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.