Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Sort of Homecoming

Man, he looks young...oh, right. (Mike Mulholland |
Homecoming is an odd duck when you attend football games on the regular with your college roommate in that it should feel like a chance to be nostalgic, but, I mean, literally, I'm sitting with the same person I sat with for four years of games as a student.  We have all the same in-jokes, all the same reference points, and so on.  It's not a blast from the past, it's Season 21 of the same show (and like The Simpsons the first 11 seasons were much more fondly remembered by the masses.)

It is also comforting to know that the same general miasma that surrounded Michigan Stadium during the first 20 minutes of the Rutgers game was not just one's self perhaps being too pessimistic.  Even after a thirteen play, 80-yard drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock that broke the seal, the 65-yard bust by Janarion Grant off the direct snap took all of the wind out of Michigan Stadium's collective sails.  The alumni (and the half of the student section that showed up) were cold, wind-burned and frustrated.  So when you get a fumbled snap that leads to an O'Korn scramble that ends with a seemingly random slide, and two incompletes, you couldn't blame the defense for thinking "What the heck?" because it was seemingly the general thought among the Maize and Blue faithful, especially after Rutgers allegedly missing in action passing game saw Giovanni Rescigno hit Josh Hicks for 28 yards into Michigan territory.  If not for a supremely mediocre punt by the Scarlet Knights, Michigan could have been pinned deep without a lot of room to work.

Then it happened.  It was a small burst of noise, coming from the most observant in the stands, and then it rose as a murmur, then finally a crescendo as the crowd realized what had happened.  Brandon Peters was in the game at quarterback.  The noise became so much that the scoreboard had to make a "Quiet Please: Offense at Work" request, which might have also been "Can we please not put any undue pressure on the kid, OK thank you?" request.  The whole of the stadium was picked up, it seemed, as the offense perked up, hitting on runs of 8 and 12 yards, then Peters finding Tyrone Wheatley, Jr for 15 for another first down.  Then a Walker run for 4, hitting Poggi for 10 and another first down, Ty Isaac for 6, then a wonderful find of Nico "The Velvet Underground" Collins for the sideline for 12, and finally Karan Higdon in from ten yards out and all seemed right with the Maize and Blue world.   This assertion was only reaffirmed when Michigan pulled together a wonderfully executed, if short, two-minute drill, finished by that most beautiful of all plays, a wheel route to Chris Evans and Michigan went into the locker room up 21-7.

One of the concepts I am finding the most difficult to deal with in my life as it stands now is the difficulty in converting mindset into success.  There are those who have argued (and this is WAY oversimplified) that if you believe you have room to grow, to improve, that you can get better, that there are no practical limits to what you can achieve.  While this is a wonderful and noble goal, sports are a painful reminder that talent still plays a role.  If wanting to be good at something was all that mattered in being successful, Brady Hoke would have a much better shot at still being Michigan's head coach.  A desire to be good and a commitment to improvement are not enough, you still need to have some talent to do it, especially when you are surrounded by other motivated, driven, and talented individuals.  So I think it has to be hard knowing that you wanted to do everything you can to make the most of your shot as a starter and it was just not enough.  As much as people tell you to tune out what the fans and the media are saying, it's so much easier said than done, you know your own shortcomings, and as much as you are working to overcome them, it's just not happening.  You know that you don't have many more chances, which possibly makes you press more, press harder, make bad mistakes precisely because you didn't want to do so.  But college sports are a ruthless meritocracy, as much as loyalty should be rewarded, if you're not getting the job done, you're not going to keep getting opportunities.

What Brandon Peters did yesterday was a glimmer of what is possible.  I do not expect that this is the start of some magical end of season run that rights the ship completely, but I do think it gives Michigan a realistic chance to see what it has in Peters going forward, earning him and the other young players some valuable game experience, and hopefully winning some games along the way.  The Wolverines still have to play the #4 and #3 teams in the country at the end of the coming month.  They have a defense that will, hopefully, keep them in any game.  The question is, can the offense find a way over the next two weeks to be ready for those matchups and give Michigan a chance.  Logic says "Probably not."  Hope says "Sure, why not?"  Hope's more fun here, and I'm going to run with it for now, knowing full well logic probably wins out in the end.  Then again, maybe not, it's college football, and if there's one thing that college football has proven time and again to not be, it's logical.  We shall see.  But for now, it's Minnesota week and as always, Jug security is at a premium.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now

