Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Michigan 31, BYU 0: Symphony of Destruction

On third-and-11 from the BYU 20-yard line, almost seven minutes into the game, Michigan did something that made me go oh. 

Jake Rudock dropped back to pass -- but that's not the interesting part. It's what happened next.

But first, the prologue.

Michigan rolled out into a two-wide, single-back set. Jake Butt motions from his tight end spot into the backfield, joining Drake Johnson.

Rudock takes the snap. Butt heads for the left flat, clapping his hands, almost as if he's in on something devious.

Johnson, meanwhile, heads to the right. He can be seen waving his arm, even going so far as to start jumping up and down, the internationally accepted motion for I'm open, throw it!

The play unfolded beautifully. Rudock faked left to Butt. At this point, I assumed he'd turn around and flip it to Johnson, or perhaps try a shot into the end zone to Drake Harris.

He didn't, though, and that's when the ball, resting at the top of the hill overflowing with potential energy, unleashed the kinetic.

Rudock looked to the right, again faking, this time to Johnson. Something was afoot.

In a matter of seconds, one Michigan football play was full of more unexpected plot twists than any entire Michigan offensive series in recent memory.

The second fake served as the critical juncture: either something anticlimactic was about to happen, or something extraordinary.

And then, it happened: they forgot about Khalid Hill.

Hill lined up as a second tight end, on the right side. The Cougars defense looked right, they looked left, but they didn't look middle. Upon the snap, Hill waited a moment, looking back to Rudock like a seeker about to uncover his eyes in a game of hide-and-seek.

He released down the middle of the field into an oasis of green, a bountiful land of opportunity and joy and first downs.

Rudock hit a wide open Hill, who rumbled to the 1-yard line, after which Michigan punched it in two plays later on a Rudock scamper.

It was a 19-yard play, not even a touchdown. And yet, the way in which it so artfully unfolded indicated something grander. Nothing like that happens without precision, without thought, without imagination.

It's been a while since Michigan did something that made it seem as an opponent was unprepared for what was coming. The last example approximating this is the trusty Denard Robinson standby, in which even a mere step toward the line left receivers like Roy Roundtree open with acres of verdant, inviting space.

This, however, is less dependent upon magic. As great as Denard was, Michigan came and went with his exploits. Needless to say, Michigan does not have a Denard at the quarterback position now.

And that's okay. Because now, after Michigan exerts its will physically, it does so mentally, too.

I don't know what the BYU players and coaches expected coming into this game. Clearly, based on their postgame comments, they got something very different.

Contrast that with the now infamous comments from USC defenders after the 2007 Rose Bowl, and a diametrically opposed thing is building.

Michigan doesn't have all the pieces yet -- everyone knows that. It might not even have all of the pieces next year, either.

But that one play stands as an early vote of confidence. One play in a 10-play, 80-yard drive to give Michigan a 7-0 lead, a score that, also, was all they needed en route to the third-largest margin of victory by an unranked team over a ranked foe in the last 30 years.

Michigan committed a false start on the next play, but I was still reeling from the 19-yard pass to a tight end.

This is football: this is Michigan.

With all of that said, none of the above "trickery" -- and I hesitate to even dub it that -- works without developing a sturdy base.

For Jim Harbaugh and Co., that of course means a face-mashing running game and an equally face-mashing defense.

The product of that, when it works, is an opponent whose will has withered.

As part of my preparation for the Chicago Marathon, on Sunday I went out and ran 20 miles. When I was done, my legs were sore and for the most part useless for the next few hours.

The next day, walking was uncomfortable, each step somewhat of a laboring thing.

Magnify that by an order or 10 and distribute it across the entire body and I imagine that that aching pain is what tackling De'Veon Smith et al and being tackled by Jabrill Peppers and the rest of the Michigan defense for 60 minutes must feel like.

BYU was mystified and overwhelmed, the same team that beat Boise State and Nebraska and nearly upset UCLA. At this juncture, normally such wins can be tempered by lack of sample size and, more importantly, a lack of meaningful sample size, BYU's schedule to date, of course, somewhat negates that. The Cougars have played probably the toughest schedule in the country. They are as tested as a team can possibly before the month of October.

And as the dust settles on the nonconference portion of the schedule, Michigan appears to be by far the best of BYU's first four foes.

Jabrill Peppers executed an impressive takedown, Michigan's defense line parades six or seven players all capable of making an impact and Michigan's secondary is conservatively as good as the 2006 group, which in reality was only buoyed by the talent of the front seven. Truthfully, this secondary is the best to come through Ann Arbor since 1997.

I know it's early, but whether that is an indictment of the secondaries since 1997 or an outright, unmodified designation of praise, I suppose, remains to be seen.

But I don't feel crazy or unrealistic for saying that it's as good as anything since 1997 -- it's not hyperbole, it's just true.

The Wolverines are tied for fourth (with Wisconsin) in points allowed per game, just behind Northwestern's 8.8 per. (Other rankings of note in this category: Ohio State, 10; Penn State, 21; Iowa, 28; Minnesota, 31; and Michigan State, 46.)

Remember when Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison turned a moribund Michigan defense into a solid, functioning thing in 2011? This is like that, but more emphatic. Michigan never had a defensive performance against a meaningful opponent that season like Michigan had against BYU on Saturday.

All in all, things have gone just about as well as one could hope for, especially when you figure in Michigan's performance against the Utes in light of their demolition of the Ducks. Michigan thumped the teams it was supposed to thump (Oregon State, UNLV) and flattened the one that was supposedly a toss-up (BYU).

Now, the Wolverines head into the conference schedule with a head full of steam.

