Sunday, December 05, 2021

Calling Cards

Amazingly, all that was needed. (Jacob Hamilton | The Ann Arbor News)

"Singing we'll all be together,
Even when we're not together
With our arms around each other,
With our faith still in each other

I've got calling cards
From 20 years ago."

"Calling Cards" by Neko Case from her 2013 album The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Things always look easier in retrospect, because the goal has been accomplished.  Things are only impossible until they are not. It would have been easy to settle in after the back to back offensive plays in the first quarter that saw Blake Corum bust a huge TD run that featured JJ McCarthy getting downfield and throwing a key block and then a picture-perfect halfback pass from Donovan Edwards to a wide-open Roman Wilson, in stride, to put Michigan up 14-0.  Michigan was never in any real danger, mathematically at that point, but that isn't how it felt.

But as much as I would like to memory hole the entire second quarter, with Iowa's field position game going strong, starting Michigan drives on their 8, 3, and 9, this was the moment that sealed that this was going to be different:

Cade is not a scrambler by nature, but he saw nothing but open real estate ahead of him and went for it.  He dove headfirst to make sure his slide wasn't behind the line to gain.  Yes, Michigan would end that sequence with a punt for a touchback, but Cade did enough to flip the field to keep Iowa from playing the field position game for the remainder of the half.

My grandmother, the person who had as much to do with my being a Michigan football fan as anyone, loved to tell me that Michigan was a second-half team.  That probably wasn't specifically true and I was too young to know it was a widely held college football cliché, but I grew up believing it.  But over the last two weeks, Michigan came out of the locker room with specific and significant adjustments to what Iowa was trying to do on offense, but then also came out with a methodical drive, ten plays, 82 yards, five minutes of game time, to go up 21-3.  From that point, virtually everything else was gravy.

The joy in the Michigan fanbase of seeing every lazy narrative about Michigan football and about Jim Harbaugh's Michigan football teams be put to rest, for good, was one thing.  But similarly, it was about knowing what those of us who have loved this team, who have bonded over the internet for the last fifteen or so years.  We need shared experiences, good and bad, and we find people along the way who understand us.  To be on Twitter last night was a moment of catharsis and validation, which seems silly from the outside, but was understandable to those who had been on the journey.  We all dealt with the disappointments in our own way: anger, gallows humor, open questioning, sullen states.  We also dealt with this unexpected season in our ways.  For all of the accusations of Michigan football and its fanbase being arrogant, petulant, and annoying, so much of that dissipated into the either on that fateful day in early September in 2007.  Nothing had been the same since, and the further that last Big Ten championship faded into the rearview mirror, the harder it became to believe that it might ever happen again.  It became an article of faith, in belief in things unseen.  But what few of us realized is that this team, these players, this coaching staff, always believed it was possible, and they made it happen.  As Jane Coaston, commander in chief of the Michigan War Dads, stated in her NYT Opinion column earlier on Saturday:

In the end, Michigan will be in the College Football Playoff with a team that's genuinely fun.  We hope for the best, but anything that happens from this point is playing with house money.  After all, banners hang forever.

For so many of us, after almost 15 years, we've heard Jenny Lewis sing it, but perhaps we never really believed it until now, until this moment.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Magpie to the Morning

To quote Santana Moss: "Big time players make big time plays in big time games." (Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press)

Magpie comes a calling
Drops a marble from the sky
Tin roof sounds alarming
"Wake up child"
"Let this be a warning"
Says the magpie to the morning
"Don't let this fading summer pass you by"
"Don't let this fading summer pass you by"

Snow is very cinematic.  Especially for football.  It can't be too much snow, mind you, but a steady flurry that puts that thin layer of snow on the turf, enough to see the footprints, or the skid mark where a receiver caught the ball and slid into the end zone.  That's what you need, even if it means the folks in the stands are cold as they watch.

Come on sorrow
Take your own advice
This thundering and lightning gets you rain
I'm on a top secret mission
A Cousteau expedition
To find a diamond at the bottom of the drain
A diamond at the bottom of the drain
A diamond at the bottom of the drain

Michigan said, repeatedly, to all who asked this year, that there was a renewed, singular focus on beating Ohio State.  They made sure the public saw the signs in the weight room, they made sure the public knew about the 9 v 7 "Ohio Drill".  They knew we knew.  But even coming into The Game at 10-1, it was still hard to believe that Michigan could stare down the death machine built for one purpose and handle their business.  But they knew.  They knew in their hearts and in their minds and that is what ultimately mattered.  The ones who had the mission executed the mission.

Mockingbird sings
In the middle of the night
All his songs are stolen and he hides
He stole them from the Whippoorwills
And the yellow meadow lark
He sings them for you special
He knows you're afraid of the dark

A day after his birthday, H2 had his cake and ate it too. (Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press)

Michigan had a game plan that was simple and classic in its design.  Some might call it Manball.  But there were cool things, there was jet and orbit motions, swing passes out of the backfield, but in the end, Hassan Haskins just kept powering through the Ohio State line like some kind of tremendous machine.  He found ways to eek out yards where none seemed possible, and he powered through for big ground gains and ended up with FIVE touchdowns.  Five.  Hassan joins the pantheon next to Biakabatuka and Touchdown Billy Taylor and countless other Michigan men whose names will evoke a specific edition of The Game due to their heroic efforts.  Descriptions of Haskins as a man determined to carry the team on his shoulders are not without merit, they also shortchange the efforts of the offensive line and all of the other vital components of the game plan on both sides of the ball.  It was a team effort from start to finish.

Come on sorrow
Take your own advice
Hide under the bed
Turn out the light
The stars this night in the sky are ringing out
You can almost hear them saying
"Close your eyes now kid"
"Close your eyes now kid"
"These old dreams are hid"
They are waiting
They are waiting

--"Magpie to the Morning" by Neko Case from her 2013 album The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

