Sunday, September 18, 2016

Michigan 45, Colorado 28: Momentary panic

Over the weekend, I saw a question posed that just about sums up college football, especially in September. Paraphrasing, it asked: "Is there a sport in which perception changes from week to week more than in college football?"

The answer to that, I'd say, is that there is not. College football Team X is indomitable one week and worryingly flawed the next. Levels of competition swing widely, and when injuries occur, the dropoff from starter to backup is far greater than in the professional league (where even the third-string guy is supposedly competent, by virtue of even being in the league at all).

Michigan's game -- rather, quarter and change -- against Colorado on Saturday is evidence of the blind swings of perception, more like a mace wielded wildly than a pendulum, for a pendulum indicates order by design.

The Wolverines took two quick haymakers in the game's first five minutes, one a lightning-quick 49-yard drive and then a scoop-and-score off of a Wilton Speight fumble.

Just like that, Michigan found itself in a new situation this season. But, really, how much can you panic 3 minutes, 12 seconds into a game?

A theme for the day, Michigan's special teams gave it a boost, with Grant Perry scooping up a blocked punt for a score, offering a brief moment of relief.

It didn't last long, though, as Sefo Liufau channeled the spirit of the present Tom Brady and orchestrated a 10-play, 67-yard touchdown drive to put Michigan behind 21-7.

Oh, this is real? This is indeed real.

Michigan clamped down in the second quarter and added 17 points to take a halftime lead, but the drama extended to the second half, when a hobbled Liufau somehow was able to loft a perfect downfield strike 70 yards for a score.

In a half and change that was one to forget for Michigan's defense, it was perhaps most forgettable for the safeties, Delano Hill and Dymonte Thomas, who appeared to be culpable on two of Colorado's touchdown passes.

With Jarrod Wilson, the next iteration of Jordan Kovacs, out of the picture, I think most Michigan fans expected some sort of uptick in big plays allowed. That uptick came to pass on Saturday (and to some extent against UCF, too). Luckily for Don Brown and Co., it was Week 3, not a pivotal Big Ten contest.

The big question mark looming over all of this is the return of a triumvirate of Michigan defenders: Jourdan Lewis, Bryan Mone and Taco Charlton. This defense is still good without them, but not the dominant thing it can be. Remember when Michael Jordan pursued baseball, and the Pippen-led Bulls still managed to win quite a few games? Take that analogy and compress it for the college football world, and you have a similar thing going on. Everything is just wobblier without them, even if the defensive line is still capable of wreaking havoc, and Jeremy Clark and Channing Stribling have done just fine to date (albeit against no real top-notch receivers).

Liufau left the game, and it was all over but the shoutin' for the Colorado offense. But, in a way, this was a good thing for the Michigan defense. Sure, they gave up some big plays -- that's going to happen. For all of the offseason Don Brown hype, switching to the third defensive coordinator in three years doesn't forecast immediately positive returns with that third coordinator, no matter how respected.

In short, there will be, and have been, some growing pains.

Offensively, Speight recovered from his shaky start and some early hits to go 16-of-30 for 229 yards, one touchdown and just the one early turnover. No interceptions is good. In Jake Rudock's third game last season against UNLV, a measly 28-7 win, he went 14-of-22 for 123 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

By comparison, against a more talented opponent, I'd say Speight looked just fine, even showing some pocket-passer mobility to shake a Colorado blitzer and pick up positive yardage.

On the ground, Michigan ran for just under 200 yards on 4.1 yards per carry, with DeVeon Smith leading the way with 87 yards on 11 carries (albeit with one of those carries a 42-yard romp on which he wasn't touched until he was already practically in the end zone). It's still early to pass judgment on some of the guys up front (Bredeson, for example), and others more perceptive than I with respect to line play can comment on the line as a whole. Certainly, it's a work in progress.

All in all, it was an imperfect performance, one that momentarily induced a sort of low-level panic. But, the Wolverines did what they needed to do, which was eventually pulverize a far inferior team, even if the score doesn't show it. Other teams have players, too, and Liufau looked the part. We can wonder what would have happened had Liufau remained in the game at full health, but we'll never know. Perhaps even more unfortunate for Michigan, if Liafau is out for an extended period of time, the Buffs are far less equipped to make some noise in league play, which would benefit Michigan's playoff profile.

But, it's over and done, and Michigan has a league slate of its own to worry about.

Somehow, I've come all this way without mentioning the omnipresent Jabrill Peppers. Travel to an alternate universe in which Peppers isn't on that field Saturday. Think of all the plays he had a hand in, in every phase of the game.

If it isn't obviously already, you really need to pay attention. It might be a long time before Michigan gets a player like this again.

Sure, Peppers has some things to work on for his NFL resume (coverage), but he is otherwise a shutdown player, one who can affect a game so profoundly. Look at the other side -- Colorado's Chidobe Awuzie does not have the national recognition Peppers does, but his defensive ability opens up so much for that defense and closes down so much for opposing offenses. Michigan's previously uncoverable wideouts ran into a pair of corners of a caliber they won't see again for a while. It's tough to get open against very good corners -- that's why they're very good. It reminds me of folks quoting a team's record against average or bad competition versus, say, top-10 teams. Well, of course the latter is probably not going to look that great -- top-10 teams are good, usually.

Perhaps the highlight of the game was Peppers finally breaking through for his first punt return touchdown, a breakthrough on the heels of so many almosts. I'm willing to bet it won't be his last this season.

I generally don't like to make comparisons between current players and former elites -- but the Peppers-Woodson comparison is inescapable. On one play, Peppers diagnosed the play and sped into the backfield to level a Colorado back for a loss.

As it unfolded, and he arrived at the ball before the doomed had a second to ponder his first move, I was reminded of another play from 19 years ago, on Sept. 20, 1997:



Sometimes, all it takes to resume calm is to have the best player on the field. On Saturday, Michigan did.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Week 2: Close encounters of meaning, or not

Week 2 

With one more week in the books, the picture becomes clearer in some spots, blurrier in others. 

The nonconference slate is a mishmash of comfortable victories, head-scratching close calls and everything in between: Week 2 offered a diverse selection of all three. Take Clemson, Georgia, Arizona, for example -- and those were all wins. 

