Sunday, October 27, 2019

Never Let You Go

That's one small step for a man, one giant leap... (Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

"You say that I've changed
Well maybe I did
But even if I changed

What's wrong with it."
--"Never Let You Go" by Third Eye Blind from their 1999 album Blue

I was at the grocery store this morning in my small town south of Ann Arbor, wearing my Michigan hat that I recently reclaimed from an unfortunate smoothie spill during summer 2018 (the initial wash didn't work, hammering it with the Shout gel with the brush end did the trick.  Honestly, good as new.)  A woman in her mid-50s relatively non-descript, walked by me in the aisle, saw my hat and said "Go Blue.  They kicked Notre Dame's ass last night."  To which I could only reply in my best Phineas Flynn voice "Yes, yes they did."

One of my mentally recurring themes of this season comes from the first line of my first column of the season: "Harbingers don't actually exist, except in retrospect."  A fanbase as astute as the vast majority of Michigan's (you know the ones that started chanting "Ronnie, Ronnie" when Ronnie Bell made his first catch of the game) is going to know the contours of how football games work.  To wit: Michigan settling for three inside the five so will cost them later on, Michigan's drops will cost them, John O'Neill's crew is going to steal this game from Michigan, that replay review on Nico Collins's catch right after the first Notre Dame* touchdown is going to haunt us.  These are fair, reasonable, and informed systems of belief.  These are the reflections of an astute and well-informed fanbase that has been beaten down, time and time again.

And none of it mattered.  The breaks didn't all break Michigan's way, but enough of them did because all too often, Michigan was making its own luck.  Michigan's game plan respected the weather and trusted its veteran offensive line to get things moving and get things done.  The still relatively untested duo of Charbonnet and Haskins shined, following blocks, breaking through holes, and second efforting to extra yards ("fall forward!").  Michigan was only up 17-0 at the half, but it felt like it was simultaneously dominant and not enough, because just last week, a ranked team on the road stormed back after some halftime adjustments.

Smart football people will remind you that the three hours of football you see on Saturday/Sunday are just a sliver of the actual work that goes into football during any given week.  Film study, practice, game planning, all of these are much more meaningful and much more telling of what a team is than the game, but the result of the game is all that matters to everyone on the outside.  So Coach Harbaugh's record as an underdog, against Top 10 teams, how Michigan looked against Wisconsin and Penn State this season, all of those things loomed over Michigan Stadium like the nigh impenetrable cloud cover that blanketed southeast Michigan yesterday evening.  The rains fell, steadily, then harder, then not at all.  Would the break in the weather pay off for Notre Dame's commitment to its core offensive philosophy?  It would not.

The Michigan defense of 2019 is not that of 2018.  This has some negatives, but it also has some evolutions.  According to Bill Connolly's SP+, Michigan currently has the #2 defense in the nation behind only...Ohio State.  Crap.  But Notre Dame's game plan on offense appeared to be predicated on Ohio State's from 2018, which is not unreasonable, except for the fact that Michigan is no longer solely a man team.  They may get burned by crossing routes on occasion, everyone does, but mostly Michigan's defense is back to its relentless, pursuing self.  It shook Book to his cleats, making him hear sloshing footsteps, never letting him off the hook, as he stood in the pocket, only to flee many an open look.  This was classic "solve your problems with aggression" and while it was not perfect, it was what Michigan fans have come to expect from their defense in the Brown era.

Though it did not end up costing Michigan in this game, the Big Ten must look at the performance of the John O'Neill crew and ask how they keep getting away with this.  The ABC crew was incredulous at the interception erasing PI flag on Hudson and rightfully so.  When the towels rained down from the student section, it was the logical extension of a crowd that was continuing to boo an officiating decision that was utterly baffling.  I still hope Michigan is sending a strongly worded email to Chicago and asking the Big Ten to explain themselves.

There were so many electric moments in the game that if you surveyed 25 random Michigan fans, it's possible to conceive of getting 25 different answers, largely based on what they value.  Perhaps the Haskins hurdle is your flavor, maybe the relentless Spanellis pancake into the nether regions of the Notre Dame sideline made you smile, maybe Shea getting the ball out a split second before getting crushed and finding DPJ in the end zone on a crucial "stanch the bleeding" moment that allowed the rout to commence in earnest.  Maybe it was Shea out lead blocking on the Tru Wilson touchdown that showed this team was not done.  There are many others.  Whatever it is, this game serves as a reminder to fans of three critical things: 1). While you may be disappointed that Michigan's major goals are now out of reach, this team is still playing hard for itself if no one else.  That matters.  2). College football should not simply be about the playoff.  There's too much weird, too much absurdity, too much fun to enjoy even if the goal of being "the best" is out of reach.  3).  Winning does beat losing.  Even if the Harbaugh narrative goalposts move again (and they will), this at least quiets those voices for a time.

