Sunday, October 30, 2016

Heart of Glory

And every Michigan fan exhaled.  Finally. (Michigan Athletics)

I wanted to believe.  I wanted to tell myself that the numbers were right and I was being needlessly scarred by the waning seconds of last year's game and that the computers had everything sorted out.  But data, for all that it can tell us, is retrospective.  It can only tell us what has happened, and potentially what may happen, but not what will happen.  That does not mean that data is not instructive, it's deeply so, especially if you take the time to study it and understand what it means.  It's just that "models are opinions embedded in mathematics."

What Michigan State has been this year is utterly surprising to virtually any college football observer whom I have read.  It doesn't seem like it's real, even when you account for the issues like losing a quarterback like Connor Cook or seniors on the O-Line, it just appeared that Michigan State's collapse was inexplicable.  Without getting all cliche, however, there was no way that Michigan State was just going to roll over in this game. A win over Michigan would, if not save their season, could easily mark the moment when they turned their season around.  They were going to take their best swing at Michigan, and for the opening minutes of a swiftly paced first quarter, they looked like they had connected.

Michigan, however, tasted the blood in their mouth, smiled, and proceeded to put 27 points on Michigan State by halftime and had their biggest lead at Spartan Stadium that anyone seemed to be able to remember.  It had been a long, long time.  But the fear remained.  For as great a day as Amara Darboh was having, grabbing nearly everything thrown in his general vicinity, there was still trepidation.  Michigan hadn't looked great last week in the second half against Illinois, for a relative definition of great, would this be the case again.

So when Wilton Speight threw a pick on a wheel route, (which I didn't even know could happen because wheel routes are blameless, holy creatures) and Michigan State took the ball inside the ten-yard line, the fear began to rise once more.  When Jabrill Peppers was called for a meh defensive pass interference in the end zone, giving Michigan State new life and a new set of downs, the fear rose up again.  This was calmed when Michigan stopped them yet again on four straight plays inside the two-yard line, and there was a realization that this year was not all of those other years, Michigan State was not going to out tough Michigan this year.

Except, Michigan really couldn't get anything going as they had to that point.  After the 14 play drive that ended on a nicely placed Kenny Allen field goal to make it 30-10, Michigan went three and out for its first punt of the game, which was followed by a Michigan State touchdown.  Michigan then went six and out, which was followed by a ten play MSU drive that ended in a turnover on downs thanks to a Jabrill Peppers sack.  

Michigan got the ball back with 1:46 left and MSU had two timeouts remaining.  They used both after two Michigan run plays, the second of which looked like Karan Higdon got it but a meh spot, and then a run for no gain had Michigan punting again.   A cleanly handled Kenny Allen snap and punt put Michigan State on their own 25 with 37 seconds remaining.  Time to breathe easy.  Except no.

Michigan State traversed the natural surface of Spartan Stadium quickly (on the clock, the interminable fourth quarter took forever, thanks to reviews, penalties, and general shenanigans) and with one second remaining, scored a touchdown to make it 30-23.  Without warning, Michigan was facing the possibility of a kick with one second remaining where Michigan State could potentially win the game, especially if they converted the try for two.

So when Jabrill Peppers scooped up the loose football from a failed pitch and raced to the end zone for Michigan's own defensive two-point conversion, putting Michigan up an insurmountable nine points with one second remaining, there was a collective exhale from the Michigan fanbase.  The onside kick attempt sailed harmlessly out of bounds and Michigan was, once more, the rightful possessor of the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

There should be no grand proclamations of order restored, or Michigan being back.  Michigan is playing well, the defense, while perhaps no longer on its heretofore historic trajectory that it was before the most recent sixty minutes in East Lansing, is still formidable.  At a time of the year when the chaos begins to swell and swirl around the college football landscape, Michigan went into a stadium that has been a nightmare for them for the last decade and got out with a win.  Style points may matter, but style points don't make the Paul Bunyan Trophy any more beloved when it is displayed in the Towsley Family Museum.  Michigan remains undefeated as the calendar turns to November.  That hasn't happened in long enough that we should pause and reflect on the excellence of that fact.

