Monday, December 05, 2022

Finest Worksong (reprise)

All good?  All good.  (JJ checks on DJ by Patrick Barron)
Take your instinct by the reins.
You're better best to rearrange
What we want and what we need
Has been confused, been confused

Your finest hour
(Oh) Your finest hour
--"Finest Worksong" by R.E.M. from their 1987 album Document

As college football fans, we do weird things when trying to understand a game's outcome before the game has been played.  The more modern version is to look at the "fancystats" and see if patterns can be discerned or unexpected weaknesses can be exploited.  We look at history and see the historical trends by one school or another, even though some of those trends go back generations and bear no meaning on the contest about to be played on this day.  We search for meaning in what has been in order to understand what will be.  So when USC looked as if it had no real sense of how tackling worked against Utah, and TCU's second-half comeback magic ended up stalling out for the first time all year, opening the back door to let Ohio State into the Playoff, the dread of whether an upstart, unraked Purdue could knock off, as the Fox introduction referred to Michigan, "the bluest of the blue bloods" in this contest in Indianapolis and take some of the shine off this remarkable season made sense.

For a while, it looked like Purdue had something cooking.  Aidan O'Connell's veteran savvy was picking apart Michigan's zone, and there was an epidemic of sloppy tackling on Michigan's end. Purdue held a tenuous three-point lead for much of the second quarter, while Michigan was still looking for some rhythm without Blake Corum on offense and Mike Morris on defense.

But Michigan would score 21 of the game's next 24 points over the next fifteen or so minutes of game clock largely on the back of two highly successful runs by Donovan Edwards, the first a sixty-yard jaunt that did not go further largely because Edwards couldn't use his right arm to stiff arm tacklers at present, and the second, a twenty-seven yard run that featured no fewer than five broken tackles.  Michigan was never in any real danger again, thanks in no small part to a pair of interceptions by Will Johnson and all that was left was to celebrate the program's first back-to-back outright Big Ten championships since 1991-1992.  

It is hard to capture the sense of joy and relief that Saturday's result encapsulated.  2021 no longer stands as a fluke; it was the start of something that is still going forward.  Michigan fans have emerged from a decade and a half of waiting for not just the other shoe to drop, but a veritable DSW to fall on their heads when it came to football.  Now, we're finding our classic "pardon our arrogance" footing, tempered by the experience of the harder times.  We've moved from "proved we can do this" to "there's no reason we can't do this" and I am so happy for all of those players who made it happen.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Shiny Happy People

WITH A BROKEN HAND!  TWICE!  (Photo credit: the incomparable Patrick Barron.)

Shiny happy people laughing

Meet me in the crowd, people, people
Throw your love around, love me, love me
Take it into town, happy, happy
Put it in the ground where the flowers grow
Gold and silver shine

Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people laughing

--"Shiny Happy People" by R.E.M. from their 1991 album Out of Time

All that matters is that the players knew they could do it, and they would do it.  It would have been so easy to tell ourselves, "touchdown underdog on the road to a team bent on revenge in a place Michigan hasn't won since 2000 and the status of Blake Corum unknown," that it just wasn't Michigan's day, the stars were not aligned.  It wasn't a great feeling, but it would have been understandable.  It could have allowed the national pundits to declare last year a fluke and "great season Michigan, but Ohio State is just that much better." and the like.

You look for signs.  A 28% chance of winning is roughly about flipping two quarters and both coming up tails.  On Tuesday, I flipped a quarter twice while standing in the hallway between classes at work.  Both came up tails.  Well.

Everyone around, love them, love them
Put it in your hands, take it, take it
There's no time to cry, happy, happy
Put it in your heart where tomorrow shines
Gold and silver shine

In a promotional video earlier this week, talking about the rivalry, JJ McCarthy was wearing a knit cap to help promote the "Sack The Stigma" campaign for mental health help awareness and to let people know about the new 988 Suicide and Mental Health Crisis Hotline number.

Today's victory in Columbus was Michigan's 988th win of all time.  The signs were there if you were willing to see them.

Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people holding hands
Shiny happy people laughing

Whoa, here we go.

It felt like Michigan was lucky to be only down three at the half.  The Cornelius Johnson long-bomb TD was nice but did not feel sustainable.  Michigan was getting stops on defense, but it felt like Ohio State was just lurking, waiting; they'd come out of the locker room and start gashing Michigan.

But Michigan got the ball to start the second half; they needed a touchdown to get the feelings flowing.  And we decided that Donovan Edwards would have to carry the load, which he did, broken hand and all.  Still, it was JJ McCarthy's 19-yard run, which included his second effort to push the tackler back to set up another long touchdown, this time to freshman Colston Loveland.  Michigan would lead 24-20 and never looked back.

It didn't feel like it, but ESPN analytics said it was true:

Michigan's defense forced Ohio State into a three-and-out (thanks, in part, to a combination of a holding penalty and a personal foul), and while CJ Stroud clearly wanted to stay on the field and try and convert the fourth and five in plus territory, a false start on the punt led to a touchback and a net gain of 28 yards.

For all of the quick strike and explosive plays that Michigan had converted on, it was a classic Michigan long march drive, a combination of patient runs by Donovan Edwards, a trick play from a linebacker turned running back turned jump passer Kalel Mullings to get a critical first down, a great football IQ play by Ronnie Bell to get a PI in the end zone on a third down on a ball that was high but probably not an easy catch, and a J.J. run to get into the end zone and go up two possessions, there was still a lot of time left in the fourth quarter.  Though Michigan forced another Ohio State punt on a three and out, another OSU unsportsmanlike conduct put Michigan in business on their own 43.

You can be forgiven for thinking that the Jake Moody missed field goal from 57 yards, which would have been his career long had it been made, was going to loom large in the final outcome.  It was the years of pent-up knowledge that these things, these Games, turn on poor decisions.  But Mike Sainristil made an absolutely textbook pass breakup, forced Ohio State into a field goal try to bring it within eight, and tension returned.  Too much time, too many things that could go wrong.

