Tuesday, January 09, 2024

Wild Horses

The secondary that was essentially a primary. (Patrick Barron)

Childhood living is easy to do
The things you wanted, I bought them for you
Graceless lady, you know who I am
You know I can't let you slide through my hands

--"Wild Horses" by the Rolling Stones on their 1971 album Sticky Fingers

I have a confession to make. When I decided in April that the theme of this year's columns would be Rolling Stones songs, I presumed the most straightforward choice would be to simply drop in "You Can't Always Get What You Want" for the first loss of the season. Maybe it was to Michigan State, perhaps it was some random unexpected "one of those days" games, maybe it would be the Ohio State game, perhaps a CFP game. But the answer was right there all along. You can't always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. 

 It is perhaps unsurprising that I believed Michigan would win as soon as ESPN used "Gimme Shelter" as a backing track for promos. Sure, the two lightning-strike Donovan Edwards touchdowns were a few evidentiary points in favor of that sense of belief, but when you are looking for evidence of things yet unseen, you take any signs you can that show you the way home. But then, after a while, it began to feel like a harbinger of doom. Michigan never trailed in this game, but for a long stretch of the second and third quarters, it felt like letting Washington hang around, especially this Washington team, would be a mistake. When Washington got their touchdown late in the second quarter, then Cornelius Johnson could not get out of bounds to stop the clock, essentially killing any chance of getting a quick score before the half. Every pundit was all too eager to point out that Washington was going to get the ball to start the second half, so Michigan was likely doomed.

Though likely unaware of the specifics, Will Johnson did not agree with this assessment. Johnson picked off Michael Penix's first pass of the third quarter, and while Michigan, due to some uncharacteristic pre-snap penalties, could not turn it into more than a field goal, it put Michigan up 10. Washington answered back with a field goal of their own before the third quarter turned into the classic Big Ten game we were expecting, with a dizzying array of six punts between the two teams. The sixth in the sequence was aided by a brief moment of terror when Penix finally hit Rome Odunze for a long pass, only to have it called back on a penalty because Braeden McGregor was thrown to the ground as he rushed Penix. The pressure on Penix all night was tremendous, and as the game wore on, Michigan's defensive line began to harry Penix more and more effectively, making Washington's Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line look suspect in the same way that Georgia did to Michigan's award-winning unit in the 2021 Orange Bowl.

Jake Thaw fair caught the punt at the Michigan 29, and the conventional wisdom was that Michigan could just go on one of their trademark clock-chewing drives to...oh no, wait, JJ McCarthy found Colston Loveland for a 41-yard catch and run, and Michigan was suddenly in striking distance of the Washington end zone. A short Blake run, Roman Wilson for 12 on a nifty crossing route, Blake for three more. Then the theoretical dagger, Blake Corum for 12 hard yards and a touchdown, his 15th game this season with a touchdown. The man who came back one more year specifically to win a championship had just put Michigan in a position to be able to do it. The final 8th of the game was about to ensue, and Michigan was up two scores.

Washington would need to use the chaos engine they had ridden to 14-0 to get them back in this game, but Michigan's defense was determined to not allow it. OK, they were determined not to allow it after Penix hit Odunze for a 44-yard pass to get Washington within striking distance of Michigan's end zone in a bit of nifty symmetry. The torpor that the game had fallen into had been duly shaken off. But then a Washington false start, two incompletions with a short two-yard gain, and Washington faced 4th and 13. Michigan took a time-out, the play went off...and both teams committed a penalty, so we did it all over again. That's when Mike Sainristil, a player already in the hall of Michigan immortals for his textbook PBU on Cade Stover in the 2022 Ohio State game, ascended to Michigan football Valhalla with his interception and 81-yard return to the Washington 10. It would have been cool if Sainristil cashed that one in, but, well, you can't always get what you want. Besides, two quick Blake Corum runs put Michigan up 21, and Michigan fans could finally breathe.