Harbingers aren't harbingers until they are, after all.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Crystal Baller

When all looked lost, they found a way to fight back.  (Gene J. Puskar, AP)
There's a great scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where the still finding his way in the modern world Steve Rogers visits a nonagenarian Peggy Carter.  As people so often do in the MCU, Peggy gets one of the great lines when talking to Steve: "The world has changed, and none of us can go back. All we can do is our best, and sometimes, the best that we can do is to start over."  (We are unabashed Peggy Carter fans, we recognize this.)

There is a strain of Michigan fan I have seen, most frequently on Twitter, who is having a terrible time fathoming why Michigan isn't Michigan again in Year Five of Harbaugh.  Essentially, a "this is not what I signed up for" sort of breakdown that looks at all of the ways in which Michigan is failing to live up to its historical grandiosity.  I understand that feeling on a primal level, that this is just another false messiah after a decade and a half of wandering in the desert.  Though some may accuse me of setting up a straw man, if you've been on Michigan Twitter, you more than likely have seen someone like this or you have the best curated follow list I've ever seen.

I'm not going to call this a moral victory, because it's not and because Michigan shouldn't do the moral victory thing.  It's a loss.  It's another brick in the narrative about Harbaugh's teams.  It's plenty of evidence to those who want it that Michigan cannot beat teams of equal or superior talent, especially on the road.  Acknowledged.

This is not the world Michigan fans grew up in, and for many of us, we cannot figure out why things are different.  Michigan plays in what is perpetually one of the two hardest divisions in college football (alongside the SEC West) and that is a division that still counts Rutgers among its members.  Michigan will always face at least three stringent tests on its divisional schedule, all from teams that consider Michigan a rival to one degree or another, not to mention the six-year-long cross-division lock-in with Wisconsin, and that's before you get to non-conference scheduling and deciding that tradition is important and bringing back Michigan/Notre Dame because the people want it.  This is not an excuse, if Michigan wants to be something like the Michigan of old, it has to face this down and win those games.  The problem for many lies in that Ohio State seems to run through this with maybe just one hiccup a year, and Michigan can't seemingly leave its house without stubbing its toe.

But the thing is, Michigan can't be the Michigan of old anymore.  It's impossible.  The divisional structure means that Michigan can't tie for the Big Ten championship any longer, which added a large number of titles to Michigan's trophy case back in the day.  Players have much more agency over where they start their career and where they end their career, as evidenced by the transfer portal (this is a net positive in my mind, even when it hurts Michigan.)  The state of Michigan's population has shrunk, meaning that a state that already did not turn out Division I football talent at a high level compared to say Ohio, is turning out fewer players Michigan should theoretically have a primary shot at signing (yes, Michigan has already recruited nationally, yes, Michigan has always gone into Ohio and got kids, but the demographics here are no lie.)  There are other challenges, writers smarter and better than I am have listed them for you in the past.  The world has changed and sometimes the best we can do is start over.

Which brings me to the second half.  Jim Harbaugh told Maria Taylor at halftime that he thought that the second half would be Michigan's finest hour.  College Football Twitter would have some fun with this, how perfectly Michigan Man it was, how once again, a Michigan Man invoked World War II and the like.  But Harbaugh's reference struck me because it was not a perfect parallel, but it was the choice of words of a leader who looked at the odds his side was facing and instead of folding, chose to rally his people.  And in Harbaugh's case, it damn near worked.

For the next 30 minutes of game time, Michigan looked like something closer to the Michigan that people thought they could be.  It is easy to say that, save the one coverage error by Don Brown, leaving a safety on KJ Hamler (yes, we know, we know), Michigan's defense stiffened, forcing Penn State into punt after punt.  Meanwhile, Michigan used a variety of offensive tools, including all four of its big-time receivers to bring the game back to within one possession, and was driving late to tie.  Two critical plays by Nico Collins, including a crucial fourth down conversion, Erick All's snag to set up first and goal, and then a fourth and goal from the three.  Penn State did get pressure and forced Shea to scramble a little, but he threw a ball in a window and spot that gave Ronnie Bell a chance to make a play.  Unfortunately, it hit Bell in the chest and fell to the turf and the moment evaporated.