Donovan Edwards didn't care about the past.  With most of the fanbase thinking that Michigan just needed another long drive that ended in points for Michigan, Edwards, with a busted up hand, said "Nah" and went 75 yards in one play and got a touchdown to put Michigan up 15.  It was this absurd "no, I do not accept this" reality moment where suddenly, everything felt possible and real.  But Ohio State now got the ball back with a lot of time left and began moving the ball down the field again.  But, despite not having Mike Morris, the Michigan defense got some pressure on Stroud and forced him into a bad shovel pass that was picked off by Taylor Upshaw, of all people.  Michigan had the ball on their own 8, and two plays later, Donovan Edwards decided if one long touchdown in The Game was nice, two would be legendary and went 85 yards in one play to put Michigan up an absurd 22 points.

Ohio State only had a shade over three minutes to try and rally, but after an Eyabi Okie sack that should have included a fumble, Makari Paige proved ball don't lie and got a second pick (trying to put Michigan up by 30+ but really just sealing the game.)

As fans, we spent much of the last year hoping that this was possible, but as the wins piled up, it seemed like Michigan would have another exceptional season that would end in disappointment.  It was not to be, and for another year, Michigan and its fans get to revel in the fact that Ohio State has, once again, been vanquished. Another trip to Indianapolis, a place that seemed so far away just 364 days ago, is in the offing, facing a Purdue team Michigan has not seen in five years, awaits as Michigan tries to win back-to-back Big Ten championships for the first time since 2003-04.

As much as people do not love "Shiny Happy People" thirty years on, it does represent a certain level of joy.  It's too treacly, too saccharine   But, as so many Michigan fans of a certain vintage know, the song and the lyrics we were really thinking about at the end of the game were a different manifestation of joy:

And sometimes when you're on, you're really fucking on
And your friends they sing along and they love you
But the lows are so extreme, that the good seems fucking cheap
And it teases you for weeks in its absence

But you'll fight and you'll make it through
You'll fake it if you have to
And you'll show up for work with a smile
You'll be better and you'll be smarter and more grown up
And a better daughter or son
And a real good friend

You'll be awake, you'll be alert
You'll be positive though it hurts
And you'll laugh and embrace all your friends
You'll be a real good listener
You'll be honest, you'll be brave
You'll be handsome and you'll be beautiful
You'll be happy!

Your ship may be coming in
You're weak, but not giving in
To the cries and the wails of the valley below
And your ship may be coming in
You're weak, but not giving in
And you'll fight it, you'll go out fighting all of them

Once more, Ohio beat.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Oh My Heart

Senior Day means featuring photos of two of Michigan's most valuable seniors, Money Moody and Ronnie Bell. (Patrick Barron)

The kids have a new take, a new take on faith
Pick up the pieces, get carried away
I came home to a city half-erased
I came home to face what we had faced

This place needs me here to start
This place is the beat of my heart

--"Oh My Heart" by R.E.M. from their 2011 album Collapse into Now

So, you have to trust me on this one, but I had suspected all week that something like this was coming.  I didn't think it was going to be a loss, and I didn't know it was going to be this close, but Michigan hadn't had "the stupid game" this season yet, and The Game can be many things, but it cannot be "the stupid game."  But there were hints all week.  The bitter cold forecast for Saturday came to be. There were emotional factors in favor of the Illini. Michigan had some injuries that might be an issue.  It was foreshadowing and foreboding.

But to watch that first drive, a Blake Corum explosive play to start the day after a week where he was (relatively) bottled up, then a quick hitter to Ronnie Bell for 16, then hitting some tight ends to get inside the ten, and then Blake three times to pay dirt, a Jake Moody PAT, and Michigan was up 7-0 early.  Then Illinois couldn't do much of anything on their first two drives and then was stopped on fourth down on their third, and while Michigan wasn't doing much either, it felt like Michigan was in control on this freezing day.  After all, even after Illinois hit the field goal, Michigan started moving again, thanks to the efforts of Blake Corum.  Then, without warning, on a simple four-yard outside run, Blake Corum took a helmet to the knee, causing him to fumble the ball, and upon review, Illinois got the ball back, and Corum left the game for the half.  While Illinois couldn't do anything, and the teams headed up the tunnel with Michigan up 7-3, the brightness of the early moments seemed to darken into a classic Michigan November gray, that oft-felt sense that doom was creeping back in that matched the clouds in the sky.

The storm didn't kill me, the government changed.
Hear the answer and call, hear this song, rearranged
Hear the trees, the ghosts and the buildings, sing
With the wisdom to reconcile this thing

It's sweet, and it's sad, and it's true
How it doesn't look bitter on you

As halftime wound down, I watched Jake Moody kick into the steadily strong winds blowing north wind toward the south goalposts.  His consistency was unsurprising but a marvel in its own right, just an athlete making sure he knew what the elements he faced were and was prepared for them if called upon.

The Michigan defense's three-and-out on the first series should have assuaged some fears, as should have Blake Corum's return and five-yard carry on the second play of Michigan's opening offensive series. Still, Michigan's inability to turn excellent field position into a touchdown meant the first Jake Moody field goal of the afternoon and a 10-3 lead for the Wolverines.  

You could just tell yourself, "it's OK, Michigan has made excellent second-half adjustments, they'll figure out how to keep the Illini down, grind out an ugly win," and then Illinois went back-to-back drives, with a Michigan failure on fourth down (thanks to a missed offside call that likely lead J.J. to try an Aaron Rodgers' style shot play to Andrel Anthony (who did almost haul it in) only to discover there was no flag thrown, and everything felt awful. The stupid game was in full effect.

The three and out by Michigan as the third wound down and all of the old ghosts started to pop up, right on cue, as if to tell all of us that they had been gone far too long and had some things to say to us.  But then, something subtle happened.  The quarter ended, and Michigan would drive with the wind at their backs for the rest of the game.   