I watched you suffer a dull, aching pain
Now you decided to show me the same
No sweeping exits or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind

15 wins. 0 losses. A seven-touchdown shutout of their in-state rival on the rival's field. The first football program in the nation to win one thousand games. A third straight win over Ohio State. A third straight outright Big Ten championship. A ninth Rose Bowl win in program history. The first College Football Playoff championship game win. The 12th claimed national championship in program history. For all of the doubt about Michigan being a fading blueblood that would have been reasonable in the late years of the first decade of this millennium, reinforced by the first half of the 2010s, it was not unreasonable to think that the college football world had passed Michigan by, turning the Wolverines into an FBS equivalent of Princeton or Yale, legends of the early 20th century that did not have a place in the modern era. So when Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh, many people outside the Michigan circle treated it with skepticism because of the way that much of the fanbase regarded it with a near messianic fervor. It was also reasonable to see it from their point of view. The two-thirds of Harbaugh's tenure to this point was marked with varying levels of disappointment that can only come with a rising tide of expectations. But the last three years have been utterly remarkable. A likable group of guys built on the idea of "let's build the entire team out of dorks who love football and are really, really good at it."  A group unburdened by the fanbase's collective history. These players may know the shapes and silhouettes of "The Horror" or "The Spot," but they are merely scars on other people's souls that they have inquired about respectfully. But whether one has been here for one game, one season, one decade, or one lifetime as a fan, this banner now hangs. (OK, weirdly, Michigan Stadium doesn't really have banners. The Glick does, but that's beside the point.)  It was a fantastic ride, with, as the ESPN pre-game stated, "memories that will, paradoxically, grow sharper as the years pass."  Michigan is your 2023 Division I FBS College Football Playoff Champion.

Wild horses* couldn't drag me away.
Wild, wild horses, we'll ride them some day.

(*-I swear it wasn't until about 45 minutes into writing this column that I realized someone would think that "Wild Horses" was a Connor Stallions joke, which I did not intend, but...)

Tales from the Spreadsheet
  • Win 1,004
  • 34-13 is NOT a Scorigami (2nd time, most recently 10/31/1981 in Minneapolis, retaining the Jug.)
  • 72,808 were in attendance (the 12th-largest crowd of Michigan's season).

  • Michigan moves to 9-5-0 all-time against the University of Washington.
  • Michigan extends a three-game winning streak over the Huskies.
  • Michigan moves to 1-0 all-time on January 8. (OK, that isn't surprising.)

  • Michigan moves to 38-0 when scoring exactly 34 points.
  • Michigan moves to 46-12-1 all-time when allowing 13 points to the opposition.
  • Michigan has won 35 games all-time by precisely 21 points, most recently, the 2022 B1G Championship Game win over Purdue.

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Route 66

Blake put the team on his back, and the rest is history. (Patrick Barron)

Well, if you ever plan to motor west
Jack, take my way that's the highway that's the best
Get your kicks on Route 66

--"Route 66" as covered by the Rolling Stones on their 1964 album The Rolling Stones

In late June of this year, my family departed on a road trip covering 28 days, 7600+ miles, 19 states, and ten National Parks. When discussing some of the ideas on social media, noted Michigan game photographer and National Parks enthusiast Patrick Barron gave me a strong note not to sleep on Canyonlands after leaving Arches; it was majestic and beautiful and worth my time. So even though we had to get from Green River, Utah, to Zion the next morning (which was poor timing on our part since it put us in Zion on the most popular day of the year, but that's not the story), we slipped down to Canyonlands and explored a bit of one of the Mighty Five. At the end of the main road in the Island in the Sky section, we discovered the Green River Overlook, a vista 1,000 feet above the canyons carved by the Green and the Colorado rivers, explored by John Wesley Powell and his team in 1869.

Green River Overlook, Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands NP, July 1, 2023.

A perfect combination of timing, weather, and nature's glory combined to get the picture you see above. My wife and son have expressed confusion about why Canyonlands rated so highly of the ten parks we visited, but this moment spoke to me. I thought back to how Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that if man communed with nature, it could lead to a moment where you would achieve a tremendous spiritual understanding. I had never had that moment before standing there looking out at these canyons carved over the ages by the rivers below. It was one of the most singular experiences in my life, and it made me realize that there are endless possibilities; we just have to be willing to seek them out.

Well, it winds from Chicago to LA
More than 2000 miles all the way
Get your kicks on Route 66

The Rose Bowl Stadium facade, Pasadena, California, July 3, 2023.

Two days later, we departed St. George, Utah, very early, drove through the Mojave and Colorado Deserts and Joshua Tree National Park, and ended up in Pasadena, where we would stay on the first night of our week in the LA area. We pulled into the massive parking lot of the stadium, and despite being nearly 100 degrees in southern California that day, I began to explore this secular holy place in the religion of Michigan football. In Slate yesterday, Split Zone Duo's Alex Kirshner made the following case:
The extent of football fans’ care about the Rose Bowl as an institution cleaves along geographic lines, with plenty of Southerners not yearning much for a game or stadium whose history is wrapped up in the Big Ten and Pac-12. But Michigan has as much of that history as anyone. The Wolverines won the first Rose Bowl in 1902, before the current stadium even stood, and no fan base sees its team as a guardian of sacred college football tradition quite like Michiganders do. The Rose Bowl is Michigan-core.

