Sunday, September 24, 2023

19th Nervous Breakdown

Way to go, I-da-ho! (Jacob Hamilton/MLive)

"Well, it seems to me that you have seen too much in too few years
And though you've tried you just can't hide your eyes are edged with tears
You better stop, look aroundHere it comes, here it comes, here it comes, here it comesHere comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown"
--"19th Nervous Breakdown" by The Rolling Stones from the 1966 single of the same name.
Having listened to Ryan Nanni's very fun new podcast series "We're Not All Like This," where he talks to members of various college football fanbases to try to understand the similarities and differences among the various fandoms of the college football landscape, I am hesitant to assign any particular neuroses to be unique to Michigan, though we do have some very specific quirks.  That said, Michigan fans' willingness to believe that everything is about to go on an express elevator straight into the depths of hell is definitely one that Michigan fans seem to have written into their default programming.
So it was no surprise that when Rutgers scored on a long passing play on a busted coverage on the third play of the game, there were some folks who felt the bottom rumbling under their feet.  This was exacerbated by a quick Michigan three and out, and then a Rutgers three and out that saw Michigan pinned back inside their own ten after a booming punt and roll by Rutgers Aussie punter.
That is when Sherrone Moore's playcalling got Michigan back in business, whether it was the unleashed wheel route for Donovan for 33 or the flea flicker+ that found Colston Loveland for 35 and brought the ball inside the five.  Quick work by Blake Corum on the goal line (so unlike last year's first-half adventures in Piscataway), and Michigan had the ball game tied up.  
While this should have stabilized the situation, the traded missed field goals felt like so many dumb things were still afoot in this game.  But the defense got another three and out, which was followed by a long and fruitful drive ending with Semaj Morgan's first career TD, and Michigan headed for the locker room up 14-7.  Not great, but certainly better than being down or being tied at the half.
After the annual Blast from the Past wrapped up, the field goal drive to open the second half seemed to take a bit of wind out of the sails of Michigan Stadium, especially as Rutgers put together a sustained drive, built off some interesting officiating decisions on a day full of them, and it felt like Rutgers would be rewarded for their aggressiveness on going for it on fourth and two.  
So when Mike Sainristil sniffed out a screen pass, picked it off, cast off an airborne Junior Coulson, and then got Kenneth Grant and a couple of other friends to come with him to the end zone, the ensuing 24-7 lead completely altered the feeling in the stadium.  Relief settled in as the crowd started doing the math on how little Rutgers had done on offense since the opening drive and felt confident that this one was in hand  One more touchdown by Michigan and a clock vampire drive to end the game that burned seven minutes in ten plays and Win 993 was in the books.
I have no idea if Rutgers is good.  I don't know if Rutgers knows if they're good.  They're definitely not bad.  I don't know if Michigan is great, but they're definitely very good.  But it's also September, and rendering judgments on an incomplete body of work is a thing we have done for years, with limited success, and while we should know better, I don't think we want to because we need to be able to quantify how we feel and why.  We've seen too much in our years, after all.
Tales from the Spreadsheet
  • Win 0993
  • 31-7 is NOT a Scorigami (seventh ever, most recently September 5, 2009, against Western Michigan.)
  • 109,879 is the 100th-largest crowd Michigan has played in front of, just ahead of, 2001 Western Michigan.

  • Michigan moves to 9-1 all-time against Rutgers in the battle of the two oldest programs in FBS.
  • Michigan has won 9 straight over Rutgers and 4-0 vs. the Scarlet Knights on Homecoming
  • Michigan moves to 9-0 all-time on September 23.

  • Michigan moves to 43-4 when scoring exactly 31 points
  • Michigan moves to 109-13-4 all-time when allowing precisely 7 points.
  • Michigan has won 24 games all-time by precisely 24 points.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Can't You Hear Me Knocking?

Kris Jenkins, skill position player. (David Wilcomes)

Hear me prowlin'I'm gonna take you downHear me growlin'Yeah, I've got flat-ten feet now, now, now, nowHear me howlin'And all, all around your street nowHear me knockin'And all, all around your town

"Can't You Hear Me Knocking?" by The Rolling Stones from their 1971 album Sticky Fingers

One of the stranger parts about night games is that the narratives of the weekend of college football may already be established by the time the game kicks off.  Perhaps a blood week is brewing, perhaps it's just a day of the big boys taking care of business, or perhaps it's just a weird day, by the time 7:30 rolls around, you sort of know what's up.  Yesterday, the narrative was mixed; some of the teams in the Top Ten were struggling in games that looked as if they would roll, and some were rolling as expected.  So, which side of the fence would Michigan land on by the time the night was over.

You wanted to believe that the weirdness of the first big hit pass down the sidelines, which was called incomplete, only to see that overturned without any real evidence that it was complete, but Michigan got a "next three and out" to put together a four-play, 77-yard drive, highlighted by a big Blake Corum run that the whole stadium had been waiting for since the season kicked off to go up 7-0 and early.  The vibe was good, Michigan was going to follow the path of Washington and Ohio State this evening.

It seemed to be rolling that way, especially after a subsequent three-and-out and solid punt return to get Michigan starting on the BGSU 43.  A bunch of quick hitters, and Michigan has second and goal on the five.

Then all hell broke loose.

JJ threw an interception that looked like someone missed an assignment, and McCarthy locked on his first read, which earned the Falcons a touchback.  Bowling Green then proceeded to put together one of those maddening drives where Michigan would do its job on first and second down, only to lose contain for a big gain on third down (including another baffling sideline adjacent catch). Holding fast when it mattered, the defense would force a field goal, and BG would be down just 7-3.

On the subsequent kickoff, Max Bredenson seemed somewhat surprised by the short kickoff but fielded it well, and then made a decision to try and get some yards, which ended up with him fumbling the ball and Bowling Green had even better field position than a surprise onside kick would have garnered them.  Michigan's defense did its job and once more prevented a first down and saw the Falcons attempt another short field goal.  Michigan remained in the lead, but the vibes in the stadium were dreadful.

When Braiden McGregor fielded the subsequent short kickoff, and himself fumbled it (thankfully recovering it), Michigan Stadium seemingly wanted a return to normalcy, which for four plays, seemed to be in order, but another JJ interception and it became one of those moments where you longed to understand what was up.