The next Illini drive featured a botched snap and loss of 11 to set up 4th and 19 from the Illinois 34 when the Illini punted to Ronnie Bell.  Ronnie Bell, back out returning punts on Senior Day, went like a man possessed and took a 44-yard punt back 40 yards to the Illinois 38.  The Michigan Stadium crowd, acting like they knew the ghosts could be put to bed, began an unprompted Let's Go Blue chant, and though the drive stalled, a Jake Moody field goal to bring it back within four started to answer some of the fears.  The defense would need to stand tall.  

Illinois tried to put together a drive to either pull back to seven or go up 11 and keep their Big Ten West title hopes alive. It looked like it was going to work for a bit, but faced with a 4th and 8, Tommy DeVito scrambled, but DJ Turner got him by the legs six yards short of the sticks, and Michigan got the ball back with over eight minutes left.

At this point, the cryogenically sealed crowd knew this next drive was big. The freshman Colston Loveland got things going with a replica of the Erick All game-winning play against Penn State in 2021, this time for 27 yards and into Illinois territory. Still, the run game kept stalling without Corum or Edwards, and after three stalled plays inside the 15, Michigan chose another field goal to get within one.  A stop, a drive, and a field goal or better could win it for Michigan.

Bret Bielema helped on the first count by calling an exceptionally conservative sequence that also included a holding and saw Illinois lose three total yards on a three-and-out while Michigan burned its time-outs to preserve the clock.  Michigan had 2:15 and the ball on their own 48 to try and keep the perfect season alive.  A storybook ending would have likely featured a J.J. rollout to a wide-open Ronnie Bell in the end zone.  But Michigan doesn't go for the obvious conclusion.

Mother and father, I stand beside you
The good of this world might help see me through
This place needs me here to start
This place is the beat of my heart

Michigan couldn't quite get all the pieces together quickly but also put them together when it counted.  Isaiah Gash made up for an earlier drop with an eight-yard conversion on fourth down to keep the game alive, using his blockers to get open, much to the chagrin of the Illini fanbase and coaching staff.  On the next play, Ronnie Bell wasn't in the end zone but drew a critical pass interference call to get Michigan to the Illinois 22, or a 40-yard field goal attempt for Jake Moody if they didn't gain another yard, and Moody was 36-37 over the last two years from forty or closer.  A weird play where Cornelius Johnson got five more yards, then Michigan got a free time out with the clock running down as the play was reviewed.  A JJ incompletion meant the stakes were simple.  With 13 seconds left on the clock, #13 Jake Moody would attempt to score his 11th-12th-and 13th points of the game to put Michigan on top.

I never doubted it.  The ball was centered, for the most part, between the hashes.  Robbins had handled a fastball snap earlier in the day, and the operation just needed to do its thing one more time.  Snap, ball down, laces out, kick up, kick right down Main Street, and Michigan led 19-17 with nine seconds left on the clock.

The ghosts whispered in the wind, but there were also memories surfacing.  A fan behind us said: "Man, I was here for Colorado."  So was my wife.  She knows it's not over until the clock says 0:00.  But when Tommy DeVito's Hail Mary attempt into the wind fell harmlessly to the turf, Michigan Stadium let out a collective sigh of relief.  11-0 heading into Columbus, with every single goal still possible.

Jake Moody entered the Pantheon today, Jim Harbaugh suggested as much, and the record book now says as much.  But he had never had a game-winning kick at any level before today (I would have thought the Nebraska kick counted, but that took a tie game to a lead, so your mileage may vary).  But on Senior Day, his last game in Michigan Stadium, Jake Moody became the man of the hour and preserved Michigan's first 11-0 start since 2006, setting up The Game with both teams undefeated for the first time since that fateful meeting.

Beat Ohio.

Tales from The Spreadsheet:
  • Win 0987
  • 11th win in a row, the longest streak since 2006.

  • Michigan winning 19-17 is NOT a Scorigami; it previously happened on 11/18/1939 against Penn.

  • Attendance: 110,433, 99th largest crowd in Big House history.

  • 6th straight win over Illinois.
  • All-time record against Illinois moves to 71-23-2

  • Michigan moves to 13-6-1 all-time on November 19 all-time (5 of those losses are Ohio State in the before times.)

  • Michigan moves to 13-4-1 all-time when scoring exactly 19 points.
  • Michigan moves to 36-16-2 all-time when allowing exactly 17 points.

  • Michigan completes its fourth perfect home slate under Harbaugh. (2016, 2018, 2021, 2022)

Sunday, November 13, 2022

So Fast, So Numb

Big Mood...Jake Moody. (Patrick Barron)

You're drinking raw adrenal, baby
And do-si-do, saddo
You're eating cartilage, shark-eyes, shark-heart, all present tense
And boy, your blood is running cold 
Listen! This is now, this is here this is me
This is what I wanted you to see
That was then, that was that that is gone, that is past
You cast yourself, cast passed by, thrown down fast

You say, you say that you hate it
You want to re-create it
--"So Fast, So Numb" by R.E.M. from their 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi

It was cold.  There were flurries that melted upon contact with the ground that retained much of its warmth from temperatures in the 60s all week.  It was the permagray that settles in over Michigan Stadium when November rolls in.  As Jane Coaston said:

All of this is to say that it is well within expectations that when your offense is getting nearly six yards a pop on any rush attempt without any real explosive plays, deciding to keep things on the ground and let your offensive line impose their will and let your Heisman-candidate running back do his thing.  There is nothing wrong with this!  Maybe this is years of training watching Big Ten football and flashing back to years of rooting for any kind of first down in the Novembers of the late RichRod and late Hoke years, but if the offense can do things and do them well, then yes, keep doing those things.

Yes, I would love to see Michigan's passing game show some signs of execution where they can use their talented wide receivers to mix things up so defenses cannot just stack eight in the box.  All of this is worried about the future, which I both understand and respect.  But for a day where Michigan could find a way to move to 10-0 for the first time since 2006, keep the ball on the ground, hold on to it, and take care of business on defense.