Suddenly, a Mone-less defensive line is one brimming with seemingly even more depth than it had before. A backfield of flawed options has became a parade of bulls, with former five-star recruits fighting for carries behind a four-star from Warren, Ohio.

There probably aren't many people out there who appreciate this season as much as I do, considering the comical juxtaposition of my football watching days. On Saturdays, I watch a Harbaugh-led Michigan.

On Sundays, I watch the Chicago Bears, a team that has given up kick return touchdowns in back-to-back weeks, started Jimmy Clausen at quarterback and was shut out for the first time since 2002 on Sunday in Seattle.

So, when I wax poetic about 19-yard passes to tight ends, keep that in mind.

Kidding aside, one-third of the way into the season, Michigan has for the most part hit all the right notes. Save for Rudock's turnovers in the first three games, the U-M defense looks like one of the best in the country and the ground game appears to be strong enough to mask Rudock's limitations.

Whether Michigan can do it against the cream of the crop in the Big Ten East, Ohio State and Michigan State, remains to be seen.

But right now, Michigan appears poised to possibly head into the matchup against the Spartans with a 5-1 record.

But for now, like Harbaugh, it's best to focus on the next one. That's not because fans looking ahead means anything at all -- seriously, why do people think that matters in any way? -- but because it means you might miss something along the way, fail to appreciate it in all its simple complexity.

The hand-waving Butt and Johnson, probably laughing through their facemasks. Hill, tip-toeing up the middle like an animated bowling ball destined for the sweet spot between the lead pin and either one behind. Two BYU defenders following Johnson upon Rudock's fake, as if they were magnetized. Recording a sack on a three-man rush.

Amid the chaos of power football, it's the little things that make the difference.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Michigan 28, UNLV 7: The machine knows where it's going

NB: I did not get to watch this live and only have had the chance to watch the Every Snap cutups, which makes for a speedy viewing but doesn't quite give you the full perspective that watching a game in its regular progression does. 

For the second week in a row, Michigan clobbered an opponent that was some degree of undermanned and overwhelmed.

For the second week in a row, Michigan allowed just seven points.

Most importantly, for the second week in a row Michigan won. Let's not take even something that small for granted.

But, unlike last week's win against Oregon State, the optimism rings aren't arcing quite as far along the waters of our perspective.

That's not to say that there is appreciably more worry about the rest of the season than there was before. Again, Michigan is 2-1. They decidedly #wonthegame.

But there's the elephant in the room that is the quarterback situation. I think it's safe to say that barring a spectacular collapse, Jake Rudock is going to be Michigan's guy the rest of the way. And to cast my meaningless opinion into the mix, I have to say I'm okay with that.

He seems like a smart guy, he gets players where they need to be, he hits the short stuff, and, up until this three-game stretch as a Wolverine, was a low-upside, low-turnover signal caller. That is, in a nutshell, the kind of thing Michigan needs this year, if only to serve as a sort of palate cleanser from the turnover bonanza we've watched during the twilight of the Hoke era.

But, of course, that last part's the key: turnovers are a thing that can kill any team, but especially a Michigan offense that will look to embark on long drives reminiscent of the stroll to Mordor.

As you probably know, Rudock has already matched his 2014 season total in interceptions. Sure, maybe one in the Utah game was partially Grant Perry's fault, and who knows if any of the others fall under the same umbrella

Still, though, this is something that's not quite a trend but not necessarily something about which to be unconcerned. The assessment of Rudock's play exists somewhere in that nebulous nothing-space between relative calm and the line of demarcation between nagging worry and outright panic.

We don't have much on which to operate: three games is just three games. This team will get better, it will get worse, it will look good against some opponents and not so good against others. Such is life in college football, when the quality of opponents varies far more than the NFL, where everybody can play.

Even with all of that said, Rudock was 14-of-22 for 123 yards, one touchdown and one interception. That's not good, to be sure, but a 63.6 percent completion rate is at least something, even though a 5.6 yards per attempt is not.

On the whole, minus the turnovers, I'd say we've gotten, for the most part, exactly what we expected. Hypothetical exercises are always a little silly, but take away, say, two of his five interceptions, and would the outlook be different? Honestly, I think it might.

Sample size being what it is, it's understandable to be slightly concerned about what Michigan's getting from the most important position on the field.

On the bright side, the sample size will grow, and we'll soon find out whether what's happened so far is some form of bad "luck" or a trend. Right now, it's too early to say.

Whatever happens, though, this is, for better or worse, the Year of Rudock, and Michigan fans should probably get used to it.


Outside of that, it's hard to find much to pick at from Saturday's blowout, especially when you adjust for the fact that a 35-7 or 28-7 win for Harbaugh's Michigan equates to something a little more eye-popping for, say, your average Lloyd Carr team (and we all know those squads weren't exactly up-tempo offensive outfits...save when down by two scores late in a game).

The biggest takeaways on the defensive end were such: 1) the play of the defensive backs 2) the general disruptiveness of the line and 3) tackling.

On the first point, Jourdan Lewis is easily the most impressive corner to come through Ann Arbor in a while. Yes, you have to go back a while to find the next one, but when all is said and done, Lewis will likely join the pantheon of pretty good Michigan corners: whether he's among the best of the best (i.e. the tier just below Charles Woodson, who was a tier unto himself) remains to be seen, but the odds are favorable.

As for the defensive line, it's been somewhat remarkable to watch this Michigan defensive line make plays in the backfield despite: 1) the loss of Bryan Mone and 2) its (earned) rep as a unit without much edge rushing panache. Ryan Glasgow continues to make his presence known in the middle and Matt Godin has seemingly rounded into a very useful player for the Wolverines.