Thus far, Clemson looks nothing like the team that closed the 2015 season on a high note, the highest note of any team not named Alabama. Deshaun Watson passed a whopping 53 times and completed just 27 of those attempts, which is fine if you're Texas Tech or the Detroit Lions' Matt Stafford, but not if you're the No. 2 team in the country playing Troy at home. 

Meanwhile, in Athens, Kirby Smart's squad limped its way to a win against Nicholls State (which finished 3-8 in 2015). After a solid win against UNC (made slightly more solid after UNC's thumping of Illinois), the Dawgs came back down to earth, with Nick Chubb managing just 80 yards on 20 carries. Turnovers helped keep the Colonels in the game, as if often the case when the Little Guy hangs with the Big Guy. Georgia can definitely compete in the SEC East -- which, I suppose, is a lot like saying the Big Ten West winner will have a chance at winning the conference title. But this team is another Chubb injury away from some real problems ... an injury that hopefully does not happen, because he's a fun player to watch, and isn't that what all of this is about? 

Arizona, well, they scored 28 unanswered and beat Grambling State by 10. If you need a second to reread that sentence, feel free to do so and meet me at the next paragraph. 

Done? Yes, that is something that happened, yet another drop in the torrential downpour of madness that is the college game. And, really, let's be honest: Is that result even all that surprising? Does that box score move the needle in any way whatsoever? No? I'm not sure what to say about the Rich Rodriguez era in Tucson other than his teams always seem to teeter perilously on the precipice separating resurgence from oblivion. Rodriguez's squad followed his first two seasons, both 8-win campaigns, with 10 wins in 2014, but just seven last year. 

The Wildcats cap the season with trips to Oregon State and Washington State, and the rivalry tilt against Arizona State. But it's the five games prior that will decide the season and, perhaps, move the needle back in the positive direction for Rodriguez and Co. After this week's matchup against Hawaii, Arizona hosts Washington, travels to UCLA and Utah, then hosts USC and Stanford. Win three of those and close out with four straight against WSU, Oregon State, Colorado and ASU and you're looking at eight wins. 

But, you know, who knows. Arizona, like so many others, is just one of those teams that generally does not adhere to philosophical structures of order or reason. They're either firing on all cylinders, zooming down the highway, or crapped out on the side of the road, belching smoke into the pastel Arizona sky. 

Speaking of close calls, you can even look at Nebraska, which dispatched Wyoming with ease, 52-17 -- close call? The Cornhuskers held a 24-17 lead after three quarters. But hey, that's why you play four. 

If all of the above sounds like bad news for the aforementioned teams, maybe it is and maybe it isn't -- but take it all into account, hand-wringing Michigan fan, when you bemoan Michigan's "unimpressive" 37-point victory against UCF. 

That performance was far from perfect, but why is anyone expecting that in the first place? Even Alabama, the colossus from T-Town, didn't look like the same team in Week 2, besting Western Kentucky by "just" 28 points, 38-10. Jalen Hurts threw two picks and the Tide averaged 3.2 yards per carry. None of that means anything. 

Oh, right, there was also that business in Stillwater. What to say? I still lack words for the conclusion of the 2015 Michigan-Michigan State game. Things happen in college football that are spectacular for their lack of decipherable meaning. You can say "why?" but you already know the answer. 

Incredulity, thy nom de guerre is college football. 

If you're looking for sense in anything, college football is the last place you'll find it. You might as well roam the desert looking for a Wi-Fi hotspot, pining for a chance to send that Tweet about how something that happened on Sept. 10 presages either doom or success against a future opponent. 

Elsewhere
  • Iowa State is truly bad. This is a fact that only underscores the awesome accomplishment achieved by Iowa in its 42-3 win against them. The Hawkeyes have found a way to lose to some wretched Cyclones teams over the years, but not this time. Really, I was far more impressed by this victory than one ought to be. We're not talking a hex of the late 1990s/early 2000s, when ISU beat Iowa five years in a row, but ISU did take three of the last five before this year's matchup, including the 2012 9-6 game. That ISU team finished 6-7. They also finished 6-7 in 2011, another winning year for ISU over Iowa, and 2-10 in 2014. This is probably more than you needed to know -- the point? Beating a bad Iowa State team by many points is significant for an Iowa team that has struggled to beat bad Iowa State teams. 
  • Remember Danny Etling? If you do, you're either a recruiting buff or a Purdue football die-hard. Regardless, he played most of a football game this past Saturday ... for LSU. Etling, who transferred from West Lafayette to Baton Rouge, went 6-of-14 for 100 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Which, somehow, was worse than Brandon Harris' performance in Week 1 against Wisconsin. It really is difficult to think of a program that has squandered so much talent based on its inability to get one thing even sort of right (i.e. quarterback). Gone are the glorious days of Matt Mauck.
  • The Seminoles head to Louisville to take on QB Lamar Jackson and Co. this week in what promises to be an exciting matchup. Jackson posted another big day in a Week 2 win against Syracuse. In two games, he's passed for 697 yards and completed 59.7 percent of his attempts. He's also rushed for 318 yards. Needless to say, FSU is a step or two up from Charlotte and Syracuse. But if early returns mean anything, Jackson is a step up from the quarterbacks FSU has faced to date. 
  • There's still something strange about seeing Washington sitting there at No. 8. They went 8-6 and 7-6 in Chris Petersen's first two years, yet somehow found themselves in the preseason top 10. Why? I don't know. It's not even that they necessarily don't "deserve" to be there, so much as their inclusion feels very strange, like a curly fry that finds its way into a batch of regular fries. With that said, unlike many other teams, the Huskies have taken care of business thus far, and the schedule actually looks quite manageable. UW hosts Stanford Sept. 30 and visits Oregon Oct. 8, but after that I don't see any games that are slam-dunk losses. A trip to Utah is always tough (ask Michigan), USC is the Pac-12's LSU (hey, look at all that talent) and the Apple Cup is a rivalry game still, even if the Cougars have failed spectacularly to date. If UW wants any chance at a playoff berth, it will need to sweep that Stanford-Oregon stretch. 
  • The game of the week? Arkansas-TCU, which was actually sort of a snoozer until the very end. The unsnoozeification of this one began when Arkansas missed a 22-yard field goal, then up 20-7 late in the third. TCU stormed back to take a lead, until Arkansas went 58 yards in 62 seconds to tie it with a minute to go at 28-28. TCU had a chance to win with a field goal, a 28-yarder. That was blocked, because the very notion of field goals resides in the realm of Bad Possibilities, and Arkansas went on to win in overtime. It's still unclear to me what Bret Bielema and Arkansas' path to success in the SEC West is, but one thing's certain: Razorbacks games are worth the watch. A Sept. 24 date with Texas A&M will likely be another one worthy of viewing consideration. 
  • After a rough first quarter that saw Tennessee trailing Virginia Tech 14-0, the Vols bounced back to notch a comfortable win at Bristol Motor Speedway (it's a brave new world). Tennessee gets a breather with Ohio this week -- well, in theory -- but then the schedule gets brutal before finishing with a pretty breezy five-game stretch. After Ohio, UT gets Florida at home, Georgia and Texas A&M on the road, and Alabama at home. The Vols were talked about as a playoff contender heading into this season, but that four-game stretch always loomed large. Assuming they get to the SEC title game and score an upset against Alabama, they can't afford to lose more than one of those four. Maybe Tennessee figures things out and manages to go 3-1 there, win the final five and have a shot at a play-in game in the SEC title game. Either way, like the Stanford-Oregon stretch for Washington, the Florida-Georgia tilts in consecutive weeks are must-wins. 
  • If college football can be likened to Game of Thrones, then Nebraska's 2015 season was akin to the guy who jumps on the bandwagon of the deity in vouge at exactly the wrong time. That's really the only explanation for Nebraska's insane run of bad luck last season. However, looking at their schedule, the 'Huskers have a chance to be one of the notable bounceback teams of 2016. In one of the more quietly interesting games of the week, Nebraska welcomes Oregon to Memorial Stadium, a team that is undoubtedly a few notches below what it once was. The Ducks can still score, sure, but they've given  up yards and points like they're hosting a yard sale. Excluding UVA QB Kurt Benkert's -27 yards rushing, the Cavaliers racked up 220 yards rushing on the Oregon defense this past weekend. ESPN's Power Index gives Nebraska a 74.2 percent chance at victory. If Nebraska can score a win -- which would only be an upset in terms of the arbitrary nature of early-season polls -- then a 7-0 start is not out of the question. Nebraska follows this one up with games against Northwestern, Illinois, Indiana and Purdue; that is, the antithesis of the middle of Tennessee's schedule. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Week 1: The princess is in another castle