"Dull and boring football" was a common complaint about the Michigan football teams of the 1970s and yes, it was a vastly different world, both in the Big Ten and nationally, but I really think "wishing the passing game was more dynamic" is the sort of thing that falls under "these are the problems you want to have" kind of thing that crops up when the team you're rooting for is 22-2 in their last 24 games.

It was cold, it was boring, but it was a win, and I'm absolutely fine with that.

Notes from The Spreadsheet:
  • Win 0986
  • 34-3 win, the fourth time it's happened, most recently in...2006 at Indiana (to go to 11-0.)
  • 110,192 attendance, 108th largest crowd in Michigan history.
  • Michigan moves to 7-4-1 all-time against the Huskers.
  • Michigan moves to 17-1-3 all-time on November 12.  (Do NOT think about the 1.  It will make you sad.)
  • Michigan moves to 37-0 all-time when scoring exactly 34 points.
  • Michigan moves to 47-2-3 all-time when opponents score exactly 3 points.

Sunday, November 06, 2022


The buffs look good on Barrett.  Oh, hey, Denard! (Michigan Athletics)

I know what I wantedI know what I wantedI know how I wanted this to be
You go down to the waterDrink down of the waterWalk up off the water, leave it be
This is not my time, sisterIt is cold in heavenAnd I'm not sprouting wings
I'm drowningMeI'm drowningMe, yeah
"Undertow" by R.E.M. from the band's 1996 album New Adventures in Hi-Fi 
OK, this one's on me.  I picked the white #23 jersey to wear for this game.  A 2003 vintage Chris Perry, it's one of my newer additions to the collection, but I thought getting "Perry with the carry" vibes would be good against Rutgers, which, if it can do anything (beyond make things exceedingly annoying for other teams with their "hard hitting" and "Schiano manning") it is defending the run.  And things felt pedestrian when Michigan moved the ball down the field with relative ease on the first drive, though the red zone struggles seemed to be rearing their head again until Blake Corum's fourth try to get over the goal line to go up 7-0.  It's just...Michigan has punted so little over the last few weeks that Michael Barrett might have forgotten that he is Brad Robbins' personal protector and Michigan had a rare special teams mistake under Jay Harbaugh. Suddenly, it was 7-7.  Thanks to a short field from a Rutgers' surprise onside kick, Michigan used a short field to drive down the field thanks to a quick 43-yard run by Corum, but again, stalling inside the one-yard line but finally getting JJ over the goal line to make it 14-7 Michigan. 

The second quarter was utterly forgettable, like so many second quarters of recent vintage, including seeing Jake Moody miss two fifty-yard field goal attempts thanks to some tricky winds in the warm New Jersey evening.  So yeah, bad vibes going into the locker room for a third straight week.  But Michigan has been a second half team the last few weeks, so perhaps things would right themselves.  That's when I swapped out the #23 for a 2004 vintage #1 Braylon Edwards; you've got to change up the vibes.

Anyway, after ten minutes of the third quarter, Michigan's current #23 Michael Barrett had two picks, including his first-ever pick six at any level, and had a 35-17 lead.  They never looked back.  Will Johnson got his first career pick two series later, Michigan cashed in another touchdown on it, Jake Moody got a field goal that helped remind folks he's money. One more touchdown from the backups and the 52-17 scoreline looks like what was expected, though not the method of arrival.

Rutgers games are always annoying, especially the last three, but in the end, coming out of each with a different kind of win.  A comeback in triple OT in 2020, a hold on for dear life second half in 2021, and now this slow start, fast finish.  Rutgers can do some things well.  They might continue to get better, especially if the Big Ten moves away from divisions and they no longer have to face all of the top teams in the league every year.  But for now, it isn't enough.

The last time Michigan was 9-0, it was on the literal exact same calendar date in 2016.   Every game date, including the bye week, lines up.  Which would make me a little nervous if we were off to Iowa next week.  But instead, Nebraska comes to town as a massive underdog, so hopefully, Michigan can keep handling its business and take advantage of the chaos that happened elsewhere in college football yesterday at the top.

Michigan Spreadsheet Notes
Win 0985
52-17 score, not a Scoragami.  2nd time, previously against Minnesota in 1995.
Attendance 51,117, which is interesting because it exactly matches the attendance at Michigan Stadium on November 16, 1968, when Michigan was also AP #4.  (Oh, and that's the Ron Johnson single-game rushing record game, 347 yards on 31 carries, or 11.2 yards per carry, and 5 TDs.)
Michigan's all-time record against Rutgers moves to 9-1 (9 straight wins).
Michigan moves to 15-3 on November 5th, all-time.  The previous 11/5 game was 59-3 win over Maryland in 2016.
Michigan moves to 11-0 when scoring exactly 52 points.
Michigan moves to 35-16-2 when allowing their opponent exactly 17 points.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Talk About the Passion

When afforded the opportunity to hit the Paul, one must hit the Paul.  (Isaiah Hole)

Empty prayer, empty mouths combien reactionEmpty prayer, empty mouths talk about the passionCombien, combien, combien de temps?
Talk about the passionTalk about the passion

--"Talk About The Passion" by R.E.M. from their 1983 debut album Murmur 

I should like this game more than I do.  I did deeply enjoy the era of assured certainty of the late Carr era, where Michigan would show up and beat Michigan State. Even as Michigan was lost in the desert during the Dantonio era, there was this certainty of dumb things happening to Michigan.  But this entire week felt like a full Kobayashi Maru.  If Michigan wins in anything other than blowout fashion, it will be an indictment of the season, to say nothing of the reaction if, once again, an unranked Michigan State finds a way to spoil a Michigan season in the name of making their own.  

So yes, please forgive me if the first quarter felt frustrating.  Even if one intellectually knew that Michigan State could not keep just throwing up long jump balls and scoring, well, it worked in 2020, so yeah.  But the reality settled in that even if Michigan could move the ball to the Spartan five, they just couldn't get in the end zone.  But, thankfully, Jake Moody remains money, and it was 13-7 at the half.