This was nice...(AP Photo/Chris Knight) Photo Credit: AP
There is no great lesson in this one.  Michigan lost to the #2 team in the country, on their field, in a "White Out", at night, on national TV, in a game in which they were not favored.  They allowed touchdowns to the presumptive Heisman Trophy favorite, and they lost a game in which they were once again without their starting quarterback.  They showed they are a solid team, but not a great team.  The lesson is there is no lesson.  Sometimes, you lose a game you are expected to lose.

I don't have any answers, other than to plead patience, no suggestions other than to see how things play out over the next five games of the regular season.  Wanting things to be different does not make it so, but there may have to be changes made somehow to get better results.  Mostly, right now, it's just sitting with the disappointment of what could have been and hoping to get the most out of the remainder of the regular season.

So yes, this is where you can reach me now.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Running to Stand Still

"Higgy, Higgy, Higgy, can't you see, sometimes your runs just hypnotize me."  (AP/AJ Mast)
"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
--Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass

I was hoping to never use "Running to Stand Still" as a title in my themed year of U2 column names, but sometimes the mix of results, feeling, and the weather put you in a mood.  I think any reasonable observer of Michigan football knew, or at worst, strongly suspected that this week's game would be a microcosm of the same issues we saw last week, perhaps just without the squall line blowing through in the second half.  Michigan's defense would look all-world, Michigan's offense would be hard to look at.  For the most part, this was on point, but there were some surprises.  Karan Higdon got to be the workhorse out of the backfield and was rewarded with 200 yards (the first Michigan player since Denard to do this) and three touchdowns, a couple of which were honest to goodness attractive plays.  The defense continued to be disruptive, but the surfeit of penalties from a flag-happy crew, including what felt like a moment of "I've never seen this before" three on one play made it difficult to know if the defense was playing well in spite of the penalties or if the penalties were a symptom of a larger issue.  Having survived an ugly second half rock fight, Michigan was up 10 points with four minutes left to play.  

Then things fell apart.  A 53-yard punt return on a 46-yard punt is suboptimal when you're trying to nurse a lead.  Giving up a 12-yard pass on third down, suboptimal.  At that point, the Indiana touchdown was a mere formality and after the chaos of an onside kick that could have gone either way on the review, one still felt that a three-point lead with three minutes left should not be worrisome, except Michigan's offense had not exactly shown that they could burn clock and get the one first down they needed to ice the game.  So when Brad Robbins punt went into the end zone AND the long snapper gets called for holding, next thing you know, Indiana, who just needs a field goal to tie, gets the ball on their own 30, needing to go about 45 yards in 65 seconds, and sure enough, Griffin Oakes (current Big Ten leader for "player whose name sounds most like a MHSAA Division 5 football playoff qualifier since Perry Hills has graduated from Maryland) put a 46 yard field goal just inside the right upright, and we were off to overtime for the second straight trip to Bloomington.

Overtime began and Higdon pulled a Barry Sanders-esque "nothing doing here in my original running lane, hit my blocker, bounce, bounce, burn, score" run to open overtime.  It put me in mind of Tom Brady's pass to Shawn Thompson in the 2000 Orange Bowl, getting the ball first and getting the touchdown and saying "OK, your turn."  Michigan's defense responded after an initial, Michigan school record-setting sixteenth penalty calling a pass interference that would move the ball to the 12, (which the ESPN play-by-play on the website does not acknowledge), standing firm, getting into Peyton Ramsey's face, and finally forcing an interception, with Tyree Kinnel grabbing the ball and allowing every Michigan fan to finally exhale after something like four hours of hoping things would not go sideways.

It is not fair to complain about a win, because ultimately, that is the goal of any game, win the game.  There are no style points, win the game, minimize the number of people hurt, and move on to the next one.  Yet, in discussion with another Michigan fan, I was struck that this team is not "fun."  The defense is fun because it's aggressive and makes plays, (how could you not enjoy the Hurst/Gary/Winovich pursuit machine) but the positives of that group are essentially wiped out by the...I am loathe to say ineptitude, but the just general sense of ennui one gets in watching the group.  The offensive line hole left by the late-Hoke cliff, the youth of the receivers, the...interesting decision making of the quarterbacks, all of it negates the positive feelings of some excellent runs by Higdon.  It's not fair of me as a fan to want things to be "fun", because that isn't the job.

