Sunday, September 24, 2023

19th Nervous Breakdown

Way to go, I-da-ho! (Jacob Hamilton/MLive)

"Well, it seems to me that you have seen too much in too few years
And though you've tried you just can't hide your eyes are edged with tears
You better stop, look aroundHere it comes, here it comes, here it comes, here it comesHere comes your nineteenth nervous breakdown"
--"19th Nervous Breakdown" by The Rolling Stones from the 1966 single of the same name.
Having listened to Ryan Nanni's very fun new podcast series "We're Not All Like This," where he talks to members of various college football fanbases to try to understand the similarities and differences among the various fandoms of the college football landscape, I am hesitant to assign any particular neuroses to be unique to Michigan, though we do have some very specific quirks.  That said, Michigan fans' willingness to believe that everything is about to go on an express elevator straight into the depths of hell is definitely one that Michigan fans seem to have written into their default programming.
So it was no surprise that when Rutgers scored on a long passing play on a busted coverage on the third play of the game, there were some folks who felt the bottom rumbling under their feet.  This was exacerbated by a quick Michigan three and out, and then a Rutgers three and out that saw Michigan pinned back inside their own ten after a booming punt and roll by Rutgers Aussie punter.
That is when Sherrone Moore's playcalling got Michigan back in business, whether it was the unleashed wheel route for Donovan for 33 or the flea flicker+ that found Colston Loveland for 35 and brought the ball inside the five.  Quick work by Blake Corum on the goal line (so unlike last year's first-half adventures in Piscataway), and Michigan had the ball game tied up.  
While this should have stabilized the situation, the traded missed field goals felt like so many dumb things were still afoot in this game.  But the defense got another three and out, which was followed by a long and fruitful drive ending with Semaj Morgan's first career TD, and Michigan headed for the locker room up 14-7.  Not great, but certainly better than being down or being tied at the half.
After the annual Blast from the Past wrapped up, the field goal drive to open the second half seemed to take a bit of wind out of the sails of Michigan Stadium, especially as Rutgers put together a sustained drive, built off some interesting officiating decisions on a day full of them, and it felt like Rutgers would be rewarded for their aggressiveness on going for it on fourth and two.  
So when Mike Sainristil sniffed out a screen pass, picked it off, cast off an airborne Junior Coulson, and then got Kenneth Grant and a couple of other friends to come with him to the end zone, the ensuing 24-7 lead completely altered the feeling in the stadium.  Relief settled in as the crowd started doing the math on how little Rutgers had done on offense since the opening drive and felt confident that this one was in hand  One more touchdown by Michigan and a clock vampire drive to end the game that burned seven minutes in ten plays and Win 993 was in the books.
I have no idea if Rutgers is good.  I don't know if Rutgers knows if they're good.  They're definitely not bad.  I don't know if Michigan is great, but they're definitely very good.  But it's also September, and rendering judgments on an incomplete body of work is a thing we have done for years, with limited success, and while we should know better, I don't think we want to because we need to be able to quantify how we feel and why.  We've seen too much in our years, after all.
Tales from the Spreadsheet
  • Win 0993
  • 31-7 is NOT a Scorigami (seventh ever, most recently September 5, 2009, against Western Michigan.)
  • 109,879 is the 100th-largest crowd Michigan has played in front of, just ahead of, 2001 Western Michigan.

  • Michigan moves to 9-1 all-time against Rutgers in the battle of the two oldest programs in FBS.
  • Michigan has won 9 straight over Rutgers and 4-0 vs. the Scarlet Knights on Homecoming
  • Michigan moves to 9-0 all-time on September 23.

  • Michigan moves to 43-4 when scoring exactly 31 points
  • Michigan moves to 109-13-4 all-time when allowing precisely 7 points.
  • Michigan has won 24 games all-time by precisely 24 points.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Can't You Hear Me Knocking?

Kris Jenkins, skill position player. (David Wilcomes)

Hear me prowlin'I'm gonna take you downHear me growlin'Yeah, I've got flat-ten feet now, now, now, nowHear me howlin'And all, all around your street nowHear me knockin'And all, all around your town

"Can't You Hear Me Knocking?" by The Rolling Stones from their 1971 album Sticky Fingers

One of the stranger parts about night games is that the narratives of the weekend of college football may already be established by the time the game kicks off.  Perhaps a blood week is brewing, perhaps it's just a day of the big boys taking care of business, or perhaps it's just a weird day, by the time 7:30 rolls around, you sort of know what's up.  Yesterday, the narrative was mixed; some of the teams in the Top Ten were struggling in games that looked as if they would roll, and some were rolling as expected.  So, which side of the fence would Michigan land on by the time the night was over.