The underappreciated genius of Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards is that they echo Mike Hart's running style without copying it.  They find the holes, they fall forward for the extra yards, and they do more, but they don't make it look difficult.  When the running game is clicking, it's not necessarily an exciting brand, even if Corum and Edwards were both averaging over five yards every time they touched the ball without a bunch of explosive plays.  In the larger view, the only reason that this didn't feel better was that Jake Moody had five field goals instead of, say three field goals and two Michigan touchdowns in their stead.  37-3 would be much more indicative of what the offense was doing outside the red zone than what they were doing inside the red zone.  I suppose that is a credit to the Michigan State defense.

The final analysis of this game is that Michigan won by nearly exactly the margin they were expected by Vegas to win by and has reclaimed Paul.  Michigan has a win over every Big Ten team in their most recent match-up.

Michigan Spreadsheet Notes:
Win 0984
29-7 score, not a Scoragami.  4th time, previously against Indiana last year.
Win 450 at Michigan Stadium (in 600 games)
Attendance 111,083, the 65th largest crowd in Michigan Stadium history
All-time record against Michigan State/MAC moves to 72-38-5
Michigan moves to 14-5 on October 29th, all-time.  The previous 10/29 game was 32-23 win over MSU in 2016
Michigan moves to 16-2 when scoring exactly 29 points
Michigan moves to 107-13-4 when allowing their opponent exactly 7 points.

It's Rutgers week.  Steel yourself accordingly.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Crush With Eyeliner

It wasn't the moment that Michigan fans stopped worrying, but it was the moment Michigan fans at least allowed themselves to consider the possibility of stopping. (Patrick Barron)

I'm in like
I'm infatuated
It's all too much, the pressure
She's all that I can take
What position should I wear?
Cop an attitude? (you fake her)
How can I convince her? (fake her)
That I'm invented too, yeah

I am smitten
I'm the real thing (I'm the real thing)
We all invent ourselves
And, uh, you know me    

--"Crush With Eyeliner" by R.E.M. from their 1994 album Monster 

By coincidence, well, and the way the calendar lines up, today marked the third time that Michigan had faced off with Penn State on October 15.  The first was in 1994, just a few weeks after the release of Monster, R.E.M.'s "back to basics" rock album, when #5 Michigan faced off against the #3 Nittany Lions in Ann Arbor just three weeks after "The Miracle at Michigan".  Penn State was facing a lot of skepticism about their weak early schedule but came out and posted a 16-3 halftime lead, only to see Michigan race back to tie the game twice, only to pull it out in the end.  I distinctly remember this was also the night of my junior year Homecoming Dance and I kept checking in on the game at the bar in the restaurant, which was fine because my date was also a fellow future Wolverine and wanted to know what was happening.  

The second was 2005 when Michigan was 3-3, having alternated wins and losses to start the season took down a #8 Penn State squad at the Big House on "Touchdown Manningham" an improbable win during "The Season of Infinite Pain" that meant Michigan had won seven straight in the series, a run that began on Judgment Day in 1997.  

History isn't instructive in college football, as much as we like to celebrate it.  So none of these things that had happened before mattered as we came into today.  A Maize Out to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the beloved 1997 National Championship team, a 6-0 Michigan team, said by some around the country to be untested, against a 5-0 Penn State team.  Big Noon Saturday...again.  All the making of a classic.  Except, it really wasn't.

Michigan could clearly move the ball early on, eating up most of the first quarter on an 11-play, 64-yard field goal drive and a 13-play, 77-yard field goal drive sandwiched around a three and out for Penn State.  It would have been great to finish those drives with touchdowns, which Michigan got after another three and out and a 13-play, 70 yard touchdown drive, it felt like Michigan had things well in hand, especially when it looked like Michigan's defense had stopped the Penn State rusher in the backfield, only for the entire stadium to discover that Sean Clifford still had the ball and ran for 62 yards to set up a Penn State score.  

OK, no problem, just keep moving the ball, that was a fluke, the defense has this in hand...and then a double helmet bounce pick six and Penn State has the lead and nothing makes sense.  Michigan did go down and get a field goal on another 11 play drive to go into halftime with the lead, but a game that could have easily been 28-0 was 16-14 and it just felt bad.  Penn State had 14 points on 14 first half plays.  Michigan fans aren't always great about being rational even with a lead.

Penn State went down and finally put a drive together, using a 48-yard pass to get into field goal range, but no more.  Now Penn State has the lead and everything feels...oh wait, Donovan Edwards just exploded for a 67-yard touchdown run that included a spectacular freezing of the final defender to beat and with a two-point conversion by Ronnie Bell, Michigan was up 7.  And while Penn State went for it on fourth and six (after the entire stadium sang "Mr. Brightside") only to give the ball back to Michigan, Blake Corum decided to make sure the Heisman talk was still coming this week with an explosive 61-yard TD run of his own to put Michigan up 14 and never looked back.  Michigan scored 25 straight points after Penn State took the lead, never looked back, and moved to 7-0.  

Bye weeks are always better when you're coming off a win. Michigan State in two weeks, on Halloween weekend.  We can dare to start dreaming again, because we all invent ourselves and, uh, you know me.

Saturday, October 08, 2022

Finest Worksong

J.J. went for 300+ thanks to a very good second half. (Patrick Barron)

The time to rise has been engaged
You're better best to rearrange
I'm talkin' here to me alone
I listen to the finest worksong

Your finest hour
Your finest hour
--"Finest Worksong" by R.E.M. from their 1987 album Document

Resolved: Indiana games are always dumb.

The first half certainly felt like it would be one of those games.  

(I have to be honest here, I have started and stopped writing this one several times, mostly because I really just want Mike Hart to be OK.  I am encouraged by the reports out of Bloomington, and I am hopeful that the medical professionals were able to get to the bottom of what caused him to collapse on the sideline.  So I mostly wanted to acknowledge this before I started talking about the game because it just felt like it needed to be said.)