Praise for the Michigan defense here.  Put in rough positions over and over in the second quarter, they, by and large, got the job done, including a great three and out that saw BGSU gain -1 yard on the sequence after JJ's second pick.  McCarthy, to his credit, did get back in the saddle and found Loveland for 22 and Roman Wilson for 33 yards and a touchdown to put Michigan up 14-6 late in the second.  Michigan's defense also turned the beat around and got a pick of their own thanks to a wonderful read by Quinten Johnson, and while they couldn't cash it in, they got to halftime with a chance to regroup.

An interlude here: The new lights are fine, but perhaps maybe don't kick into the fancy light show so quickly after a touchdown?  It just seems kind of cheap and the sort of thing that we were doing because we can.  I know I am not the target audience here, but can anyone show us who was asking for this particular "enhancement" to the Michigan Stadium experience.

A couple of turnovers on back-to-back possessions for the Falcons after the half, which Michigan cashed in for ten points, lifted the collective ennui lurking in the Big House and a flea flicker bomb to Cornelius Johnson, which required some fancy tip drill skills, and Michigan closed the scoring for the remainder of the night for a 31-6 win.  Which was essentially in line with the rest of the non-conference schedule.

My working theory is that this was the culmination of three weeks of everyone on the coaching staff being slightly out of place because of Jim Harbaugh's suspension.  Everyone has been doing a job that isn't quite the one that they are supposed to be doing.  This week, it was Sherrone Moore's turn to be the interim boss.  Next week, Harbaugh returns, the team goes back into something more like normal, and I think that will make a difference, which is good because the ever-annoying Schianomen of Rutgers are coming for a Homecoming match-up.  As always, ugly wins count just the same.

Tales from The Spreadsheet
  • Win 0992
  • 31-6 is NOT a Scorigami (fourth ever, most recently October 22, 1988, on Homecoming against Indiana)
  • 109,955 is the 122nd-largest crowd Michigan has played in front of, just ahead of, 2010 Bowling Green.

  • Michigan moves to 3-0 all-time against East Carolina.
  • Michigan moves to 4-2 all-time on September 16.

  • Michigan moves to 42-4 when scoring exactly 31 points
  • Michigan moves to 83-5-4 all-time when allowing precisely 6 points.
  • Michigan has won 19 games all-time by precisely 25 points.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Tumblin' Dice

Roman Wilson is as consistent as the beat of an 808 drum machine. (Patrick Barron)

Honey, got no money
I'm all sixes and sevens and nines
Say now baby, I'm the rank outsider
You can be my partner in crime

--"Tumblin' Dice" by the Rolling Stones, from their 1972 album Exile on Main Street

I am too young to remember when it happened on initially, but during the 1970s, long-tenured Detroit sports curmudgeon Joe Falls would lambast Michigan for playing "dull and boring football," which somehow the Athletic Department turned into a selling point for Falls' book on Michigan's relatively new coach. I would argue that there's nothing wrong with dull and boring football because rarely could a dull and boring team be bad.  They could be middling, but they're likely very, very, very good, and that ruthless efficiency feels "dull and boring."

The inequalities of college football scheduling, for much of the post-World War II era, and certainly during the post-NCAA v. OU television-saturated era, much of September has featured P5 teams facing G5 teams, G5 teams facing FCS teams, and FCS teams against D-II teams, and so on. Occasionally, you will get headline-grabbing "helmet games" or some early season conference games, but by and large, yesterday's slate had about one marquee matchup, a few P5-P5 games, and a lot of other games.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with "other" games. If you only get six to eight Saturdays in your home stadium as a season ticket holder, you relish those opportunities (or sell them off to other people who may want to just get one game in the stadium), and you appreciate that you get to see this iteration of the team play.

So in a game where ESPN's win probability chart had the Rebels' best chance at victory the moment that Tommy Donan kicked the ball off, you become invested in side stories, like "Man, JJ's hot hand passing is continuing, and maybe improving somehow (the second TD pass to Roman Wilson would be a solid evidence for that point.) or the defensive line finally breaking through and getting severe pressure on the QB which resulted in five sacks, and five additional tackles for loss. And as weird as the circumstances were, it was pretty cool to realize that Mike Hart became Michigan's first Black head coach, even if just for a half. (Project Coach Mike Hart 2030 continues as he prophesized in his playing career.)

If dull and boring football is a 35-7 handling of business on a crisp September afternoon, I can live with dull and boring football.

Tales from The Spreadsheet:
  • Win 0991
  • 35-7 is NOT a Scorigami (sixth occurrence, most recently was Oregon State 2015)
  • 109,482 is the 140th-largest crowd Michigan has played in front of, displacing last week's attendance of 109,480.

  • Michigan moves to 2-0 all-time against UNLV (previous game, 2015).
  • Michigan moves to 5-0 all-time on September 9.

  • Michigan moves to 36-0 when scoring exactly 35 points
  • Michigan moves to 108-13-4 all-time when allowing precisely 7 points.
  • Michigan has won 30 games all-time by precisely 28 points.

Saturday, September 02, 2023

Waiting on a Friend

Welcome back, Blake.  (Patrick Barron)

"Watching girls go passing by
It ain't the latest thing
I'm just standing in a doorway
I'm just trying to make some sense
Out of these girls passing by
The tales they tell of men
I'm not waiting on a lady
I'm just waiting on a friend."

"Waiting on a Friend" by The Rolling Stones, from their 1981 album Tattoo You

The first game of a season is odd in that it feels, at the moment, in the moment, like a harbinger of things to come.  But, it is only in retrospect if you seek to connect the dot. So, in that framework, there are two ways of looking at this game.

Option A: Michigan hit on all cylinders, powered by JJ McCarthy, who looked absolutely blistering in the passing game, going 26/30, making several tough throws on rollouts, and repeatedly finding the newly christened #1 Roman Wilson for three touchdowns.  ECU sold out to stop the Michigan run game, but even still, Corum and Edwards got several solid runs.  Michigan held a 30-point lead for the majority of the second half and had a 99%+ win expectancy from the moment the MMB left the field in the second half.  1-0 to start the year, on to UNLV.

