumble return touchdown and Ben Mason's pylon dive (as seen above.)  Michigan got the job done. 

(Side note: Welcome back Chris Evans.  The sheer variety of options in the Michigan running backs room brings a smile to my face.)

There was a lot to like last night.  Yes, there are things to fix, concerns over the Dax Hill and Quinn Nordin injuries, there are concerns that Joe Milton will need to do better in the passing game against perhaps more stout Big Ten East opponents.  But on a cold night in Minneapolis, the Jug was retained until at least 2023, the Michigan football family felt like they could celebrate, albeit in a socially distanced way, and Michigan heads into Halloween with a Paul Bunyan Trophy showdown brimming with confidence.  This does not erase the realities of anything beyond football or larger than football.  But, if only for one night, a Michigan football season exists, and a victory was attained.  Shine on.

And now it's time to say
What I forgot to say
Baby, baby, baby
Come on, what's wrong
It's a radiation vibe I'm groovin' on
Don't it make you want to get some sun
Shine on, shine on, shine on.    

Thursday, January 02, 2020

ESPN CFB Images of the Decade 2010-2019: Annotations

Continuing a "long-standing tradition" from 2010, here is my annotated list of the ESPN College Football Images of the Decade video for 2010-2019.  I welcome corrections and specifics in the comments!