For a defense that doesn't have a real edge rushing terror, I'd say things have looked about as good as you can hope for (and that's even when you take into consideration that Chris Wormley had a relatively quiet day compared to his monstrous Weeks 1 and 2).

With that said, even a Taysom Hill-less BYU presents a big step up in competition from teams like Oregon State and UNLV. Michigan's front will need to continue to bring the heat, especially as Michigan's secondary gets ready to face a BYU squad with some large, large wide receivers.

On the last point, tackling, the nice thing about the every snap videos is that they allow a very quick snapshot into the game, removing the downtime between plays that can dissolve big picture memories of individual aspects of the game (e.g. tackling).

Yes, there were a couple missed tackles, but there are always going to be a few, especially on those outside screens. On the whole, however, Michigan's tacklers were sound and often emphatic in their ability to finish. Again, competition caveats apply, but when faced with an opponent like UNLV, Michigan did what needed to be done.

The Wolverines held UNLV to 235 total yards (a good chunk in garbage time, obviously) and 5-for-15 on third down, while the now-No. 9 UCLA held them to 237 and 2-for-15 on third down. All in all, that's an encouragingly comparable performance, if you are one to read into these sorts of juxtapositions (which you probably shouldn't but there it is anyway).

As we sit here at the end of Michigan's first quarter, it's hard to say whether Michigan is a buy or a sell. The BYU game will be an inflection point for potential investors (trafficking that most fleeting stock: hope).

With that said, things have thus far gone mostly according to plan, save for Rudock's turnovers. At this point, you can only just shrug about that and hope that's a blip and not something real.

But for the first time in a while -- if you can't tell, I'm looking to set the Guinness World Record for saying "for the first time in a while" during a single season -- there is solidity and shape to Michigan's profile.

Before, it was a mushy, formless nothing. Things happened and meant nothing. Michigan would get blown out by Minnesota at home then play Ohio State tough on the road. Toughness was talked about, but seemed more a fleeting ideal than something being actualized on the field.

Now, at least Michigan's deficiencies are obvious in a comforting way, in that there seems to be a way out. The Michigan program was lost before, using a paper map to navigate out of the abyss.

These days, Michigan has GPS.

But, of course, even GPS fails, as Michael Scott would tell you. GPS only goes so far; after all, following a plan blindly is just as doomed to fail as a Luddite existence, in which a road to toughness is mapped out on a paper map, splayed out on the dashboard in the face of a glaring sun.

The way is only found with a combination of GPS and intuition. Michigan seems to have that, now, in the form of its current leadership.

Then again, GPS doesn't mean a thing if your car fails. And Michigan's car will, in all likelihood, need a few trips to the shop this season. You might have to get out and push, even.

But now, at least Michigan knows where to push. The Michigan of old stood by the side of the road, hat in hand scratching its head.

When the smoke unfurls from Michigan's engine this season -- and it will happen -- at least there's the thought that Michigan knows the exact mileage to the next point for repairs.

Michigan's got GPS. It knows where it's going, even if the parts will make the going slower -- for now.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Michigan 35, Oregon State 7: Harbinger

Michigan ran the ball: again and again and again.

For the first time in a while, they did it powerfully. Make no mistake, Michigan's ground game under one Denard Robinson was no less spectacular, and if another Denard were to walk through Ann Arbor and onto the Big House turf, I doubt if anybody would raise an objection.

But that offense was different. That offense was predicated, in large part, on individual brilliance (i.e. Denard Robinson). There is nothing wrong with individual brilliance, of course. Denard was the shooting spread star of Michigan offensive history -- he came and went, streaking across the Michigan sky at hyperspeed, much to our wonder.

What happened Saturday against Oregon State, however, was something different. While Michigan's fortunes previously hung on the balance of Denard's brilliance -- and the ancillary opportunities said brilliance provided, as in wide open receivers when Denard so much as moved an inch toward the line of scrimmage -- it now seems to hang its hat on sheer, bull-headed anger.

Okay, just to get it out of the way, Oregon State is not a good team: we know that.

Still, Michigan has faced not-so-good teams in recent years, and not come out so well. The ground game, shall we say, was often grounded. It was a tricked out pickup truck that fell apart with the first move forward: set, hut, to the sound of a wheezing engine, a faulty transmission and tires slowly bleeding air.

On Saturday, Michigan looked like a real offense for the first time in some time -- real in the sense that it executed by both malice and design. The linemen, more or less, did their jobs, and Michigan paraded out a series of large tailbacks, with De'Veon Smith the headliner and Ty Isaac and Derrick Green also barreling toward the line imposingly. I wasn't around then to see it, but I imagine it was not unlike the days when Bo's offenses featured multiple tailbacks, well before the workhorse -- think "Chris Perry carrying 51 times in one game" -- became became the norm.

For the past few years, Michigan fans have bemoaned the way the defense, left out to dry by the offense, would eventually wilt late in games. Well, this time, the Oregon State defense wilted, not Michigan's. When Michigan did this...

...one could hear the sound of will being broken.

And so, as tantalizing as Denard's exploits were, there's something equally rewarding about this way of doing things.

As Smith et al pounded through the line over and over again, and Beavers defenders receded into the artificial turf like unblooming flowers, I felt like we were watching a trailer for a movie coming out next fall (or, probably, a couple of years from now).

We were privy to a sneak peak of that film, which is not quite finished. Not even close, really. There's production to be done: editing, cutting, fixing, tweaking. There are scenes that need to be added, story arcs to be emphasized or pushed away.

Michigan is led by a seasoned team of directors and miscellaneous production staff -- Harbaugh, in particular, has a cinematic record worthy of optimism. He's succeeded on multiple sets in California, after all, the nexus of the film industry.