Week 1

The first week of a college football season is almost always anticlimactic, failing to deliver on an offseason's worth of pent-up excitement. 

The opening slate typically features an array of snoozers, like a pedestrian hotel continental breakfast. You'll get just enough, but not what you really want, like a omeleteer serving up whatever egg-based dish you like at 7 in the morning. No, you'll take the toast and wake up to the season with a generic roast and USA Today. 

Take, for example, Michigan versus Hawaii: a classic Week 1 no-doubter. The game was over before you could say "Colt Brennan." Michigan rolled, 63-3, and it was fun until it wasn't, the point where every fan of a brand-name team wonders if there is even a point to this particular contest and if it should even be played at all. When one starts to truly feel bad for the other team is the exact moment in which that realization of the game's lack of utility takes root. 

Michigan, a team of four- and five-stars, experienced and talented, versus jetlagged Hawaii, which had already given up 51 points in a game before even coming to Ann Arbor: Welcome to opening weekend. 

The Wolverines won, but like wins scored by so many other teams dotting the top 25, the win means little. I't's Level 1, a step, the initial foray into the great unknown. 

The princess is in another castle. 


***
Then there's Alabama. 

Alabama, winners of last season's national title, lost its usual bevy of talent to the NFL, reigniting another round of The Process. 

The Crimson Tide opened with USC, a matchup of name brands. Coke and Pepsi, Rolls Royce and Bentley, Apple and Microsoft -- you get the idea. 

Alabama even had the courtesy to let the Trojans hang around for about a quarter. USC struck first with a field goal, but they would never lead again. Alabama started the game with Blake Barnett at quarterback, but finished it with Jalen Hurts, who offers a scary thing: an Alabama quarterback who is an active playmaker for the offense, as opposed to the parade of game-managing types of recent years. 

Hurts fumbled early, but proceeded to dissect the Trojans defense like a film class recitation one might take on the USC campus. Hurts started things with a 39-yard strike to ArDarius Stewart, then Alabama added a field goal and a pick-six to enter the half up 17-3. Against anyone not named Cam Newton, that means the game is over. 

And it was. The Tide rolled to a 52-6 win. Maybe USC isn't that good, but even the most cynical observer of the Trojans program probably doesn't think they're 52-6 bad.  

Once again, everyone is chasing the team from Tuscaloosa. 

And yet, despite the Tide's aura of invincibility, they have been prone to the occasional slip-up. In recent years, that has been at the hands of Ole Miss, who the Tide face in Week 3 in Oxford. The Rebels are fresh off of a crushing collapse against Florida State in Orlando -- maybe they'll be eager to prove that was a fluke? 

Or, maybe, Alabama will see them coming this time, particularly after losses to the Rebels in 2014 and 2015. If there's one thing you don't want, it's an Alabama that sees you. 

---
Speaking of, Florida State seemed destined to both get blown out and get its quarterback, freshman Deondre Francois, injured Monday night against Ole Miss. 

The Rebels raced out to an early 7-0 lead, scoring in under two minutes. They eventually led 28-6 after a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Jimbo Fisher and everyone else on the FSU sideline looked bereft of answers or words, like someone who has just missed a flight. 

Francois and Co. couldn't get much of anything going, much of it the fault of an offensive line that played like five large pieces of rice paper. Even star tailback Dalvin Cook (23 carries, 91 yards), with a free run to the end zone, simply dropped the ball out of bounds at the 3-yard line (FSU would eventually have to settle for a field goal). 

Nothing was working for the Seminoles -- another top-10 team appeared ready to topple. 

Then, having enough of it, Francois started firing in the face of heavy pressure. I'm not sure what happened or what unseen switch was flipped, but the redshirt freshman started making throws even fifth-year seniors can never hope to make. 

Less than six minutes into the third quarter, FSU led, 29-28. Blink and everything can change in an instant. In the span of less than a quarter's worth of NBA action, the Seminoles turned a 22-point deficit into a one-point lead. 