By happy coincidence, today marks the tenth anniversary of my first HSR post.  Though it took me some time to find my voice, and eventually start these columns, essentially my dairy of my thoughts on the most recent Michigan football game, looking back at these ten years, these eleven seasons spanned in that framework and you realize just how odd they really have been.  Michigan has had as many head coaches in this time frame as it did from 1959-2007.  We have seen the end of the Lloyd era, one that was as confusing at the time as anything. We have seen the high hopes for the Rodriguez era dashed on the rocky shore of tradition and "fit".  We have seen the early promise of the Hoke era collapse under the weight of a lack of competencies. We have seen our way through three coaching searches, each more chaotic than the last.  We have seen our belief in the power of home mocked by everyone outside the tribe except for the one person to whom it actually had to matter.  We have seen the chaos of the Harbaugh era mitigated by the grace of a return to the past, an odd combination of the movie series reboot that works, retaining that which we loved about the original while giving it the right modern twist.  We have seen the staggering highs of Denard running wild, and the dismal lows of well, there was a lot of them.  The final analysis is simple: The last ten years are a rich tapestry, filled with more heartbreak than a Michigan fan is accustomed, but one that has made us more grateful for the small graces.  Like when Michigan's do-everything linebacker runs a two-point conversion back in the final second of a rivalry game.  The small graces matter, and that's why we write about them.  We're trying to capture in words what we feel in our hearts, in our heads.  Something beyond the data, something beyond the metrics, not because those things don't matter, but because we need to give them context.  

Onward to Maryland, onward to November.  

Monday, October 24, 2016

Speight Meter: Slow Insight

Scoring less than half the number of touchdowns that you scored in the previous game is rarely not a cause for concern, but dropping from 11 to 5 is hardly an issue for concern, especially when (1) Wilton Speight has worked his way back towards his early season accuracy, and (2) Kenny Allen hit a couple of field goals. Going into halftime 31-0 was more reassuring than going in up 35-0 would have been.

The most heartening events of this weekend weren't at the Big House - everywhere else in the Big Ten gave signs that the schedule already played was harder than Michigan made it look and the schedule to come is a little easier than we thought. Indiana lost to Northwestern. Iowa failed to have an offense yet again. Rutgers showed signs of being merely extremely bad instead of utterly incompetent. And Penn State beat Ohio State and is now "good" again, which means that Michigan beat a good team by 39 points.

Michigan State lost to Maryland. According to the rules of our Sparty, No! quiz, this counts as a Sparty No! game because MSU was up 17-14 at the start of the fourth and thus, technically, they blew a fourth-quarter lead. If win probabilities had been readily available four years ago we would have used them instead, as MSU only had, at most, a 55% chance of winning.

Of course, we never know what schemes Mark Dantonio has up his sleeves. Riley Bullough could have got himself ejected so he'd have extra rest for Saturday, we may never know.

The Speight Meter is at an 8 this week. Go win this pelt.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Homecoming

One of the many heads of Michigan's running back hydra.  No, not that Hyrda.  Even if we share the whole "Hail" thing.
(AP/ Tony Ding)
Some random notes from the second half of a blowout win.
Issue #1: Why isn't Illinois better at football?
Illinois is 4th all-time in Big Ten Conference championships, with 15 (just behind...Minnesota?  Yes, Minnesota), but only have seven since 1945.  For all of the people who live in Illinois, you would think that they should be able to recruit the best of Chicago and downstate and be highly competitive.  Then again, Urbana-Champaign is 135 minutes away from Chicago without traffic, and Notre Dame is just an hour away, and Northwestern is "Chicago's Big Ten Team" so maybe that's part of it.  Illinois being "good" always feels more like a random blip than a sustained notion.

Issue #2: Does Jim Harbaugh pay at Ruth's Chris Steak House?
I say yes, even if he is doing wonders for their Sunday-Thursday business.

Issue #3: Does Jim Harbaugh believe in Information Chaos Theory over Information Secrecy Theory?
I have a friend who breaks things for a living and he explained to me during the early years of social media that the key to not giving potential identity thieves a line on who you are is not to put zero information out there, but to put so much information out there that no one knows what is real and what is fake.  If you make it plausible enough, you're not worth the hassle.

I feel like Harbaugh/Drevno/Fisch have decided that they're going to show Michigan's opponents so many things in their playbook that have so many variations, that no one will know that look X means play Y.   Instead, they've gone full Vulcan: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.  Sure, we'll try a fake punt up 34 in the second half, because the opportunity presented itself!  Sure, we'll run the train after two straight misfires in the "let's just Jabrill Peppers a touchdown today" effort.  Sure, we'll cook something up that earns Tyrone Wheatley, Jr. his first career catch which becomes a touchdown.

Basically, Jim Harbaugh is Jimmy James from NewsRadio:
Mr. James: "See? That's right. Just when you think I'm going to zig, I zag."
Dave Nelson: "Well sir, when you're done with your zig-zagging..."
Mr. James: "That's when I zog."

Issue #4: The Michigan Stadium scoreboard was reconfigured and now it is harder to see where the ball is spotted.
I don't need to know what quarter it is on equal footing, but I do want to know where the ball was spotted.  Especially when you're in the end zone and don't have a good angle on it.

Issue #5: I hope the Yips are OK.
Saw the costumes but not being worn, I hope that the Yips are OK.

