Thursday, November 11, 2010

West Lafayette

Back in the day, when Lloyd Carr was the head coach at Michigan, I would visit Ross-Ade Stadium once a year to take in a Purdue football game. As I remember it, some guy in my Dad's company was a Purdue guy, and every year the company took a bus down to West Lafayette for a game. Even then, at the tender age of 7, living in the suburbs of Chicago amongst a conglomerate of Spartans, Buckeyes, Illini and Notre Dame fans, I knew what I was. I was a Michigan fan, and would be till the End of Time. I knew this, at the age of 7, without even knowing that attending the University of Michigan 11 years later was an inevitable fact.

Over the years, I saw the Boilermakers face off against the likes of Penn State, Notre Dame, and Illinois, and, of course, Michigan too. I remember vaguely rooting for Purdue in 1999 as they launched a last ditch Hail Mary against Penn State. I even remember actively rooting against Notre Dame one year after coming to the realization that the Notre Dame fan with the glabrous head and  a propensity for jingling his key* (which I didn't even understand but intuitively despised even then) was, quite frankly, irritating. I wanted his team to lose, but they didn't. I remember, despite going to Purdue football games, that I wore my Michigan gear with the impudent pride that only a child has. When I wear any adorned with the Block M at away games these days, it is an affirmation of my resolve; Michigan is here. Tremble. But then, it was much different. I wore a probably oversized Michigan hat, as if to say hey this is Purdue but don't forget about Michigan because we're the best. Again, I was but a kid.

Finally, I made the trip down to West Lafayette to see Purdue play Michigan; rather, to see Michigan play Purdue. I remember talking smack to people thirty, forty years older than me (I was usually the one person under 40 on those trips). There's no way you can beat us! We have Drew Henson! To this, most replied with light-hearted jokes, most of them probably drenched in apathy, given that most of the people on those trips had no affiliation with Purdue whatsoever outside of the fact that they worked at a company that took annual trips to West Lafayette for nebulous reasons. That apathy, in the end, made it even worse; nobody even had the decency to say anything to me on the ride home. I slept all the way home, my Michigan hat over my face, as the bus sped on in the cold Midwestern darkness. We were up by 18 at the half, and everything seemed so good until Drew Brees happened and then it wasn't.

                                                       (HT: Mike Desimone)
The next trip, in 2002, was decidedly unsatisfying, even though we won. John Navarre and Co. stumbled to an unimpressive 23-21 victory over a vastly inferior Purdue squad, a result that didn't match up with the 12 year-old smack I had engaged in on the bus ride to WL. But, at least we won. On the ride home, all I heard was statements like "You won, but you guys didn't look too good" or "What till you play somebody better." The next week, Brad Banks came into Ann Arbor and turned these frustratingly impartial folks into soothsayers.

My last visit to WL took me to see the Wolverines play a much improved Purdue team in 2004, led by Kyle Orton and the speedy Dorien Bryant. Having moving to the Deep South, the trip was different this time; it was just my Dad, my sister, and I, in a car, driving all the way from north Alabama to West Lafayette one Saturday to watch that team of precocious virtuosos play. All I really remember--without belaboring the point--is that it was close throughout. I wasn't sure that we were going to win this time. This time, the lead-up to the game was decidedly more discomfiting. I was older now, and the some of the less tactful Purdue faithful didn't hold anything back when it came to letting me know what they felt about me having the gall to wear a Michigan sweatshirt. I was worried. A long touchdown reception by Dorien Bryant, speeding past the hardly fleet of foot Scott McClintock, put me well on the way to the exit to Hyperventilation Highway.

Even then, I felt like I knew what i was talking about when it came to the ins and outs of Michigan football. Most of my peers could name the starting quarterback, runningback, and various other prominent position players; I could name every player of varying import on the roster, including incoming recruits and players that existed well before my time. Nothing about that has really changed. But, as I watched the plays unfold, the only thing that gave me comfort was the Michigan couple sitting in front of us, who I would engage in the type of useless, petty banter that people engage in at football games between plays when they're in an unfamiliar place.

Big play here. 

Defense has got to hold.

Man, he sure can make the easy catches look tough. 