Option B: Michigan looked fine but clearly left points on the field by refusing to abandon the run game when ECU kept loading up the box.  Everything felt like the team was just going through the motions, almost acting like it was a pre-season exhibition game, and it amplified the fact that Michigan's offensive and defensive playcallers were not the usual coaches in those roles.  The team acted like they missed Harbaugh more than they wanted to win for him.  They cannot keep playing like this if they expect to win more demanding games in Big Ten play.

Option B is the default for Michigan fans because we're always worried about the future instead of being in the moment, which I get. After all, the expectations for this team are as high as they have been since 2007 (which is probably playing into this level of terror; it's a training scar.)  But Option A is the fairer version of this because it's closer to the reality of most of this game.

But mostly, this game feels like an unknowable enigma because of what was missing.  The fact that Harbaugh wasn't on the sideline definitely felt like it was impacting the players, even if they didn't want it to be a thing, and they certainly got the job done, but I just wonder if they had to get this out of the way so they could prove to themselves it wouldn't be a big deal.

Beyond that, and the saddest field goal in recorded history, I will not remember much about this game as the season progresses. It may not be the shape of things to come, but rather, a thing that happened along the journey.

Tales from The Spreadsheet
  • Win 0990 
  • 30-3 is a Scorigami (so I guess we can thank ECU for that small favor)
  • 109,480 is the 140th-largest crowd Michigan has played in front of.

  • Michigan moves to 1-0 all-time against East Carolina.
  • Michigan wins its first game against a new opponent since beating Middle Tennessee State in 2019.
  • Michigan moves to 5-0 all-time on September 2.

  • Michigan moves to 8-1 when scoring exactly 30 points
  • Michigan moves to 48-3-3 all-time when allowing precisely 3 points.
  • Michigan has won 17 games all-time by precisely 27 points.

Sunday, January 01, 2023

Low Desert

The butterfly effect, but for college football. (Patrick Barron)

It happened fast, it's over quick
A little dust and the engine kicks
Did your hands drift down off the wheel?
Roll out, hit your windshield
An eyelash or a little bit of sleep? Time stands still
Just call it now and you're on your way

--"Low Desert" by R.E.M. from their 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi

There's this moment after any loss, especially a one-score loss, where you try to figure out what the difference was, what was the "if you change one thing" moment that would have made things different.  This game had so many of those moments, that performing the exercise would become a catalog, which in turn, become almost a ranting litany of grievances.   That is not what this will be, because the biggest point that needs to be made is that TCU played an excellent game and did everything it needed to do to win.  Michigan did not.  For all of the what-ifs and maybes, it still comes back to that simple fact.  That Michigan was still in this game speaks volumes to the team's effort, its fight, and its character, but the reality is that it wasn't enough on this day.  The dreams of a national title died on middling turf grass in the desert.

I waited to write something up because I wanted to see if I would feel different with a little time, but it has stayed the same.  I'm sad about the result, but I understand how it arrived.  How mad can one be when the team you are rooting for never led in a game where they looked anything but themselves?  

Maybe it's the benefit of age and time that I would rather focus on the joy that the first thirteen games of this year brought me and so many others than the ending no one wanted.  It's easy to understand that when the mountain presents itself to you, to not reach the summit for whatever reason must be considered a disappointment.  But so much time was spent wondering if Michigan could ever get back to this point, that to ignore the mountain below is also perilous.  

At some point, I will understand why Michigan has such a poor record in bowl games, but I tell this to myself every year, and I have never come any closer to an answer.  It will remain a mystery until it ceases to be a mystery, but until then, it will just be a fact of life in late December/early January.

That's it for another season, thank you as always for being along for the ride.  We'll see where the days take us when we head back to our (Big) house up north in September.              

Monday, December 05, 2022

Finest Worksong (reprise)

All good?  All good.  (JJ checks on DJ by Patrick Barron)
Take your instinct by the reins.
You're better best to rearrange
What we want and what we need
Has been confused, been confused

Your finest hour
(Oh) Your finest hour
--"Finest Worksong" by R.E.M. from their 1987 album Document

As college football fans, we do weird things when trying to understand a game's outcome before the game has been played.  The more modern version is to look at the "fancystats" and see if patterns can be discerned or unexpected weaknesses can be exploited.  We look at history and see the historical trends by one school or another, even though some of those trends go back generations and bear no meaning on the contest about to be played on this day.  We search for meaning in what has been in order to understand what will be.  So when USC looked as if it had no real sense of how tackling worked against Utah, and TCU's second-half comeback magic ended up stalling out for the first time all year, opening the back door to let Ohio State into the Playoff, the dread of whether an upstart, unraked Purdue could knock off, as the Fox introduction referred to Michigan, "the bluest of the blue bloods" in this contest in Indianapolis and take some of the shine off this remarkable season made sense.

For a while, it looked like Purdue had something cooking.  Aidan O'Connell's veteran savvy was picking apart Michigan's zone, and there was an epidemic of sloppy tackling on Michigan's end. Purdue held a tenuous three-point lead for much of the second quarter, while Michigan was still looking for some rhythm without Blake Corum on offense and Mike Morris on defense.

But Michigan would score 21 of the game's next 24 points over the next fifteen or so minutes of game clock largely on the back of two highly successful runs by Donovan Edwards, the first a sixty-yard jaunt that did not go further largely because Edwards couldn't use his right arm to stiff arm tacklers at present, and the second, a twenty-seven yard run that featured no fewer than five broken tackles.  Michigan was never in any real danger again, thanks in no small part to a pair of interceptions by Will Johnson and all that was left was to celebrate the program's first back-to-back outright Big Ten championships since 1991-1992.  

It is hard to capture the sense of joy and relief that Saturday's result encapsulated.  2021 no longer stands as a fluke; it was the start of something that is still going forward.  Michigan fans have emerged from a decade and a half of waiting for not just the other shoe to drop, but a veritable DSW to fall on their heads when it came to football.  Now, we're finding our classic "pardon our arrogance" footing, tempered by the experience of the harder times.  We've moved from "proved we can do this" to "there's no reason we can't do this" and I am so happy for all of those players who made it happen.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Shiny Happy People

WITH A BROKEN HAND!  TWICE!  (Photo credit: the incomparable Patrick Barron.)