Questions now abound about Ole Miss, which looked unstoppable to start and completely flustered to finish. Whatever the Ole Miss season becomes, this was a hello to the college football world from Francois (whose debut compares favorably to the guy who recently won FSU a national championship). 

A tricky trip to Louisville on Sept. 17 beckons for the 'Noles, not to mention a home game against UNC followed by a trip to Miami. Then, of course, there's Clemson on Oct. 29. 

Can they run the table? Maybe, if Francois' brilliance on Monday night is any indication. But the offensive line will need to protect him and get Cook going, or they might not even get a chance to set up a matchup of potential undefeateds against Clemson. 

And as we all know, freshman quarterbacks usually mean a slip-up is just around the corner. 

---

Clemson went down to Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium, riding as high as one could on the heels of a national championship game defeat. After that loss to Alabama, everyone acknowledged Deshaun Watson and Co. as legitimate, an anointment that can these days only come after going head-to-head with Alabama and nearly winning on the biggest stage. This is "little ole Clemson" no longer. "Clemsoning" was once a word with meaning, but has sharply disappeared from the college football lexicon, lost in the gradually roiling seas of language transformation. "Clemsoning" is Middle English of yore -- in the dictionary, it's marked "archaic." 

Now, some might be down on the Tigers after a less-than-impressive 19-13 win. Watson went 19-of-24 for 248 yards (1 TD, 1 INT). Wayne Gallman carried it 30 times for 123 yards. Mike Williams caught nine balls for 174 yards, dismissing the Auburn secondary as if it wasn't there. Hunter Renfrow, hero of the national title game, fittingly reeled in a key touchdown grab. 

The score is not impressive, but the result and the individual performances are worthy of praise. Clemson didn't start with Hawaii or Furman or Wofford or Tumbleweed State -- they started with an SEC foe on the road. 

Now, say what you will about Auburn, a team with no offense led by an offense-first head coach, but Clemson doesn't need style points like, say, Houston does. The win is enough. 

There were hairy moments, moments when Clemson appeared destined to fall into one of Bowser's many lava pits or run into a whirling dungeon fire bar. 

But time expired, and Clemson found itself at the end, meeting Toad. The princess is in another castle, he says. 

Things lighten up for the Tigers the next few weeks; that is, until Lamar Jackson and Louisville roll into town Oct. 1. 

---

The madness continued Sunday night in Austin, when Texas took down Notre Dame with an 18-wheeler and a freshman gunslinger. 

Both teams used two quarterbacks, but the Longhorns were far more effective in their deployment, buoyed by freshman Shane Buechele's 280 passing yards and Tyrone Swoopes' three rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, Malik Zaire got the start for Notre Dame, and even got the first series of the second half, but proved ineffective. Deshone Kizer took over down the stretch, finishing 15-of-24 for 215 yards and five touchdown passes. Kizer, a Toledo native, makes one wonder: What if he now wore the winged helmet instead? 

After 6-7 and 5-7 seasons to kick off the Charlie Strong era, this was one he, and Texas, badly needed. It's one thing to ambush a much better Oklahoma team in a rivalry game like they did last season -- it's another to beat a team like Notre Dame in a nonconference tilt. 

Like many of the other teams discussed here, Notre Dame's fate is yet to be determined. Texas could turn out to be good, and this loss would just mark an unfortunate loss concurrent with the rise of the Longhorns. 

Notre Dame will have a chance to collect itself and get back on track with a contest against Michigan State on Sept. 17. A loss there, and the outlook for Notre Dame takes on a blue-gray hue that's more gray than blue. 

---

The opening weekend was full of the usual array of upsets, pseudo-upsets and near-upsets. Northwestern won 10 games last year but couldn't do enough to stem the tide that was the Western Michigan Broncos, who rowed their boats onto the shores of Lake Michigan and claimed the City of Evanston for Kalamazoo County. 

Mike Leach's Washington State Cougars proceeded to plunder the good will of a nine-win 2015 season by losing to Eastern Washington, at home. 

Oklahoma fell against Houston, much to no one's surprise. That's not to say that many would have thought a Houston win a certainty, but its possibility was seen a mile away in the pensive hours of the long, long offseason. Houston will both take its long shot at a playoff shot, plus the more likely possibility of a conference upgrade. 

Indiana led FIU 12-10 at the half. Michigan State beat Furman 28-13. Tennessee just barely avoided casting themselves in "Appalachian State: The Sequel." No. 16 UCLA crawled back from a 24-9 deficit at Texas A&M only to lose in overtime. The Aggies appear to have a quarterback, but check back later, as folks thought the same thing for the last two seasons with Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen, who both now play at different Texas schools. 

Week 1 is also about noise, much of it meaningless. Is Tennessee that bad? Probably not. Is Texas A&M "back"? Texas? Who knows. Michigan State? Well, they beat Western Michigan by 13 in 2013 and again by 13 last season, and they went 13-1 and 12-2 in those seasons, both ending with conference championship. 

At this point, you simply shrug and move on. That's all you can do. 

---

College football is a constantly unfolding story, with climactic moments not woven in but thrown in seemingly at random. Rather, it's a collection of short stories, anchored by a central theme but by no means wholly tethered to it. 

Results are like the stars -- sometimes you try to connect the dots, but you'll often have to take someone else's word that the Big Dipper or Orion are in fact up there. 

They are, but you have to wait .Wait for them to come into focus -- and don't get distracted by that fleeing comet, or you might lose the picture, as the sky reverts to a sea of bright lights, apart and alone. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Michigan 63, Hawaii 3: Shutdown

Not all blowouts are equal.

In 2014, Michigan beat Central Michigan, 59-9, to kick off its season. Devin Garden threw a pair of interceptions (Shane Morris also threw one) and Derrick Green carried the ball 11 times for 58 yards, which sounds nice until you know that one of those carries went 30 yards (leaving an average of 2.8 YPC on the remaining 10). Fitzgerald Toussaint carried it 14 times for 57 yards, with a long of 20.

CMU didn't do much of significance on offense, but it did crack 200 yards on the day. The Wolverines also gave up a 27-yard kickoff return.

If that feels like nitpicking, then you're right -- Michigan did win by 50, after all.

But when juxtaposed with a win like Saturday's, a 63-3 no-doubter against Hawaii, it feels a little different. It's like, on the one hand, trying to rationalize a B movie into an all-timer versus watching something that requires no rationalization, because it just is great without your attempts to hold it up.

