Saturday, October 20, 2018

Mr. Jones

Strike a Pose: 2018 Edition (Dustin Johnson / DJPhotoVideo)
We all wanna be big, big stars
Yeah, but we got different reasons for that
Believe in me
'Cause I don't believe in anything
And I wanna be someone to believe, to believe, to believe
"Mr. Jones", Counting Crows, August and Everything After, 1993

We can safely say that this was by no means as pretty or as fun as last week's outing.  It was far too close for comfort, even when the numbers said Michigan was comfortably in control, well, we all know what those ESPN numbers can actually mean in the real world, but especially in this game.

It was moments after the feeling that Michigan State's legendary luck, it's perma-horseshoe, was going to help them pull off another miracle was settling in when Shea Patterson got a super clean pocket, waited for a beat, then launched a beautiful arcing throw to a racing Donovan Peoples-Jones, who beat his man, slipped a last-gasp tackle attempt, and found paydirt for a 79 yard TD.  DPJ then proceeded to pose like the Paul Bunyan Trophy and while the game was not over by a longshot, it felt much better for the remainder of the day, because Michigan's defense was not going to allow a weather-induced slopfest stop them from making Michigan State if not regret, then at least question several of their life choices on the offensive side of the ball.  While a flag festival on MSU's final drive was enough to make a vexillologist convention happy, Michigan's relentless defense held Michigan State under 100 yards of total offense and won back Paul Bunyan and continued its revenge tour.

There will be people frustrated that Michigan has "lowered" itself to Michigan State's level, cries of "We're better than this!" and "Act like you've been there before!"  In the past, I might have even agreed with this, but I realize now, Michigan needs to loathe Michigan State as much as Michigan State loathes them.  They need to feel it deeply and completely, allowing it to permeate every membrane of their collective selves, seeping into every crack, and filling them with the same devotion to getting the job done.  Michigan State has made a living off trick plays and luck that defies math for the last decade (seriously, Mark Dantonio may actually have assembled all of the pieces of the Weather Dominator, having successfully stolen them from GI Joe), Michigan could not afford to say "Ohio State is the only rival that matters" any longer.  They understood it.  They heard the narratives, 1-5 against rivals, haven't beat a ranked team on the road since 2006, they knew the world needed to erase those narratives and the only way that you can do that is to win this game.

It was not a given.  Even after taking the 7-0 lead on the longest TD drive in Michigan history (because of the weather delay, it took forever.  Yes, this is a lame joke, we don't care.) and just as Michigan's defense forced Lewerke into bad pass after bad pass, the inescapable feeling that Michigan had left points on the field, gifted with great field position and failing to cash in each and every time, including a disturbingly bad looking kick by Quinn Nordin, and headed into the locker room sitting on the 7-0 lead.  Grumblings about conservative play calling, burning downs, and Shea's indecision swirled like the hot dog wrappers that tornadoed around Spartan Stadium during the weather delay.  The rain returned, the strip fumble of Chris Evans inside the Michigan 10, and a trick play later, the 7-7 tie made it seem like all of those premonitions and predictions of doom were about to come true.  So when the shot that people had been begging for all game paid off, when the running that had looked to be going nowhere had finally worn down the Spartan defense and was rewarded with a Ben Mason touchdown, it was a reminder of one indelible truth of football: Defense Travels.

So Michigan enjoyed the win, their second in three years over the Spartans, Michigan Twitter maybe enjoyed it even more (OK, not as much as Chase Winovich) and Paul returned to his rightful home in Ann Arbor, and the joy of an open date coming off two straight big wins laid out ahead of the team and of us fans.  Order has not yet been restored, but you can't start a winning streak without winning one.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Good Time

"We didn't know it at the time, but this would be foreshadowing the rest of the evening." (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

"I want to have a good time

Just like everybody
And I don't want to fall apart"
"Good Time", Counting Crows from the 2002 album Hard Candy

There exists a fine line between "making a point" and "trolling".  Both were on display during the Michigan-Wisconsin game, Under the Lights VII at Michigan Stadium.  "Making a Point" is when you have 25 or so Michigan offensive line alumni who were captains, all-Big Ten, or played five years in the NFL as your honorary captain, reminding Wisconsin, the conference's current farm-to-NFL table for offensive linemen that Michigan knew how to do that once upon a time and would like to do that again, preferably sooner rather than later.  Trolling is when you play "Jump Around" late in the fourth quarter, leading some Wisconsin fans to laugh and shake their heads simultaneously.  Either Special K has been summarily dismissed from the press box and replaced with someone who has a better understanding of what will get a Michigan Stadium crowd hyped, or he took some continuing education classes in that realm.

For a change, Michigan didn't get off to a slow start (though there are those who would grouse about the missed Nordin field goal and worry that it was going to come back to bite Michigan later.  When it was 13-7 at halftime, it was entirely plausible to construct scenarios in one's head on how the destruction was going to come to the strains of the MMB version of the Turtles' "Happy Together".  I reminded myself, aloud, to the approbation of the good people of the upper levels of Section 7 that we got to halftime with a lead and Don Brown makes adjustments at halftime like whoa.)  The fear remained persistent.  Jonathan Thomas was being contained, but still getting 3, 4, 5, 7 yards despite multiple large men in navy blue shirts attempting to tackle him.  It was a tip your cap moment to both parties, Taylor's sheer power, and his shiftiness as a runner, the Michigan defense's assignment discipline (and overall discipline, just the one unsportsmanlike penalty after the game-sealing pick-six) that they were meeting Taylor where he was to prevent the chunk play.