You wanted to believe that the weirdness of the first big hit pass down the sidelines, which was called incomplete, only to see that overturned without any real evidence that it was complete, but Michigan got a "next three and out" to put together a four-play, 77-yard drive, highlighted by a big Blake Corum run that the whole stadium had been waiting for since the season kicked off to go up 7-0 and early.  The vibe was good, Michigan was going to follow the path of Washington and Ohio State this evening.

It seemed to be rolling that way, especially after a subsequent three-and-out and solid punt return to get Michigan starting on the BGSU 43.  A bunch of quick hitters, and Michigan has second and goal on the five.

Then all hell broke loose.

JJ threw an interception that looked like someone missed an assignment, and McCarthy locked on his first read, which earned the Falcons a touchback.  Bowling Green then proceeded to put together one of those maddening drives where Michigan would do its job on first and second down, only to lose contain for a big gain on third down (including another baffling sideline adjacent catch). Holding fast when it mattered, the defense would force a field goal, and BG would be down just 7-3.

On the subsequent kickoff, Max Bredenson seemed somewhat surprised by the short kickoff but fielded it well, and then made a decision to try and get some yards, which ended up with him fumbling the ball and Bowling Green had even better field position than a surprise onside kick would have garnered them.  Michigan's defense did its job and once more prevented a first down and saw the Falcons attempt another short field goal.  Michigan remained in the lead, but the vibes in the stadium were dreadful.

When Braiden McGregor fielded the subsequent short kickoff, and himself fumbled it (thankfully recovering it), Michigan Stadium seemingly wanted a return to normalcy, which for four plays, seemed to be in order, but another JJ interception and it became one of those moments where you longed to understand what was up.

Praise for the Michigan defense here.  Put in rough positions over and over in the second quarter, they, by and large, got the job done, including a great three and out that saw BGSU gain -1 yard on the sequence after JJ's second pick.  McCarthy, to his credit, did get back in the saddle and found Loveland for 22 and Roman Wilson for 33 yards and a touchdown to put Michigan up 14-6 late in the second.  Michigan's defense also turned the beat around and got a pick of their own thanks to a wonderful read by Quinten Johnson, and while they couldn't cash it in, they got to halftime with a chance to regroup.

An interlude here: The new lights are fine, but perhaps maybe don't kick into the fancy light show so quickly after a touchdown?  It just seems kind of cheap and the sort of thing that we were doing because we can.  I know I am not the target audience here, but can anyone show us who was asking for this particular "enhancement" to the Michigan Stadium experience.

A couple of turnovers on back-to-back possessions for the Falcons after the half, which Michigan cashed in for ten points, lifted the collective ennui lurking in the Big House and a flea flicker bomb to Cornelius Johnson, which required some fancy tip drill skills, and Michigan closed the scoring for the remainder of the night for a 31-6 win.  Which was essentially in line with the rest of the non-conference schedule.

My working theory is that this was the culmination of three weeks of everyone on the coaching staff being slightly out of place because of Jim Harbaugh's suspension.  Everyone has been doing a job that isn't quite the one that they are supposed to be doing.  This week, it was Sherrone Moore's turn to be the interim boss.  Next week, Harbaugh returns, the team goes back into something more like normal, and I think that will make a difference, which is good because the ever-annoying Schianomen of Rutgers are coming for a Homecoming match-up.  As always, ugly wins count just the same.

Tales from The Spreadsheet
  • Win 0992
  • 31-6 is NOT a Scorigami (fourth ever, most recently October 22, 1988, on Homecoming against Indiana)
  • 109,955 is the 122nd-largest crowd Michigan has played in front of, just ahead of, 2010 Bowling Green.

  • Michigan moves to 3-0 all-time against East Carolina.
  • Michigan moves to 4-2 all-time on September 16.

  • Michigan moves to 42-4 when scoring exactly 31 points
  • Michigan moves to 83-5-4 all-time when allowing precisely 6 points.
  • Michigan has won 19 games all-time by precisely 25 points.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Tumblin' Dice

Roman Wilson is as consistent as the beat of an 808 drum machine. (Patrick Barron)

Honey, got no money
I'm all sixes and sevens and nines
Say now baby, I'm the rank outsider
You can be my partner in crime

--"Tumblin' Dice" by the Rolling Stones, from their 1972 album Exile on Main Street

I am too young to remember when it happened on initially, but during the 1970s, long-tenured Detroit sports curmudgeon Joe Falls would lambast Michigan for playing "dull and boring football," which somehow the Athletic Department turned into a selling point for Falls' book on Michigan's relatively new coach. I would argue that there's nothing wrong with dull and boring football because rarely could a dull and boring team be bad.  They could be middling, but they're likely very, very, very good, and that ruthless efficiency feels "dull and boring."