I felt for Ronnie Bell when they showed him on the sidelines distraught.  It's so easy to forget that the players are college kids and its also easier to forget that they are humans, not digital avatars that only react the ways in which they are programmed to do so.  I felt deeply for him because no one in that stadium felt worse about what happened that he did.  There is no worse feeling than believing you have let people down that you care about.  At the 10:40 mark of the fourth, Michigan absolutely needing a third down conversion to keep things rolling, Ronnie Bell caught a screen pass three yards behind the line of scrimmage, made his defender miss, gets the first down, and then keeps going.  Thirty-five yards later, Michigan has first and goal and though it did not quite go down as expected, four players later, Shea got a push from Ben Mason to bring Michigan back within seven.  Michigan isn't in a position to tie later without what Ronnie Bell did in this moment and for too many people, that is easy to forget.

The one positive takeaway I will have from the fourth down that didn't make it was that so many of his teammates were picking Ronnie Bell up.  There were notions this past fortnight that fans don't see all of what goes on with this team behind the scenes, and that is true.  But if there is something that gives me hope going forward this season is that Michigan got punched in the mouth in the first half, tasted the blood, and pulled the strap of the shield on tighter and walked back into the face of doom once more.  That isn't how things looked or felt at Camp Randall.  This was different, this can be built upon.  But the key is, it has to happen.  You cannot waste this moment.  You have a perfect chance to change some of the narratives next week against the Irish.  Don't waste it.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

An Ode to Maybe

It was at this point in the third quarter that we were all Don Brown (Patrick Barron)
I can't explain.  Illinois, a team that lost at home to Eastern Michigan this year and coached by a man whose beard looks like it comes out of mythology, was down 28-0 to Michigan, did not look like it could stop Michigan's rushing game on the edge, had a punt blocked which Michigan turned into a quick work touchdown, and generally looked, well, bad.  Oh sure, they got a touchdown late in the first half to at least make it interesting, but it looked like the only thing that was going to stop Michigan was stupid unsportsmanlike conduct penalties or fumbling.

So when Michigan looked bad in the third quarter, three and outs, lost fumbles, general malaise on defense, you could understand the building apoplexy in the Michigan fanbase.  But the math was telling a different story.  Ladies and gentlemen, the unhappy valley.

The lowest Michigan's win probability dropped to was 77.3% on the ensuing kickoff after the touchdown to make it 28-25 Michigan.  The moment Shea Patterson converted the 4th and 2 at the Illini 10-yard line, the win probability jumped back up into the 90th percentile and never looked back.  That the defense came out and immediately forced Matt Robinson to fumble, giving Michigan a short field, which they could not cash in on, only to then force Robinson into a sackfumbleception by Carlo Kemp on the Illini one-yard line, which Michigan did score on thanks to a plunge by Patterson and the score was something more like what Michigan might have expected.

The problem with pre-season expectations is that they put the best possible cast on every problem in the hopes that the concerns will be magically solved.  The weirdest part about college football is that, sometimes, they are.  Sometimes your new offensive coordinator works his magic and you look like an unstoppable machine [glances in a confused manner at Baton Rouge].  Other times, the legitimate concerns you have are well-founded and you keep trying to convince yourself that it's going to be OK.  The glimpses of Michigan doing things well in the first half today were almost enough to make you think maybe something was finally clicking.  Until, of course, it wasn't.  Even if Patterson did have an effective fourth quarter drive where he took care of business to get momentum back on Michigan's side, he still was only 11 of 22.  I know people were calling for McCaffery, but he just got out of the concussion protocol, I don't know how ready he was (yes, he made the trip.)  On a day when Nico Collins, Lavert Hill, and Kwity Paye did not see action, Michigan still ended up taking care of business, even if it wasn't how anyone wanted it to happen.