After another expert opening drive, Michigan just felt like it couldn't get its act together on offense and was struggling with Indiana's tempo on defense.  But all of the elements that Indiana was able to use to get their touchdown drive were not replicable, as Ace Anbender pointed out on Twitter at the moment.  Not that this felt better in the first half.  In a week where a Big Ten Network viral promo had James Franklin telling us that penalties are the most overrated stat, the officiating crew decided to test that thesis on Penn State's next opponent since the Nittany Lions were off this week.  A matched pair of blocked kicks on field goals and it was 10-10 in the locker room.

Jim Harbaugh said he challenged his team to play their best half of football in the second half, their finest hour, if you will.  And they did just that.  The 98-yard touchdown drive started off feeling bad with Cornelius Johnson letting a sure touchdown slip through his hands, only to redeem it by cashing in for the go-ahead score.  Two more touchdowns and a pass rush that seemingly made Indiana question whether the legalization of the forward pass was in fact wise and Michigan got out of Bloomington with a three-score win.

Indiana games are always dumb, but for another season, it's over.

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Living Well is the Best Revenge

Mike Morris decided to end the game himself, and not a moment too soon.  (Patrick Barron | Shop)

Don't turn your talking points on meHistory will set me freeThe future's ours and you don't even rate a footnote nowSo who's chasing you? Where did you go?You disappeared mid-sentenceIn a judgment crisis I see my anecdote for itYou weakened shell
All your sad and lost apostlesHum my name and flare their nostrilsChoking on the bones you toss to themWell I'm not one to sit and spin'Cause living well's the best revengeBaby, I am calling you on that

--"Living Well is the Best Revenge" by R.E.M. from their 2008 album Accelerate 

Feelingsball is a bad way to coach, but it is supremely the way that many of us consume football.  Michigan never fell below a 90% win expectancy at any point in the second half, but after Iowa scored to make it 20-7, and Michigan went three and out after Blake Corum slammed into a fierce Iowa goalline defense on a third and one at the Michigan 33, it was starting to feel dicey.  It was not dicey, but the specters of Kinnick past lingers, even if they were not able to be seen.  Even though Brad Robbins boomed a 50-yard punt to put Iowa behind their own twenty-yard line, things did not feel good.

They had felt good early.  Michigan looked like it was running a clinic on the opening drive, 11 plays, 75 yards, 5 minutes, and a Ronnie Bell run for a touchdown.  Michigan wanted to put pressure on Iowa's offense that an early score would help facilitate that exact notion.  While Michigan would get a pair of Jake Moody field goals to go up 13-0 at the half, even with Iowa's documented offensive difficulties, it still did feel like more was needed.  So, after the beautiful JJ rollout right to Donovan Edwards on the angle route to make it 20-0, it felt like Michigan just needed one more drive to salt things away.  About that.

After the Robbins punt, Iowa proceeded to, in defiance of history and precedent, move the ball down the field.  The first touchdown could be explained away by the short field generated from the backward pass McCarthy threw, and Donovan Edwards covered for a loss, but not a turnover.  But now, Spencer Petras is actually hitting guys, Michigan's tackling is leaving something to be desired, and while it's taking some time, Iowa has fourth and two on the Michigan six...this is it, this is the play that will...and Iowa throws short of the sticks and commits offensive pass interference all at the same time.  Michigan gets the ball back, and Iowa is still down 20-7.  Michigan did go three and out again after this, but another Brad Robbins bomb, this one for 51 yards, and with four minutes left, Iowa still needed two scores.

That was when the defensive line decided to make the Iowa offense pay for its sins on the day and exorcised so many of the ghosts of Iowa City.  Mike Morris on first and second down brought the heat, leaving Iowa to face 3rd and 19 when Taylor Upshaw and Eyabi Okie teamed up for another five-yard sack and then Okie with a QB pressure on fourth down.  Michigan only held the ball for three plays on the next drive as well, but this time it was because Blake Corum shimmied and shook an All-America linebacker out of position for a touchdown to make it 27-7.  While Iowa would get a cosmetic score late against a very soft bit of coverage by Michigan, a top five maize and blue squad escaped Iowa City with a win to move to 5-0 for the second straight year, the first time since (checks notes) 2010-2011.  (Wait, really?  Yes.  Really.)

The fears in the game came from a storyline and the fears of what happened the last time Michigan visited Iowa City, in what felt like a lifetime ago.  But Kinnick is in the rearview and Michigan moves ahead to play at Bloomington next week with bowl eligibility possible with a win.  As Harbaugh said in his presser, the only way to get to 6-0 is to get to 5-0, so we'll see what happens next.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

(Don't Go Back to) Rockville

Blake Corum found holes and ran through them with purpose. (Patrick Barron | shop)

"It's not as though I really need you
If you were here, I'd only bleed you
But everybody else in town only wants to bring you down
And that's not how it ought to be
I know it might sound strange but I believe
You'll be coming back before too long."

--"(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" by R.E.M., from their 1984 album Reckoning 

"(Don't Go Back to) Rockville" is, at its core, about Mike Mills catastrophizing what would happen if his then-girlfriend went back to Maryland for the summer, despite knowing nothing about Rockville at all.  It is not a perfectly apt metaphor for yesterday's game, but it's a starting place.

Maryland checked in today at 30th in Bill Connolly's SP+ ($), which does have some pre-season expectations still baked into it, but reminds us that it's a major step up from playing the 125th, 127th, and 129th teams in that same ranking.  (By the way, Iowa checks in at 27 if you're wondering about next week.)  It was known that Maryland had some talented skill players, but it was also known that Maryland frequently played highly undisciplined football.

About that...

I do not believe I have ever seen a football game, at any level, with just two accepted penalties for the entire game.  Now, one can say that this evens out in the end, that if it's not a penalty disparity, then no one benefits, but given how Maryland was making effective use of some holds and coverages, perhaps not.  Then again, Michigan benefitted from a seeming unwillingness to review interceptions, so perhaps it all comes out in the wash.