Sure, what we saw was just a trailer, a snapshot of things to come. But on the heels of nearly a decade's worth of box office duds, Michigan finally seems on to be on track, heading somewhere approaching the memorable.

Ultimately, I'm not sure that Saturday's win will make it into that hypothetical movie. Odds are, it'll end up on the cutting room floor, to make way for more dramatic happenings.

If anything, it'll be a blip, a short prologue before the deeper story. For now, though, it is the story, 225 rushing yards and 48 carries in narrative capital.

Sometimes, it's hard to predict box office success. Like anything in life, things can, at times, veer off course.

But if you asked me now, based on the trailer alone, I'd tell you, in between bits of popcorn: "I can't wait to see that."

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

HTR's Weekly 25: Week 1

For a while here, I dabbled in writing a little about Chicago sports (which, as I then had the time, was fun, even if it went unread), I've written traditional game recaps of various Big Ten games (football and basketball) and various other little things along the way.

But, when I started this thing five years ago, it was with football, particularly Michigan football, in mind.

So, while my work as a regular journalist keeps me busy, I'm going to try to create some regularity here. I've tried in the past, with some success during the football and basketball seasons, before dropping back once summer hits.

Well, I'll worry about the summer once it returns next year: for now, the easiest way to stay engaged in the college football scene is by, what else, compiling a weekly set of by and large meaningless rankings.

Does my opinion mean anything? No, not really -- but the older I get, the less justifiable watching hours of football becomes without doing something meaningful with it ("meaning," here, is a generous term).

So, with that, here's my personal top 25 after the first week's worth of action:

1. Ohio State. Talk about a no-brainer. The Buckeyes marched into Blacksburg, missing their best defender in Joey Bosa and several other players, and still dominated despite turning it over a couple of times. Braxton Miller as utility playmaking type is a terrifying concept. Who would've thought that he would one day be a Heisman candidate...as a wide receiver? That spin move will probably feature prominently in college football promo commercials for OSU games the rest of the season, and for good reason. Ohio State appears to be on track to cruise to another playoff appearance.

2. Alabama. The Crimson Tide simply beat up a Badgers team that, for the first time in recent memory, is somewhat shaky on the offensive line. Even so, the Badgers' normally prolific rushing attack was non-existent, with UW tailback Corey Clement carrying it just 8 times for 16 yards before sitting the rest of the game out with an injury. While Joel Stave had a nice game, UW had no answer for Alabama's own rushing attack. It should be no surprise that, like conference mate Georgia, Alabama has multiple tailbacks who can get the job done. Quarterback Jake Coker's (15-of-21, 213 yards, 1 TD) longest completion of the day, in fact, was a 33-yarder to tailback Kenyan Drake. Once again, Alabama appears to be the football equivalent of the trash compactor from "Star Wars."

3. TCU. Okay, you can say the score of their season-opening win at Minnesota didn't inspire confidence. But I give credit for road wins, and the Gophers aren't a pushover. Minnesota lacks offensive punch, but they're still a tough out, and the Horned Frogs got the job done on a hot evening in Minnesota (yes, hot, Minnesota).

4. Auburn. Similarly, it's hard to say the Tigers had an exceptional Week 1, but again, I give credit for beating a real opponent. More importantly for Auburn fans, the defense looked okay, forcing two turnovers and holding Louisville quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Reggie Bonnafon to a combined 5.06 yards per attempt. Sure, new Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson struggled, but I think you'd rather have the defense do okay and the young quarterback struggle than the other way around...at least at this stage of the season.

5. Michigan State. Again, file this under the "not impressive box score but still good" category. Also, props are in order for traveling to Kalamazoo. Of course, this week's tilt against Oregon is the nonconference game of note for the Spartans.

6. Baylor. Maybe I'm giving excessive weight to the halftime score against SMU (28-21, Baylor). But, again, this was a road game, and it's a long season. As long as they continue to win, that first 30 minutes will be nothing but a minor footnote.

7. Notre Dame. Okay, beating Texas -- let alone dismantling them -- doesn't mean much now, but the Longhorns were at least expected to be able to play some defense. The Fighting Irish disproved that assumption, racking up 527 yards of offense and holding the Longhorns to just 20:50 in possession (yes, I know, a meaningless stat in and of itself, but still an indicator of how the game went).

8. Oregon. I know, it's only Week 1, but the Ducks gave up a whopping 42 points and 549 total yards against Eastern Washington. That won't work out too well against conference competition.

9. Georgia. A ho-hum blowout, a college football Week 1 tradition. Todd Gurley is plying his trade in St. Louis, but Nick Chubb and Keith Marshall will do just fine for UGA (that's an understatement).

10. UCLA. Virginia isn't a powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination, but the Bruins looked strong against major conference competition, and quarterback Josh Rosen was tremendous (28-of-35, 351 yards, 3 TDs).

The wild back 15:

11. USC
12. Florida State
13. Clemson
14. Texas A&M
15. Georgia Tech
16. LSU
17. Arkansas
18. Ole Miss
19. Boise State
20. Oklahoma
21. Missouri
22. Tennessee
23. Arizona
24. Mississippi State
25. Utah

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Disconnected Optimism: Michigan 17, Utah 24

The lead-up to this past Thursday's opener reminded me of rediscovery -- finding an old album of photos, an old game you used to play as a child, a weathered book with bent page corners and marginal notes.

When all those disparate feelings coalesced, it was like a reminder of an earlier time: a fond childhood.