There are two version of Magpie, the 2009 version from Middle Cyclone which I linked to and the 2013 version which is sweeter and lighter.  I prefer the 2009 version musically, but the 2013 version lyrically, though the banjo in this version is a wonderful choice.  The joy here is that both exist and I can enjoy both in their own way, not unlike this game.  I do not have to choose between Hutchinson's day and Haskins' day.  They're two versions of the same story that fit together in their own way.  I think so much of what is hard to capture in this column today is that, this was joy.  This was ten years of pent up frustration, of memory, or worry that all of the Michigan heroes of the Ohio State game were graying around the temples, with no new legends to replace them.  Those fears are gone.  A decade has passed, it was a long decade, a maddening decade filled with ups and downs.  But today is the highest of highest that we have felt in a very long time, perhaps too long to truly consider.  The snarky "Can Jim Harbaugh beat Ohio State?" questions are over.  The "last time Michigan beat Ohio State" data has hit the reset button.  In a game that was statistically not really in doubt once Blake Corum ran for 55 yards through the heart of the Buckeye defense, it did not ever feel possible until the 4:45 mark of the fourth quarter.  Would Michigan find a way to answer and re-extend the lead, or would it be on the defense to get the win.  But with everyone watching known Hassan Haskins was getting the ball, running for 15, for 6, for 11 before Ohio State realized with three minutes left it might need to preserve some clock and called a time out.  The snow, which had died down in the early fourth, right as Ohio State began to score again, had come back with a vengeance, and Haskins decided to impose his will and leave no doubt.  Well, almost.  But a 27 yard run that ended with a hurdle, out of bounds at the four yard line and Michigan Stadium exploded.  With just 137 ticks left on the clock, it finally felt real, it finally felt possible.  Possible, but not assured.  It was not until David Ojabo sacked CJ Stroud that I finally told myself this was real.  Olave caught a pass, it wasn't enough, and Cade came in for two kneel downs and joy washed over Michigan Stadium.  Ten years of pent up questions and frustration, washed away, swirling out of the Big House like so much late November snow.

Michigan is off to Indy for the Big Ten Championship game, a phrase never before uttered except in sarcasm and mockery, to face an Iowa team it has yet to see this year.  All of the goals still lay before them, it is time to seize them.  But for now, for this night, Ohio beat.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

This Tornado Loves You

All three phases (Tommy Gilligan, USA Today Sports)

Carved your name across three counties
Ground it in with bloody hides
Their broken necks will line the ditch
'Til you stop it, stop it
Stop this madness

I want you

I have waited with a glacier's patience
Smashed every transformer with every trailer
'Til nothing was standing
65 miles wide
Still you are nowhere
Still you are nowhere
Nowhere in sight

Come out to meet me
Run out to meet me
Come into the light

--"This Tornado Loves You" by Neko Case from her 2009 album Middle Cyclone 

To be fair, the game before The Game has, during the Harbaugh era, has a tendency to get stupid.  Let us consider:
2015-at Penn State (Happy Valley is never easy)
2016-Indiana (the Snow Game)
2017-at Wisconsin (Peters injured, no flag)
2018-Indiana (Winovich and Gary injured, six field goals)
2019-at Indiana (early struggle with Indiana before pouring it on...)
2021-at Maryland (well...)

So, in the third quarter, when Maryland put together a four minute-ish, 79-yard drive to bring it back to 31-10, it was something where that sliver of doubt could creep back into one's mind.  Then this happened.

Yes, Maryland had a lightning drive and two-point conversion to bring it back to within 20, but Donovan Edwards reminded all of us that wheel routes remain undefeated.  Edwards had a huge day playing the Blake Corum role, catching virtually everything out of the backfield and making hay with it.  It was delightful.  A DJ Turner pick-six that Maryland gave up on because they thought he stepped out of bounds was essentially all there needed to be.  Backups got in, JJ got a rushing touchdown, and Michigan rolled to a 59-18 win.  It was the least stressful game before The Game of the Harbaugh era by a wide margin.

Ten wins in a season when 7-5 seemed to be "optimistic" by some is remarkable.  Thanks to Ohio State's demolition of Michigan State at the Horseshoe before Michigan played, we now know that The Game will be, for the third time since 2015, for the Big Ten East crown.  It will be the first time that Michigan has had this opportunity at home.  Michigan looks as good as it has all year, though, as anyone on Michigan Twitter is happy to tell you, there are plenty of flaws that Ohio State's death machine of an offense will be happy to exploit.  It would be easy to say right now that it feels different, that there's something different about this team, about this moment, that this will be the year, but that's just the hope talking, and well...


But hope is better than despair.  As we head into Thanksgiving week, we can be grateful that there's at least a moment for all of us who love this team and believe in this team that they can do it next weekend.  But for now, I will appreciate a Michigan team that was interesting, fascinating, and for much of today, supremely fun to watch.

Beat Ohio.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Vengeance Is Sleeping

All's well that ends well. (Patrick Barron)

"I'm not the man you thought I was
My love has never lived indoors
I had to drag it home by force
Hired hounds at both my wrists
Damp and bruised by stranger's kisses on my lips
But you're the one that I still miss
You're the one that I still miss
And the truth is that it comes as no surprise

I'm not the man you think I am
I'm not the man you think I am"

 --"Vengeance Is Sleeping" by Neko Case from her 2009 album Middle Cyclone

No one could be blamed if you thought the fumble was the end.  I thought it at the moment. The way that Penn State had been converting on fourth down after fourth down (three on that drive) and then got the two-point conversion, well, we've seen this movie before.  It didn't matter at that point that James Franklin had called a mystifying fake field goal, perhaps feeling it a little too much after his successful call of a fake punt that Michigan called an early time out because they thought they saw something.  The missed field goal into the wind two possessions earlier.  All of the breaks that Penn State was manufacturing for Michigan now looked to be wasted because, on the third strip-sack of the game, the ball went to Penn State (which had also happened on the two times that Michigan's ferocious pass rush got to Sean Clifford, Penn State held on to the ball.)  The math bore out the feelings:

In the following sequence, the Michigan defense stood as tall as you could hope, allowing just three yards and shutting down efforts to get the ball to Jahan Dotson, forcing Penn State to settle for their third field goal of the game.

It is funny, in retrospect, that we did not see that settling for field goals is often the doombringer.  Well, red zone field goals, the 52-yarder near the end of the first half hardly felt like settling.  We had said it all year.  We joked about it on Twitter that Michigan specifically seemed to start its two touchdown drives on the 21-yard line just to not need to involve the red zone offense.  How would Michigan respond?  Could Michigan respond?  That old feeling, of Michigan collapsing under the weight of its own expectations, was prevalent among the twitterati, myself included.  History is instructive, but it does not have to be destiny, and the offense decided to make sure it was not.  Haskins immediately ripping off a 17 yard run on first down set the tone.  Then runs of 4, 4, 2 (first down), and 1 and it looked like Michigan was going to put this game on the broad shoulders and insanely muscular calves of Hassan Haskins to see if they could get it done, or, at worst, get it in Moody's range, even if the wind was solidly blowing against them.  

A series of unfair thoughts as this play developed:
1).  Hmm, trips right, I wonder if they are going to try something in a levels concept?
2).  Wait, is All coming the opposite way on a crossing route?  OK.
3).  OK, he's got the first down, this is good.
4).  Wait, he's still going?  Is there someone off-camera?
6).  All right, one man to beat.
7).  Oh, he's in!  He's in!  Damn!