But if this is about kids from Maryland who go to college out of state, then this is really about Blake Corum and the possibilities of Blake Corum.  It was thought that Michigan would sorely miss the sheer legs churning yardage generation of Hassan Haskins, and rightfully so; Haskins was a rare combination of power and deftness that got yards in the toughest situations.  But to look at Blake Corum is to see a legit muscleball who has an extra gear in the open field, if he can find daylight. Thankfully, for any of the missed downfield passes or excruciating fumbles by Michigan, Corum's two big runs on short yardage, on a fourth and one hurry up at the line, and on a third and four after a time out, made most of the difference, but more importantly, Corum carried the load, Chris Perry style, with 30 carries for 243 yards, the most by a Michigan running back since Biakabatuka dialed 313 against Ohio State in 1995.  Blake Corum was the difference in a game where his being the difference was palpable.  Maryland might still be better than people think; only time will tell.

In many ways, this game was a spiritual cousin to last year's Big Ten opener against Rutgers.  Michigan was a little more tested by a conference foe than it had been, by and large, in its non-conference schedule.  There are plenty of things to clean up, to work on, to improve upon, but as I was reminded on Twitter this morning, it's way more fun to do that when you're 4-0 than coming off a loss.

Michigan will need to be much cleaner on offense next week as they head to Iowa City. where they are 1-5 in their last six games there, but this will be a strength on strength game.  We'll see if Michigan can get the win or waste another year.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Life and How to Live It

A lovely view of the weekend house.  (Zach Shaw)

Raise the walls and shout its flaws, a carpenter should rest
So that when you tire of one side the other serves you best
Read about the wisdom lost, a knock, a knock, a knock
A secret knock one hammer's locked the other wisdom lost

--"Life and How to Live It" by R.E.M. from their 1985 album Fables of the Reconstruction

Leon Franklin scored a touchdown today.

Yes, the touchdown made the game 58-0 in the fourth quarter, but consider this: In the 1,365 games in Michigan football history, there have been 34,781 points scored by Michigan all-time.  Leon Franklin is responsible for six of those; no one can ever take that away from him.

Leon Franklin is a senior who lettered last year and had been a special teamer.  He played at Southfield A&T and had a touchdown against NIU called back last year.  He's a Computer Science major, and now, Leon Franklin joins the hundreds of other Michigan football players who scored a touchdown in their career.

I love this for him.  I love today for every Michigan player on the roster who got to see game action today because Michigan's starters handled their business.  Because Michigan's special teams handled their business with a punt block and a punt return touchdown.  Because Michigan knew the assignment and crossed all the ts and dotted all the is.

Michigan player participation neared 100 players today, including having seven different Michigan players attempt at least one pass (Connecticut completed five total.)  All of those players who spend so much time in practice, studying film, and being a student, got to get into the game today.  Some of these guys will forever be to point to a moment in a video to their kids and their grandkids and show them that they played at Michigan.  I think that's pretty great for them.

It is remarkable in its own way that in a game where Blake Corum tied the Michigan record for rushing touchdowns in a game with five, it was not, at all, the Blake Corum game.  Blake Corum was just the closer.  Another case of doing exactly what was needed at the moment.  It was a day where sure, let's let Jake Moody try a sixty-two yard field goal at the end of the half that would have sent the Big House into pandemonium had it hit, but alas.  

The Big Ten conference slate looms, starting with Maryland for Homecoming next weekend.  But for now, let us celebrate three straight games of over 50 points for Michigan and the simple joy that Leon Franklin scored a touchdown.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

I'll Take The Rain

"A Tale of Two Post-Game Moods" by Patrick Barron
(Patrick does phenomenal work and you should consider going to his online store and buying some of his excellent nature photography as well.)

I used to think
As birds take wing
They sing through life, so why cant we?

You cling to this
You claim your best
If this is what you're offering
I'll take the rain
I'll take the rain
I'll take the rain

The night time creases
Summer schemes
And stretches out to stay
The sun shines down
You came around
You love easy days

-- "I'll Take the Rain," from R.E.M.'s 2001 album Reveal

A 46-point win that was where Vegas opened the line last week doesn't really have a lot to say about it in the long view.  Hawai'i looks like an improved team from their first two games, which is good, and best of luck to Timmy Chang as he rebuilds the ash heap that Todd Graham left in his wake on Oahu.  It was nice to see Ronnie Bell get into the end zone again after a year away due to the injury, but all in all, it was just a little bit of a strange evening where kickoff came at 9:00 PM, with no MMB pre-game, no touch the banner, but the dispatch of another G5 team that wrapped up just after midnight.

Instead, I wanted to talk about the weirdness of feeling like one needed to have a preference of Cade or JJ in the battle for starting quarterback.  I understand "the choosing" aspect of it; when offered two options, as humans we're going to gravitate toward one or the other for reasons.  Many times in life, the choice of two options is so obvious that we don't even see it as a choice or as something that needs to be decided.  But in many cases, where both options have their merits and deficits, there's a feeling that one needs to render a decision and back up one's opinion with evidence.

I genuinely do not have a preference in the quarterback battle for the simple reason that I have no control over it.  I certainly have sympathy and empathy for Cade McNamara, knowing that he did everything he was asked to do last year as the starter and you know, led Michigan to a Big Ten conference championship for the first time in nearly two decades and their first College Football playoff appearance, only to have his role potentially usurped by a younger player, considered by many to be much more talented.  I mean, this literally happened to me at Michigan, and I learned how hard it is to accept what you can't help but see as a demotion.

On the other hand, you cannot help but look at JJ McCarthy on the field and see all of the potential and moments of wonder.  Yes, there were the inexplicable moments, but every quarterback has those when you're looking and watching closely, but the vibes were "This is the guy who can take us higher."  Which, in the back of my mind, was "OK, yes, but I mean, that next leap is a lot."  But I can't blame people for dreaming, especially during this portion of the non-conference schedule this year, when everything feels like it will be supremely easy forever.