We've reached the halfway point of the journey and Michigan is 5-1.  The real tests begin in earnest next week with a White Out in Happy Valley.  I think the tempering of expectations has been such that Michigan fans are fully in "not in the face" territory, but strange things do happen in college football.  We'll just have to see what happens.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Michigan Scorigami

This will make more sense in a minute.
Very early in the comments on Brian Cook's MGoBlog game column on the Iowa game, a poster noted that it was remarkable that this was the first every 10-3 Michigan victory.  This was immediately noted that a Michigan "Scorigami" would be a fun thing.  Yes, yes it would.  Challenge accepted.

As explained at NFL ScorigamiScorigami is a concept thought up by Jon Bois. It is the art of building final scores that have never happened before in NFL history. Due to the unique nature of how points are scored in (American) Football, where it is impossible to score 1 point on its own, as well as the rarity of the 2 point safety and 8 point touchdown and 2 point conversion, there are a lot of scores that are possible, but have never happened. For more info, check out the video made by Jon Bois about Scorigami.

Now, Michigan Scorigami would be a little different, because we would want to know every score relative to how many points Michigan scored in a game.  So we would not have the blacked-out bottom half like you would have in the NFL version, because Michigan points are what matter.  With this in mind, we went to work.

We meticulously copied the data from every season page at the Bentley Historical Library's U-M football page (we were a little surprised to learn we had not already done this.)  1,335 games later (we hand entered the 2019 season results), we sorted, we added locations for each game (using the Bentley data as well as Wikipedia's season pages), we cleaned up the team rankings, adjusted the data on attendance so it would sort, and turned every result into a Michigan score column and an opponent score column.  (That the Bentley listed the Michigan score first every time made this possible without having to hack and slice the data.)  After learning Excel has issues with pre-1900 dates, we had to convert the date data into a Month, Day, and Year column so it was sortable.  We then did a two-variable CountIf and built the matrix.  As we did this, we learned some things.  One of which was that we accidentally pasted the 1977 season results in again instead of pasting in the 1978 results (thank you oddball Northwestern score for helping me see that.)

1). Michigan's 130-0 win over Buffalo in 1901 totally screws up our ability to condense the entire matrix in a meaningful way.  To wit:
You can't even read it but that one yellow fleck in the top right corner is the 130-0 game.  At the center bottom, you will see the legendary 67-65 3OT classic against Illinois during the Rodriguez era.
That other yellow fleck near the bottom left.  Yeah, we're not talking about that, but you know dang well what it is.

2). The commenter was correct, Saturday's game against Iowa was Michigan's first-ever 10-3 victory.  Old-timers would immediately, however, remind you that it was not Michigan's first-ever 10-3 result, as USC defeated the legendary 1969 team in the 1970 Rose Bowl by a 10-3 margin with Bo in the hospital recovering from a heart attack.

Interestingly enough, Michigan had twice previously won 10-4 games against Notre Dame in 1888 (the second game where Michigan was in South Bend to "teach" the Irish the game.) and against Vanderbilt in 1906.)

3). Michigan has pitched 347 shutouts over 1,335 games.  That means historically, 26% of all Michigan games have ended in the Michigan defense shutting out the opponent.  That is an artifact of the 19th-century game, but it's still remarkable to consider.  Michigan has 81 different shutout based Scorigamis, including, remarkably, a pair of 88-0 wins in 1902 and 1903 against Albion and Ferris State respectively.

4). Michigan has scored one point in a game, once.  As many of you will immediately know, it was Michigan's first-ever game against Racine in 1879.  The vagaries of the old scoring rules in the pre-20th-century game help Michigan generate more Scorigamis.  No team has ever scored exactly one point in a game against Michigan.

5).  Michigan's most common result?  A 14-0 victory, which has happened 18 times. most recently in 2000 against Michigan State.  Next most common?  A 21-0 result, which has happened 16 times, most recently against Navy in 1964.  0-0, 28-0, and 35-0 each come in next most frequently with 12 occurrences.

6). Four Three of Michigan's five results have been Michigan Scorigamis this year, with the 24-21 result over Army being the only non-unique result (the most recent 24-21 win prior to Army?  That UConn game in 2013 that we all agreed to forget about.) (Edited to add: 10/9/19 at 8:00 PM EDT: Rutgers 52-0 score had previously occurred twice.  Poor coding in the initial version prevented the two previous games from showing up initially.  We regret the error.)