But slowly, the fears began to dissipate, like a fog burning off in the morning sun.  The 75-yard drive, kept alive by the first roughing the snapper call I've ever seen in person (the Wisconsin fans near us were incredulous, they didn't even know it was a penalty.  The fan near him said "We did, it should have been called in the 2015 Michigan State game.") and capped off by Shea's bootleg right where he puts the ball down in the end zone like it's a rugby try and the two-point conversion where I did not see Nico Collins at all until he had the ball in his hands.  It began to feel like Michigan, with a two-score lead, on a team that had only mustered 25 passing yards on the night, might be on the way to changing the narrative about Michigan in big games.

Then the Lavert Hill goes pick-six for a 21-yard ramble*, and a new narrative began to emerge from the ashes of the old one.  It's not fully formed yet, it needs similar excellent performances in the next couple of games against Michigan State and Penn State to truly be a new argument, but this team is clicking.  The offensive line, the source of much hand-wringing, has opened holes to allow Karan Higdon to run for 100 yards in five consecutive games.  The much-maligned receiving corps has grown up, bracketed by tight ends who move the chains.  This is not the Michigan team that looked like it would frustrate the hell out of the fans once more after the Notre Dame game.  But this is college football, chaos can rear its head on any given weekend.  Michigan avoided it with a statement win, but next weekend's chaos can loom as large if a team is not prepared for it.

So the new week arrives.  Beat State.

(*Though Hill's touchdown was the dagger, it was McCaffery's touchdown that led me to say "Oh that's just egregious" like Puppet Michael Floyd from Stuffing the Passer.  Gratuitous would have been the better word in this spot, but that's where my head was at in that moment.)

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Raining in Baltimore

Good things happen when you can actually start a game, Mr. Hudson. (Paul Sancya/AP)
"And I get no answers
And I don't get no change
It's raining in Baltimore, baby
But everything else is the same."

--"Raining in Baltimore", Counting Crows, August and Everything After, 1993

Another game, another slow start. Another game, another strong finish.  The major differences today were that the Big Ten seemed to have maybe looked at a copy of the chart that said Michigan wasn't having any holding calls on its defense, and that Shea Patterson's outstanding characteristic is his elusiveness, not his speed.  There's a major difference there.  Patterson isn't Denard Robinson, he's not a run-first quarterback, but if he can elude and evade oncoming defenders, extend plays and while his decision making isn't always perfect (I'm trying to decide how much the interception was his fault since it did hit the receiver's hands and pop into the air.  Simultaneously, his TD pass to Ronnie Bell was probably not a great decision until it was.  The margins on some of these things are very thin.)  Whereas Michigan's defense showed its fangs in the second half last week, it faltered slightly, giving up fourth quarter drives of 75 and 78 yards, but perhaps the injuries being suffered in the D-Line both before during the game were finally shone through and caused some consternation.  But it was the 9 play, 81-yard drive and the 46-yard pick six between them that made this a cover of a 17.5 point spread and not a nailbiter that it could have been.

Karan Higdon ran for over a hundred yards again today, the fourth straight game where a Michigan player ran for over 100 yards, the first time that has happened since 2010.  There are those who bemoan Michigan's slow, deliberate offensive style, but it felt, to me, today that Michigan does blend a deliberate style with some big-play ability (some of which was called back, like the 40-yard strike to DPJ early in the third called back on a specious holding call on Tru Wilson) that I think might be frustrating to others.  The defense is so solid, so strong, that people desire an offense to match it.  I understand that feeling, but I also feel, I don't know, the offense is fine.  Perhaps it needs a better, faster, start would help people feel like the offense is something that can click on all cylinders, but again, we're asking for evidence of things unseen.

For a game delayed by rain for an hour, the end result was what the stats, the sharps, and the analysts had been telling us the whole week.  Now comes the stretch, the defining stretch, the one that has been looming since the schedule makers first presented it to us all those years ago.  Home to the Badgers, then a road test against the Spartans and then Penn State at home coming off a bye.  BPONE tells you that Michigan comes out of this with at least one loss, maybe two, but maybe, just maybe, Michigan has it figured out, gets healthy enough, and makes some noise.  It certainly would be nice to ponder.  But for now under the lights against the Badgers next week should be some real data on what this Michigan team actually is.  We'll finally get some answers, the question is, will we like them?

One additional note: Given our outrage over the Shane Morris incident, I have some minor concerns about how quickly Donovan Peoples-Jones was back out there after his mouthguard went flying on the targeting hit.  I presume that the concussion protocol was followed, but I would like to know what the minimum essential time it takes to run the concussion protocol is so I am not feeling like we're playing fast and loose with it to get our players back out there.