Erick All finally got his first career touchdown in a way that you likely could not have called before the drive started.  The replay review went Michigan's way, which was confusing in its own right, Moody was money on the extra point attempt and Michigan was up four with 3:29 to go.  An eternity, it would seem.

Sean Clifford was battered and bruised all game.  His offensive line left him out there to be feasted upon by Hutchinson and Ojabo like he was Anthony Morelli in 2006.  But he stood in and he battled and threw a reasonable sideline shot to Cam Sullivan-Brown that was just a tad too long but was reasonably well defended.  A small exhale.  No reason they cannot go back to that.  Clifford found Meiga for 8 to set up 3rd and 2 and keep the sticks moving.  Then, the playcalling went sideways for Penn State.  A pair of incompletions on third and fourth down that left the experienced observers scratching their heads and Michigan took over on downs on the Penn State 33.

If you, the Michigan fan, kept looking skyward for the other shoe, waiting for it to drop, Hassan Haskins plowed ahead for 4 and 5 yards respectively, followed by a Cade McNamara sneak that finally felt like the right call in the short-yardage situation, and Michigan had the first down they needed.  Haskins ran for three more yards, Penn State called their last time out, and then Haskins decided to get one more first down for good measure by running for 12 more up to the Penn State seven.  Three kneeldowns in succession and Michigan finally had its first win in 17 tries in the Harbaugh era after trailing in the fourth quarter to an AP ranked team.

On a day where Brad Robbins averaged more than 50 yards per punt on five beautiful kicks.  On a day where Michigan didn't need Moody to kick a field goal because they got enough in the end zone.  On a day where the defense made enough big, on point, correct plays, Michigan won.  Michigan won its ninth game in a season when seven wins felt like a better case scenario.  Michigan won three tough road games against Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Penn State.  There is a distinct possibility this team has more to say and more to do.  But for now, at least for one week, a specific narrative is dead.  All the goals remain possible.  We see what happens next.

Sunday, November 07, 2021

Night Still Comes

I sometimes worry he's too good at his job, but the feeling passes.  (Patrick Barron)

My brain makes drugs to keep me slow
A hilarious joke for some dead pharaoh
But now, not even the masons know
What drug will keep night from coming

There are so many tools that are made for my hands
But the tide smashes all my best-laid plans to sand
And there's always someone to say it's easy for me
But I revenge myself all over myself
There's nothing you can say to me

You never held it at the right angle

 --"Night Still Comes" by Neko Case from her 2013 album The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

It's fascinating to realize that the Big Ten schedule set up to have Michigan face Indiana 364 days after the previous meeting, allowing us a moment to take stock of what was, what is, and what can be through this lens.

Last year at this time, if we're even allowed to acknowledge it, Michigan had just dropped a game at home to Michigan State that it felt like it had no business losing and then was staring at an Indiana team that was feeling itself.  The years of almosts and #CHAOSTEAM had congealed into something dangerous.  Indiana made Michigan pay, a 38-21 victory for the Hoosiers that seemed to be some form of retribution for all of the other narrow escapes Michigan had pulled off over Indiana since the Crimson and Cream's most recent win in 1987.  Indiana looked like a team ascendant.  Michigan looked like a team lost and sinking fast.

The historically inclined among Michigan fans like to look for the throughlines, the things that remain true over the years, and the Indiana streak was one of the last great streaks that had survived everything, again, sometimes in "I cannot believe that happened" fashion, somewhat tattered and worn, but it survived.  Last night's game kept at least one piece of that line alive, that Indiana's last victory in Ann Arbor occurred before men set foot on the moon.  

Last night's Michigan performance was not stellar.  It was also not awful.  There were some high points: Hassan Haskins' 62-yard run that Indiana seemed to point to as the turning point in postgame quickly comes to mind, so does Cade's nice long bomb to Johnson late to really just put the finishing touches on things.  There were so low points: the time out on the 4th and 1 "fake" that actually would have worked for six yards had it been snapped a fraction of a second earlier, the delay of game penalty right after the long Haskins run, the surprise Indiana "injuries" that not only seemed to try to break Michigan's momentum but also lead to long Fox commercial breaks, the continued red zone woes, touchdown relative, that do not seem to be any closer to fixing.  

But this was a game that was in little doubt at any point according to math.  Math watches games and knows things.  We watch games and we feel things.
We see the conga line to the injury tent.  We see the small details that feel like a foreshadowing of some larger flaw in the narrative down the line.  The math is based on history, we see the game as a way to gaze into the future.  But the history was present in the Big House last night.  The return of the late 1990s staple, QB waggle, on the first touchdown to Schoonmaker, Michigan's first touchdown pass to a TE this year (they liked it so much they went back to the tight end for the final score as well).  The way that Michigan's injury luck seems to suddenly run out against Indiana...(though that might have more of a reason than just the universe deciding things).  All of it just seems wrong, and then to add night game, and well, maybe we've never held it at the right angle.

In the end, Indiana's in the books again for another year.  All of Michigan's goals are ahead of it.  Let's just hope there are enough healthy bodies left to finish the job.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Margaret vs. Pauline

To be clear, several players had excellent days.  It just wasn't enough. (Patrick Barron)
Everything's so easy for Pauline
Everything's so easy for Pauline
Ancient strings set feet alight
To speed to her such mild grace
No monument of tacky gold
They smoothed her hair with cinnamon waves
And they placed an ingot in her breast
To burn cool and collected
Fate holds her firm in its cradle
And then rolls her for a tender pause to savor
Everything's so easy for Pauline

--"Margaret vs. Pauline" by Neko Case from her 2008 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood 

When I committed to the bit of naming every column about for a Neko Case song this year, friend of the blog HockeyBear called the shot on Michigan/Michigan State.  Inspired by the 1968 post-apocalyptic novel In Watermelon Sugar, Case builds a story of two women, one of who looks upon the other with great envy because of the ease and advantages that life has handed to Pauline while Margaret has had to scrap and claw for everything and she's still not any better off.  From a broad reading, one could see this as a metaphor for the entire Michigan/Michigan State rivalry.

Then again, Margaret had all seven replays reviews go her way today, so maybe there's more to this.

OK, let's be clear.  Michigan made a lot of mistakes.  A tremendous number of them.  Poor substitution patterns even after it became clear that Michigan State wanted to tempo.  If they get you on a couple of those, tip your cap.  When it keeps happening in the fourth quarter, that's on the coaches.  The safeties were not in a position to provide support on run plays, leading to massive runs for Kenneth Walker III. There were three occasions where Michigan settled for red zone field goals when touchdowns would have put the game out of reach.  There were plenty of mistakes to point to as to what brought about this result.