7). In wanting to avoid doing unnecessary coding, I took all results where 50 or more points were scored and entered them by hand.  I did not have the game associated with it, just the result, like the aforementioned 67-65.  But like many of you, I knew immediately what score 31-51 was.  I immediately knew 39-62 (ugh).  I immediately knew 51-54 and 14-52.    12-58 and 0-56 (Michigan's worst-ever shutout loss) stumped me.  Turns out they are both....Cornell?!?  The shutout in 1889, the other in 1891.

8).  The most points Michigan has given up in regulation and won?  47, against Indiana in 2013. #chaosteam

9). Unrelated to Scorigami, but I found this fascinating while sorting the data.  Of the 100 largest announced crowds Michigan has ever played in front of, only one, 2017 Penn State (73rd largest), is not at Michigan Stadium.  Also unrelated, Michigan is 9-13 all-time in overtime games.  The sole loss, bleeping 4OT in State College in 2013. (Edited to add: The Bentley did not have MSU 2009 and OSU 2016 listed as OT games.  This has updated in the data.)  (It amazingly has two identical results in OT, 23-20 wins over Iowa in 2005 and Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl following the 2011 season.)

10). Of the 12 highest point totals on Homecoming (the Bentley is really good about noting which game is Homecoming, so it went into the spreadsheet), 7 of them have come against Minnesota, including a Homecoming record 63 against the Gophers in 1992.  Conversely, the 10 points scored by Michigan on Homecoming this past weekend were the fewest on Homecoming since...2002, when they scored 9 against...well, Iowa.  (Difference there, Brad Banks' Iowa scored 34.  (Since that game, Michigan has averaged 34 points on Homecoming.)

11). The most points Michigan has ever scored while ranked #1 in the nation?  70, against Navy in 1976.  The fewest?  0, against Minnesota in...oh dang it, 1977.

Anyway, that's all we have for now.  We encourage you to look at the data and play around with it yourself.  If you find mistakes, please let us know, we're happy to fix them.  But as a goof, we hope you enjoyed this.  Our thanks to everyone who helped make this possible.

Saturday, October 05, 2019


Dr. Blitz held office hours again this weekend after a recent sabbatical. (Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press)
First things first, this should not have worked.  Under any realistic understanding of how the game of football works, Michigan should not have won this game.  The offense looked disjointed, at best, and I'm trying to be kind there.  Nothing worked.  Even the stuff that should have worked, didn't work, well, OK, save that one "Chuck it to Neko" play.  No rhyme, no reason, and the fiesta of punts and missed field goals should portend one's doom.

Except for one thing.  Iowa was equally committed to the same levels of offensive ineptitude but with way more sack-based yardage loss and ill-timed interception throwing (OK, on a strictly technical level, there really isn't a good time to throw an interception, but all three of Stewart's picks were in Michigan territory, killing even the possibility of a field goal attempt in the swirling winds of Michigan Stadium.)  But the crossing routes again proved to be a Don Brown kryptonite, with Iowa seemingly getting a first down every time they ran one.  All of this would bring us to the final 91-second sequence.

Iowa got the ball back on their own 43 after a re-punt because there were offsetting penalties on the kick (Iowa had two, Michigan had one, somehow that is offsetting, even if math suggests otherwise.)  Two quick incompletions and a two-yard gain on third down left Iowa with fourth and eight.  Michigan Stadium gets loud and Iowa...finds a crossing route for 11 yards to the Michigan 44 and a new set of downs, with 57 seconds left.  Three incompletions in 8 seconds left Iowa now with 4th and 10 with 37 seconds left.  On the snap, Jordan Glasgow and Khaleke Hudson went in full heat-seeking pursuit of Nate Stanley and had him in the grasp almost 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, only to see Stanley throw a weak left-handed pass that somehow found Tyler Goodson who started making people miss.  Panic fell over the stadium, as Goodson had room to maneuver.  It felt like the stupidest possible way to lose, but thankfully the young Dax Hill understood this, yelled "not today" to the football gods, and made a tackle for loss and saw the ball go back to Michigan on downs.  One knee later and the game was over.

A win is a win. Which is something you say when your team wins ugly.  But Michigan really needed this win, which, of course, will be immediately devalued by the national press because of how bad Iowa looked, and Iowa was overrated because who had Iowa played really?  It's going to happen because it's what always happens.  But things need to get fixed this week on the offensive side.  Figure something out, because you can't keep telling the defense it's all on them week in, week out.

Let's see what happens in Champaign.