In a way, that is what the long prologue to Thursday's opener came to be by the opening kickoff at 7:30 p.m. Central Time. Both literally and figuratively, it evoked memories of childhood. With respect to the former, it was a reminder of earlier days -- and the thing about the history of Michigan football is, that, this could apply to nearly anyone's childhood as a Michigan fan -- when the Wolverines were a respected power.

Figuratively, those anticipatory moments evoked childhood in a less tangible but more meaningful way: for the first time in a long time, I, and many others, were reminded of what it was like to be truly excited for a game, just like we were as children, before we knew what a 4-3 under defense was or the merits of various punting formations.

And although the result on the field didn't work out how Michigan fans would have wanted, there were moments. Jabrill Peppers blowing up screens, going from 0-60 like an Aston Martin powered by a synthetic blend of dinosaur bones and Gatorade. Chris Wormley caving in the interior of Utah's offensive line. Jake Butt soaring over multiple Utes, posterizing the hapless players in red for a touchdown. Even, if you please to go that far, a Blake O'Neill punt to pin Utah inside its own 5-yard line.

In many ways, Michigan looked much the same as last year. Iowa transfer Jake Rudock turned it over three times (albeit with the blame for one pick seemingly falling on the shoulders of freshman receiver Grant Perry), the offensive line got handled more often than not, the running backs missed holes and the defense was strong but seemed to lack that extra oomph that is the difference between good and great defenses.

On the other hand, the offense executed a competent two-minute drill late (too little too late, of course, but still), the receivers got separation (and made plays even when they didn't separate), the corners looked strong and the run defense, like last year, was stingy.

The relatively cushy schedule helps matters, but there's a sense that Michigan will improve from here on out. It remains to be seen how good Utah actually is, but it's safe to say that they're a solid football team.

It might have been nice to catch Utah in Week 3 or 4 instead of right out of the gate, but such is the schedule. With that said, there is something nice about being thrown into the fire, in a tough road environment at altitude, and seeing how these guys adapt, from the head coach on down.

To a certain extent, they did just that. It wasn't enough, but for the first time in a while, Michigan looked like a real football team, despite its obvious limitations and still existing deficiencies, as seemingly disconnected as those two thoughts might seem.

When the clock rolled to zeroes last Thursday, the old sting was there: not dulled and lifeless, like it has been lately, like it was throughout most of the 2014 season.

It stung, like it mattered, like something worth feeling stung about.


  • Rudock. I have to say, his arm strength and accuracy seemed fine to me, except, perhaps, on the deep throws, when it seemed like his entire body weight was going into them, compromising accuracy. It's easy to be frustrated at the inability to connect on those deep shots, but let's not all pretend that those missed throws don't happen all the time, even to the best of quarterbacks. Sure, you'd like to connect on them, but they're tough throws for a reason. 
  • Missed opportunities. Again, Michigan's running backs seem to eschew following their blocking in favor of plowing into a thicket of interior linemen. De'Veon Smith's toughness is commendable, and his ability to turn a loss of 1 into a few yards is great when the line gets whipped. It's not so great when the line does its job and he misses a wide open hole to the left side, plowing ahead for a 4-yard gain that could have been a 10-plus yard play. At this point, I don't know that this is an area in which to expect improvement. The only back who has shown the ability to hit the hole? That would be Drake Johnson, but, of course, the sample size there isn't great, and then there's the whole knee injury thing...
  • Linebackers. Despite Jake Ryan's at times undisciplined/unsound play at middle linebacker -- understandable, as he's not a MIKE linebacker -- he took with him something this linebacking corps lacks: explosion. Desmond Morgan and James Ross don't bring that except in thumping mano-a-mano stops on ball carriers, and Joe Bolden's game still seems to have a tinge of hesitation in it. The again, you look at the box score and see that Bolden led the Wolverines with 13 tackles (and added a TFL), so who knows. In any case, it'll be interesting to see if Blake Gedeon gets some run against Oregon State.
  • Grant Perry. Minus the interception in which he didn't run the right route, I liked what I saw from the freshman. It's easy to shrug off preseason hype, especially for a true freshman, but Perry looked exactly like the guy we'd heard about: a move-the-sticks, possession type with sure hands. If he can work out the intricacies of the offense (and based on his high school career, he seems capable of doing so), he could be in store for a very nice freshman campaign. 
  • Harbaugh. Somehow, I made if this far without mentioning the guy. Strangely, I find myself not having much to say about his outing. I guess it's still strange to see him on the Michigan sideline, play cards fluttering to the ground as he grimaces like a madman. 
  • Tight ends. I don't need to say anything about Butt -- that guy might end up being the best tight end in the country. Ian Bunting, however, had a nice grab himself. Given his height, you'll continue to have people noting that he needs to add weight, which is probably true if he's going to present even a vague threat as a credible blocker. Still, though: the potential is tantalizing. Also, I suppose it's only fitting that the first touchdown of the Harbaugh era was reeled in by a tight end. 
  • Peppers. Okay, yes, he did straight up get beat in coverage once or twice in that first half. Chalk it up to nerves, luck, a bad play or two, whatever. Overall, his potential as a serious force in space was on display. A guy like that can erase mistakes and increase the defense's margin of error simply by virtue of his athletic ability. Very different plays, of course, but one screen blown up by Peppers reminded me of the Charles Woodson hit on a wide receiver screen against Baylor in 1997 -- not the same raw hitting power of the Woodson hit, but the burst and recognition were comparable. With that said, there's a long, long way to go before Peppers can in any way be compared to Woodson. 
  • Special teams. Not a bad outing. Peppers had a nice return late and O'Neill booted a nice one to pin the Utes deep. Also, they didn't give up a punt/kick return score, which is a sad but very real victory given recent history. Field goals could be an ongoing adventure, but really, in college football that will be the case more often than not. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Familiar Feeling, A New Feeling

In less than 72 hours, Michigan will take the field time zones away from Ann Arbor, in a stadium of red and white on a Thursday night. Like the beginning of every campaign, there's a growing sense of a paradoxical far-off imminence (something that is probably a magnificent word in the German lexicon not available to English speakers).