Shiny happy people laughing

Meet me in the crowd, people, people
Throw your love around, love me, love me
Take it into town, happy, happy
Put it in the ground where the flowers grow
Gold and silver shine

Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people laughing

--"Shiny Happy People" by R.E.M. from their 1991 album Out of Time

All that matters is that the players knew they could do it, and they would do it.  It would have been so easy to tell ourselves, "touchdown underdog on the road to a team bent on revenge in a place Michigan hasn't won since 2000 and the status of Blake Corum unknown," that it just wasn't Michigan's day, the stars were not aligned.  It wasn't a great feeling, but it would have been understandable.  It could have allowed the national pundits to declare last year a fluke and "great season Michigan, but Ohio State is just that much better." and the like.

You look for signs.  A 28% chance of winning is roughly about flipping two quarters and both coming up tails.  On Tuesday, I flipped a quarter twice while standing in the hallway between classes at work.  Both came up tails.  Well.

Everyone around, love them, love them
Put it in your hands, take it, take it
There's no time to cry, happy, happy
Put it in your heart where tomorrow shines
Gold and silver shine

In a promotional video earlier this week, talking about the rivalry, JJ McCarthy was wearing a knit cap to help promote the "Sack The Stigma" campaign for mental health help awareness and to let people know about the new 988 Suicide and Mental Health Crisis Hotline number.

Today's victory in Columbus was Michigan's 988th win of all time.  The signs were there if you were willing to see them.

Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people laughing

Whoa, here we go.

It felt like Michigan was lucky to be only down three at the half.  The Cornelius Johnson long-bomb TD was nice but did not feel sustainable.  Michigan was getting stops on defense, but it felt like Ohio State was just lurking, waiting; they'd come out of the locker room and start gashing Michigan.

But Michigan got the ball to start the second half; they needed a touchdown to get the feelings flowing.  And we decided that Donovan Edwards would have to carry the load, which he did, broken hand and all.  Still, it was JJ McCarthy's 19-yard run, which included his second effort to push the tackler back to set up another long touchdown, this time to freshman Colston Loveland.  Michigan would lead 24-20 and never looked back.

It didn't feel like it, but ESPN analytics said it was true:

Michigan's defense forced Ohio State into a three-and-out (thanks, in part, to a combination of a holding penalty and a personal foul), and while CJ Stroud clearly wanted to stay on the field and try and convert the fourth and five in plus territory, a false start on the punt led to a touchback and a net gain of 28 yards.

For all of the quick strike and explosive plays that Michigan had converted on, it was a classic Michigan long march drive, a combination of patient runs by Donovan Edwards, a trick play from a linebacker turned running back turned jump passer Kalel Mullings to get a critical first down, a great football IQ play by Ronnie Bell to get a PI in the end zone on a third down on a ball that was high but probably not an easy catch, and a J.J. run to get into the end zone and go up two possessions, there was still a lot of time left in the fourth quarter.  Though Michigan forced another Ohio State punt on a three and out, another OSU unsportsmanlike conduct put Michigan in business on their own 43.

You can be forgiven for thinking that the Jake Moody missed field goal from 57 yards, which would have been his career long had it been made, was going to loom large in the final outcome.  It was the years of pent-up knowledge that these things, these Games, turn on poor decisions.  But Mike Sainristil made an absolutely textbook pass breakup, forced Ohio State into a field goal try to bring it within eight, and tension returned.  Too much time, too many things that could go wrong.

Donovan Edwards didn't care about the past.  With most of the fanbase thinking that Michigan just needed another long drive that ended in points for Michigan, Edwards, with a busted up hand, said "Nah" and went 75 yards in one play and got a touchdown to put Michigan up 15.  It was this absurd "no, I do not accept this" reality moment where suddenly, everything felt possible and real.  But Ohio State now got the ball back with a lot of time left and began moving the ball down the field again.  But, despite not having Mike Morris, the Michigan defense got some pressure on Stroud and forced him into a bad shovel pass that was picked off by Taylor Upshaw, of all people.  Michigan had the ball on their own 8, and two plays later, Donovan Edwards decided if one long touchdown in The Game was nice, two would be legendary and went 85 yards in one play to put Michigan up an absurd 22 points.

Ohio State only had a shade over three minutes to try and rally, but after an Eyabi Okie sack that should have included a fumble, Makari Paige proved ball don't lie and got a second pick (trying to put Michigan up by 30+ but really just sealing the game.)

As fans, we spent much of the last year hoping that this was possible, but as the wins piled up, it seemed like Michigan would have another exceptional season that would end in disappointment.  It was not to be, and for another year, Michigan and its fans get to revel in the fact that Ohio State has, once again, been vanquished. Another trip to Indianapolis, a place that seemed so far away just 364 days ago, is in the offing, facing a Purdue team Michigan has not seen in five years, awaits as Michigan tries to win back-to-back Big Ten championships for the first time since 2003-04.

As much as people do not love "Shiny Happy People" thirty years on, it does represent a certain level of joy.  It's too treacly, too saccharine   But, as so many Michigan fans of a certain vintage know, the song and the lyrics we were really thinking about at the end of the game were a different manifestation of joy:

And sometimes when you're on, you're really fucking on
And your friends they sing along and they love you
But the lows are so extreme, that the good seems fucking cheap
And it teases you for weeks in its absence

But you'll fight and you'll make it through
You'll fake it if you have to
And you'll show up for work with a smile
You'll be better and you'll be smarter and more grown up
And a better daughter or son
And a real good friend

You'll be awake, you'll be alert
You'll be positive though it hurts
And you'll laugh and embrace all your friends
You'll be a real good listener
You'll be honest, you'll be brave
You'll be handsome and you'll be beautiful
You'll be happy!

Your ship may be coming in
You're weak, but not giving in
To the cries and the wails of the valley below
And your ship may be coming in
You're weak, but not giving in
And you'll fight it, you'll go out fighting all of them

Once more, Ohio beat.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Oh My Heart

Senior Day means featuring photos of two of Michigan's most valuable seniors, Money Moody and Ronnie Bell. (Patrick Barron)

The kids have a new take, a new take on faith
Pick up the pieces, get carried away
I came home to a city half-erased
I came home to face what we had faced

This place needs me here to start
This place is the beat of my heart

--"Oh My Heart" by R.E.M. from their 2011 album Collapse into Now

So, you have to trust me on this one, but I had suspected all week that something like this was coming.  I didn't think it was going to be a loss, and I didn't know it was going to be this close, but Michigan hadn't had "the stupid game" this season yet, and The Game can be many things, but it cannot be "the stupid game."  But there were hints all week.  The bitter cold forecast for Saturday came to be. There were emotional factors in favor of the Illini. Michigan had some injuries that might be an issue.  It was foreshadowing and foreboding.