Michigan sent out wave after wave of defensive linemen and running backs, overwhelming the visitors with depth and talent. It was a rout of yore, like the 49-0 blowout of Long Beach State in 1987. Bo's teams were before my time -- his last season was my first season being alive -- but from everything I've read and clips I've seen, those old-school blowouts bore a particular resemblance to Saturday's: staunch defense paired with running back after running back after running back.

There's not much to gather, big picture, from Saturday's win, except insofar as you might compare it with the performance of other major-conference squads playing lesser competition. Florida beat UMass 24-7. Tennessee scraped by Appalachian State in overtime. Michigan State beat Furman 28-13. No. 13 TCU gave up 41 points against South Dakota State. Washington State, a 9-4 team last season, lost to Eastern Washington.

So, there's that feather. More importantly, Michigan proved it could still look exactly as dominant as you'd expect without many of its best players playing even a single snap (and others, like Taco Charlton and Bryan Mone, having their days cut short by injury). This isn't 2007, where the absence of Mike Hart for a couple of quarters seemed to short-circuit Michigan's entire team against Appalachian State.

Pleasantly, the game turned out to be a snoozer, but only after the brief faux drama of Wilton Speight's interception on the offense's first play from scrimmage. He finished 10-of-13 for 145 yards and three touchdowns.

On the ground, Michigan racked up 306 yards on 39 carries. DeVeon Smith didn't need to do much, but when he did it was classic Smith.



Frankly, none of the backs had to do much of anything, but Chris Evans, he of the recent fall practice hype, stole the show with his 112 yards on only eight carries. While it remains to be seen what Evans can do against real competition, he offers the raw speed and burst that Smith (and even Ty Isaac) lack.

Whatever the case, this isn't like 2015, where a dinged up DeVeon Smith is an ominous thing. Think of this like 1997, with Smith as the dependable but plodding Chris Howard, with a little Anthony Thomas and Clarence Williams mixed in. The Wolverines don't need Smith to be Mike Hart or Chris Perry circa the 2003 MSU game. He can be Chris Howard, and that would be perfectly fine.

Defensively, Michigan's front eviscerated the Hawaii protection like one might do playing on the easiest difficulty level on NCAA. If we gleaned anything useful from the day, it's that Mike McCray can definitely play -- or, at the very least, can definitely not not play. McCray led the way with nine tackles (3.5 for loss), playing a position group that is considered one of the few real perceived weaknesses of the squad heading into this season.

On top of that, given the thinking that Don Brown's defense will be a decidedly more high-risk outfit, Michigan gave up very little in the way of big plays. The longest Hawaii run of the day went for 17 yards. The longest pass went for 28.

Channing Stribling and Delano Hill returned interceptions for touchdowns. The defensive line burst into the backfield upon the snap like a a crowd waiting to get into a concert venue. Jabrill Peppers zipped to and fro and jumped over people because he could.

Michigan didn't punt in a game for only the fourth time in its history. Eleven players ran the ball and 11 players caught a pass. Chris Evans carried the ball into a gaping hole, stopped, turned to the crowd, and recited the entire oeuvre of Shakespeare before zipping to the end zone. 

I could go on and on. Minus injury scares, the performance was just about perfect.

Things can only get more challenging from here, but early returns are positive. In a weekend full of name-brand teams not looking like legitimate contenders -- including an LSU squad that is perpetually a quarterback away from contention despite having a roster of NFL talents -- then you can't ask for much more than Michigan gave on Saturday.

They put the fans to sleep, pleasantly, without fanfare. That is what Week 1 is about, most of the time. There will be time for sleepless nights later in the season, when the leaves change color and the air begins to chill.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Almost there



The air hangs still.

The days until Michigan takes the field for the 2016 season have hit the single digits, but all who have paid attention over the years know that this final week never produces proximity.

For months, the arrow of Michigan's fortunes has trended upward, almost improbably so given its 2015 losses. With one dominant showing against Florida, things changed.

The offseason came and went like a breeze, punctuated by occasional blips of noise -- tweets, satellite camps, seemingly every coach in the country being asked What do you think of Jim Harbaugh? If there's anything else I take away from this offseason, it's a longing for that quixotic time when nothing-controversies didn't burst from nothing like wildfires.

Meanwhile, in actual football news, Michigan brings back most of a 10-win team, including a defense that should prove to be its best in a long time -- 2006-level is certainly within reach. Even that '85 Bears of recent Michigan lore, the 1997 Michigan defense, is not an unattainable goal.

Only this time, instead of Steele and Sword and Gold and Woodson and Renes, it's Wormley and Glasgow and Lewis and Charlton and Peppers. This isn't 2011, when a smattering of talent and several winning lottery tickets yielded something more than what probably should have been.

What Michigan has is something real, something definitive and sharp. Michigan has a defensive front that eats offenses and a secondary that guards its airspace with precision and expertise. For a long time, that wasn't the case. For a long time, Michigan football was a series of mistakes, compounded, an edge blunted by a lack of precision and expertise. That's not to denigrate the coaches and players who came before -- it's simply what happened.

Each season begins with its own set of expectations, a reasonable subset of all possibilities. For Michigan, that subset was limited indeed for some time.

Now, though, the whole playbook of expectation is in play. The Jabrill Peppers carry is as much a part of it all as the handoff to De'Veon Smith or the deep throw to Jehu Chesson. Nothing is out of play, too farfetched, too crazy.

If this all sounds hyperbolic, well, maybe it is. But why hold back when it's so plainly obvious?

The schedule sets up nicely (albeit with road games at Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State) and Harbaugh has a proven track record when it comes to developing quarterbacks. Juxtapose that record with what Michigan did with Denard Robinson late in his career and what Devin Gardner's career became, and the divergence in ability and expertise is stark.

Setting aside all of that, the team is fun to watch again. It was fun in 2011, but even as I sat in the Superdome watching Michigan concoct a win out of hopes and prayers like an underfunded scientist, a sense of ersatz success lingered. It looked good until it didn't -- when that happened, when the light focused on the guts and bones of it all, it revealed a body unwell. Crumbling, deteriorating, unable to stand consistently.

In one year, that changed. That's not to say that Michigan is now a perfect team without question marks, or that it is surely destined for a playoff berth. What changed was the level of precision and purpose.