Everything in my memory is vague and tenuous; that is, until this happened:

                                                                  (HT: Mike Desimone)

In one fell swoop worthy of the stage, it was over. Fade to black. Exeunt. Nothing more needs to be said.


As I prepare to head down to West Lafayette for this year's game, I wonder what game I'll get to see this time. The circumstances most closely resemble (although not perfectly) the 2002 game; a powerful Michigan team (yes, I know...the defense) facing an overmatched Purdue team with nothing to lose.

Either way, whatever happens, I'll run across some ghosts, some subtle tracks from my past visits from unfathomably different epochs, under different circumstances: different coach, different team, different people coming with me to see it all happen. I want to beat them more than I've ever wanted to beat Purdue before. Seven is better than six. Momentum into the Wisconsin-Ohio State part of the schedule. Danny Hope being Danny Hope. But, I have no control over anything; in fact, I have even less control than I might have if the game were in Ann Arbor. I'll be a visitor in a hostile land, subject to the whims of West Lafayette and its inhabitants.

Even so, it's the memories that count, the people you meet and the people you remember along the way, as I've said before and will continue to say. In my mind, college football is so vastly superior to the NFL. As chaotic and sometimes irrational as the world of amateur athletics can be, it is unmatched in its ability to bring us into its sphere of influence, whether we want it or not, like the tantalizing Siren's song. Will we win? I believe so. We are better. But it doesn't always work that way. I guess we'll just have to find out on Saturday.

If you're going to West Lafayette this weekend (or even if you're not), I encourage you to stop for a moment, at some point, to take it all in and listen. Before, during, or after the game (Joe Pa!), it doesn't really matter. Burden yourself with the task of remembering one thing, anything, that doesn't involve a box score, a thing that will fade away anyway as the years quietly go by, regardless of the outcome. You won't regret it.

                                                          (HT: Mike Desimone)


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Washtenaw County

Once upon a time, Mark Twain wrote a story about a frog.

The narrator of the short tale is sent by a friend to inquire after one Leonidas W. Smiley. The narrator ventures out to inquire at the residence of one Simon Wheeler, an old and perhaps crazy man. Upon reaching the place, Wheeler pulls the narrator to the corner and begins to tell an unrelated tale, wide-eyed and serious.

He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm -- but all through the interminable narrative there ran a vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity, which showed me plainly that, so far from his imagining that there was any thing ridiculous or funny about his story, he regarded it as a really important matter, and admired its two heroes as men of transcendent genius in finesse.

Simon Wheeler goes on, telling a curious tale about a gamblin' man named Jim Smiley. Jim would bet on everything: dog fights, cock fights, horses, and so on. One day, Jim caught a frog, and seeing as it could jump unlike any frog he had ever laid eyes on before, he figured he'd make a bet off of it.

Soon after, a man approached Jim, who was keeping the talented frog in a box. The man inquired as to what was in there, and Jim told him, also explaining the particular nature of the frog; it could jump unlike any other frog. The stranger was unconvinced, and so, naturally, Jim challenged him to a bet. Seeing as the stranger didn't have a frog of his own, Jim went off to find him one in the mud down the way. While Jim was gone, the stranger picked up the frog and decided to sabotage the whole darn thing.

So he set there a good while thinking and thinking to hisself, and then he got the frog out and prized his mouth open and took a tea-spoon and filled him full of quail shot -- filled him pretty near up to his chin -- and set him on the floor.

Jim finally returned with a frog for the man, and when they executed the parameters of the bet, the celebrated frog of Jim's couldn't seem to jump as it could before. Jim, confused, wondered what the matter was, and upon picking up the frog and seeing the liquid that had weighed the frog down pour out of its mouth, realized that the man had cheated him.

And then he see how it was, and he was the maddest man -- he set the frog down and took out after that feller, but he never ketchd him.

Wheeler intends to continue, but is called out by someone outside the place, and tells the narrator to wait. After he returns, he fixes to expand upon the tale of Jim Smiley.

Well, thish-yer Smiley had a yeller one-eyed cow that didn't have no tail, only jest a short stump like a bannanner, and...

The narrator, realizing that he would not glean any information from this man relating to his original purpose, opts to leave altogether.

"O, curse Smiley and his afflicted cow!" I muttered, good-naturedly, and bidding the old gentleman good-day, I departed.