There were excellent performances by individual players.  Andrel Anthony had a huge breakout game in his hometown, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo both overcame significant holding, by and large uncalled, to get into the Michigan State backfield.  Cade McNamara had the game of his career and looked mostly on point and mostly made the right read and good throws after a week of discussion about whether playing JJ instead was the right call.  

Like 1999 Michigan State where the five-star had a critical turnover late to give Michigan State the winning score, JJ was sent in because McNamara was in the injury tent.  This was after a near disaster in the red zone that only gets overlooked because a Spartan defender kicked the ball out of bounds.

You can overcome mistakes with reasonable officiating on the argument that both sides will make their share of mistakes in a game.  You can overcome...interpretive...officiating if you play relatively clean, mistake-free football.  Rare is the day when you can win a game overcoming both.  Especially against a top ten team on the road.

That's what I needed to keep reminding myself of in this.  Michigan State was undefeated coming in.  Michigan State had legitimate weapons and had made good use of them.  There was a great deal of doubt to the outcome coming into today.  But when Michigan raced out to a 10-0 lead and later a 23-14 halftime lead, hope crept in and all of those rational notions disappeared until it was too late. 

And yet...

Walker's first touchdown might have been a fumble out of the back of the end zone.  Reviewed, no change.  Peyton Thorne was strip-sacked and Aidan Hutchinson recovered the ball in the end zone.  Reviewed, no, somehow Thorne's shin was down, a delta 4 loss of points on that possession.  Michigan State keeps a drive alive with two reviews that go their way and then scores.  Every small thing that could go Michigan State's way today seemed to do so.  JJ fumbles on an exchange because Cade is in the tent and Michigan State recovers deep in Michigan territory.

It turns out that, sometimes, everything's so easy for Margaret.  It just depends on who's singing.

Post-Script: This is still an exceedingly fun and engaging team.  This is still a team that does a lot of things really well and has a lot of players who are playing hard and playing well.  I don't want to lose sight of that in the disappointment that comes from today's result.  It doesn't make it better, but it's not fair to presume that this team is only fun because they kept winning.  As several of the players themselves said they know it's about how they come back from this.  I believe in them because I think they have earned the right to be believed.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Pharaohs

Cornelius Johnson made the most of his turn on punt block duty today. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

You kept me wanting wanting wanting
Like the wanting in the movies and the hymns
I want the pharaohs, but there's only men
I want the pharaohs, but there's only men

You said I was your blue, blue baby
And you were right
You said I was your blue, blue baby
And you were right

--"The Pharaohs" by Neko Case from her 2009 album Middle Cyclone 

 One of the fun things I learned when I was still assigned to teach World History is that the word pharaoh translates into something roughly meaning either "great house" or "big house".  I have always favored the latter interpretation for obvious Michigan reasons.  I also remembered that, thematically, Neko Case loves the word pharaoh, as it appears in several of her songs.  

The lyrics today are a solid representation of the two pieces of this game, the first half and the second half.  Games against Northwestern are never fun or easy.  Even as Michigan has won the last seven meetings, the chaos and closeness of those meetings have made each installment more teeth grinding than just a crossover game on the schedules.  Even with the welcome addition of the George Jewett Trophy to this series legacy, it was still always going to be an annoying state of affairs.  First half rust off the bye week.  Trap game.  Looming 7-0 Michigan State on the horizon.  

Five punts were exchanged before a Blake Corum touchdown to allow the Big House crowd a moderate sense of relief that maybe this would not be one of those games.  And sure, it wasn't ideal that Michigan had to kick a 20-yard field goal because the offense stalled once again inside the five-yard line, but Northwestern had not really shown any signs of offense life and....Evan Hull just ran for 75 yards, essentially untouched to make the game 10-7 late in the second quarter.  But Michigan was moving the ball well in the two-minute drill and was inside the five when there was a decision made to be too cute by half, Mike Sainristil fumbled, Northwestern recovered, and the teams went into the locker room at 10-7 and Michigan social media went into a full meltdown.  

Let's acknowledge an unpleasant reality about a wide segment of Michigan fans: We live in perpetual waiting for the other shoe to drop, followed by a question of how many shoes remain up there.  It isn't just Twitter, I was surrounded by various generations of Michigan fans who spent halftime grousing on a number of issues and faults with the first half game plan.  Every fanbase has this, if not in this particular idiom.  The weight of expectations grows with each victory, but so does the height from which one would fall when that moment comes when it all goes awry.  The high wire act of a college football season when a team is winning and winning and winning becomes a dizzying exercise.  Simultaneously, there is this desire for the fanbase to want players, who are very very excellent, to be even better, and that can be dangerous.

So when Michigan, aided by a holding call and a DPI call, went on a 7 play, 74-yard drive on the opening possession of the second half, followed by a ball don't lie missed field goal for Northwestern, followed by another touchdown about three minutes of game time later (after the Cornelius Johnson punt block seen above) to put Michigan up 24-7, the game took on a different dimension to the point where a 17 point third quarter had the same people who had been grousing at halftime were now aggressively yelling for Harbaugh to pull the starters with a lot of time left in the fourth quarter.  Well, except for the one guy behind me to my right who desperately needed Michigan to hold on to the 26 point lead because he had some money on Michigan covering.

In the end, every Michigan draw play that turned into positive yardage for Blake Corum, every coverage bust that still saw Michigan get off the field before Northwestern crossed midfield, there is this realization that this is team is the team we love and in being so, we just want them to win because they want to win.  It's a form of emotional whiplash, but this is our team, and I am glad we have chosen to embrace them, imperfect as they might be, as they seek a form of perfection.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Things That Scare Me

Triple H - Hassan Haskins Hurdles (photo by the incomparable and trustworthy Patrick Barron)
(Photos selected today by HSR editorial assistant Franklin Barker, who emailed me his choices this morning.)

"Fluorescent lights engage
Blackbirds frying on a wire
Same birds that followed me to school when I was young
Were they trying to tell me something?
Were they telling me to run?...

Claim your soul's not for sale
I'm a dying breed who still believes
Haunted by American dreams
Haunted by American dreams"
--"Things That Scare Me" by Neko Case from her 2002 album Blacklisted
It would be totally understandable if you missed what happened in last night's Michigan hockey game.  The puck dropped at 7:00 PM and Michigan immediately scored two goals in the first three minutes and looked like they were going to roll as they had on Friday night.  Lake Superior State then scored four straight goals in the space of 18 minutes of game time and the vaunted Michigan team looked to be in a world of trouble.  It was senior Michael Pastujov's five-hole tally in the latter phases of the second period, coupled with senior Jimmy Lambert's tally late in the period that tied Michigan up.  Michigan would score three more in the third and win 7-4.  The notions of "could this supremely talented team face down adversity" were tested earlier than some expected, but they met the test with flying colors by simply locking down the defensive miscues and scoring five straight goals.