But to watch that first drive, a Blake Corum explosive play to start the day after a week where he was (relatively) bottled up, then a quick hitter to Ronnie Bell for 16, then hitting some tight ends to get inside the ten, and then Blake three times to pay dirt, a Jake Moody PAT, and Michigan was up 7-0 early.  Then Illinois couldn't do much of anything on their first two drives and then was stopped on fourth down on their third, and while Michigan wasn't doing much either, it felt like Michigan was in control on this freezing day.  After all, even after Illinois hit the field goal, Michigan started moving again, thanks to the efforts of Blake Corum.  Then, without warning, on a simple four-yard outside run, Blake Corum took a helmet to the knee, causing him to fumble the ball, and upon review, Illinois got the ball back, and Corum left the game for the half.  While Illinois couldn't do anything, and the teams headed up the tunnel with Michigan up 7-3, the brightness of the early moments seemed to darken into a classic Michigan November gray, that oft-felt sense that doom was creeping back in that matched the clouds in the sky.

The storm didn't kill me, the government changed.
Hear the answer and call, hear this song, rearranged
Hear the trees, the ghosts and the buildings, sing
With the wisdom to reconcile this thing

It's sweet, and it's sad, and it's true
How it doesn't look bitter on you

As halftime wound down, I watched Jake Moody kick into the steadily strong winds blowing north wind toward the south goalposts.  His consistency was unsurprising but a marvel in its own right, just an athlete making sure he knew what the elements he faced were and was prepared for them if called upon.

The Michigan defense's three-and-out on the first series should have assuaged some fears, as should have Blake Corum's return and five-yard carry on the second play of Michigan's opening offensive series. Still, Michigan's inability to turn excellent field position into a touchdown meant the first Jake Moody field goal of the afternoon and a 10-3 lead for the Wolverines.  

You could just tell yourself, "it's OK, Michigan has made excellent second-half adjustments, they'll figure out how to keep the Illini down, grind out an ugly win," and then Illinois went back-to-back drives, with a Michigan failure on fourth down (thanks to a missed offside call that likely lead J.J. to try an Aaron Rodgers' style shot play to Andrel Anthony (who did almost haul it in) only to discover there was no flag thrown, and everything felt awful. The stupid game was in full effect.

The three and out by Michigan as the third wound down and all of the old ghosts started to pop up, right on cue, as if to tell all of us that they had been gone far too long and had some things to say to us.  But then, something subtle happened.  The quarter ended, and Michigan would drive with the wind at their backs for the rest of the game.   

The next Illini drive featured a botched snap and loss of 11 to set up 4th and 19 from the Illinois 34 when the Illini punted to Ronnie Bell.  Ronnie Bell, back out returning punts on Senior Day, went like a man possessed and took a 44-yard punt back 40 yards to the Illinois 38.  The Michigan Stadium crowd, acting like they knew the ghosts could be put to bed, began an unprompted Let's Go Blue chant, and though the drive stalled, a Jake Moody field goal to bring it back within four started to answer some of the fears.  The defense would need to stand tall.  

Illinois tried to put together a drive to either pull back to seven or go up 11 and keep their Big Ten West title hopes alive. It looked like it was going to work for a bit, but faced with a 4th and 8, Tommy DeVito scrambled, but DJ Turner got him by the legs six yards short of the sticks, and Michigan got the ball back with over eight minutes left.

At this point, the cryogenically sealed crowd knew this next drive was big. The freshman Colston Loveland got things going with a replica of the Erick All game-winning play against Penn State in 2021, this time for 27 yards and into Illinois territory. Still, the run game kept stalling without Corum or Edwards, and after three stalled plays inside the 15, Michigan chose another field goal to get within one.  A stop, a drive, and a field goal or better could win it for Michigan.

Bret Bielema helped on the first count by calling an exceptionally conservative sequence that also included a holding and saw Illinois lose three total yards on a three-and-out while Michigan burned its time-outs to preserve the clock.  Michigan had 2:15 and the ball on their own 48 to try and keep the perfect season alive.  A storybook ending would have likely featured a J.J. rollout to a wide-open Ronnie Bell in the end zone.  But Michigan doesn't go for the obvious conclusion.

Mother and father, I stand beside you
The good of this world might help see me through
This place needs me here to start
This place is the beat of my heart

Michigan couldn't quite get all the pieces together quickly but also put them together when it counted.  Isaiah Gash made up for an earlier drop with an eight-yard conversion on fourth down to keep the game alive, using his blockers to get open, much to the chagrin of the Illini fanbase and coaching staff.  On the next play, Ronnie Bell wasn't in the end zone but drew a critical pass interference call to get Michigan to the Illinois 22, or a 40-yard field goal attempt for Jake Moody if they didn't gain another yard, and Moody was 36-37 over the last two years from forty or closer.  A weird play where Cornelius Johnson got five more yards, then Michigan got a free time out with the clock running down as the play was reviewed.  A JJ incompletion meant the stakes were simple.  With 13 seconds left on the clock, #13 Jake Moody would attempt to score his 11th-12th-and 13th points of the game to put Michigan on top.

I never doubted it.  The ball was centered, for the most part, between the hashes.  Robbins had handled a fastball snap earlier in the day, and the operation just needed to do its thing one more time.  Snap, ball down, laces out, kick up, kick right down Main Street, and Michigan led 19-17 with nine seconds left on the clock.

The ghosts whispered in the wind, but there were also memories surfacing.  A fan behind us said: "Man, I was here for Colorado."  So was my wife.  She knows it's not over until the clock says 0:00.  But when Tommy DeVito's Hail Mary attempt into the wind fell harmlessly to the turf, Michigan Stadium let out a collective sigh of relief.  11-0 heading into Columbus, with every single goal still possible.

Jake Moody entered the Pantheon today, Jim Harbaugh suggested as much, and the record book now says as much.  But he had never had a game-winning kick at any level before today (I would have thought the Nebraska kick counted, but that took a tie game to a lead, so your mileage may vary).  But on Senior Day, his last game in Michigan Stadium, Jake Moody became the man of the hour and preserved Michigan's first 11-0 start since 2006, setting up The Game with both teams undefeated for the first time since that fateful meeting.