One of the paradoxes of the Rose Bowl is that Michigan fans do generally hold it in their hearts as the pinnacle of the college football season, even if Michigan was 4-12 in their 16 appearances here since man first landed on the moon. Why are we drawn to this place that knows vastly more heartache and disappointment for Michigan teams than glory? Because this place is special, and that is all it needs to be. As I walked around the stadium's perimeter that July afternoon, catching what glimpses I could while it was being prepped for an LA MLS Derby the next day, I found myself forced onto the neighboring golf course and having to slip through a couple of locked gates to get back to my car. But I had walked the perimeter of the shrine of the Arroyo Seco, knowing that if the Michigan team that was to kick off in two months was worthy, they themselves would be in this place for the first time in what seemed like an eternity.

On the first day of this decade, the day that also marked the most recent meeting between Michigan and Alabama, Spencer Hall laid out the case for loving the Rose Bowl that has stuck with me henceforth:

On January 1, color TV images of college football games beamed back to Midwesterners and Northeasterners drinking bad coffee in their freezing living rooms. Someone watching the immortal, glorious sunset against the San Gabriels had to look and think: Why am I here, and not there?  The Rose Bowl wasn't just the place teams went when they were very, very good. It was a little piece of a whole life anyone could have simply by having the will to go. 

The Rose Bowl Stadium facade, Pasadena, California, January 1, 2024.

I did not expect to be here. That is not a stand-in for the concept of Michigan not being at the Rose Bowl; while the path to immortality in any college football season is fraught with the peril of a thousand little breaks that can go wrong, I knew Michigan had an excellent chance to be in Pasadena as the world celebrated the beginning of the New Year. No, I genuinely meant me. I never expected to be at the Rose Bowl. I wouldn't have deigned to ask, especially after the epic nature of our summer sojourn west. But when my wife and her brother coordinated that, yes, we were buying the Alumni Association tour package, and staying at the team hotel, here I was, just a shade under six months later, standing at The Grandaddy of them All. We had done all of the things that go with this tour: we had finished second and third place in the Rose Bowl trivia contest at the welcome party, we had attended the Pep Rally where the MMB sounded great, and someone needed to fact-check President Ono's pep related messaging (which he then, to his credit, at least made the same mistake about Tom Brady vs. Alabama in a bowl game the next day at the tailgate.), we talked to players in the lobby (shouts out to the always awesome Leon Franklin, Kenneth Grant, and Trente Jones.)  We were about to head into the biggest football game in modern Michigan football history, either a program redefining win or the end of a great era that never quite got to the mountaintop. All Michigan had to do was defeat the Great and Powerful Saban and his not-quite-fully operational battle station...with a month to prepare.

Well, do get hip to this kindly tip
And go take that California trip
Get your kicks on Route 66

When I mentioned to people that we were doing the trip, I heard refrain repeatedly: "It's one of the few things in life that lives up to the hype." Those people were absolutely correct. Any expectations I had built up in my mind were being met. The grass so green, the sky so clear and blue, the breeze feeling like a late September game in Ann Arbor, not the first day of January. I stood in my seat in the Michigan end zone, a mere forty rows up as opposed to my usual seventy in The Big House, and I soaked everything in, the Alabama band and the MMB in their pregame, followed by the MMB nailing the anthem as the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber flew directly overhead. The game was about to kick off, and I was ready. I had a feeling akin to that moment at Canyonlands, but this time, it was the beauty of nature combined with the curated hands of people to make a moment. There were endless possibilities, but only one outcome to be determined.

