Sunday, November 22, 2020

All Kinds of Time

Cade McNamara made the most of being inserted at QB for the second half.
Cade McNamara made the most of the opportunity. (Detroit Free Press)

Betting lines should not set narratives in sporting events, but when Michigan was rolled out as an 8-10 point favorite in the early line this weekend over Rutgers, it was simultaneously seen as an indictment of where Michigan is right now because a). I mean, they should be way more of a favorite over Rutgers in a normal circumstance and b). it still seemed pretty generous even with how Michigan had been playing this season.

So when Michigan was down 17-0 in the second quarter and the college football watching portion of the internet began bird-dogging the trainwreck, in stepped Cade McNamara to take the reins at QB from Joe Milton.  Milton's 5 of 12 for 89 yards performance was not inspiring, and several drops or near misses were a source of frustration.  But Michigan needed a spark and McNamara did exactly what was needed.  He hit Mike Sainristil for 14 yards to get Michigan into Rutgers territory, then found a wide-open Cornelius Johnson for 46 yards and Michigan's first score of the game.  Though the two-minute drill left a lot to be desired, Michigan at least had stanched the bleeding and would get the ball back to start the second half.

Giles Jackson's kickoff return for a touchdown to start the second half will be somewhat muted by the fact that Rutgers countered with their own touchdown just three plays later.  But it set the tone for the methodical 8-play drive of its own that Michigan countered with, especially the hard yards by Hassan Haskins to get Michigan first and goal on the Rutgers 10.  Michigan would score two plays later and pull within three.  The offense had settled into some kind of rhythm, and the defense holding Rutgers to a field goal felt like the tiniest of victories.  An exchange of punts later, it was McNamara moving the ball down the field again with a mix of well-executed passes (and a bonus gift of 15-yard penalty for a facemask by Rutgers) and Michigan took its first lead since the end of the Minnesota game.  Hope slowly began to seep back in, like water into someone's unfinished basement, unwelcome but undeniably present.  

When Michigan forced a six and out, aided immensely by a sack by Little Boss Josh Ross, it began to look like Michigan could run a long drive that would salt the game away.  They did just that, to an extent.  A 12 play drive with a solid mix of run and pass burned six minutes of game clock but still left five minutes in the fourth quarter, even as Michigan sat up 8.  Could the defense, as banged up as it is,  find the old magic and get out of New Jersey with an ugly, but still meaningful win in regulation?

No.  It could not. Rutgers made the most of both third and long and fourth and long situations, slipping through the Michigan defense to get a score, and then Noah Vedral dragging Michigan defenders through on a QB draw for the 2-point conversion to knot the game at 35.  It felt like once again the dam of negative feelings was about to burst.

Quinn Nordin's third missed field goal of the day in the opening half of 1OT certainly seemed to confirm the worst.  No way Michigan could hold Rutgers and even if it could, Valentino Ambrosi had been money all night.  The math even backed up the despair (well, not despair, the resignation.)

But Michigan did hold Rutgers to -2 yards on the sequence and Ambrosi missed a 45 yarder to send the game into a second OT and push the game closer to finishing on Sunday morning.  So when Rutgers used a clever pass to get into the end zone on one play, Michigan needed to counter.  And it did, thanks to McNamara continuing to find receivers, Haskins continuing to find ways to get extra yards, and Rutgers continuing to get facemask penalties.  McNamara kept the ball and flipped into the end zone and we headed for 3OT.

Thanks to a DPI prayer on 3rd and 18, Michigan was inside Rutgers 10 once more, and after a pair of Haskins run, they were inside the 1.  People much smarter than me explained why, based on Rutgers' defensive strengths, Michigan did not want to sneak the ball, but it was still maddening to a long-time football observer that Michigan was lined up in shotgun when they needed six feet to get the ball in the end zone.  After McNamara was stopped for no gain on third down, it looked it would be the reasonable question of the day.  But Haskins got in, but the two-point conversion failed when McNamara threw the ball to the wrong side of Ronnie Bell, and now Michigan needed to hold Rutgers off.  Would the defense finally get it done?

Yes.  They did.  They held Rutgers to net one yard on their four plays in 3OT, sealed by a Dax Hill interception in the end zone, to mercifully bring this game to a close, over four and a half hours after this whole affair had begun.

There is no great lesson from this game just as there is no great lesson from this season.  Michigan has a bunch of players injured in the middle of a global pandemic in a season that probably shouldn't be being played, but here we are.  We still came together to suffer collectively but we did it collectively.  It was the most Michigan football thing possible.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

New Routine

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh reacts towards a game official after a call during the second half of U-M's 38-21 loss on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Bloomington, Indiana.  (Doug McSchooler/AP)

It doesn't hurt at all and I couldn't figure out why.  It's not because I don't care, because I do.  Perhaps not as passionately as I did in my youth, but I still care, but it is a level of caring tempered by realities both small and larger. It's not that it wasn't expected, hardly, I was going to be fully and completely shocked if Michigan managed to pull this off.  No, it was just, it was a game, one of several, being played at noon on Saturday, and Michigan, like a lot of teams in 2020, did not look very good in their playing of it.