Beat Ohio.

Tales from The Spreadsheet:
  • Win 0987
  • 11th win in a row, the longest streak since 2006.

  • Michigan winning 19-17 is NOT a Scorigami; it previously happened on 11/18/1939 against Penn.

  • Attendance: 110,433, 99th largest crowd in Big House history.

  • 6th straight win over Illinois.
  • All-time record against Illinois moves to 71-23-2

  • Michigan moves to 13-6-1 all-time on November 19 all-time (5 of those losses are Ohio State in the before times.)

  • Michigan moves to 13-4-1 all-time when scoring exactly 19 points.
  • Michigan moves to 36-16-2 all-time when allowing exactly 17 points.

  • Michigan completes its fourth perfect home slate under Harbaugh. (2016, 2018, 2021, 2022)

Sunday, November 13, 2022

So Fast, So Numb

Big Mood...Jake Moody. (Patrick Barron)

You're drinking raw adrenal, baby
And do-si-do, saddo
You're eating cartilage, shark-eyes, shark-heart, all present tense
And boy, your blood is running cold 
Listen! This is now, this is here this is me
This is what I wanted you to see
That was then, that was that that is gone, that is past
You cast yourself, cast passed by, thrown down fast

You say, you say that you hate it
You want to re-create it
--"So Fast, So Numb" by R.E.M. from their 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi

It was cold.  There were flurries that melted upon contact with the ground that retained much of its warmth from temperatures in the 60s all week.  It was the permagray that settles in over Michigan Stadium when November rolls in.  As Jane Coaston said:

All of this is to say that it is well within expectations that when your offense is getting nearly six yards a pop on any rush attempt without any real explosive plays, deciding to keep things on the ground and let your offensive line impose their will and let your Heisman-candidate running back do his thing.  There is nothing wrong with this!  Maybe this is years of training watching Big Ten football and flashing back to years of rooting for any kind of first down in the Novembers of the late RichRod and late Hoke years, but if the offense can do things and do them well, then yes, keep doing those things.

Yes, I would love to see Michigan's passing game show some signs of execution where they can use their talented wide receivers to mix things up so defenses cannot just stack eight in the box.  All of this is worried about the future, which I both understand and respect.  But for a day where Michigan could find a way to move to 10-0 for the first time since 2006, keep the ball on the ground, hold on to it, and take care of business on defense.

"Dull and boring football" was a common complaint about the Michigan football teams of the 1970s and yes, it was a vastly different world, both in the Big Ten and nationally, but I really think "wishing the passing game was more dynamic" is the sort of thing that falls under "these are the problems you want to have" kind of thing that crops up when the team you're rooting for is 22-2 in their last 24 games.

It was cold, it was boring, but it was a win, and I'm absolutely fine with that.

Notes from The Spreadsheet:
  • Win 0986
  • 34-3 win, the fourth time it's happened, most recently in...2006 at Indiana (to go to 11-0.)
  • 110,192 attendance, 108th largest crowd in Michigan history.
  • Michigan moves to 7-4-1 all-time against the Huskers.
  • Michigan moves to 17-1-3 all-time on November 12.  (Do NOT think about the 1.  It will make you sad.)
  • Michigan moves to 37-0 all-time when scoring exactly 34 points.
  • Michigan moves to 47-2-3 all-time when opponents score exactly 3 points.

Sunday, November 06, 2022


The buffs look good on Barrett.  Oh, hey, Denard! (Michigan Athletics)

I know what I wantedI know what I wantedI know how I wanted this to be
You go down to the waterDrink down of the waterWalk up off the water, leave it be
This is not my time, sisterIt is cold in heavenAnd I'm not sprouting wings
I'm drowningMeI'm drowningMe, yeah
"Undertow" by R.E.M. from the band's 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi 
OK, this one's on me.  I picked the white #23 jersey to wear for this game.  A 2003 vintage Chris Perry, it's one of my newer additions to the collection, but I thought getting "Perry with the carry" vibes would be good against Rutgers, which, if it can do anything (beyond make things exceedingly annoying for other teams with their "hard hitting" and "Schiano manning") it is defending the run.  And things felt pedestrian when Michigan moved the ball down the field with relative ease on the first drive, though the red zone struggles seemed to be rearing their head again until Blake Corum's fourth try to get over the goal line to go up 7-0.  It's just...Michigan has punted so little over the last few weeks that Michael Barrett might have forgotten that he is Brad Robbins' personal protector and Michigan had a rare special teams mistake under Jay Harbaugh. Suddenly, it was 7-7.  Thanks to a short field from a Rutgers' surprise onside kick, Michigan used a short field to drive down the field thanks to a quick 43-yard run by Corum, but again, stalling inside the one-yard line but finally getting JJ over the goal line to make it 14-7 Michigan. 

The second quarter was utterly forgettable, like so many second quarters of recent vintage, including seeing Jake Moody miss two fifty-yard field goal attempts thanks to some tricky winds in the warm New Jersey evening.  So yeah, bad vibes going into the locker room for a third straight week.  But Michigan has been a second half team the last few weeks, so perhaps things would right themselves.  That's when I swapped out the #23 for a 2004 vintage #1 Braylon Edwards; you've got to change up the vibes.

Anyway, after ten minutes of the third quarter, Michigan's current #23 Michael Barrett had two picks, including his first-ever pick six at any level, and had a 35-17 lead.  They never looked back.  Will Johnson got his first career pick two series later, Michigan cashed in another touchdown on it, Jake Moody got a field goal that helped remind folks he's money. One more touchdown from the backups and the 52-17 scoreline looks like what was expected, though not the method of arrival.

Rutgers games are always annoying, especially the last three, but in the end, coming out of each with a different kind of win.  A comeback in triple OT in 2020, a hold on for dear life second half in 2021, and now this slow start, fast finish.  Rutgers can do some things well.  They might continue to get better, especially if the Big Ten moves away from divisions and they no longer have to face all of the top teams in the league every year.  But for now, it isn't enough.

The last time Michigan was 9-0, it was on the literal exact same calendar date in 2016.   Every game date, including the bye week, lines up.  Which would make me a little nervous if we were off to Iowa next week.  But instead, Nebraska comes to town as a massive underdog, so hopefully, Michigan can keep handling its business and take advantage of the chaos that happened elsewhere in college football yesterday at the top.