Brad Hawkins says no. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

Because of everything else that happened, it would be easy to forget how critical Brad Hawkins stopping Adrian Martinez on the fourth down scramble at the Michigan 3 early in the first quarter was.  Momentum is not quantifiable, but Michigan kept the score at zeroes after a middling opening drive on offense and a couple of busts on the first drive on defense.  Bend but don't break.  Be grateful that Scott Frost went for an early haymaker and missed.  He was right to try it, there just has to be an understanding of the potential costs for that.  Michigan and Nebraska seemed to be stuck in neutral for much of the first quarter, but a timely and spectacular pick by Daxton Hill got Michigan in business in plus territory, but the offense stalled a bit and had to settle for a field goal.  Not ideal, but at least signs of life.  After another Nebraska punt, the game decided to go utterly weird.

A three-yard run by Hassan Haskins near midfield took nearly an eternity to litigate after a weird flag, later picked up, resulted at the ball being spotted back at the third-down spot but now being called fourth down.  That Jim Harbaugh had to go fire and brimstone to get the officials to review it was sad (though vindicated) but it began a very visible pattern of the officials having a very rough night.  Immediately after the review, Cade McNamara hit Mike Sainristil for a gorgeous diving catch on an overthrown ball to get Michigan inside the Nebraska ten.  Alas, a Daylen Baldwin drop on first down was followed by a Hassan Haskins run to the one-foot line that was deemed short of the line to gain (though I still believe the laces were over, that's me.)  Haskins would get in on third down, only to discover, whoops, McNamara's knee was down and Michigan had to settle for another field goal.  It would have been very easy to fall into the pattern of fearing that these moments would come back to cost Michigan later.

It felt a little better when Michigan forced a five-play punt (which was only five because of a PI call) and then used some power run game and a PI call of its own to get the Haskins touchdown for real this time and head into the locker room up 13-0.

The fears of what was happening but ultimately did not come to fruition against Rutgers were borne out in the second half.  Nebraska got the ball and looked like they ran what felt like a scripted set of plays to get a touchdown to narrow it to a one-possession game, which, followed by a Michigan punt, had the feel of "oh no, here it comes."  This was epitomized by A.J. Henning's "dual possession awarded to the receiving team" moment after a Nebraska punt.  But McCarthy and the offense kept their cool, used some excellent runs and a couple of very timely Baldwin catches to cap off a ten-play, 91-yard drive for a touchdown.  I understand the card saying to go for two here and it being close enough to the fourth to justify it, but the play call, especially when you have Corum and Haskins, was interesting.

That it felt like the wheels were falling off in the three minutes of game time would be an understatement.  A quick counterstrike touchdown by Nebraska on just five plays, Cade McNamara's first career interception, and an immediate Nebraska touchdown and two-point conversion and Michigan was trailing for the first time all season.

How do you come back from adversity?  Hockey had shown that senior leadership can be critical, but sometimes you just go back to what works, and in this case, it's blocking, hitting your holes, and going off like Blake Corum did for 29 yards and Michigan went back up 26-22.  Unfortunately, Nebraska used a combination of runs, gamesmanship, and misdirection to get Martinez back into the end zone after an eight-play drive of their own to retake the lead by three.

Hassan Haskins' hurdle, part of a fifty-yard run, looked like it was going to have Michigan counter punching but the offense stalling in the red zone led to another Jake Moody field goal and a tied ball game.  Nebraska would have the ball with three minutes left to play, an eternity as it were, given how Nebraska had been moving the ball.

The Brad Hawkins bookend. (Patrick Barron)

I did not fully comprehend what had happened on this play.  It looked like Martinez had made the first down, despite being met by a host of Michigan tacklers, but suddenly, there was Brad Hawkins picking up the ball and running with it.  People yelling "there wasn't a whistle" and suddenly, Michigan has the ball on the Nebraska 18 with 105 seconds left on the clock.

Money. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

Jake Moody has a beautiful little draw to his field goal kicks that takes a couple of tries to get used to, especially when you view them from SkyCam.  Moody made all four of his field goals, including the 39-yarder to put Michigan up 32-29.  Nebraska immediately responded with a 25 yard gain to get to midfield with over a minute left and all of the joy that came from seeing Hawkins recover the fumble was dissipating in the night sky.  Close, but not close enough.  But the defense came through, forcing an incomplete, an incomplete, a completion for no gain thanks to a wonderful stick on a screen, and an incomplete on coverage by Daxton Hill.  The taunting flag was no matter as it was after the play, and Michigan earned their first win in Lincoln, their first winning streak against the Huskers, and a perfect 6-0 record heading into the bye week.  When taken together, none of this felt possible at the start of the season, but here we are.

Leadership can come from anywhere.  We expect the seniors on college teams to be the ones to do it because they have been there longest, but sometimes they are so mired in what has gone wrong that it takes an infusion of young talents to move things forward.  But in the end, it takes an entire team to win games like this, on the road, in a hostile environment desperate for a win that they could point to as a changing the trajectory of the program, at night.  Harbaugh said the team understood the assignment and was determined to not let it happen on their watch.  This is much easier to say when you escape Lincoln with a win, as spread-covering as it might be.

Six tests, six passing grades.  They only get harder from here.  But this team has given every indication that they are ready for it.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

People Got a Lotta Nerve

Cornelius Johnson made a lot of people look good today.

You know they call them killer whales
But you seem surprised
When it pinned you down to the bottom of the tank
Where you can't turn around
It took half your leg and both your lungs
And I craved I ate hearts of sharks, I know you know it
I'm a man, man, man, man, man, man, man eater
But still you're surprised when I eat ya

--"People Got a Lotta Nerve" by Neko Case from her 2009 album Middle Cyclone

We are haunted by Michigan's football past in a way that the players are not.  We are conditioned by our experiences with Michigan football to see that quick strike drive by Wisconsin at the end of the first half to bring it back to a three-point game.  We blame the squib kick that nearly created another special teams turnover instead of being astonished by two pinpoint throws by a quarterback who had not shown much of a capacity to do so otherwise up to this point in the season.

Dax Hill stated that he remembered what it was like to see Camp Randall do "Jump Around" in 2019 when Michigan was down 35-8, and he determined that Michigan wanted to be in the lead to "Jump Around" without issue.  That this was in the middle of 25 straight points from Michigan after the half, in a half where Dax Hill set about atoning for being beat on the TD throw late in the first with a sack that knocked Graham Mertz out of the game, a couple of excellent coverages on third down, and then two plays into the fourth, Michigan's own Thane of Fife, David Ojabo, caused a Chase Wolf fumble and Christopher Hinton recovered in Wisconsin territory.  This drive stalled, leading to a Jake Moody field goal that looked as nice of a golf draw as you will see, and Wisconsin got back to work.