What this brings me back to is mostly the idea that one having a preference must, automatically, presume hatred or antipathy for the other choice.  I am struggling to understand the vein of a very toxic fandom that seeks to denigrate Cade simply because he isn't JJ.  He's still a Michigan player; he still has given and is giving his all for Michigan.  Why would we want to make that player, a peer-elected captain, feel like he is unwelcome by people who want Michigan to succeed?  Moreover, strictly pragmatically, we saw in yesterday's Texas game the importance of having a competent, ready-to-go backup on hand.  Even though Texas did not complete the upset of Alabama, they were in that game because Hudson Card made the most of his time under center.

Cade's performance yesterday certainly makes it hard to make the argument for him being the starter, just as Harbaugh noted that McCarthy will start the Connecticut game "on the merit" of his performance last night.  I feel like this team will figure out a way to all pull forward together, and I think it is in the best interests of our own fandom to remind ourselves that we never had any say in the choosing, so let's just enjoy the ride and where it's headed.

Saturday, September 03, 2022

We All Go Back To Where We Belong

Jake Moody knows what's up.  (Patrick Barron)

I can taste the ocean on your skin
That is where it all began
We all go back to where we belong
We all go back to where we belong
This really what you want
This really what you want

--"We All Go Back to Where We Belong" by R.E.M., the band's final single from 2011

There is a moment in a season opener at home when you are sitting there, and every possible option is on the table.  Not all of them are as likely as each other, but they all exist on the unfolding horizon.  On a morning where even before noon, one knew it was going to be a hot and humid one in Michigan Stadium, I sat pondering these possibilities when two things struck me.  One, Jake Moody was the last man off the field from warmups, having made sure to do a practice kickoff from each 35-yard line.  There was something routinely mundane in making sure everything was set up the way he wanted it to be.  The second was the wonderfully sonorous voice of Carl Grapentine bidding us good morning and welcoming us to Michigan Stadium and the 143rd season of Michigan football.  Carl's voice was the sign that the off-season was now officially in the rearview, and we're now into the season.  There was a moment of palpable joy in hearing it. 

This was a game that was mathematically, never in doubt, but there are always those moments of trepidation with a new team, and we're also a little out of practice.  So with a quick three and out that featured two drops, and then CSU tempoing and going 25 yards in four plays, all of the dread of every bad thing comes flooding back.  Then Mike Morris made a tackle behind the line, and suddenly Michigan's getting the ball back off a punt, and Roman Wilson said aloha and flew away home to the end zone and Michigan never looked back.  While it wasn't perhaps as crisp and clean on the offensive end, the defense handled its business in a highly efficient and effective way, and the game was never even close to being in doubt.  Cool things happened, DJ Turner's fumble recovery TD, JJ's 20 yard TD scramble, some nice runs by Corum and Edwards.  It was a little of small, nice things.

There isn't much to say about an opener that pretty much goes according to plan.  The new guys looked mostly good, we're still no closer to a decision on the long-term starter at quarterback, and while that may seem trite or like a moment of surrender to the strictures of a column, the reality is, sometimes you do the things that you have loved to do in the past because they remind you of the joys and pains of the past.  

We all go back to where we belong.

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Maybe Sparrow

Pictures really are worth a thousand words, sometimes. (Patrick Barron)

Maybe sparrow you should wait
The hawks alight till morning
You'll never pass beyond the gate
If you don't hear my warning

Notes are hung so effortless
With the rise and fall of sparrow's breast
It's a drowning dive and back to the chorus
La di da di da di da
La di da di da di da

Oh my sparrow it's too late
Your body limp beneath my feet
Your dusty eyes cold as clay
You didn't hear my warning
Maybe sparrow it's too late

Moonlight glanced off metal wings
In a thunderstorm above the clouds
The engine hums a sparrow's phrase
For those who cannot hear the words
For those who cannot hear the words
For those who will not hear the words

La di da di da di da
La di da di da di da

--"Maybe Sparrow"
by Neko Case from her 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

There are so many things that one could say about this game but they all come back to one simple truth, Georgia is an excellent football team.  I don't mean excellent in the everyday use of the word; I mean excellent from the Latin meaning "being preeminent."  Georgia defense, which the college football ecosystem spent most of a season calling one of the greatest ever, learned from their mistakes in the SEC Championship Game and played this entire affair like a singular vision of vengeance drove them, Michigan being a mere underboss to get back to the final battle.  Georgia had better athletes across the board, a top-notch game plan, and was crisp in their execution.  You might be able to pull an upset if one of those things isn't firing for your opponent, but when all three hit, it's a long night.

Michigan never quit, though.  They never looked lost or disappointed, or frustrated.  They kept trying, and they were rewarded with a late touchdown.  Perhaps a meaningless cosmetic rearguard action that made the final score look more respectable, but when you realize it was freshman JJ McCarthy finding freshman Andrel Anthony with a critical pass block from freshman Donovan Edwards, the notes of what the future may hold. If nothing else, a small moment of joy for Michigan in a genuinely thorough processing by the Bulldogs.

Many wanted Michigan fans to be sadder about this result than we were, but in the end, nothing of what happened on the last day of 2021 can take away the other joys of 2021.  This team was not supposed to be close to here; their bowl game predictions slated for something earlier in the week in a locale more akin to Nashville.  That it wasn't, that this team slew so many of the dragons that tormented the program and the fanbase, that is the memory of this season.  It may be a new beginning, it may be a one-off, it may be, like much of life in college football's upper-middle-class, a taste of something that may be hard to get back to consistently.  We don't know because the future holds infinite paths, but only one that will become manifest.  But the past is written.  This team will come back to Michigan Stadium in 2031 and celebrate a ten-year reunion, and be applauded by a fanbase that remembers what they did and appreciates it, either for its rarity or as the beginning of something new.

Thank you, Team 142, forever Go Blue.