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.

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