Michigan Spreadsheet Notes
Win 0985
52-17 score, not a Scoragami.  2nd time, previously against Minnesota in 1995.
Attendance 51,117, which is interesting because it exactly matches the attendance at Michigan Stadium on November 16, 1968, when Michigan was also AP #4.  (Oh, and that's the Ron Johnson single-game rushing record game, 347 yards on 31 carries, or 11.2 yards per carry, and 5 TDs.)
Michigan's all-time record against Rutgers moves to 9-1 (9 straight wins).
Michigan moves to 15-3 on November 5th, all-time.  The previous 11/5 game was 59-3 win over Maryland in 2016.
Michigan moves to 11-0 when scoring exactly 52 points.
Michigan moves to 35-16-2 when allowing their opponent exactly 17 points.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Talk About the Passion

When afforded the opportunity to hit the Paul, one must hit the Paul.  (Isaiah Hole)

Empty prayer, empty mouths combien reactionEmpty prayer, empty mouths talk about the passionCombien, combien, combien de temps?
Talk about the passionTalk about the passion

--"Talk About The Passion" by R.E.M. from their 1983 debut album Murmur 

I should like this game more than I do.  I did deeply enjoy the era of assured certainty of the late Carr era, where Michigan would show up and beat Michigan State. Even as Michigan was lost in the desert during the Dantonio era, there was this certainty of dumb things happening to Michigan.  But this entire week felt like a full Kobayashi Maru.  If Michigan wins in anything other than blowout fashion, it will be an indictment of the season, to say nothing of the reaction if, once again, an unranked Michigan State finds a way to spoil a Michigan season in the name of making their own.  

So yes, please forgive me if the first quarter felt frustrating.  Even if one intellectually knew that Michigan State could not keep just throwing up long jump balls and scoring, well, it worked in 2020, so yeah.  But the reality settled in that even if Michigan could move the ball to the Spartan five, they just couldn't get in the end zone.  But, thankfully, Jake Moody remains money, and it was 13-7 at the half.

The underappreciated genius of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards is that they echo Mike Hart's running style without copying it.  They find the holes, they fall forward for the extra yards, and they do more, but they don't make it look difficult.  When the running game is clicking, it's not necessarily an exciting brand, even if Corum and Edwards were both averaging over five yards every time they touched the ball without a bunch of explosive plays.  In the larger view, the only reason that this didn't feel better was that Jake Moody had five field goals instead of, say three field goals and two Michigan touchdowns in their stead.  37-3 would be much more indicative of what the offense was doing outside the red zone than what they were doing inside the red zone.  I suppose that is a credit to the Michigan State defense.

The final analysis of this game is that Michigan won by nearly exactly the margin they were expected by Vegas to win by and has reclaimed Paul.  Michigan has a win over every Big Ten team in their most recent match-up.

Michigan Spreadsheet Notes:
Win 0984
29-7 score, not a Scoragami.  4th time, previously against Indiana last year.
Win 450 at Michigan Stadium (in 600 games)
Attendance 111,083, the 65th largest crowd in Michigan Stadium history
All-time record against Michigan State/MAC moves to 72-38-5
Michigan moves to 14-5 on October 29th, all-time.  The previous 10/29 game was 32-23 win over MSU in 2016
Michigan moves to 16-2 when scoring exactly 29 points
Michigan moves to 107-13-4 when allowing their opponent exactly 7 points.

It's Rutgers week.  Steel yourself accordingly.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Crush With Eyeliner

It wasn't the moment that Michigan fans stopped worrying, but it was the moment Michigan fans at least allowed themselves to consider the possibility of stopping. (Patrick Barron)

I'm in like
I'm infatuated
It's all too much, the pressure
She's all that I can take
What position should I wear?
Cop an attitude? (you fake her)
How can I convince her? (fake her)
That I'm invented too, yeah

I am smitten
I'm the real thing (I'm the real thing)
We all invent ourselves
And, uh, you know me    

--"Crush With Eyeliner" by R.E.M. from their 1994 album Monster 

By coincidence, well, and the way the calendar lines up, today marked the third time that Michigan had faced off with Penn State on October 15.  The first was in 1994, just a few weeks after the release of Monster, R.E.M.'s "back to basics" rock album, when #5 Michigan faced off against the #3 Nittany Lions in Ann Arbor just three weeks after "The Miracle at Michigan".  Penn State was facing a lot of skepticism about their weak early schedule but came out and posted a 16-3 halftime lead, only to see Michigan race back to tie the game twice, only to pull it out in the end.  I distinctly remember this was also the night of my junior year Homecoming Dance and I kept checking in on the game at the bar in the restaurant, which was fine because my date was also a fellow future Wolverine and wanted to know what was happening.  

The second was 2005 when Michigan was 3-3, having alternated wins and losses to start the season took down a #8 Penn State squad at the Big House on "Touchdown Manningham" an improbable win during "The Season of Infinite Pain" that meant Michigan had won seven straight in the series, a run that began on Judgment Day in 1997.  

History isn't instructive in college football, as much as we like to celebrate it.  So none of these things that had happened before mattered as we came into today.  A Maize Out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the beloved 1997 National Championship team, a 6-0 Michigan team, said by some around the country to be untested, against a 5-0 Penn State team.  Big Noon Saturday...again.  All the making of a classic.  Except, it really wasn't.

Michigan could clearly move the ball early on, eating up most of the first quarter on an 11-play, 64-yard field goal drive and a 13-play, 77-yard field goal drive sandwiched around a three and out for Penn State.  It would have been great to finish those drives with touchdowns, which Michigan got after another three and out and a 13-play, 70 yard touchdown drive, it felt like Michigan had things well in hand, especially when it looked like Michigan's defense had stopped the Penn State rusher in the backfield, only for the entire stadium to discover that Sean Clifford still had the ball and ran for 62 yards to set up a Penn State score.  

OK, no problem, just keep moving the ball, that was a fluke, the defense has this in hand...and then a double helmet bounce pick six and Penn State has the lead and nothing makes sense.  Michigan did go down and get a field goal on another 11 play drive to go into halftime with the lead, but a game that could have easily been 28-0 was 16-14 and it just felt bad.  Penn State had 14 points on 14 first half plays.  Michigan fans aren't always great about being rational even with a lead.