I don't really have any pictures from the Rose Bowl Game. I have the moment before kickoff and nothing else after that until after the last snap. I was genuinely trying to live (and not die) in the moment. When JJ's first pass looked like an interception, I laughed at how the football gods had decided to tell us straight away that pain, our longtime companion in Pasadena, had also bought the tour package. But then it was overturned on replay. By the end of the first half, even though Michigan led, I had no fewer than half a dozen "you just cannot make this mistake in the post-season and expect to win" ledes written for whatever this column would become. But I was never angry, not even when Alabama took the lead, not even when Alabama extended their lead. But, as Michigan got the ball back with 4:41 left and ESPN's win probability peaking for Alabama at 88.8%, all I could hear in my head was Leonard Nimoy's voice near the end of Star Trek VI, "I've been dead before." I did not know it was going to work; I did not know Michigan would win. I had to believe that it could work. So Blake and JJ went to work themselves, determined to write their own legend, joined by an offensive line holding fast and Roman Wilson atoning for a block in the back with one of the most improbable, spectacular catches I've ever witnessed in person, followed by his touchdown. Turner's extra point tied the game, and the concern was, "Did Michigan give Bama too much time?" Well, maybe, but Michigan's defense was not going to let things end poorly and forced an Alabama punt, leading to the utterly terrifying sequence on the opposite end of the field from where I was sitting where Jake Thaw's misadventure with a punt nearly gave Michigan a game-ending fate forever worse than "trouble with the snap." But Providence did not choose cruelty today, and Michigan moved the game to overtime. I chuckled to myself. I was trying to figure out the symbolic meaning of my hotel room number 1348. Game 1348 was the 2020 game against Rutgers or Michigan's most recent overtime game. That's what it meant.

If you were watching at home, you saw Mike Sainristil come out alone for the coin toss for overtime and perhaps thought it was odd until Blake ran in from off-screen. What you did not see at home is that Blake had run all the way down to the Michigan end zone, and with every ounce of energy he could muster, he exhorted the Michigan crowd to get up and get loud, which it did. Alabama won the toss again, but this was perhaps a blessing in disguise, forcing a hot Michigan offense back out on the field and forcing Alabama to try and score on an end zone defended not just by 11 players in maize and blue but by a chorus of fans desperate for not just a victory, but this victory. Corum took care of his part with a solid run on first down and a showstopper on second down that looked like 2022 Blake Corum. Now, it would be on the defense to try and end this. After getting a stop on first and goal, a TFL on second down, and Josh Wallace planting his cleats in the verdant grass of the Rose Bowl turf to stop Jermaine Burton from getting beyond the three-yard line, we faced a fourth and goal from the three, essentially a two-point conversion that would either keep Alabama alive or end the game. Burton cramped, leading to a delay, then Michigan called a time out, then Alabama called a time out, but the play was finally here. Like so many in the game, the Crimson Tide snap was low, Jalen Milroe had to take a half step back to retrieve it, Michigan's defensive line collapsed the center of the Alabama line, and Milroe was stopped after just one yard. Michigan had won the football game.

The Michigan crowd exploded into a roar, a cathartic release that comes from a combination of years of heartbreak and rising expectations on the impossibility that, for the first time in more than a quarter-century, Michigan would leave Pasadena in sheer joy. There was hugging, so much hugging, hugging family, hugging strangers, cheering, crying, singing The Victors, and just knowing that just happened.  

For the first time in 144-team history, Michigan football will have a singular opportunity to stake a claim to an undisputed national championship. It will need to defeat a Washington team that can move the ball and score as well as anyone in the country. But that matchup in Houston is still to come. For now, let us celebrate the moment when the past, present, and future of Michigan football finally came together in one of the most hallowed places in the program's heritage. Michigan won the Rose Bowl. 

Tales from the Spreadsheet
  • Win 1,003
  • 27-20 is NOT a Scorigami (4th time, most recently 10/14/2017 in Bloomington, defeating Indiana in Overtime)
  • 96,371 was the attendance (the 15th largest crowd of Michigan's 21 Rose Bowl Game appearances.)

  • Michigan moves to 3-3-0 all-time against the University of Alabama.
  • Michigan snaps a two-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide.
  • Michigan moves to 16-20 all-time on January 1. This game was Michigan's first New Year's Day win over a school that wasn't Florida since the 2001 Citrus Bowl win over Auburn.

  • Michigan moves to 44-7 when scoring exactly 27 points (fun fact: four of Michigan's 14 overtime wins have been with a score of 27 points. And yes, one of the losses, you know which one.)
  • Michigan moves to 24-20-1 all-time when allowing 20 points to the opposition.
  • Michigan has won 52 games all-time by precisely 7 points, most recently, the 2023 Maryland game, bka Win 1000.
  • Michigan moves to 14-3 in overtime games, with this being their second overtime win over Alabama, the first being the 2000 Orange Bowl (also Michigan's first-ever OT game), 35-34, which you may remember, hinged on a missed extra point by the Crimson Tide in OT.