We are haunted by Michigan's football past because we know that win percentage probability can lie to you because it's a probability, not a guarantee. Still, it did indeed appear that Michigan had succeeded in stealing Wisconsin's juice.

We are haunted by Michigan's football past because we know the rhythms all too well.  This was the game that was supposed to screw Michigan's season up if it got past Washington.  Last week's second-half inspired little in the way of confidence.  Only getting three points out of the Wisconsin muffed punt inside their five in the first half felt like the harbingers of a past come round again.  You cannot blame Michigan fans for this.  You can also credit the Michigan players for not playing scared.  You can credit the Michigan coaches for coming into this game and playing aggressively, playing to win.  Not every every decision worked, but enough of them did. Michigan gets their first win at Camp Randall since 2001, ruining Barry Alvarez Day (which, admittedly, they did a lot during Alvarez's Wisconsin tenure, as they were 7-3 against the Badgers between 1990-2005.  Yes, we have weird gaps in the historical record against Wisconsin.)

We are haunted by Michigan's football past in a way that many of us spent the entire week expecting this game to go sideways.  I already had picked the Neko Case song that was likely going to represent the mood of the fanbase when this turned out to be a loss.  We expected horror because horror is so much of what we have known.  This was Jim Harbaugh's first win at Michigan as an underdog, but as was argued, Michigan was only an underdog because it keeps losing games like this under Harbaugh.  Not today.  The offense looked more whole, if imperfect, but also understood it was up against an outstanding Wisconsin run defense.  Cade made some mistakes, but he also kept escaping sacks in a way that made up for them.  Michigan didn't look amazing for every stretch of the game, and it still won by 21 points.  

We are haunted by Michigan's football past, but we do not have to be.  Oh sure, Michigan has never won in Lincoln, ever, but it's also a grand total of two games, one of which was the Denard night of the soul in 2012.  This team believes in itself.  This team trusts itself.  Let them lead us the way.  Spooky season may have started yesterday, but it does not mean we need to be spectrally enthralled for an entire month.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Hold On, Hold On

You know, if Sainristil makes this catch, I really feel the second half feels very different. 
(Junfu Han/Detroit Free Press
Compared to some, I've been around
But I really tried so hard 
That echo chorus lied to me with its
Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on

--"Hold On, Hold On" by Neko Case from her 2008 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood 


There is something to be said for the idea that winning a game where you look terrible for an entire half.  Michigan fans certainly have a number of these wins during the Harbaugh era that we can point to [gestures wildly towards 2019 Army], but it doesn't mean we have to like them.

Four home games in a row is a lot to ask of fans, especially after a year off.  First one, WOO, we're back.  Second one, WOO, night game.  Third one, OK, um, well, we're scoring a lot.  Four one, Homecoming, and...Rutgers.  So there's something to be said for looking really good in the first half.  A 17 play drive that takes up a full 1/8th of the game, and ending in a Haskins touchdown.  And sure, Rutgers went on their own six-minute, but that ended in a field goal, so we're good. Then a fast 4 play, 72-yard drive thanks to two big passing plays, a personal foul for a horse collar, and another Haskins touchdown.  So a stop on downs, an exchange of punts, and a field goal after the throw pictured above just missed, and then Michigan taking advantage of some...interesting Rutgers decision making, only to make some interesting decisions of their own in the last fifteen seconds, including a near miss to Schoonmaker, lands another Moody field goal and Michigan up 20-3.  Sure, Rutgers got the ball first to start the second half and Josh Ross had gone off with a stinger, but, Michigan was up 17.

3 plays for 0 yards.
3 plays for -1 yards.
3 plays for 7 yards (which came on a third down QB scramble).
3 plays for 5 yards.

While this was happening, Rutgers scored 10 points and missed a field goal.  Also, Michigan Stadium was doing the wave, because we have had a complete breakdown in Wave Discipline due to the pandemic.  Look to your elders, people.

Rutgers gets the ball after a punt on their own 34 with 7:57 left in the second half. After six yards from Isaih Pacheco and 13 on the ground from Noah Vedral (side note: I love that players can wear #0, but man it looks wrong on a quarterback), Rutgers is first and ten on the Michigan 47.  Michigan's defense is gassed because the offense can't seem to stay on the field for more than 90 seconds at a time.  Now it's third and one, and Michigan's defense finally shows up and gets a stop for a loss.  Now fourth and a long two, the defense comes up big again and gets the ball back on downs, again.

So when Blake Corum went outside for nine yards, it felt like Michigan finally remembered there were multiple ways to move the ball, then followed by six up the gut, and another two.  Then a gift of a face mask penalty and Michigan is first and ten on the Rutgers 30 with 3:14 left.  At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking "OK, a few more yards, center it for Moody, and we'll get out of this damn thing alive."  Well, you could be forgiven that unless you were the Michigan offensive staff, because that's what they apparently did, only to see Moody miss a 47 yarder.  104 seconds left, can Rutgers do it?

No, they could not.  The Thane of Fife himself, David Ojabo, forced the fumble, Junior Colson scooped it up, and Michigan survived.

"Hang on tight and survive.  Everybody does."

There's no great lesson for the fan here beyond scoring a lot of points is way more fun than not, that the running game is not as vaunted as it may have seemed in the first three games, but ugly wins are still wins and Michigan gets out of September unscathed.  But the things to work on this week are plentiful, and Camp Randall, a place Michigan has not won at in 20 years, looms.  But for now, be glad that 20 points was enough.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Last Lion of Albion

This might have been the most challenging touchdown Michigan scored all game.
This might have been the most challenging touchdown Michigan scored all game.
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Last lion of Albion
They'll use you for centuries to come
Your wound is the main road into London
You'll feel extinction
When you see your face on their money
--"Last Lion of Albion" by Neko Case from the album Hell On (2018)

Walking from the parking garage to the Big House, I turned to Dave, my college roommate and frequent seatmate for the last 25 years, and said "I miss the old days when there would not be a sense of doubt about the result of this game.  It would be a standard game against a MAC team."

About that...

I was not expecting this.  I didn't even know I could hope for this.  The most relaxing day I've had at the Big House in the 21st Century.  The moment NIU chose to kick a field goal on 4th and 2 from the 3, having driven the ball pretty well on their second drive, I knew this was just a matter of Michigan picking the point total and the matter of how they arrived at that point.  I do not know I have ever seen a day where every single aspect of the game for Michigan looked like it was clicking.  Over 600 yards of offense, a 60-40 rushing yardage/passing yardage split, 7.8 yards per rush, 13.7 yards per pass, this is just an absolute destruction of a MAC team that already has a win over a P5 team on the road this year.