Let us project. Who is who in this tale? The principle characters:

The narrator is the average Michigan fan, irritated and looking for answers, having had enough of this. He only wants wins (i.e., information about Leonidas W. Smiley), and when he is deterred from these ultimate aims, leaves confused and possibly irritated. Jim Smiley represent the reasons for (or the excuses, if you're so inclined) for the failure to consummate these goals; he might also be the staunch, pro-RR advocate, looking for the reasons for failure, an opportunity to explain. 

Rich Rodriguez might be the talented frog, but he's also the encumbered, weighed down frog, too, which also happens to be a symbol for everything that has failed him: Greg Robinson, Jay Hopson, Tony Gibson, the Decimated Defense, the media, the fans, himself. Rich Rod is what makes him good. He knows offense like very few people do. On the other hand, he is also what makes him bad. After Jeff Casteel rebuffed his proposal to coach at Michigan, he has chosen his defensive coordinators poorly, and after realizing this, has handcuffed them with schemes they don't understand and position coaches that present a disjointed, kaleidoscopic semblance of defensive philosophy, where many things are attempted and nothing is done well or even in an adequate fashion. Rich Rod is the Celebrated Jumping Frog that we all heard about circa 2008, but he is also the weighed down frog, whether by his own devices or not. That is to say...he's not perfect, and nobody rightly is. All things considered, without even mentioning timelines for firing, or parameters with respect to the "How many wins does he need to stay here?" meme, it is important to realize that success--this bet we've made--can only be achieved when we are at our best, when we are not weighed down. 

Can Rich Rodriguez field a competent or above average defense? I think so, given that the appropriate position coaches and/or coordinators are in place. Is the stranger Tony Gibson or Greg Robinson? Maybe. Perhaps they are the ones weighing this whole thing down, keeping the offense from jumping freely to Big Ten wins. There is certainly a case for that. The well-documented, much discussed remedy for that is, of course, to replace these people. This is more difficult than it seems, given Rich's past with guys like Tony Gibson. However, we've come to a point where the whole operation is in danger, a point where RR's celebrated past will be remembered as an outlier, a historical blip on the radar.

Unfortunately, a more disconcerting interpretation of the tale logically follows that perhaps Rich is the stranger, pouring the quail shot down his own throat. Loyalty is a personal, emotional thing, and thus cannot be truly or effectively quantified or explicated to people outside of the proceedings. If this is true, then the program has a basic structural flaw that will see to it that our opportunities for success are sunk in the end. 

But, when money's on the line, when you've got to feed yourself, maintain a reputation, keep a job, you've got to make things understandable to people, lest you go down with everything you helped build, looking like a crazy old man telling tales of how things once were. When push comes to shove, I think the right decisions will be made, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. We've seen flashes of how this thing can really jump, and I think everyone with a say realizes what is at stake, in the short-term and the long-term. However, as explained above, sometimes things aren't so cut and dry. Problems often have many solutions, many facets to consider; this is once such problem. 

As frustrating as it may be, all we logically can and should do let the season unfold and hope for a win or two, if not for the sheer mathematical desire to stockpile wins then to hope we are reminded why our guy was the one man chosen above all others to make this thing jump. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010


This is the point where we stop and think. A complete stop, built into the flow of things to allow us to catch our breath, to think about what has happened, and will will happen; that is, until the what will happen, happens. It is perhaps an artificial hiatus, partly contrived; still, it's there for a reason. For the players, it is to rest. For the coaches, it is to scheme and plan. For us, the partial and emotionally invested fan, it is to stop, really stop, and think about the story that we have had read to us, each Saturday a chapter in and of itself, sometimes coherent and sometimes not, sometimes rational in the Grand Scheme of Things and sometimes frustratingly nonsensical.

We have seen this verse before. A string of victories, casting forth visions of greatness not seen in years, only to be brought down abruptly, ignominiously. It's a story we know all too well.

We all have our predictions: 10-2, 9-3, 8-4, 7-5, 6-6, DOOM. At this this point last year, on the metaphorical rest break exit taken in some Iowan wilderness, DOOM was a far-flung impossibility; no, that can't--won't--happen. But, it did. It could happen again, too. Will it? Your guess is as good as mine. I would like to say no (even my head says no), but the chance exists, and that is enough to wonder.

