Sunday, September 28, 2008

Don't Stop Believin'...

I was standing there in Section 15, Row 86 watching a debacle of a first half and trying to figure out what I was going to say about this week's game. Would I write about missed opportunities, or would it be about fumbles, or about how the defense was being let down by the offense and special teams? As I thought about this, Carl popped on over the PA and asked us to vote for which song the MMB would play in the third/fourth quarter break. I voted for the Zeppelin medley, because, well, it's Zep, but I knew that Journey would win out, it would be "Don't Stop Believin'"

At halftime, we were asked to "Save Cody" and while it was awesome, I was worried about who would Save Michigan.

Turns out, it would be Journey.

This column was going to be an open letter to the University of Wisconsin, calling out the representative sample of their fans who were seated near us as the most profane, belligerent, drunken, and overall negative fans I have ever had the displeasure to be associated with. With virtually two out of every three words coming out of their mouths either being an expletive or some dig on Michigan, it was hard to take. When they started mocking us with "It be...a Michigan Wolverine", I just had to swallow my rage, because what else could I do? I sincerely hope that Michigan fans aren't like this on the road, and I don't believe they are, but I implore you, Michigan fans, when you go on the road, be respectful, polite, positive, and responsible. Don't be like the Badger fans we sat near. No one needs that. More on the opposing fans later.

When Michigan got a first down on the first offensive play of the second half, a huge sarcastic cheer went up for the maize and blue, but I noticed something, it was still a pretty solid crowd. Somehow being down 19-0 with just 20 yards on 20 plays (as Craig James later pointed out) in the first half had not dampened the spirits of Michigan fans. But no gain, +4, -5 and Michigan was forced to punt. (Side note: Lost in the heroes of yesterday must be Space Emperor Zoltan, who was fantastic on his directional punts, and averaged better than 41 yards per kick. Fielding Yost believed the game could be won on field position, and Zoltan's efforts yesterday should be acknowledged and celebrated.) It was progress, but only the smallest amount thereof. But Wisconsin's next drive, while lasting 11 plays and nearly six minutes, it only consumed 42 yards and Michigan had the ball back on the 20. It was time to go to work.

Threet's first pass fell incomplete, but then a 13 yarder to Greg Matthews for a first down and another sarcastic roar from the Big House crowd. A few plays later, and it's Kevin Grady following Mark Moundros through the hole to convert a fourth and one. It was big, but only because nothing else had been big to that point. Behind me, I heard the Wisconsin fans say something to the effect of "I don't know man, this is making me nervous, we should be up by more." I looked at it and I realized, it was possible. But you need to start with a touchdown. Eight plays later, Stephen Threet would find freshman tight end (wait, we still have those?) Kevin Koger for a 26 yard touchdown pass. I got up and cheered and commented, to no one in particular that "Hey, we're not dead yet." Badger fan just pointed at his watch and said "Not enough time." I thought to myself "Sure there is, if they can score 19 in the first half, we can score 20 in the second half."

My concern was now that the defense would just give it right back. The Big House was alive, loud when the Wolverines were on defense, and what everybody rooting Michigan on wanted was a three and out. Mission accomplished. There's plenty of time if you keep getting the ball back in just two minutes. But Michigan still needed scores, and they needed sevens, not threes. A Badger fan behind me yelled "This Stadium is SO BORING. PLAY MUSIC. Do SOMETHING." I was struck by the fact that there's something charmingly old school about Michigan football. We don't need gimmicks (though AT&T's partnership with the Athletic Department is foisting more than a few gimmicks on to us in the stadium. It's not really advertising if you're not actually advertising, right?)

As the Badger fans behind us did an a capella rendition of "Jump Around", at the other end of the field, Michigan's band was belting out "Don't Stop Believin'" and we were all in. We had full faith in the possibility that this comeback could happen, but I think many a Michigan fan was in the midst of a "doveryai, no proveryai" moment. A third and ten to start the fourth quarter was not exactly looking like it was going to work. Sure enough, two plays later, Zoltan was punting out of Michigan's end zone and the defense needed to save the day once again. They did it. A quick three and out and Michigan had the ball back on its own 15 and my belief that some form of specific, but unknown threat had been passed down by the Michigan coaches at half-time about the next player to turn the ball over seemed to be gathering evidence.

Greg Mathews made plays, with or without Stephen Threet's help, sometimes right on the numbers, other times leaping moving, and showing off his whole skill set. Michigan facing a 3rd and 15 and the drive looking dead was saved by a 15 yard roughing the passer call. Odoms for eight and then Threet's Semi-Fleet Feet scrambling for seven, and now it's Michigan 45 yards out and hitting Brandon Minor for 11 yards, and then Minor again, with a burst on a 34 yard rush. Now it was Wisconsin 19, Michigan 14 and momentum and the potential for something was afoot. For just the second time in twelve years of going to Michigan football games together, Dave turned to me and said "Uh oh, ______ hears footsteps." The first time was in 2004, when Sparty heard them. This time, it was Bucky's turn. The Badger fans behind us went from belligerent to angry, threatening to "kick the crap" out of the Michigan fan next to him. (Admittedly, I do think this was provoked, but I wasn't watching what happened behind me. The game was on the field. I did, however, use Michigan's new text message alerting system to let stadium personnel going on that we had a developing situation, but they did not arrive until the point was moot.)

