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.