The inequalities of college football scheduling, for much of the post-World War II era, and certainly during the post-NCAA v. OU television-saturated era, much of September has featured P5 teams facing G5 teams, G5 teams facing FCS teams, and FCS teams against D-II teams, and so on. Occasionally, you will get headline-grabbing "helmet games" or some early season conference games, but by and large, yesterday's slate had about one marquee matchup, a few P5-P5 games, and a lot of other games.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with "other" games. If you only get six to eight Saturdays in your home stadium as a season ticket holder, you relish those opportunities (or sell them off to other people who may want to just get one game in the stadium), and you appreciate that you get to see this iteration of the team play.

So in a game where ESPN's win probability chart had the Rebels' best chance at victory the moment that Tommy Donan kicked the ball off, you become invested in side stories, like "Man, JJ's hot hand passing is continuing, and maybe improving somehow (the second TD pass to Roman Wilson would be a solid evidence for that point.) or the defensive line finally breaking through and getting severe pressure on the QB which resulted in five sacks, and five additional tackles for loss. And as weird as the circumstances were, it was pretty cool to realize that Mike Hart became Michigan's first Black head coach, even if just for a half. (Project Coach Mike Hart 2030 continues as he prophesized in his playing career.)

If dull and boring football is a 35-7 handling of business on a crisp September afternoon, I can live with dull and boring football.

Tales from The Spreadsheet:
  • Win 0991
  • 35-7 is NOT a Scorigami (sixth occurrence, most recently was Oregon State 2015)
  • 109,482 is the 140th-largest crowd Michigan has played in front of, displacing last week's attendance of 109,480.

  • Michigan moves to 2-0 all-time against UNLV (previous game, 2015).
  • Michigan moves to 5-0 all-time on September 9.

  • Michigan moves to 36-0 when scoring exactly 35 points
  • Michigan moves to 108-13-4 all-time when allowing precisely 7 points.
  • Michigan has won 30 games all-time by precisely 28 points.

Saturday, September 02, 2023

Waiting on a Friend

Welcome back, Blake.  (Patrick Barron)

"Watching girls go passing by
It ain't the latest thing
I'm just standing in a doorway
I'm just trying to make some sense
Out of these girls passing by
The tales they tell of men
I'm not waiting on a lady
I'm just waiting on a friend."

"Waiting on a Friend" by The Rolling Stones, from their 1981 album Tattoo You

The first game of a season is odd in that it feels, at the moment, in the moment, like a harbinger of things to come.  But, it is only in retrospect if you seek to connect the dot. So, in that framework, there are two ways of looking at this game.

Option A: Michigan hit on all cylinders, powered by JJ McCarthy, who looked absolutely blistering in the passing game, going 26/30, making several tough throws on rollouts, and repeatedly finding the newly christened #1 Roman Wilson for three touchdowns.  ECU sold out to stop the Michigan run game, but even still, Corum and Edwards got several solid runs.  Michigan held a 30-point lead for the majority of the second half and had a 99%+ win expectancy from the moment the MMB left the field in the second half.  1-0 to start the year, on to UNLV.

Option B: Michigan looked fine but clearly left points on the field by refusing to abandon the run game when ECU kept loading up the box.  Everything felt like the team was just going through the motions, almost acting like it was a pre-season exhibition game, and it amplified the fact that Michigan's offensive and defensive playcallers were not the usual coaches in those roles.  The team acted like they missed Harbaugh more than they wanted to win for him.  They cannot keep playing like this if they expect to win more demanding games in Big Ten play.

Option B is the default for Michigan fans because we're always worried about the future instead of being in the moment, which I get. After all, the expectations for this team are as high as they have been since 2007 (which is probably playing into this level of terror; it's a training scar.)  But Option A is the fairer version of this because it's closer to the reality of most of this game.

But mostly, this game feels like an unknowable enigma because of what was missing.  The fact that Harbaugh wasn't on the sideline definitely felt like it was impacting the players, even if they didn't want it to be a thing, and they certainly got the job done, but I just wonder if they had to get this out of the way so they could prove to themselves it wouldn't be a big deal.

Beyond that, and the saddest field goal in recorded history, I will not remember much about this game as the season progresses. It may not be the shape of things to come, but rather, a thing that happened along the journey.

Tales from The Spreadsheet
  • Win 0990 
  • 30-3 is a Scorigami (so I guess we can thank ECU for that small favor)
  • 109,480 is the 140th-largest crowd Michigan has played in front of.

  • Michigan moves to 1-0 all-time against East Carolina.
  • Michigan wins its first game against a new opponent since beating Middle Tennessee State in 2019.
  • Michigan moves to 5-0 all-time on September 2.

  • Michigan moves to 8-1 when scoring exactly 30 points
  • Michigan moves to 48-3-3 all-time when allowing precisely 3 points.
  • Michigan has won 17 games all-time by precisely 27 points.