Think of all the minutes and hours in the day wasted. The times you get up to do something, wander around the hallways of your home like an intruding ghost, only to make a sandwich and sit back down, not having done that thing. Then you remember, oh, right. 

That was Michigan under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. Wandering listlessly, making unintended sandwiches. Under Rodriguez, the sandwiches were unique, but weren't sandwiches at all, for they lacked the bread that would have made it a sandwich. They were, figuratively, piles of deli meat, doused in hot sauce and other exotic dressings and toppings.

Under Hoke, Michigan ran out of deli meat in Year 1 and subsisted on mayonnaise sandwiches for the next three years. This was not a good time for anyone involved.

Now, though, Michigan makes sandwiches and remembers to do the other things. It rakes the leaves, takes out the trash, assembles a TV stand and drinks enthusiasm, the caffeine of life. Things are done in order and time is not wasted.

And, as this sandwich metaphor threatens to become unwieldy, threatens to burst, let me also say that this sort of adulation naturally makes me uncomfortable.

The best thing about sports is the unvarnished hagiography it produces, the good things we want to believe (and often should believe, for they are true and good). That is, it's the best thing until it no longer is. And as we've seen in recent years, when hagiography is flipped upside down, revealing something else, those engaged in that categorical praise are more likely to avert their eyes than not. To be honest, I hesitated about including this passage, but felt the need to say it, as it's generally how I've come to view the game and sports in general -- and nowhere is the cult of the coach stronger than collegiate athletics, especially college football (in certain places, it's the basketball coach, but that is more exception than rule). A casualty of growing older and more cynical, maybe. Of reserving praise until it is truly earned, and even then holding the door open for the doubt without. This isn't so much a warning as it is self-preservation -- because there's no doubt that if things go south here, they will do so in a new and likely more acrimonious way than they did with the last two gentlemen who threw their hats into the Michigan football head coaching ring.

That unanticipated aside, well, aside, the season is coming. The offseason is almost completely behind us, the year's night slowly receding as the sun rises in the east.

If you're like me, maybe you pretend, maybe you put on a show, that all of this isn't so important. Maybe, just maybe, this is the year a particularly crushing loss won't affect you out of nowhere, like the honk of a car's horn behind you as you sit entranced at a green light for a second longer than you should but a half-second sooner than is appropriate for one to be honked at. You blink and shake your head through the intersection, on to the next block.

There are no surprises now. There are no doubts about what needs to happen. Michigan's merry band of defensive stalwarts will look to render the quarterback situation a mere footnote. The offense will aim to balance that with fireworks of its own: Smith plowing through defensive backs like they are sentient tackling dummies, Chesson streaking past all like a fiery comet, Peppers zipping around like a 205-pound electron.

When it comes to what we think will transpire on the football field, during the games we care about, the prognosis is positive. And, thankfully, we'll soon no longer have to lean on predictions -- we'll soon have reality, screaming at us knowingly.

On Monday, Harbaugh said:
"…the unique thing about college football is there’s no preseason, there’s no spring training, there’s no exhibition season, there’s no warm-up games. It goes right into the season. I don’t think there’s any other sport in college athletics that’s like that. Certainly not in the professional series. College football is a stand-alone in that way. So, yeah, the practices rage on. The competitions rage on."
The competitions will likely rage on until the final minute, the final moments. We're almost there.

Come Sept. 3, we'll start to know for sure. What is real? What isn't? Even in September, we won't truly know, and maybe not even until the end of October.

But in the wormhole that is a college football season, it'll all happen in an instant. One second, we're subject to the laws of the world, an interminable offseason marked only by rumors and news of other, lesser sports.

Once it starts, there's no going back, no way to reset. And for this team, at this time, there should be no mulligans. All the pieces are there -- now it's time to put them together. The script is being written, but it will likely change along the way, many times. Luckily, Michigan has one of the best directors in the game -- remember that as you pop your popcorn and turn off your cellphones for this move experience with no previews. This is college football: Forget the trailers, just give me the action.

After two failed coaching administrations, we've become accustomed to the notion of "giving a coach time" -- don't you know you have to give a guy a full recruiting cycle before you can really judge him? This isn't an unreasonable sentiment, but in the context of the last two regimes, it's one borne of unreasonable hope in a hopeless situation.

This is Year 2, but we're not talking about time. We're not talking about vague incremental improvements, waited upon absurdly. Vladimir and Estragon have gone home.

We're talking about now, the present, the always-existing fulcrum of time. Everything balances on now, not next year or the year after. What better time to do something than now, when everyone is there, ready to go and do it?

Now is the best time. Now is the only time. There will be time to worry about another time another day.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The joy and agony of expectations, from Armour Square to Ann Arbor

Fouad Egbaria
As I sat watching the White Sox take on the Cubs tonight, not long after Big Ten Media Days wrapped up not far away at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place, I was reminded how expectations can distort.

A White Sox fan since I had the agency (and interest) to make the choice, my expectations for the squad were middling entering the season. I expected, pretty much, what the Sox are at now: hovering around .500 (with tonight's win against the Cubs, the Sox inched back to .500, at 50-50, a true paragon of mediocrity).

But the South Siders surprised in April, starting the season on the heels of the truly silly LaRoche saga with a 23-10 run.

Just like that, those previously modest expectations evaporated. The first Cubs-Sox World Series was sure to happen, the first since Teddy Roosevelt's administration -- before the first World War, before the formation of the National Park Service, before, well -- you get the picture.

Alas, April proved to be a mirage. The Sox plummeted, losing their once-sizable division lead in the blink of an eye.

I don't have time to tune into every game anymore, but I still tune in when I can, even now. And when I do -- or when I hop on the Red Line toward 95th to catch a game at U.S. Cellular Field -- I'm just looking to consume the sport in its rawest form. Watching just to watch, to see something fun: maybe a home run, some fireworks, a meaningless win. It's all in good fun.

And if those things don't happen, it's fine. Bereft of the weighty albatross of expectations, you can hold your head high, no matter the result.

Meanwhile, on the gridiron, behold a different view.