Really, that's about it.  Which is fine.  Yesterday was routine, for a new definition of routine.  And that's awesome.  On to bringing Paul home to Ann Arbor. Hail!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Speight Meter Week 6: Win, with, spite

Normally, watching a football game involving Rutgers has a well-defined place on the priority list, and that place is at the bottom. So, upon hearing that Saturday's game would be at 4:00 PT and conflict with my arranged-far-in-advance dinner reservations, I expected that missing the late stages of a blowout would mean not missing anything important. Never again will I underestimate the Rutgers's ability to overwhelm with underperformance.

I stopped following the game to start dinner in that brief moment when it appeared Rutgers had more than zero points.

As for the offense: I reviewed the drive chart and realized I had almost forgotten that the first few drives...were not good. If we want to nitpick a 78-point performance (and Michigan Men always do), we can complain about using the wrong gloves and not needing a passing game.

But putting up the largest margin of victory since 1939 is a special occasion and should be noted accordingly.

Rutgers can't even stop our third string and walk-ons, but that's none of my business. It's not my job to stop trying to score.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Operation: Annihilate!

Hello, Mr. Laviano, it's Taco Time.  (AP / Mel Evans)
When preparing to write these posts, I like to look back at the play-by-play to find patterns that I may not remember from watching the game live.  This week showed me that I was correct in thinking that Michigan would not throw another pass after the near interception off the deflection that was taken to the house by Rutgers, only to be called back (unfire the cannon!).  Only three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad, and when you are up 57-0, you don't need that hassle in your life.  In the fourth quarter, not counting the two end of game kneel downs, Michigan averaged, averaged 10.64 yards per carry from that point, and scored three touchdowns, all from backups.  Michigan did not so much call off the dogs as told the dogs to go out and have fun and don't get hurt and still put up 21 points.  There can be one conclusion from this: Rutgers 2016 is not a good football team.  I suspect one day in the near future they may be; especially if (and this is a big if) they can keep some of that local talent at home, but for now, Michigan honored the 100th anniversary the infamous Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0 shutout, by burning down a divisional foe.

It's worth remembering though that this game was ugly to start.  The rain falling on northern New Jersey was threatening to make this game an equalized slog where it would come down to fumbles and traction.  It was punt, punt, fumble on Michigan's first three series and the room was becoming visibly and audibly nervous.  But then Jabrill Peppers decided to frolick down the sideline on a wildcat keeper, stopped at the Rutgers four and Michigan was in business and never looked back.  Michigan kept piling on, keeping up with a tradition of going for two while up four scores and looks forward to an open date next week.

For all of the offensive fireworks and gaudy stats, the defense was the real MVP.  Michigan had 13 total TFL from 13 different players, limiting Rutgers to an average of two feet per play.  Not two yards, two feet. There were several moments when Michigan was on defense and successfully got pressure, only to see the Rutgers quarterback escape danger, only to have a Michigan player fly in from off screen to lay the wood where I yelped "Oh dear God."  It was savage, it was unkind, and it was ferocious.  It is Michigan's mentality now.  It is no longer her to make friends; it is no longer concerned with being liked by any other school, team, or fan base.  Considering how far Michigan has come since its last trip to Piscataway, that bleary October evening two years ago, this is a whole other world.  It is a world that would have only been permissible in one's wildest dreams or deepest rooted fantasies.  No longer are Michigan fans left to look for silver linings or pushed to gallows' humor.  We enjoy the moment and the seemingly limitless horizon that lays out before us, because this team and this coaching staff have, thus far, made it possible.

But now here Michigan is, 6-0, running like a finely tuned machine, and yet one that still has room for improvement.  That said, the expectations are such that this is where most Michigan fans thought this team would be at this point in the season.  Even if the entirety of Michigan's non-conference slate is proving itself to be better than predicted before the season started, even if Michigan's toughest opponent turned out to be a Wisconsin team that did give the Wolverines fits last week, the six wins in six tries was the widely expected notion.  In looking at the second half od the schedule, the next six games are fascinating if nothing else. Road trips to three of the most hostile to Michigan venues possible, Indiana and Maryland teams that are showing to be a tough out, if Michigan makes it to Thanksgiving with all of its goals in front of it, it will have shown it through the mantra: "Win with character. Win with cruelty."

Enjoy the open date and the new world.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Wis., Tot Helping

Watching Michigan play Wisconsin was like taking a three-year-old to Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the game, which is what I did. In the first quarter, everything seems OK. She gets her lunch, eats some fries and her fruit, plays with their game box, and everything is going slowly as planned. There are warning signs though - she doesn't want to eat her mac & cheese because BW3 has shells instead of elbows.