It was the last connection to be severed.  Every connection to the Bo era had been broken but one.  That Michigan's last loss to Indiana was in 1987.  A winning streak begun in the dying embers of the Schembechler era, carried through Moeller and Carr, inexplicably moved through the direst ebbs of the Rodriguez and Hoke years, and in spite of some wild endings, carried through the Harbaugh years.  All things must pass* and yesterday in Bloomington, it finally did.  That cutting of that link did perhaps reminds us, finally, that the past is truly in the past.  We can honor the past, celebrate the past, but we cannot be beholden to the past, held prisoner by it.

Indiana earned it, there's no doubt.  Indiana looks like a team in control of what it wants to do and making it happen.  Michigan looks like a team that thinks that they can show up and play and that should be enough.  I am sure that people much better versed in interpersonal group dynamics and 
the like can explain better what is going on with Michigan, but right now, it's just not a very good football team and time is running out for it to get better.

Until next week.

*-unless you're Ohio State, which it was pointed out in an AFLAC trivia question last night that they are they only team in the AP Poll era to never have a 5 game losing streak.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Troubled Times

Well, I mean, at least Blake Corum looked good. (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

And it takes a lot of nerve to ask how she is doing. 
Start with a weak foundation, you will end in ruins. 
The ways the days and hours pass you'll never understand 
Falling like rain through your hands

"Troubled Times" by Fountains of Wayne from their 1999 album Utopia Parkway

It was more troubling than a blowout might indicate because it was a thousand deaths in the margins.  Michigan decided that it would keep doing what it thought it should do on paper, despite the evidence facing them in the game.  Michigan's defense relies on superb DB play to cover in man, and it showed time and again yesterday that it was going to be difficult.  Michigan State's receivers made some absolutely difficult catches, but they made them when they counted, and that was enough.

Michigan's offense kept running up the middle with little to no discernable effect, lighting first downs on fire like they were trying to keep warm in the old abandoned stadium, then looking confused when they were off schedule on third and longs.  Joe Milton did his damndest to keep things going and did a lot more than he didn't, shades of poor damn Devin Gardner. Still, in the end, Michigan State looked like they wanted to win more, were playing looser and freer, and Michigan couldn't get things together for long enough to get out of their own way and try to win the football game.  When you run a wildcat pass inside the five instead of using your 6' 5" highly mobile quarterback, a play that costs you four points in a three-point loss, maybe you're just too committed to clever?

We're looping back to the feeling of being lost, like in 2014, but without any real sense of where to go next.  That sense of dread that Michigan is slated to forever be something like boring Auburn or store-brand Wisconsin.  Good, very good, but not top tier, and maybe not even second tier.  And there's nothing that can be done about it.  Michigan got the best coach it could get, one that everyone agreed would be a great fit and a great coach, and it's basically still what it was for a long time.  This is, admittedly, a significant improvement over the seven years of RR and Hoke, but it's just not going to happen.  In other years, it was more explicable, a loss to Notre Dame to start the season or twin losses to Wisconsin and Penn State on the road.  But this one, this loss, makes no sense on paper.  When things make no sense on paper, people look to intangibles, and there's a lot of not liking what they see.

For so long, Michigan has taken solace in the past, that once was could be again.  "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."  What was isn't any longer.  We can celebrate the past, and we should, but we must remember that it is not a guarantee of the future because no one's future is guaranteed.  You have to work hard to earn what you want, and too often, there is a sense that Michigan presumes a birthright path to the top of the heap.  We want to tell ourselves that we're different, but it's a delusion built on years of arrogance.  We refuse to get out of our own way because we so desperately want that world back, a world from many of our GenX childhoods where Michigan was ultra-reliable as long as it wasn't bowl season.  But even the historical record since World War II doesn't bear out this sense of entitlement.  There is a strange simultaneous tendency to get mad at anyone who dares point these things out and gets mad at anyone who dares not give Michigan its perceived due.  Michigan doesn't hold up its end of the bargain in "the best rivalry in sports" and has trouble holding up its end in the in-state rivalry.  We're wandering aimlessly, hoping for a sign that will lead us forward, a sign that will never come, but instead chasing after false prophets, destined to let us down, time and time again.  Yet, there is no sense that the signal is coming, or will ever come to us.  

I often point to the fact that one of the hallmarks of Michigan fandom is the Michigan fan community, the ties that bind us, in person or virtually, across the years, the good times, and the tough ones.  This just feels different because it's just this strange sense of "I'm not angry, I'm not disappointed, I'm just sad."  When so many people tie up their belief in the possibility of something, only to see those ideas slip away from them, sadness becomes the primary feeling, because we've already been through the other notions of what we can do about it.

This column is probably too pessimistic, too forlorn, probably tapping into other strains of sadness that are running parallel but very close to this stream.  In this strange year, it is difficult to see individual notions of what is making one sad, all of the colors are bleeding into one.  It was perhaps too much to expect and even too much to ask to have Michigan football be something more than it's been in decades to lift our spirits; fervent hope still runs headlong into the limitations of reality.

But it would have been nice to keep Paul home and save the football existential crisis for another week.