|Daybreak was a long time coming, but when it arrived, it stayed light. (Jim Young/AP)
"I wish I was traveling on a freeway
Beneath this graveyard western sky
I'm gonna set fire to this city
And out into the desert
we're gonna ride."
--"Perfect Blue Buildings", Counting Crows from the 1993 album August and Everything After
They're not always stupid games in Evanston. It just feels that way. History does undoubtedly show to us that there have been plenty of stupid games in Evanston in recent vintage. [gazes sidelong at M00N]. This wasn't a stupid game as much as it was a frustrating game because it didn't need to be that way, but a slow start by Michigan, an excellent opening script by Northwestern, and penalties upon penalties upon penalties made it so. It would be really nice to just focus on the second half, where the defense looked much more like the unit that we have come to expect but to ignore the first half is to...well, sort of do what Michigan looked like it was doing yesterday.
Michigan won the toss and chose to receive, which was an initial point of confusion. Coach Harbaugh has spoken previously of his love of the opportunity for the "wrap-around" score, where you get the ball at the end of the first half and score and then get the ball back to start the second half. Certainly, you could argue that after last week Michigan perhaps felt that they did not need the wraparound score, after all, the experts in the desert had Michigan as roughly 15 point favorites, so come out, take the ball, get a score, and put an offense that lost its leading rusher during the week in a hole early. But if that was the plan, then it went awry very quickly, with Michigan going three-and-out then Northwestern marching down the field and scoring to make it 7-0 early. The Wolverines would spot Northwestern another 10 on the next two possessions and found themselves staring up from the bottom of a 17-0 hole as the second quarter began in earnest. All of the possibilities and realignments of expectations that happened in the last three weeks felt ephemeral, another Michigan team that looks amazing against lesser competition at home but cannot find its way forward on the road, a very daunting prospect given the trips to East Lansing and Columbus that remain on the schedule.
But steadily, the things that Michigan does well came back into alignment, including the all-important halftime adjustments. Karan Higdon ran hard, even if on his final touchdown drive, Northwestern had figured out that he was getting the ball up the middle on first down (four runs on first down on that drive, none for more than a yard.) His final touchdown (illustrated above) came after nearly 56 minutes of Michigan not holding the lead. Then defense bared the teeth of the wolf and kept up the pressure that saw Northwestern held to 61 yards on just 27 plays in the second half. That is getting off the field, and that is how you give your team a chance to make a comeback.
I almost feel like Michigan fans don't appreciate this kind of thing because it's been the nature of the Don Brown defense: dominant, aggressive, and gets off the field on third down. It doesn't always happen, but when it needed to, admittedly against a team that has offensive effectiveness issues. It would be nice to see fewer penalties, but Gus Johnson served up a stat yesterday that essentially said that almost all of the most penalized teams in the nation also had winning records.
All of the consternation about yesterday comes back to "what does this mean for WisconsinMichiganStatePennStateOhioState????" and I understand that line of thinking. The future is what we care about because it has yet to be written and we're trying to use what is happening in the present to be instructive. If Michigan wins those games, then a game like this is the springboard to improvement and renewed focus. If Michigan loses those games, then this was the harbinger of what happens when you start slowly and take foolish penalties. We don't actually know anything, we won't really know anything until the games themselves are played. I realize this is trite, I realize this is not useful, but attempting to extrapolate the future of a college football team is also very difficult.
Now, to find out what the Big Ten has to say about the penalty from Mars. Because I would really like to know about that one.