The second quarter starts out better. She gets out of her seat and lies on her side once for no real reason, but soon after she starts clapping along to The Victors like she knows what she's doing. But the mac & cheese slowly congeals into a single blob and she starts throwing her toy football everywhere except where it's supposed to go.

I buy her ice cream at halftime because these three and a half hours need ice cream to get through.

The third quarter has the inevitable accident that you always have to plan for but you're always surprised when it actually happens. Let's not speak of it further.

The fourth quarter starts with her finally deciding to eat a little bit of macaroni. Despite it all, she does do everything she's supposed. For the second Victors singalong she starts to get all the hand motions right.

She spends the second half of the fourth quarter watching Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood on the iPad, learning valuable lessons about anger management, and just riding out the string. As the game ends she starts yelling a little and demands to go home as quickly as possible. 

So if you want to know what parenthood is like, Saturday was the experience for you. Everything usually works out OK in the end, making the hours upon hours of aggravation worth it.

The Speight-meter gets a 2, as the difference in the game was Speight-to-Darboh whipping it longest.

Numbers go in the train formation now.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

A Taste of Armageddon

Darboh time, just in the nick of time. (Dustin Johnson / Maize n Brew)
In my mind, there was a slight bit of amusement to be had in the pundits predicting that this would be the week that Wisconsin was exposed as being not as good as thought collectively.  There's nothing wrong with those predictions, they were based on sound reasoning and math, it's just that felt highly unlikely as to how this week was going to go at The Big House.  Even if one thought Michigan might cover the 10 1/2 point spread, it was still going to be a rock fight.  The reality is, advanced stats can help us understand what has happened, but it is still difficult to see when they tell us what will happen.  We can see why Michigan's defense has been so good through things like its HAVOC rating and its stellar third-down completion percentage, but it does not mean that those things will happen again, just that they are likely to be as such, at least based on past performance.

That is why I felt that Wisconsin fumble that was not on third down deep in their territory was a critical missed opportunity.  Not because Michigan needed help, but because that kind of thing would be a break a team needs to help it demoralize an opponent early on and lead to the boat racing that many had foreseen.  Even if Wisconsin didn't score on that drive, even if they didn't move the ball that well, it still felt like a moment of what could have been.  An experienced watcher starts mentally writing the story of the game in one's head while watching the game because one has seen how these things tend to play out.  Very often, that narrative is wrong, but on occasion, it ends up being right.

When Michigan went down the field late in the first quarter, pass, run, run, pass, pass, incompletion, pass, run, run, touchdown run, it felt like Michigan had found a rhythm and a way to befuddle the stout Wisconsin defense just enough to keep ahead of the chains and find paydirt.  Except that is not what was meant to be.  Despite getting excellent field position from Wisconsin, a horror show broke out, complete with a pair of missed field goals, a flurry of penalty flags, and a plethora of punts.  In a game that Michigan should have been up 13-0 headed into the locker room, it was a very disquieting 7-0 lead and one that provided more questions than answers.  Should have has yet to win a football game.

So the weirdness of the opening salvo of the third quarter, penalties leading to Michigan needing to re-punt, only to draw a roughing the snapper call on the re-kick, only to see Speight throw an interception on the play after a Shane Morris run had been called back by a hold, emblematic of the disjointed weirdness that had inhabited Michigan's offense after the touchdown.  Wisconsin used a short field and a wheel route to make their first real moves on the Michigan defense and suddenly, the missed field goals loom large and become the narrative thread of what might have been.

Except, it wasn't.  After another missed field goal, and five exchanged punts, Wilton Speight stayed clean for just long enough to find Amarah Darboh covered single high and dropped a duck in the bucket and Michigan led again.  But the time loomed large over the 110,000 plus crowd, each second feeling longer than the last.  Could the Michigan defense keep answering the bell?

In the end, Michigan held Wisconsin under 170 total yards.  They had three interceptions, including a pair of critical picks by Channing Stribling as the Saturday understudy, and the single most exceptional interception I have ever seen in person by All-America Jourdan Lewis, and it was just enough to hold on to win.  Not pretty, not at all textbook, but perhaps showing one critical point: If Michigan can beat its opponents in all three phases, as has been suggested, and two of them are not working on a given day, the only one that it can rely on is its defense.

In so many ways, I was reminded of the 1997 Iowa game, one of the first real tests of that championship season.  It's not a perfect analogue, for instance, Michigan never trailed in this game, but when a team has championship aspirations after a long run of middling, fans and players alike need to know that the team has mettle, that the team can dig deep and find it when it needs it most, and pull out a win that keeps all of  the team's goals in front of them, it becomes a relief.  But it also is a reminder that there's magic in these moments, even when it does not seem apparent.

On to Rutgers, where Michigan seeks its first victory at Piscataway.