The first game is near, yet far. We are all hurtling through the dark and dusty space that is the offseason -- a wormhole beckons. Next to it is a sign: "Here for college football." It is both far away and very close, the wormhole. Who knows how long it will take to get there, and what will happen once there.

You spend hours and hours waiting, but really they're months. February passes, and then you wake up one day and the snows have melted for good. A walk outside without an umbrella becomes a foolish venture in the rainy days of spring. Summer hits, those dog days.

Then August. August, August, August. Time stretches and bends and distorts. As a fan, it almost feels closer to football on Aug. 1 than it does on Aug. 31.

But it's game week: finally.

This time, things are different. Not in the sense that "Michigan is back," or anything like that. Things are different -- and as I write this, I'm still trying to figure out exactly what it is.


I haven't written here in a while -- life has gotten in the way. Nothing has changed about my obsession with Michigan sports, the obsession that pushed me to start this thing on a perfectly uneventful summer night five years ago.

But as anyone knows, when you get a little bit older, things change, particularly once you are no longer a student (undergraduate or graduate) and are, what they might call, a "real person." This is a terrifying metamorphosis, for all of the obvious reasons, but perhaps one of the least consequential subset of changes is the way fandom changes over time.

For the first time last year, I found myself getting up during game action to grab something from the kitchen. There was once a time when, once the game started, I did not move from my sitting spot, as if tethered to it for eternity or the end of the game, whichever came first.

Last year, during the Indiana game, I vaguely remember falling asleep during a portion of the third quarter. It was a long week and a dreary day, and even the surprising success of Ann Arbor's own Drake Johnson couldn't fend off a doze.

Maybe I was tired. Maybe I'm getting older. Maybe it was something else: indifference, a dissipation of pointless resolve.


A counterpoint, exemplifying said pointless resolve. Once, as a freshman at Michigan, in 2007, I stayed for the duration of the Oregon game. Until the bitter end, I always thought, and that didn't change then. A reasonable person would think of the hours wasted at a game that was headed for dissatisfaction: I, like some indeterminate thousands in that stadium, decided to stay, out of some misplaced sense of duty (or, less romantically, the selfish ability to say, years down the road, that I stayed, pointlessly).

Even after the hire of Jim Harbaugh, the offseason took hold, and I will admit -- and this is alarming to write -- that a cousin of indifference continued to hold sway. Life has a way of flicking away less consequential things, sports and the watching of them. At least, it tries to do that.

And so the months went by, and Harbaugh stories rolled in: the summer of Harbaugh. He helped people involved in car accidents, he endeared himself to many by stonewalling Colin Cowherd, he upset coaches far away by setting up camps on their turf, he recruited, he talked about Bo, he unleashed the crazy.

And yet, slightly older me viewed it from afar, bemused but not invested, yet. We've seen this before, after all. Contrast this approach with what I imagine would have been my reaction to all of this as an 18-year-old, or a Michigan sophomore, or even someone a year out of Ann Arbor, and the gulf is vast.

I would have once yelled upon hearing the news of the Harbaugh hire, shared every story I read about his antics, texted and called friends and family to talk about the man who had returned.

Just the other week, I explained to someone how I thought a 7-win season in 2015 is a reasonable expectation, as if I was in a lukewarm conversation about mutual funds or a plant-based diet low in cholesterol or the hopes of an NFL franchise. They could lose to Minnesota, you know. Utah is assuredly a loss, I posited. The gap is too wide between Michigan and the teams at the top, Michigan State and Ohio State.

Let's wait until next year, I thought. But then next year, the linebackers are gone. And next year, the mutual fund of quarterbacks, Jake Rudock, is gone, leaving a yet-unproven Shane Morris and a parade of even-less-unproven young signal callers. And next year, Michigan has to travel to both East Lansing and Columbus. Worries, all of them.

It seems as if life, and its worries, have infiltrated the safe space that has always been college football. Even when it isn't safe (see: 2014 Michigan football, or, really, almost anything from the past eight years), it was something to be excited about, to invest in and not care about the repercussions.

The beginning of each season was once like what I imagine the moment when a first-time skydiver steps to the edge, the infinite air ahead and below and above. But, over time, it became something else: something to be approached reasonably, with caution, with care.

This, it goes without saying, is a regrettable development.

Sometimes, it takes something small to kick you out of something like that, to climb out of a place where caution and reason exert their influence, like a 3-yard hitch on 3rd and 5.

The other day, I read this story about Harbaugh's reaction to a phone call from Michael Jordan. As a native of Illinois, something clicked. Here was Harbaugh, revered by many to be the man destined to return Michigan to a prior state, reacting with awe to a call from -- and I unabashedly say this, despite the aforementioned pseudo-cynicism -- MJ, a hero of my childhood.

"Come onnn, who is this?" he said.

I don't know if that transcription is an embellishment, or a reflection of the conversation. Did he really say "onnn," like someone truly awestruck, like, for example, me if I received an unexpected phone call (a redundant phrase, of course) from Michael Jordan?

Did he? You might think this a splitting hair, a negligible footnote.

It matters, not because of its inherent truth or untruth, but because its truth or untruth doesn't matter.