Penn State went down and finally put a drive together, using a 48-yard pass to get into field goal range, but no more.  Now Penn State has the lead and everything feels...oh wait, Donovan Edwards just exploded for a 67-yard touchdown run that included a spectacular freezing of the final defender to beat and with a two-point conversion by Ronnie Bell, Michigan was up 7.  And while Penn State went for it on fourth and six (after the entire stadium sang "Mr. Brightside") only to give the ball back to Michigan, Blake Corum decided to make sure the Heisman talk was still coming this week with an explosive 61-yard TD run of his own to put Michigan up 14 and never looked back.  Michigan scored 25 straight points after Penn State took the lead, never looked back, and moved to 7-0.  

Bye weeks are always better when you're coming off a win. Michigan State in two weeks, on Halloween weekend.  We can dare to start dreaming again, because we all invent ourselves and, uh, you know me.

Saturday, October 08, 2022

Finest Worksong

J.J. went for 300+ thanks to a very good second half. (Patrick Barron)

The time to rise has been engaged
You're better best to rearrange
I'm talkin' here to me alone
I listen to the finest worksong

Your finest hour
Your finest hour
--"Finest Worksong" by R.E.M. from their 1987 album Document

Resolved: Indiana games are always dumb.

The first half certainly felt like it would be one of those games.  

(I have to be honest here, I have started and stopped writing this one several times, mostly because I really just want Mike Hart to be OK.  I am encouraged by the reports out of Bloomington, and I am hopeful that the medical professionals were able to get to the bottom of what caused him to collapse on the sideline.  So I mostly wanted to acknowledge this before I started talking about the game because it just felt like it needed to be said.)

After another expert opening drive, Michigan just felt like it couldn't get its act together on offense and was struggling with Indiana's tempo on defense.  But all of the elements that Indiana was able to use to get their touchdown drive were not replicable, as Ace Anbender pointed out on Twitter at the moment.  Not that this felt better in the first half.  In a week where a Big Ten Network viral promo had James Franklin telling us that penalties are the most overrated stat, the officiating crew decided to test that thesis on Penn State's next opponent since the Nittany Lions were off this week.  A matched pair of blocked kicks on field goals and it was 10-10 in the locker room.

Jim Harbaugh said he challenged his team to play their best half of football in the second half, their finest hour, if you will.  And they did just that.  The 98-yard touchdown drive started off feeling bad with Cornelius Johnson letting a sure touchdown slip through his hands, only to redeem it by cashing in for the go-ahead score.  Two more touchdowns and a pass rush that seemingly made Indiana question whether the legalization of the forward pass was in fact wise and Michigan got out of Bloomington with a three-score win.

Indiana games are always dumb, but for another season, it's over.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Living Well is the Best Revenge

Mike Morris decided to end the game himself, and not a moment too soon.  (Patrick Barron | Shop)

Don't turn your talking points on meHistory will set me freeThe future's ours and you don't even rate a footnote nowSo who's chasing you? Where did you go?You disappeared mid-sentenceIn a judgment crisis I see my anecdote for itYou weakened shell
All your sad and lost apostlesHum my name and flare their nostrilsChoking on the bones you toss to themWell I'm not one to sit and spin'Cause living well's the best revengeBaby, I am calling you on that

--"Living Well is the Best Revenge" by R.E.M. from their 2008 album Accelerate 

Feelingsball is a bad way to coach, but it is supremely the way that many of us consume football.  Michigan never fell below a 90% win expectancy at any point in the second half, but after Iowa scored to make it 20-7, and Michigan went three and out after Blake Corum slammed into a fierce Iowa goalline defense on a third and one at the Michigan 33, it was starting to feel dicey.  It was not dicey, but the specters of Kinnick past lingers, even if they were not able to be seen.  Even though Brad Robbins boomed a 50-yard punt to put Iowa behind their own twenty-yard line, things did not feel good.

They had felt good early.  Michigan looked like it was running a clinic on the opening drive, 11 plays, 75 yards, 5 minutes, and a Ronnie Bell run for a touchdown.  Michigan wanted to put pressure on Iowa's offense that an early score would help facilitate that exact notion.  While Michigan would get a pair of Jake Moody field goals to go up 13-0 at the half, even with Iowa's documented offensive difficulties, it still did feel like more was needed.  So, after the beautiful JJ rollout right to Donovan Edwards on the angle route to make it 20-0, it felt like Michigan just needed one more drive to salt things away.  About that.

After the Robbins punt, Iowa proceeded to, in defiance of history and precedent, move the ball down the field.  The first touchdown could be explained away by the short field generated from the backward pass McCarthy threw, and Donovan Edwards covered for a loss, but not a turnover.  But now, Spencer Petras is actually hitting guys, Michigan's tackling is leaving something to be desired, and while it's taking some time, Iowa has fourth and two on the Michigan six...this is it, this is the play that will...and Iowa throws short of the sticks and commits offensive pass interference all at the same time.  Michigan gets the ball back, and Iowa is still down 20-7.  Michigan did go three and out again after this, but another Brad Robbins bomb, this one for 51 yards, and with four minutes left, Iowa still needed two scores.

That was when the defensive line decided to make the Iowa offense pay for its sins on the day and exorcised so many of the ghosts of Iowa City.  Mike Morris on first and second down brought the heat, leaving Iowa to face 3rd and 19 when Taylor Upshaw and Eyabi Okie teamed up for another five-yard sack and then Okie with a QB pressure on fourth down.  Michigan only held the ball for three plays on the next drive as well, but this time it was because Blake Corum shimmied and shook an All-America linebacker out of position for a touchdown to make it 27-7.  While Iowa would get a cosmetic score late against a very soft bit of coverage by Michigan, a top five maize and blue squad escaped Iowa City with a win to move to 5-0 for the second straight year, the first time since (checks notes) 2010-2011.  (Wait, really?  Yes.  Really.)

The fears in the game came from a storyline and the fears of what happened the last time Michigan visited Iowa City, in what felt like a lifetime ago.  But Kinnick is in the rearview and Michigan moves ahead to play at Bloomington next week with bowl eligibility possible with a win.  As Harbaugh said in his presser, the only way to get to 6-0 is to get to 5-0, so we'll see what happens next.