I spent a lot of time over the summer fretting about Michigan's best days as a football program being behind them.  It would not be that hard to argue, in part due to the lofty heights of the earliest years of Michigan football as "the West's" leading program.  It would be impossible to ever reach that again, but even the Michigan of the 1940s, the Michigan of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s seem like reasonable goals to aspire to in the modern era.  It is easy to point at the struggles of 1990s powers like Nebraska, Tennessee, and Florida State and feel like Michigan might be consigned to that glorious past.  There are no guarantees that this season won't end in heartache and disappointment.  Truth be told, most seasons do for most teams.  But for one warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, that felt like it was the furthest thing from the realm of possibility.  Michigan handled its business in the non-conference schedule, won more games than it did last year before September was over and allowed even the most cynical among the fanbase the chance to at least consider being willing to dream for a bit.

Three running backs who look like they can maul, burst, break tackles, get yards after contact, and slip through the holes being opened for them.  Solid passing with a group of receivers who look like they can adjust and go.  Playcalling that looks like it is taking what it is given and going from there.  A defense that does not look confused and remembers how to finish tackles after the first or second drive.   
Homecoming against Rutgers next week looks like it could be a fun one, with "football weather" on the docket.  

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Set Out Running

I mean, 173 yards on 21 carries and three TDs is a pretty great day at the office.
(Kirthmon Dozier-Detroit Free Press)

And if I knew heartbreak was coming
I would've set out running
'Cause I just can't shake this feeling
That I'm nothing in your eyes 
--"Set Out Running", Neko Case, Furnace Room Lullaby (2000) 

I sat there on that bright, crisp day in late November 2010 watching Montee Ball and James White combine for 354 yards rushing and six touchdowns as Bret Bielema decided that he would run the ball down the throat of the Michigan defense until it showed it could stop it.  It could not.  It had no answer, and Michigan lost by 20.  I remember the lament of the Michigan fans that it was so maddening that the Greg Robinson coordinated defense could not do one of the fundamental tasks of defense, but also, with the gallows humor of that era, respecting Bielema's basic decision that "this plan is working, why mess with it?"

Last night, Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum ran for 326 yards, and four touchdowns as Michigan handled its business against Washington before an eager and enthusiastic maize crowd and a national television audience in prime time.    Even taking away Corum's one massive 67 yard TD run, both backs averaged over 5 yards per carry.  I am not an advanced stats expert, but that feels like it's pretty good.

There is a segment of fans who are deeply, garment rendingly concerned that Michigan did not show much of anything in the passing game.  Against what might be the best secondary they face all season.  While trying to figure out the new wide receiver depth chart after losing Ronnie Bell for the season last week.  While averaging 5 yards per carry on the ground.  I can understand the gnashing of teeth that "they won't be able to get away with this in the Big Ten."  OK, maybe?  But also, maybe?  I understand the feelings of hurt and concern that there's been too much in the way of false hope and glimmering early promises that fade as reality sets in as September becomes October.  But, my goodness, this worked.  You're allowed to enjoy this!  There are no fandom bonus points for being worried about things the coaching staff is doing.

But, to stay focused on the positives, a win where both sides of the ball looked good, but with some clear room for improvement in practice, a Michigan Stadium atmosphere where it finally looked like The Big House was a challenging environment to play in for an opposing team, an MMB show that was fascinating to watch, and the rare feeling that while traditional blue bloods around the country lost (Ohio State, USC, Florida State, Tennessee) while Michigan did not.  Michigan may not be where the exceedingly lofty expectations would like us to be, but we're also not as far off the cliff as some other late 90s powers have fallen.  So there's that.

There was one thing during last night's game that made me very happy.  After the Corum touchdown, which seemed to be the football gods rewarding Harbaugh for being willing to go for it with a "fake punt" in Michigan territory, the entire team was feeling it deeply on the Michigan sideline.  There was a level of Dani Rojas-style "football is life!!!" joy being expressed, the jumping, the dancing, the hyping of the crowd.  There have been many grumblings about the team's bad chemistry in the past, and winning does cure a lot of ills, but that moment, among a tapestry of other positive moments last night, felt like a that was enjoying being a football team.  If this football team enjoys football and enjoys their teammates, that's a victory in and of itself.

One set of Huskies in the books, a new one comes to Ann Arbor next week.

Saturday, September 04, 2021

That Teenage Feeling

Get well, Ronnie Bell.  (Mike Mulholland |
Get well, Ronnie Bell.  (Mike Mulholland |

And nothing comforts me the same
As my brave friend who says,
"I don't care if forever never comes
'Cause I'm holding out for that teenage feeling
I'm holding out for that teenage feeling"

                                --"That Teenage Feeling"  Neko Case 

 I think it's the small moments that get you, the ones you thought you saw coming but they hit you in an unexpected way.  This week, plus four days, marks the 25th anniversary of my first Michigan game as a student, a weird, but fun 20-8 Michigan scorigami (still) win over Illinois in the dying August heat of Michigan Stadium.  Though I had been to the Big House before, there was a sense of culmination, that everything I had wanted up to that point in my life had been validated.  Not by getting into Michigan, not by moving into my dorm room in Bursley, but sitting in the student section for an actual game on my 18th birthday.  Those feelings seem perhaps naïve and misguided in retrospect and with the benefit of lived experience, but they were genuine then.  I chose to wear my recently acquired from eBay Jarrett Irons #37 home jersey to the game today, because it felt right, honoring a true Michigan great who just happened to graduate right before being able to be part of a team that went down in history.

There was a whole long section here, written in the vein of other very good recent season openers, that dealt with what we have lost, what we're missing, the challenges therein.  I felt that deeply and I hope that perhaps in getting my thoughts down on paper, I would be able to sort them all out.  While what I said was good and somewhat cathartic to me, it also doesn't need to be shared, because it doesn't really solve anything for me.  But I appreciate and respect the friends and writers who have been putting those feelings out there and the folks who have been reading and seeing themselves in those pieces.  But that is a piece that should have rolled out when 2021 was still an unknown.  We have limited data now; we can't stare into the shapeless abyss any longer.