And with that realization, as I've come to it now, I realize that I'm ready for football. I'm ready for the weekly parade: the afterglow of the previous game extending to Monday and Tuesday, the beginnings of mental preparation on Wednesday and Thursday, the imminence of Friday, and the anguish and exaltation of Saturday morning.

Harbaugh was awed, I believe, because, quite simply, I think that he was. I really do. It fits with the picture of him as a person, simultaneously aware and unaware of his station in the football universe. It's an agreeable thought, a simple one.

In the summer of Harbaugh, with the man preparing to take his first Michigan team into a season -- how weird is that to type, even now -- he took the time to reflect on a summer phone call with Michael Jordan.

Come onnn. Jim Harbaugh, coaching Michigan?

It's real. No, really.

In a rush, it's all coming into picture. The little human interest stories, the camp quotes, the discussions of his personal quirks, were all seemingly disparate dots, disconnected but amusing, like a standup comedian connecting on approximately two-thirds of his or her jokes. A good show, a spectacle, maybe even memorable.

But they hadn't formed up together, a picture of meaning.

I don't know how many games Michigan will win, but the picture, in these last few weeks, has started to become more clear. Michigan has a coach, a great coach, who has returned to the place of his youth, a place in which he won games and made declarations (guarantees, even).

Forget the football storylines and the personnel hand-wringing: that is a story to cling to, an idea worth investing in, like the idea of the Rich Rodriguez offense was worth investing in or the lovable yet stern persona of Brady Hoke once stood as a beacon of something more. But, of course, there's more to it than those vestiges of Michigan's recent past.

This, this is a story. A combination of proven excellence and quixotic wanderings of the mind. We are witnessing a homecoming, different than any other we've seen.

And if this sounds like a building cult of personality -- if you'll excuse one more intrusion from Cynical Fan -- well, I suppose it's too late for Cynical Fan to pump the brakes on that train. It's out of the station, screeching across the tracks from Salt Lake City to State College, leaving sparks in its wake like a continuous fireworks show, laughing metallically into the quiet heart of America, bombastically announcing its presence wherever it goes.

College football was never meant to be reasonable. It was never meant to be analyzed. It was born in a nebulous era when you got maybe one game on TV, or were able to huddle up to a radio, with the hope of hearing something worth remembering. It was born in an information void: you took what you could and filled in the gaps with mythology.

For a little while, I forgot that. Remembering that, I think, was the greatest victory of this offseason.

And this is the moment when I, the previously cynical, walk up to the edge in that college football skydiving aircraft.

What lies below? Who knows. A soft landing spot, maybe, or perhaps not.

But, you know, there's no story in the would-be skydiver who didn't skydive, who stayed in the plane and upon bumping down on a remote landing strip, drives home safe and sound.

It's 2015, the only 2015 season there will ever be. It's 2015, the only first-Jim-Harbaugh-season there will be. It's 2015, the time-space home of the only summer of Harbaugh there will ever be (there will be other summers, in which Harbaugh does Harbaugh things, but this is the only summer of Harbaugh). It's 2015, the only time this particular version of newness will ever be before us.

Forget the rest: that's the crux. That's all there is, and all there needs to be.

Monday, April 6, 2015

(1) Wisconsin 63, (1) Duke 68: Swing, Stagger, Survive

(1) Duke 68, (1) Wisconsin 63 

The shots weren't falling early, as the Big Ten's best, the Wisconsin Badgers, and fellow 1-seed, the Duke Blue Devils, hit the hardwood in Indianapolis tonight.

Near the third-to-last TV timeout of the game, the Badgers led by nine: a title within reach. The crowd roared like a game at the Kohl Center with the Hawkeyes or Illini or Wolverines in town. A December defeat against Duke seemed ready to be avenged.

But first, the prologue.

There's an arrhythmic rhythm to it all. The shots weren't falling early: Duke and Wisconsin got out of the gates to a combined 3-for-9 start from the field.

With every game, there's a feeling out period: what are you trying to do, how will you react to me, should we slow down, should we speed up, is that set working, should we play this lineup against that lineup.

But that could be set aside, a product of nerves, the stage, the fantastic zipping of electrons back and forth, up and down the court.

Once the nerves settled, and the initial roar dulled only slightly into a microwave background of waiting-to-be-released hysteria, the Badgers started to struggle. Despite a 3-for-6 start from three, the Badgers were 3-for-12 from inside the arc.

Early returns indicated that the Badgers would have to shoot their way into a more comfortable offensive setting, one in which Duke's defensive presences would have to extend up closer to the arc.

Despite that, UW trailed just 23-17 with 6:45 to play in the first half. But they needed something, having gone on a four-plus minute field goal drought.

Then, a Sam Dekker putback gave them life. Frank Kaminsky swiped a ball in the low post at the other end, allowing Traevon Jackson to go coast-to-coast for two.

Kaminsky converted an and-1 that made the arena boom like the Kohl Center. Justise Winslow then converted a big two for Duke, ending what had been a 7-0 run for Bo Ryan's squad, but perhaps the biggest development in this stretch was Okafor picking up a second foul with just under five minutes left in the half (Winslow also had two fouls at this point).

The Blue Devils thus went to the 2-3, which the Badgers summarily beat with ease, a Dekker layup good for his seventh and eighth points of the half.

Oddly, the Badgers, perhaps unjustifiably not known for their offensive rebounding prowess -- instead known as a "get back and play defense" team -- dominated on the boards, snagging eight offensive boards to Duke two at one point late in the first half.

Duke gambled late, sitting both Okafor and Winslow -- Wisconsin couldn't make them pay, and the two heavyweights headed to the locker rooms, tied at 31.