But, if it's "not fun", Saturday can turn into a frustrating slog of mostly hoping Michigan doesn't lose.  Hoping Michigan doesn't lose is not the same as hoping Michigan wins.  When you're rooting for Michigan to win, there's joy.  When Michigan doesn't lose, there is only relief.  But, there should have been joy today.  Winning today earned Michigan its 500th win in Big Ten play.  Winning today kept the streak alive, dating all the way back to 1987, the 22nd straight win over Indiana, the only major streak started by Bo that persists to this day, having somehow survived the RR/Hoke years.  These things are worth being happy about, even if it feels like relief is the primary sentiment of the day's result.  But the return of Harbaugh to Ann Arbor has brought higher expectations than just "survive an Indiana upset bid". The balance of expectations and possibilities within this year are creating a frustration that is palpable in ways I did not think possible.

Night in Happy Valley looms.  The defense will hopefully keep us in any game, even if the odds seem long.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

11 O'Clock Tick Tock

It shouldn't have even been this close, and yet, here we are.  AP Photo/Tony Ding | Photo Credit: AP
There will be no looped highlight from this one to torment Michigan fans in the future.  There will be vague uneasiness as we remember the sheets of rain, the five turnovers, the picks on three consecutive second-half drives, and mostly just that notion a game that statistically Michigan should have had no business being in, Michigan was still in because it has a nigh-unstoppable defense and a couple of Michigan State errors (a holding penalty that stopped the clock, a wholly unnecessary late hit out of bounds penalty) gave Michigan one last chance to win.  Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit were almost openly rooting for a karmic reversal of 2015's conclusion, a last-second heave by O'Korn from 37 yards out that would add another chaotic chapter to the rivalry.

But it was not to be.  Michigan had no one to blame for their struggles but themselves.  Michigan State came in with a game plan, executed the game plan, and did enough to win.  That is Dantonio's MO when it comes to Michigan and he and his staff should be credited for it.  Michigan came off an open date, and looked like they were going to put things well in hand on the first drive, until it stalled in the red zone and settled for a field goal.  But hey, no problem, there would be plenty more chances.  All Michigan had to do was not turn the ball over...well, not turn the ball over repeatedly...Well, let's just be astonished by the fact that Michigan State only scored 7 points off 5 Michigan turnovers.  Ty Isaac's fumble killed Michigan's momentum and put the Spartans in a mindset that they could win this game, and once in that mode, they never looked back.  Simultaneously, Michigan's offensive line continued to struggle, with O'Korn's escapability being one of the few reasons why Michigan State wasn't racking up a double-digit sack total.  Michigan State then used the defense's willingness to be aggressive against it with a brilliant play call and another ill-timed fumble trying to extend a play and Michigan was down 14-3 going into halftime.

The hope held by Michigan fans, I presume, by and large, was that, like the Purdue game, there would be adjustments at halftime, the defense would clamp down, and Michigan would find a way to get a couple of scores and that would be enough.  Except for the massive squall line bearing down on Ann Arbor, slated to arrive at 10 PM and putting a swirling rainstorm into the Big House.  Though Michigan used the field position game to close the gap to 14-10.  Though the defense was its usual stalwart self, O'Korn's poor decisions (and the inexplicable playcalling in buckets of rain) ended three straight Michigan drives before they could get going.  That was all there was, and Harbaugh drops to 1-4 against MSU/OSU.

The gnawing feeling I cannot escape at the moment is that Harbaugh may be one of the best coaches in the nation, and it still may not be enough.  That the defense may be otherworldly, but the sub-sub-par execution of this current offense will stymie any progress Michigan wishes to make.  That for all of our hopes that things would be better, there's still a lot to fix.  That the single-mindedness of Michigan State towards beating Michigan works well for them and must be met.  Many of us strongly suspected that something like this would happen, and sadly, it happened against Michigan State, the second straight ABC night game where Michigan's offense let the defense down, and no solution seems to be in sight.  There's still time to find a way forward on offense, but that time is running out.  Beyond that, there are no grandiose takeaways from this game, just a sad sensation we've become all too familiar with in the last decade.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Review: Playing Hurt by John Saunders, with John U. Bacon

On Saturday, I got the call: My dad had collapsed at a restaurant, and he was on his way to the hospital. He was fine - no heart attack, he just fainted for an unknown reason. But as I sit down to write this review, I can't help but think of Playing Hurt through that lens.