  • Instagram Introduction with a Clemson football being kicked off.
  • PSU pregame
  • FSU pregame
  • LSU coach  Les Miles is excited
  • Oregon mascot Puddles is excited
  • USC pregame
  • Michigan players touch the banner
  • Colorado's non-animal mascot Chip fires up the crowd
  • Georgia players break through the banner
  • 2010: Auburn's Michael Dyer was down?  We'll never know.
  • 2010: Auburn's Wes Byrum kicks a field goal and Auburn wins the 2010 BCS National Title
  • 2015: Clemson beats Notre Dame in the rain and Dabo's happy about that.
  • 2016: Louisville's Lamar Jackson hurdles a Syracuse player
  • 2017: Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield plants the flag at the Shoe
  • 2010: MSU beats Notre Dame on Little Giants
  • 2016: CMU beats Oklahoma State at the last second
  • 2017: Penn State's Saquon Barkley
  • 2011: Baylor's RG III
  • 2016: Clemson's Deshawn Watson 
  • 2011: LSU kicker Drew Alleman beats Alabama
  • 2011: Stanford's Andrew Luck
  • 2010: Boise State's Kellen Moore
  • 2012: Alabama's Eddie Lacy runs over Notre Dame in the BCS title game
  • 2015: Ohio State's Braxton Miller spin move TD beats Virginia Tech
  • 2017: Notre Dame's Miles Boykin beats LSU in the 2018 Citrus Bowl
  • 2016: Iowa upsets #2 Michigan at Kinnick After Dark.  Harbaugh looks disappointed.
  • 2013: Auburn's Nick Marshall throws a 73-yard touchdown pass to Ricardo Louis to beat Georgia at the last second on "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare."
  • 2011: Under the Lights - Denard Robinson to Roy Roundtree to beat Notre Dame
  • 2014: Mississippi State's Dak Prescott stiff arms an LSU defender en route to a 54 yard TD.
  • LSU player
  • Wisconsin Player
  • Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley
  • 2012: Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel does Johnny Football things vs. Duke in the Peach Bowl
  • 2014: Arizona's Austin Hill catches a Hail Mary TD to beat Cal
  • 2017: Florida's Feleipe Franks hits Tyrie Cleveland on a Hail Mary to beat Tennessee
  • 2014: Arizona State's Jaelen Strong catches a Hail Mary TD to beat USC.
  • 2012: Notre Dame makes an OT goalline stand to beat Stanford
  • LSU's Leonard Fournette (maybe?)
  • One-handed catch at Temple
  • Stanford's Christian McCaffrey scores a TD
  • 2014: Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp makes "the butt catch" against FAU.
  • 2018: Oklahoma's Kyler Murray scores against WVU
  • 2019: Ohio State's Justin Fields points in the air.
  • 2015: Michigan State roughs the snapper.  Michigan's Blake O'Neil has trouble with the snap.  Bad things ensue. A meme is born.
  • 2018: Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa runs in for a TD at LSU
  • 2019: LSU's Joe Burrow celebrates
  • 2017: Ohio State's JT Barrett celebrates against Penn State.
  • 2012: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney dehelmets Michigan's Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl.
  • 2017: Miami celebrates with The Turnover Chain.
  • 2013: Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin catches the game-winning TD from Jameis Winston in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game.
  • 2014: The College Football Playoff is born
  • 2014: Ohio State's Ezekiel Eliott scores in the 2015 CFP Championship Game over Oregon, Cardale Jones celebrates the first CFB National Championship, Urban Meyer gets a Gatorade bath.
  • Instagram interstitial with Boston College's Mark Herzlich
  • 2010: Notre Dame pays tribute to the late Declan Sullivan
  • 2018: Purdue celebrates the life of superfan Tyler Trent and upsets Ohio State at Ross-Ade
  • 2011: Rutgers player Eric LeGrand returns to the field with his teammates after being paralyzed in a game in 2010.
  • 2016: Nebraska honors the late Sam Foltz who had died in a car accident the previous summer.
  • 2018: Washington State honors the late Tyler Hilinski.
  • 2017: USC long snapper Jake Olson becomes the first blind player in NCAA history.
  • 2016: Pitt running back James Conner comes back to the field after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
  • 2018: Maryland honors their late teammate, #79, Jordan McNair.
  • 2017: Iowa introduces the "Iowa Wave" college football, where after the first quarter, fans wave to patients at The University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital.
  • 2010: Auburn's Cam Newton scores in the opener against South Carolina and celebrates.
  • 2015: Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer finds Will Fuller with 12 seconds left to beat Virginia and sad UVa fan.
  • 2016: Army beats Navy for the first time in 14 years
  • 2015: Alabama's Kenyan Drake returns a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown vs Clemson in the 2016 CFP National Championship Game.
  • 2011: Oregon's Chip Kelly asks some people behind his post-game interview with Erin Andrews to shut up.  Erin Andrews thanks him for doing so.
  • 2015: Alabama's Nick Saban doesn't even know what your question was, he just wanted to say that.
  • 2017: Washington State's Mike Leach calls the postgame celebration after upsetting USC on the Palouse like Woodstock, except everybody's got their clothes on.
  • 2018: Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy does not hold a high opinion of Twitter.
  • 2017: UCF's Scott Frost wants his Knights to know that the College Football Playoff committee was conspiring against them.
  • 2014: At an Oregon presser with Mark Helfrich, 12-year-old reporter Charlie Pape says that the only things that matter at his school are Jesus, Girls, and Marcus Mariota.  Bonus inclusion of 2018: LSU fan Kaileigh Thomas gives the death stare to the camera.
  • 2015: Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds goes into the record books.
  • 2016: San Diego State's Donnel Pumphrey becomes the FBS "all-time leading rusher"
  • 2015: Western Michigan's PJ Fleck crowd surfs the locker room after a win.
  • 2018: Kentucky coach Mark Stoops crowd surfs the locker room after a comeback win over Missouri.
  • Iowa State celebrates with water 
  • Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy "gets low" after a win
  • Clemson's Dabo Sweeney dances in the locker room.
  • 2017: Georgia's Sony Michel runs for the game-winning TD over Oklahoma in the 2018 Rose Bowl.  This makes Kirby Smart happy.
  • Washington's Dante Pettis celebrates a touchdown over Oregon.
  • 2018: Alabama's Jalen Hurts does the Superman celebration after leading the Tide to a win over Georgia in the SEC Championship Game
  • 2019: Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts celebrates a Sooner victory.
  • 2016: Ohio State's Curtis Samuel scores a game-winning touchdown against Michigan after a VERY QUESTIONABLE SPOT.  NO, SERIOUSLY.
  • 2017: USC quarterback Sam Darnold celebrates.
  • Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon celebrates.
  • 2019: Clemson's Trevor Lawrence celebrates in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl
  • 2015: Alabama's Derrick Henry celebrates during the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
  • 2018: Texas freshman kicker Cameron Dicker beats Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout with a late field goal.
  • 2015: Michigan State's kicker Matt Geiger celebrates after his field goal as time expires helps Michigan State upset OSU in the Horseshoe.
  • Oregon's LaMichael James scores.
  • A Penn State player celebrates after a score.
  • 2013: Auburn's Chris Davis returns a missed field goal attempt all the way and Auburn's gonna win the football game on the Kick Six.
  • 2016: Clemson's DeShaun Watson finds Hunter Renfrow for the game-winning touchdown in the 2017 College Football Playoff Championship Game.  Dabo celebrates.
  • 2017: Alabama freshman Tua Tagovailoa hits DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard TD in OT of the 2018 College Football Playoff Championship Game as Bama walks off for a national title.  Coach Saban celebrates.
That's what we gathered from this.
Music used: Thirty Seconds to Mars "Walk on Water" and Imagine Dragons' "Walking the Wire"

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Semi-Charmed Life

Hey, pictures are worth a thousand words. (John Raoux/AP)

What exactly could I say here that we haven't said at the end of each of the previous three seasons?  Michigan looked pretty good in the first half, had a lead on Alabama going into the locker room, and then did exactly nothing on offense in the second half.  The Shea Patterson experience ended with him missing most of his deep balls, in an increasingly frustrating manner, only to see that in the moments after Michigan's defense got a three and out to give Michigan a shot to get back into the game, he threw a pick that sealed Michigan's fate. 