This time, the Badgers didn't start slow. Instead, they hit their first three field goal attempts, jumping out to an early 5-point lead. For Duke, it didn't help that Okafor had some trouble finishing around the basket. Despite a couple thunderous dunks early, the freshman from Chicago missed a few bunnies in traffic, key misses for a Duke team looking to stay with the hyperefficient Badgers.

Making matters worse for Okafor, he picked up his third foul at the 16:50 mark on a strong Kaminsky take to the basket, spinning and spinning like a top that won't stop.

The Badgers didn't stop there, and the mostly UW-partisan crowd joined them.

Bronson Koenig awoke in the second half, scoring nine points in the first six minutes, helping the Badgers up their lead to nine.

Duke looked punch drunk -- discombobulated, unsteady, not to mention without Winslow or Okafor on the floor.

That didn't last for long. Grayson Allen buried a triple, then scored on a traditional three-point play on a fearless drive to the rim, cutting UW's lead to three. Forget Okafor, Winslow, Jones and Cook: how about the freshman from Jacksonville?

Fortunately for the Badgers, they have the luxury of a big man in Nigel Hayes, who began his Wisconsin career without a three-point shot, and this year become not just an okay three-point shooter, but a very good one (38 percent). He buried one, his third of three attempts, to push the lead back to six with 11:43 to play.

 On the not so bright side for the Badgers, Duke entered the bonus with over 11 minutes to play, after hardly fouling at all in the first half. Duke attempted four free throws in the first half -- by the under-8 TV timeout, they'd attempted 11 in the second half.

Duke cut the deficit to one, 51-50, finally bringing Okafor back into the fold.

But, just like that, back to the bench he went. Less than a minute into his return, he picked up his fourth, once again trying to check and spinning Kaminsky.

A theme all night, the Badgers had trouble taking advantage of mismatches. With Duke's Tyus Jones on Duje Dukan, Jones was able to draw a charge call (whether it was the right call is another discussion).

The two teams slogged their way through an ugly couple of minutes of basketball. Foul, missed jumper, foul. Foul foul foul.

Two fighters, tired, grabbing, clutching for respite.

Then they started swinging.

The Badgers went to the Player of the Year, Kaminsky, who finished for two. At the other end, Jones buried a cold-blooded trey to give the lead back to Duke, 59-58, the 16th lead change of the contest.

The TV timeout was welcomed like the end-of-round bell. Clang. Assistants buzzing, offering bits of wisdom that were almost as much emotional in their content as they were practical.

With 3:22 to play, what else can you say? Hit them, don't get hit. Survive, play by play. There are no loping knockouts now, just survival.

Quiet for so long, Okafor went to work against Kaminsky in the post, giving him a spin move of his own. Despite Kaminsky's best bear hug, the Lisle, Ill., native couldn't stop his fellow Illinoisan from scoring his first bucket in four score and seven years.

After a big Duke stop, Okafor collected an offensive rebound and scored to put Duke up five. Koenig's acrobatic layup attempt fell off the mark at the other end. Despite a video review, and the ball appearing to go off a Blue Devil, Duke got the ball.

The Badgers were reeling, needing a stop. They didn't get it.

Tyus Jones, again, buried a three from the top. Wisconsin fell, a thud, followed by eight fast seconds.

They got up, and Kaminsky buried a three to keep them alive. Duke missed an ill-advised run-out attempt at the rim, and Koenig made them pay, delivering a no-look pass to Hayes, who slammed one home, cutting the deficit to three with 50 seconds to play.

The Badgers fouled, and Jones, the best free throw shooter in the ACC, buried two. Koenig couldn't convert a tough jumper attempt, all but ending things for the Badgers.

The confetti rained down: Duke 68, Wisconsin 63.

Bo Ryan's squad led by nine with 13:23 to play, but a combination of Tyus Jones, some late-game heroics from Okafor -- a game that was far from his best -- and the Badgers oddly playing a little too much one-on-one basketball instead of the team ball the program has been built on, all conspired to down the Badgers on a night when their first national title since 1941 seemed within their grasp.

Much will be said about the foul disparity from the first half to the second, or the decision to give Duke the ball late despite it appearing to go off the Blue Devils out of bounds.

But those points, while possibly valid, detract from what was a great game and a fitting cap to an exciting tournament and season.

With the victory, the first-seeded Blue Devils secured their fifth NCAA title, while the Badgers fell for the second year in the Final Four, this time on the doorstep of a title.

When things looked bleak for Duke, Grayson Allen -- not Okafor or Jones or Cook -- brought them from the brink. If you're looking for a Spike Albrecht, he's it, albeit a great deal more heralded out of high school than Albrecht was when he went off against Louisville two years ago.

As for Wisconsin, the loss caps another tremendous season for the Badgers, the second year in a fascinating reinvention experiment in Wisconsin basketball. The Badgers of last year and this year have been almost unrecognizable from the UW teams of previous years -- these teams combined the same old elements of turnover-averse, efficient basketball, this time doing it with multiple NBA talents and a strong supporting cast that could run when necessary and slow you down whenever things were going well, which was most of the time for the Badgers. Wisconsin finishes the season with 31 wins to just four losses, two of those against Duke, one that will be remembered and felt far more than the other.

And so the old season comes to a close. Time heals all wounds, they say -- but it doesn't heal all of them. For the players coming back, whether in Madison or East Lansing or Tuscon or Spokane or South Bend or Lexington, in Louisville or Ames or Charlottesville or Washington D.C. or Philadelphia, time will do nothing but allow it all to boil quietly, bubbling over intermittently and subsiding, a continual unbelief of the reality of defeat.

With that feeling, those players enter the offseason.

But there is no offseason. The season begins now.