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.

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