Part of you may want to be happy that Alabama, even a wounded Alabama, didn't run Michigan off the field.  I respect that because I understand the desire to be happy about the situation.  I also understand that this is who Michigan is now, but simultaneously, this is who Michigan has been (with one not inconsequential blip) pretty much forever, certainly for the last 30 years.  Michigan is back to being what it has been forever.  The problem is that the world has changed and what that was would no longer get the accolades that Michigan got used to when it was this way in the past.  Nothing in the last five years have really shown us anything different, it just took many of us longer to get used to the idea than we perhaps realized it would.

So I don't even know what I want for Michigan to be.  Perhaps the most frustrating notion is that Michigan hasn't won a game in the Harbaugh era in which it was an underdog.  0-10.  47-8 as a favorite, 0-10 as an underdog.  So basically, when Michigan is supposed to win, by and large, it does, but if Michigan isn't favored, it has no shot.  There is no unexpected surprise.  That's the real frustration.  Michigan is chaos free Auburn.  The difference is that Auburn will lose games it's supposed to win, but then it will beat Bama when it's not supposed to and people are happy for a touch.  Michigan doesn't do that, and we all end up sad.  (Truthfully, Michigan should have been in the Outback against Auburn, which would have been a much better game, as would have Minnesota/Alabama, but that's now how bowl ties work anymore.)

There are bright spots you can point to for next season and that's what we'll do because not having hope in sports makes it pointless to even be a fan.  We'll talk about the loaded running backs room, we'll talk McCaffrey/Milton, we'll see which receivers come back for another year, and we'll tell ourselves with a few breaks, we can make it to Indy.  We won't, of course, but we'll tell ourselves that because feeling hopeless for eight months is probably more than fans can bear to ponder.

So thanks for another great season, Thank you for continuing to read, even when we haven't had a lot to say.  We'll see you around.  Go Blue.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Losing a Whole Year

I mean, it's kind of a metaphor (David Guralnick/Detroit News)
I probably should wait to write this, because right now, I genuinely feel like Michigan may never beat Ohio State again.  I don't see how it can happen.  I don't see a path forward.  I just see year after year of having to eat this.  They never go fallow.  They never get punished meaningfully.  They never suffer transition costs.  They just keep doing and doing and doing.  Michigan can come out and play reasonably good football and it will just keep getting smoked by Ohio State.  I don't see how it will ever be different.  I want to feel differently, I want to feel something that isn't meaningless existential dread at the end of every November.  I want this to be different and I genuinely do not feel like it ever will be because no one can explain to me how it can be.

I went into today believing that Michigan was likely going to lose this football game.  I had no real reason to believe that Michigan would win.  I sat surrounded by bro OSU fans who ran their mouths the whole game.  I just sat there, largely silent, wanting more than anything for this to be different and knowing that it wouldn't be.  This is a stupid feeling and I should have been more prepared for it, but here we are, hours later, and I am still just soul numbed.  I don't want to feel like this.  I don't want to be like this, so upset about the result of a college football game.  But because I wanted the joy of something going against the script, against the expected, the price paid is this feeling.

The only way Michigan had a chance to win this game was to play perfectly.  So when the first extra point play resulted in a bad hold and a miss, it pretty much was over, even if it was just the first possession.  The miscues were plentiful, the decisions occasionally maddening, but the same result happened one more time.

No one knows how to fix this, short of Ohio State being found guilty of massive NCAA violations, and even then, I'm sure they'd figure out a way to roll with it and go back to winning double-digit games every year.  Michigan may never beat Ohio State again and I don't know if knowing that is likely true is comforting or not.  (If you would like to share your rational and feasible plan for this to not be the case, please, by all means.  It still won't likely be enough.)

Friday, November 29, 2019

Nothing's been the same since New York

(This morning, we're teaming up with the Action Cookbook newsletter for a little Black Friday preview of The Game.  If you are a regular here, this will not be anything new, but if you came to us via the Cookbook, we welcome you.  If you'd like to subscribe to the Action Cookbook newsletter, please click here.) 