I always thought of John Saunders as one of the best in sports broadcasting. He was a pro, a steadying presence, and always welcome on my TV screen. I knew he'd briefly been on the hockey teams at Michigan and at Western, but I had no clue about so much of his life. This book is deeply honest and revealing, and much of the focus is on how the turmoil in his early life led him to dark, despairing places. How suicidal ideation was always a threat, and how the disease of depression impacts your life and your loved ones.

John paints a vivid picture of how depression works as a chronic disease: How it ebbs and flows, creeping up to knock you down, but how it can be managed with a good therapist, the right combination of medications, and figuring out how to build in processes to minimize its triggers. He also shows how sometimes that doesn't matter.

Before I started this book, I only vaguely remembered that John had been sidelined at ESPN due to a medical issue. I completely forgot that he had collapsed at work. He wasn't as lucky as my dad. John hit his head, giving him a traumatic brain injury (I completely agree with John that calling those things "concussions" minimizes how severe these can be). The aftermath was severe, forcing him to learn how to walk again. And like many TBI sufferers, it threw his emotional controls out of whack. Everything was on a knife edge, and small things could flare his depression to dangerous levels. The episode he recounts on the Tappan-Zee Bridge is nothing short of harrowing. I'm lucky: my dad didn't hit his head. He was talking with our long-time dentist when it happened, and he lowered him to the floor. I've been thinking about what the road ahead could have looked like.

Of course, John Saunders is gone now. He had a heart attack due to complications from his Type 1 diabetes. I wish he'd had more time with his family, and if we got some of it, we'd all be the better for it. I'm glad John U. Bacon got a chance to finish this book to add to Saunders' legacy. Playing Hurt is a compelling read, and it's well worth your time.

Note: Da Capo Press provided a copy of Playing Hurt for this review.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Michigan Defense Theater: The Return - Experiment 1704: Purdilicus

NOAH FURBUSH is piloting a spaceship while hitting a huge pile of AEROSPACE ENGINEERING textbooks.
What is he doing?
That's Noah Furbush, one of our top linebackers. He's probably working on a drone control algorithm for his capstone project. He's returning with the largest cache of Stephen Ross donations the world has ever seen.
That's really going to help with our funding problems at Schembechler Institute.
[blows nose with $100 bill]
A DISTRESS SIGNAL appears on the radar.
Five, four, three, two, one. Blog trap initiated. Mayday!
Someone needs my help. This is Noah Furbush from the Schembechler Institute, I'm preparing to land.
A PNEUMATIC TUBE appears and sucks up NOAH FURBUSH.
In the not-too-distant future, next Saturday A.D.
There was a guy named Noah, so much taller than you or me
He worked at Schembechler Institute
Just another guy in a maize jumpsuit
A distress call came it at five past noon
But an evil Sparty trapped him so he'll have to be a dude

I'll send him speedy runners, the best I can find
He'll have to stop, tackle them all, while I monitor his mind

Now keep it mind that Noah can't control when the runners begin or end
He'll try to keep his sanity with the help of his D-Line friends

Chase Wino!

If you're wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts
He's got a meal card and it's set on Earth so you should really just relax
For Michigan Defense Theater 3000!

Hi everyone, welcome to the Satellite of Yost. I'm Noah, and these are my friends Chase Wino and Mone.
You're not my friend!
Come on, Mone, Noah is our friend and trusted ally on the rare occasions that a runner gets to the second level.
Since we've last been here, we've made a few upgrades. I've added an appetite simulator to Maurice - the good news is that he moves even faster but the bad news is he's always hungry. Gary handles all the higher functions on the Satellite of Yost so I've upgraded him to bigger and faster than you can possible imagine.
And everyone can fly now! But only on the football field.
A RED LIGHT flashes.
Dammit, Moon 3-9 is calling.