Michigan is being talked about -- not just Harbaugh and his endeavors, but Michigan as a whole. No, not "is this the season coach X gets fired" talk -- Michigan is being discussed as a possible playoff team. How crazy is that? Two years ago I watched Michigan eke out a miserable win against Northwestern in Evanston, wondering how this Michigan program could possibly be cut from the same cloth as the one I saw in 2000, when Drew Henson's Wolverines battled Northwestern (and ultimately lost) in an spectacle of offensive pyrotechnics, back when they were still novel things.

This is far different than 2007, when Michigan entered the season ranked in the top 5 after a brilliant 2006 season capped by losses to good Ohio State and USC teams. It made sense, then, to have expectations. The 2007 season was meant to be a logical continuation of 2006.

Does it make sense now, to have those expectations? Is it logical, tethered to reality, believable? Yes, the pieces are all there, but after Michigan lost to its three toughest regular-season foes last year (and in spectacularly poor fashion against Ohio State), I'm not sure the same level of preseason certainty can be had.

That's what I would think, if Michigan didn't have Jim Harbaugh, the motor behind it all, the ultimate X-factor. Given Harbaugh's clear penchant for baseball, and the baseball theme of this post, it should be noted that his career coaching WAR is impressive, worthy of consideration when pondering the future.

This summer, Harbaugh has worn seemingly every jersey under the sun, traveled more than Carmen San Diego, angered SEC coaches, traded Twitter barbs with said coaches and wore a Michigan ballcap during his Media Days appearance. The whole enterprise, the idea of it, has picked up steam, gathering hype and attention magnetically.

With all of that, of course, comes expectation. And at a certain point, hype gives way to imminent reality. The season will start and all of the offseason antics will become a distant memory, a pleasant diversion, a rallying cry, a beacon of pride leading the Michigan fan base away from an era in which there was not much pride to be had.

While I love the White Sox, I look forward to having expectations again. Sports are made by stakes, and stakes are raised up high or brought down to the Midwestern earth by the lever of expectation.

Many fans expect a Big Ten East division title, a Big Ten title, a playoff appearance -- even more than that, possibly. None of those things are totally unrealistic. There are question marks lingering, but not necessarily enough of them to invalidate the hype.

A callback to his younger days in Chicago, Harbaugh will throw out the first pitch tomorrow at Wrigley Field, adding to the now expansive inventory of "Harbaugh throws a baseball" photography. I can't say whether he'll throw a ball or a strike.

I will say this: I expect the latter. And if he doesn't, we'll laugh and move on.

But come September, October, November, that will change: the games are no longer just fun and games. Everything indicates, however, that Harbaugh, the rest of the coaching staff and the players are ready for what's to come.

But what about the fans? What happens if Michigan falls at Iowa or Michigan State? Or, once again, at OSU, keeping that Henson-led 2000 team as the last Michigan outfit to win in Columbus?

Those moments mark the point when the taut line of expectation whips back against those who expect.

But failure and success are each meaningless by themselves without the idea of the other. The taut line slackens when none of it matters at all.

As time marches on toward kickoff, the line tightens and tightens with each day. It extends forward, like a sharp line drive, girded by expectations and hope.

Will it fall, shattering upon impact by virtue of its hardened material? Maybe. But maybe it won't.

And if it doesn't, Michigan can tight-rope across that line, all the way to what once seemed an unattainable light in the distance.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Requiem for a Rose


Some things are expected, yet strike with the force of the unexpected.

For me, today's news of the trade of Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks is one such example of that paradox: the surprising inevitability.

With each injury, each game missed for injuries, each column penned about the player who came to be called "General Soreness" more frequently than he was called "former MVP," the Rose era wilted, petal by petal, revealing only thorns.

That era began with something unexpected: the Bulls only had the chance to keep the Englewood native home by winning the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft. The Bulls had a 1.7 percent chance of getting that top pick, but by a fortuitous bounce of fate, the rose bloomed in familiar grounds.

I think it was time to make a move -- if not now, then during the season -- but that doesn't change the fact that this is a bitter moment in the history of the franchise.

Scott Skiles coached the Bulls to their first playoff appearances since Michael Jordan's final season with the Bulls in 1997-98. But those Skiles teams weren't true threats in any sense of the word -- Ben Gordon was a fun player to watch when he got hot, but otherwise those squads lacked any sort of starpower.

That changed when Rose joined the roster in 2008-09. The Bulls went 41-41 after missing the playoffs the previous year and took the Boston Celtics to seven games in a first-round series. Behind only Gordon, Rose averaged 19.7 points per game.

The next year, 2009-10, marked the Rose Bulls' first meeting with a nemesis they would never defeat: LeBron James.

The year after that, with James in Miami, the Bulls and James met again, this time in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls went 62-20 and were the No. 1 seed in the East, led by Rose's 25.0 ppg and 7.7 assists per game.

That was the season when Rose transformed from the young, exciting player of his first two seasons to the dynamic force of nature he became -- for a short time.

Earlier that season, Rose did this, one of the most memorable -- if not the most memorable -- examples of Rose's upper-echelon explosion, his ability to move from one spot on the floor to the other with impossible speed and quick-twitch precision. With the aid of Stacey's King's exuberance, the play will remain etched in fans' minds for years to come:



What are you doing, Dragic? Did you not get the memo? 

Sadly for Goran Dragic, he did not. And if anyone else hadn't gotten yet, they did then. They certainly did by the end of the season, after Rose was crowned the league MVP at age 22, the youngest player to ever win the award.

In the ECF, the Bulls took Game 1 of the series, before James et al went on to take the next four. Next year, Bulls fans thought, next year will be the year that Rose -- MVP, MVP, MVP, the United Center crowd chants -- and the rest of the Bulls would get past James, like Jordan eventually vanquished the Bad Boy Pistons.

Now, all of that seems so far away. Rose flashed across the Chicago basketball landscape like a comet, only to slowly recede into the distant reaches of the basketball cosmos.

---

The following season, on April 28, 2012, it happened.

In Game 1 of a first-round series against Philadelphia, a game the Bulls had locked up, Rose jump-stopped powerfully in the lane, like he'd done so many times before.

This time, he didn't bounce back up. With that play, that one moment that started like so many other, he'd never be the same again.

The Bulls went 50-16 during that shortened 2011-12 season, but after Rose's injury, they couldn't even defeat the eighth-seeded 76ers.

Before the injuries, before the coming of age of Jimmy Butler, before the rhetorical missteps with the media, Rose unequivocally was the engine that made the Bulls go (even if one might argue that Joakim Noah was the team's heart and soul).