Iron Man 2 is still the better movie.  This is my most controversial MCU opinion. (Disney/Marvel Studios)

"Nothing's been the same since New York."

Perhaps because the holiday season is upon us, this simple expositional quote from Tony Stark in Iron Man 3 has been resonating in my head. Because the Michigan football version of this has been "Nothing's been the same since Bo died."

Let me unequivocally state before we go any further that this is not an effort to elicit pathos from the reader. Michigan fans know damn well no one will shed one tear for a program that has built its reputation and veritable mythos around being the leaders and best, the winningest, the very top of the heap. The Michigan man thing is mocked, and perhaps we could stand to be knocked down a peg, maybe that's true. Many Michigan fans are more than willing to laugh at themselves and the notions of what Michigan thinks it is, especially relative to what it is and has become.

But as Michigan fans also tend to be sentimental and romantic about the past, that day, November 17, 2006, is an easy thing to point to as defining. The moment when everything changed.

Ohio State does not get enough credit for it nationally. Still, the reality of the Buckeyes is simple: They never go fallow. Their "down years" are when they only win ten games.  Only one team since 2004 has failed to win double-digit games, the 2011 team interim coached by Luke Fickell, the season that led immediately to the hiring of Urban Meyer. Ohio State never misses a beat. There were those dreamers, and even realists, in the Michigan fan community that thought 2019 would be the year. New coach, even with the talent, you never know what could happen. Nope, Ohio State looks every bit the Big Ten juggernaut it has since the turn of the millennium, maybe even more so given their defensive improvement.

There are plenty of practical reasons why you can point to Ohio State's dominance in the rivalry this century, with nary an aspersion cast at OSU. You can look to their generally excellent recruiting year in and year out. You can cite tremendous player development during this time. You can credit a single-minded Cato the Elder-like devotion to destroying Michigan and salting the earth. You can look at the shifts in population trends in Michigan, Ohio, and the greater Midwest and how that impacts recruiting in this day and age. You can look at other factors that sound a bit whiny and cheap. In the end, it still comes down to a straightforward thing, Ohio State wins, Michigan loses.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Jumper

If one has earned the right to stunt on 'em, stunt on 'em. (Tyler Carlton)
In 1969, Michigan was 7-2 after a 51-6 demolition of Iowa at Kinnick.  They had lost two games early in October, a non-conference game against Missouri and falling victim to the Curse of Paul Bunyan in Bo's debut in their match-up with Michigan State.  This meant that Bo, in his first year in Ann Arbor, would need to beat Ohio State to match Bump's 1968 win total.  Even though it was pretty much a given that Michigan would be heading to Pasadena regardless of what happened in the not-as-yet dubbed Big House on that November 22nd, the 12th ranked Wolverines were facing a daunting task.  Ohio State hadn't lost in 22 games.  They were being called one of the all-time great teams, even better than their national championship winning predecessors.  There was no way Michigan was winning this game, 17 point underdogs that they were.

Trap game, they yelled.  Indiana's really good!  #9Windiana was lurking.  Harbaugh teams always have trouble at the Quarry.  And early on, it was holding to form.  Indiana looked really good picking on Dax Hill on their first scripted drive, and though Michigan responded immediately (yeah Ronnie Bell!), the short punt after the interception and Indiana's subsequent touchdown generated that oddly queasy, yet wholly expected feeling.  That Giles Jackson didn't hear a whistle did not matter as he was down 62 yards earlier, he played the game until he was told not to do so.  That Shea mixed it up and hit a bunch of receivers made it feel good, but the circus catch by DPJ was a thing of beauty to tie the game back up.


From that point forward, it was the Nico Show, with three touchdowns, each beautiful in their own way, be it the catch and GO for 76 yards for his second or the repeat of last week immediately after a turnover for the third and the nail in the Hoosiers coffin.

Plenty was said today, on GameDay, during the game, about just how different this Michigan team has looked since halftime of the Penn State game.  The numbers bear it out.  It feels different.  The BPONE doesn't settle in.  It looms, but it gets up and leaves a lot earlier than you expect it to do so.  But it also gives Michigan fans hope.  Because that moment 50 years ago this past Friday is our origin myth, or at least, the reboot version of it.  It's setting up to be close enough to what it was if you squint a little.  Is it all just a little bit of history repeating?  Maybe, probably not.  But it's not fun to not hope.  It was utterly improbable that Michigan could upset Ohio State 50 years ago until it happened.  I know that was then, but it could be again.

Beat OSU.