So now you have ten minutes left and you are down five. You need something more. A three and out and a short field would be good, but a turnover would be better. John Thompson understands "better". He snagged a tipped pass out of the air, and started to rumble towards the end zone. But he needed help, and he got it, in the form of what Frank Beckmann called a "convoy" and what John Saunders called a "Spanish Armada". Touchdown, Michigan and the entire Big House is in pandemonium. As Section 15's upper reaches awaited a potential two point conversion, a cheer went up "It's be...a Michigan Wolverine." It was, in my mind, premature, but I could hardly blame my fellow fans. They had heard it for three quarters from Badger fans, and now Wisconsin didn't even have "Scoreboard." They had heard the chants of "Notre Dame" and "Appalachian" and now Michigan had a lead, an improbable, unexpected, wholly confusing on some level lead, and though the two point conversion failed, Michigan was up one.

As an historian by trade, and a college football historian by passion, I knew too damn well than to start celebrating. A one point lead with 10:24 left to play is nothing. Everything could fall apart, and too often, the rally saps the team playing from behind of the emotion and the rally falls short in the end. But I had a theory, that this could hold. If Barwis was the relentless task master he was said to be, maybe superior conditioning could win the day. Michigan could still have something left in the tank. But they needed another quick stop to really make sure that this did not sour the exuberance that was filling the Big House at that moment.

4, -1, 6 left Wisconsin with 4th and 1 at their own 31, a punt put Michigan at its own 23, and there was 8:14 left to go. Michigan needed one more long drive, and a touchdown would be a dagger. It wouldn't seal the game, but it would make Wisconsin's job harder, because now they were the ones who didn't have enough time.

The first play, in my eyes, saw Brandon Minor get absolutely clocked by a Wisconsin defender and I thought "OK, maybe a loss of one...wait a second, why is Stephen Threet still....oh my God, he has the ball, Threet is running the ball!" Just like the comeback in the Metrodome in 2003, this was our Water Buffalo Stampede (actually, looking back, that would be the Thompson Interception, but I digress...) and Threet was covering the ball as if he had a diamond, first one hand, and then both arms. He was not losing the ball. No way, no how.

I've seen drives like this before, the one big play that gets you inside the red zone, only to falter when the defense stiffens. After the pass had been working, Michigan was now going to keep it on the ground. Grady for 4, McGuffie for 10, McGuffie for 2, Threet for nothing (bad snap, good recovery. It was a beige alert), Third and goal, and Boom, Sam slips it in. Lopata gets the Extra Point, and all of the sudden Michigan is up 8. It's real now, all too real, and it could slip away all too quickly.

If Wisconsin was going to rally, they now just had 5 minutes to move the ball 73 yards, because they needed the touchdown and a two point conversion. Surely somewhere, someone was cursing that missed field goal early in the first half, but nevertheless, this was the reality of now for the Badgers. Plus, the Brewers were losing, so it was not going well for them at all. I had shifted down a row into some empty seats in an attempt to build a DMZ between myself and the Badger fans, just in case.

Michigan's defense looked like it was bend, bend, bend, bend, allowing a large number of big plays, and all of the sudden, it was still loud, but now Michigan was the nervous fan base. Would everything that had happened be for naught? But no, Brandon Graham and Terrence Taylor ended a drive with a sack and fumble recovery. But now Michigan has the ball on its own eight and Wisconsin still has all three times out left. +3. Time out. +1. Time out. +3. Time out. 4th and three and Michigan punts, with Zoltan lofting one 49 yards out of bounds. Wisconsin will give it one last try from their own 36. A buck 19 left, and no times out, made tougher by a Brandon Graham sack for -7 on the first play.

I was not at Colorado in 1994, but I know that Colorado was going North to South. But every great Michigan comeback at the Big House had them going towards the North Endzone. Notre Dame in 1991, Virginia in 1995, Michigan State in 2004, all of the action was at that end. Now Wisconsin was heading that way and I began to wonder, as Wisconsin's hurry up looked really good, if the magic works both ways. When Everidge found Gilreath in the end zone from 22 yards out, it looked like perhaps it did (Note: Stevie Brown should get some credit here, as he laid a hit on Gilreath that SHOULD have knocked the ball loose, but alas, no dice.) Now it would all come down to a two point conversion, and if that worked, we were looking at overtime.

Michigan Stadium is a wonderful place to watch a game, but on occasion, when you're in one end zone, it is difficult to tell what is happening in the other. So I didn't realize that Travis Beckum has lined up in an illegal formation, I just saw he had caught the ball. Dave saw the flag, the hope, the chance. Sure enough, it was an ineligible man down field. Michigan had another chance, and this time, Everidge would sail the ball out of the back of the end zone (noted later on the highlights, it knocked the hat off an Ann Arbor police officer when the errant pass hit him in the head.)

The mood was jubilant, but I wasn't ready to celebrate yet. There were 13 seconds left on the clock and I knew an onside kick was coming. Colorado taught me many things and one is, only 0:00 assures a final result. But the onside kick went out of bounds safely, Threet returned, and victory formation was on.

Everything is better when your team wins, and it's magnified with a magnificent comeback. As I walked back to the Z's tailgate for some post game decompression, I got a text message from my fiancee that said everything I needed to know about her and about the game "This is why you watch football." And this is why you don't stop believin'. Because every so often, you see the impossible become the improbable, and the improbable become reality. A season may have been saved, a new program has a signature win, and we get to do to it all again next week.


Jon Schneider said...

Craig, excellent column. Thanks for a great start to my Monday morning!

Chris in NC said...

I'm out here in NC so I watched on TV. I DVR'ed the game and have watched it 3 times since Saturday. Still can't believe it really happened. I could be wrong, but it looked like all of the sudden, the kids (and they are kids) got it. It clicked and suddenly they were formidable. I hope it continues. If so, we may get a bowl just yet!

skipper1072 said...

Very refreshing column - wonderfully written, showing your passion for the game. Great work!