Enter 2012-13, filled with commercials about The Return.



That season and the offseason preceding 2013-14 offered a steady stream of news bits detailing his efforts to get back.

Finally back on the floor, the Bulls visited Portland Nov. 22, 2013 for their 10th game of the season -- and this time, it was the right knee. It was if the basketball gods, perched somewhere in the rafters up high, slung their arrows of outrageous fortune, aiming for his knees.

He missed 30 games in 2014-15 with various injuries, but come playoff time, the third-seeded Bulls once again were met with none other than LeBron James and Co.

After splitting Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland, the Bulls looked to take a series lead in Game 3. Rose had started to look a little better in the first-round series against Milwaukee, rounding into a strong iteration of a post-injury Rose. He couldn't explode like he used to, but he could still get past people, albeit en route to layups instead of dunks.

And for one final time -- at least the last time I can remember -- Rose made the United Center roar.



In classic Rose form, his face remained static as he was boosted off the floor by his teammates, like he was waiting in line at the DMV or flipping through magazines in the doctor's office waiting room.

I remember watching the game at home, raising out of my seat to yell ohhh when the shot kissed off of the glass and in, igniting a frenzy at the building on Madison Street.

Sadly, it would be the last time something Rose did would produce that kind of reaction (The Bulls would go on to lose the next three games, and the series, against Cleveland).

Oddly enough, Rose's 2015-16 was his healthiest, relatively, since before the first injury. Rose played in 66 games. But regular comments about needing to be cautious with his body and preseason comments about playing for his next contract -- with two years then left on his current one -- Bulls fans began to sour on the hometown hero. Admittedly, I became one of them.

Even today, when the news crossed my Twitter feed and friends texted me about it, I'll admit that I not only thought it was the right move, but the necessary one. Better trade him now and get something instead of letting him walk for nothing in free agency, right? He's not the player he once was, one who could lead a team with serious championship aspirations? He's not the former MVP anymore, right, but one who happened to be an MVP once, long ago, in an alternate universe?

All cogent points, I think. The Bulls, whether management will say it or not, have to rebuild. And Rose, who will ask for big money once his contract is up, wouldn't be part of those plans, for the aforementioned reasons.

So, like that, it's over. I wouldn't even say the window has closed on the Bulls' title hopes -- that closed a while ago. Maybe it closed on that April day in 2012.

But as soon as I started thinking more about this as the day went on, I thought about Rose and what he meant to Chicago basketball ... and my initial comfort with the move began to wane.

Honestly, I felt a little guilty for welcoming his departure, even if I thought (and still think) it had to happen.

Sports have a funny way of both obscuring and revealing perspective.

---
As I sit here, thinking about the rebuilding project ahead, one that will see Rose wearing Knicks orange and blue, it's hard not to be hit with a wave of nostalgia.

The post-Jordan Dark Ages offered up several seasons of truly unwatchable basketball. Players like Eddy Curry, Eddie Robinson, Marcus Fizer, Jay Williams, Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) and so many others marked an era of lost searching; without MJ, the Bulls had lost their sight, ineffectively reaching in the dark.

That all changed with a 1.7 percent chance and the Bulls hitting jackpot. After a one-year career at Memphis, Rose returned to the city that raised him.

And with him, Rose eventually brought a player who could excite fans more than any other player in a Bulls uniform since Jordan. Of course, the Bulls never accomplished with Rose what Jordan accomplished -- not even close. And it would have been ludicrous to have expected such, or even one-hundredth of that.

Nonetheless, Rose brought hope. When he went down, fans were crushed. And when that happened, he worked hard to get back -- not once, but twice, then through the various nagging injuries of varying severity thereafter, including an orbital bone fracture that had him seeing double when shooting the ball to start the 2015-16 season.

What can you say? Like all of us, he wasn't perfect. Sometimes, he said the wrong thing (a problem that could have been easily corrected with a little PR work). Maybe he could have played through certain things. Maybe he could have tried to find a way to make things work with Butler.

But now, in retrospect -- with the barrier of finality in place -- who could blame him for his skittishness? For wanting to preserve himself for a 2015-16 playoff run (one that never came)? For wanting to look out for himself, heading into the final year of his contract, with an opportunity to score one last big contract?

Say he's selfish, say he didn't care about the fans, say he didn't work well with teammates (namely, Jimmy Butler). You could even say that some aspects of his game never really improved, namely his three-point shooting (excluding 2013-14, in which he only played 10 games, his career-best was a 33.2 percent mark in his 2010-11 MVP season). Maybe he never really blossomed into a true point guard, one who was capable of facilitating just as easily as he could run a one-man break and posterize some poor guy.

You can say a lot of things about him. Many of those things even have some truth to them.

But there's also this: Rose had the unenviable task of being the hometown kid, asked to help bring the franchise back to its previous glory.

And for a tantalizingly short period of time, the Bulls were on the precipice of such a return, or even an opportunity to return to some semblance of it -- until events intervened.

The strangest thing of all? I had to double check to make sure, but Rose is only 27 years old. Given all that has happened, I feel like I've followed his career for a lifetime.

---

Now, fans can only wonder what could have been. What would have happened if he hadn't gotten hurt? Would they have broken through? Would he still be playing in Chicago next season?

We'll never know. But what we do know is this: Rose made the Bulls relevant again.

He put the team on his back, carried it in the crook of his arm, like he carried the ball on lightning-quick takes to the basket -- a galloping running back, a speedy slot receiver, protecting the rock from vulturous defenders.

"Too big, too strong, too fast, too good."

That was Stacey King's usual refrain when Rose made a game-changing play. When Rose was on, that's exactly what he was.

But all things must come to an end. So, when Rose slips past a defender at Madison Square Garden next season and executes a reverse layup to avoid a shot-blocker, instead of lamenting what was lost, I'll remember what was gained.

The crossover, the acceleration, the high-flying dunks. The plays in which Rose seemed to be operating on a higher plane than everyone else on the floor. The low moments don't erase any of that.

I saw him with my own eyes. In his prime, he did things on the floor that very few players donning the Bulls uniform have ever done.

The last rose petal fell to the Chicago earth today. And 40 years from now, in true Chicago fashion, fans will still be talking about Derrick Rose: the MVP, the high-flyer, the Chicago kid.