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.

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