This game, this opener, doesn't really solve anything.  And you know what, that's OK.  Because it doesn't need to solve anything.  It is preferable when Michigan looks like it knows what it's doing against a G5 school, the hand-wringing can wait for another week, that's nice.  There were big plays on offense by players that the collective us were hoping would be there.  There was Ronnie Bell with a big score followed by a visit with the men's basketball team in the end zone, a play that came after a ridiculous catch that was wiped out by an OPI call so questionable Bell should be allowed to file a defamation lawsuit against it.  (Our best to Ronnie Bell and hoping for good injury news, but not expecting it.)  There was Blake Corum, on a swing pass, on a kickoff return, on yard after yard after initial contact, being the muscleball we knew he could be.  There was Hassan Haskins just running in that punishing style of his.  There was AJ Henning, getting one touch but making the most of it.  There was Cade McNamara, playing within himself, but 9/11 for 136 and 2 TDs when they didn't really need him to do more.  There was JJ McCarthy, 4/6 but making absolutely absurd throw across the hypotenuse of the field to find Daylen Baldwin for a very nice touchdown to put Michigan up by 40.  These things felt good for players who labored in an uncertain silence last season, to hear the roar of approval from the Big House crowd.

We know all too well the dangers of reading too much into one game of a season, but let's not worry about what this portends, good or ill.  Let's not worry about where this will fit in the historical context of Michigan history, as the 1,349th game of Michigan football.  Let's not fret about next week, that's for the coaches and the players to handle, and they will.  For this moment, for this one moment, let's savor being back in the Big House, watching a team of players who love Michigan as much as we do, play with the vigor and enthusiasm that one hopes for.  The story of the season will be written in time.  It will unfold, page by page, and it will be inked indelibly in the record by January at the latest.  College football lives too often in the past and in the future to truly enjoy the present.  Let's resolve to do that, if just for this one week.  We can go back to being who we are next week, heck, probably by Monday, maybe Tuesday because of the holiday.  But for now, enjoy it, relish it, it's the kind of feeling we long for during the long months of the off-season.

Friday, July 23, 2021


Read It!

Historical analogies are always imperfect because no two situations are exactly alike.  The fine-grain details differ, even if the contours are generally the same.

With that said, I've been reading a lot this summer about the Gorbachev era and the end of the Soviet Union.

Let me tell you a story: A large empire built on its terrifying ground game finds itself stagnating after the rule of two brief and ineffectual leaders.  In a year ending in 5, a new and energized leader ascends to power and, using a series of slogans and catchphrases, captures the world's attention.  Initial results are strong even if the leader is somewhat polarizing.  After a couple of calamities, the leader is forced to reckon with diminishing returns, all while its superpower rival continues to grow in strength, even through a transition in leadership.  In the end, the leader tries to salvage his reform program, leading to ever-growing discontent within the populace.

On the plus side, the likelihood of a coup, failed or otherwise, inside the program is where this analogy ends.

Due to the nature of Michigan "men" (Michigan man embraces all gender identities) being stereotypical "war dads" who love nothing more than curling up with a good book on some long-ago conflict and sharing our knowledge with others, whether they want to hear it or not, there is a tendency to see Michigan's football program in terms of "empire" and "historical epoch."  It might just be me.  But the reality is, any large enough entity with enough history and enough success will start to follow well-worn paths forward.  Sometimes the cycles are slow and long; sometimes, they are much more compact.  But one of the key elements is that most of these things happen because people are human, and humans are fallible in very predictable ways.

From Michael Dobbs' outstanding Down with Big Brother (p. 310):
"The secrets were stuffed in large envelopes, tied with string, and sealed with wax. There were around two thousand of these envelopes, all neatly filed away in cupboards in the Kremlin apartment once occupied by Stalin, down the corridor from the general secretary's office. This was the celebrated osobaya papka (special file), containing documents so secret that they were circulated and preserved in one copy only. Anybody who checked the documents out was obliged to sign for them. Many of the envelopes in the osobaya papka could be opened only by the general secretary himself or with his personal authorization."
Any sufficiently large organization has secrets.  Dark secrets that they do not want the public to find out.  The nature of secrets, however, is that eventually, they do come to the surface.  The question then is, how do you deal with your past?  Do you confront it?  Do you ignore it?  Do you try to explain it away?

Most organizations tend to ignore for as long as possible, explain it away if plausible, and then when all other options have been exhausted, confront the past.  The threat of legal action usually brings about this cycle and can be a catalyst for accelerating said cycle. 

There is a very unpleasant reality that the story of the past of Michigan football has been built on an obscuring of many dark secrets, hidden away for a long time by those in power.  But, like so much of history, especially when the figures in question are dead, the answers and the decisions are unsatisfactory.  But the reality of the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, we cannot flinch when new information comes to light, even if it means reshaping our understanding of the past and of people.

For someone who celebrates the understanding of history to help us understand the present, this may seem like an odd moment to advocate, but perhaps it is time for us to start over again.  This is not to bury the past and pretend it never happened, not in the least.  Rather, it is a chance for us to ask: What could we be if we were not burdened by tradition?  Would we still value the same things because they are who we are in our DNA, or would we choose to move in new directions?  A look at the broader landscape of the moment says that this is an improbable path for Michigan.  There's too much money and too much power wrapped up in the specific version of the past that ignores the new and difficult reality.  That is a shame, but if things broke differently, I would count myself as pleasantly surprised.  But in the end, how the Anderson scandal has played out has shown us that ignoring the reality of the past for as long as possible in favor of the legends is the plan for a majority of those in power.  The shame of this is tremendous but unsurprising.  It is the nature of empire.

There's no neat bow for me to wrap all of this up in.  This is entirely my attempt to unburden my thoughts about where Michigan is and where it is going ahead of this football season.  I frequently said that my best writing came in the seasons where I was looking for some nobility in defeat.  But now, in the part of the year where hope springs eternal, there are just too many of us looking around and wondering what to believe and whether we're just too pessimistic.  We can't know.  But we're going to find out again, together.

Thursday, June 10, 2021


CW: Sexual abuse

The first game I remember was against Maryland. It was probably the one in '89. My dad and I were in the 85th row in the southeast corner of Michigan Stadium. My dad pointed at one of the dots on the field. "That's Bo!"

Ten years later, I was a freshman in the Michigan Marching Band. After two long weeks of drilling the basics of marching into our heads, we practiced our parade down to the stadium as the evening cooled us off. We filed down the tunnel and into our section. The directors praised us for our hard work, and then revealed a surprise: The Man Himself was here to speak to us. He spoke for maybe 10 minutes, dodging sprinklers on what was still natural turf. Bo was electric; I forget what he said, but not how he said it.

On the eve of The Game in 2006, he died, and I tried to hold it together in my cubicle. The next day, Michigan lost an intolerable third straight game against OSU.

Take down the statue. Rename the building. He knew. Either he didn't believe what he was told, or he didn't believe that it was abuse, or he didn't care. None of those are worth celebrating.