As I watched the Iowa football team run to greet their boisterous fans across the way, I stood and waited for the final seconds to tick off before turning away. If we're going to stay for the good times, the Beat the Irish chants and the chance to walk down a few rows to get closer to the field, we might as well stay for the bad. The logic is flawed and perhaps inherently irrational. The outcome was decided many minutes ago, many plays ago. Empires had risen and they had fallen in that span, hopes revived and summarily crushed. Expectations bloated, then popped, like a helium balloon spinning off wildly to who knows where. Yet, as I stood there, looking at everything happening before me and seeing nothing at all, I wondered how things would go this time.


I remember watching the 2002 Michigan-Ohio State game as a naive youngin'. I didn't cry; no, it was worse than that. Not only had we just been beaten in excruciating fashion, losing to a very good team that we had a legitimate chance at beating on the road, but we wouldn't get the chance to beat them again for a whole year. It seemed like an eternity. Even now, when weeks and months and years seem to come and go in an instant, it remains the same way, the only thing that retains the ability to leave its unnaturally disproportional mark on the fabric of time, like a dam that lets all the bad things through. Losing to Ohio State then (and now) was a thing that could stretch its influence in such a way that time was no longer a thing measurable by scientific standards, by the rise and fall of the Sun. No, it was only measured then by each individual labored breath that brought us all to the next time.

After the game had ended, I went back into my frozen backyard to think about what had happened to Michigan. My ways of dealing with losses were different then. Now, I tend to sit around, listless and tired, perhaps a product of the times. Then, it was much different. I picked up a football, a tangible reminder of the loss, and played catch with my Dad; rather, I thought about next year, and played catch while I thought. The ball was unusually heavy, and it stung my hands when I tried to catch it. It was cold, and the ball felt like it would shatter if I put a particularly offensive case of stone hands on display. My Dad tried to tell me it was okay, but even then I knew that the following year would be difficult, simply because of what had just happened. Even then, I knew it was senseless to carry on that way. Unfortunately, as I have learned, that is often the only way to carry on, the only way to stay sharp.

He tossed the ball back to me. My hands were red and my breath pushed through the air in front of my face like a ghost, as was each breath that followed; a series of assembly-line manufactured ghosts, sent out from a factory powered entirely by combustion of next year. 

Wait till next year, I said, avoiding an imaginary defensive end, pretending to be John Navarre.


And here is where I include my own break in the stream of my own personal history; where does next year stop? Sometimes next year can last forever; I've been saying next year since 2003. Next year is nice, until next year actually comes along and takes your lunch and doesn't even have the courtesy to say thank you. Next year is nice because it hasn't happened yet, and, by virtue, anything could happen. Michigan could go 12-0 next year. They could. Right now, however, that only exists in some strange alternate realm of existence, where linebackers make tackles and people don't jingle their keys.

And therein lies the crux of the matter; at what point does next year transform from embattled, rallying cry to a sad display of hopelessness? We may be treading that line as we speak. If the future is uncertain, and the past is unpleasant, that leaves us only with the ceaseless Present. Whatever happens, we have that.

I saw Martavious Odoms the other day in Mason Hall. He was in a large, cumbersome boot, and crutches supported his slight frame. He stood in front of a vending machine, trying to make a decision; a trivial one, in the Grand Scheme of Things, but an important one to him nonetheless. After I had purchased an overpriced Coke and walked by him on my way to class, I stopped for a brief moment. I wanted to say something, anything. We'll get 'em next week, or something to that effect. It sounds contrived and perhaps a little bit cheesy (and probably is, in retrospect) but I thought that such a small comment might've made a difference to him. I had followed his recruitment, watched his high school highlight tapes, and even saw him around campus many times before then. I have never felt compelled to say anything to football players that I see around campus, out of respect, mostly. They don't need another person telling them something they don't know, and I'm sure they appreciate the gesture. Yet, for some reason, seeing him broken like that, a physical manifestation of the state of things, left me thinking maybe I should. 

But, the moment passed, and I didn't. The Present became the Past, and it was over. The only bad part about the Present is that it happens so fast.

As I walked to class, I wondered if I should, in fact, have said something to him, no matter how trivial or inane. It was fruitless, almost as fruitless as next year was and is.

Whatever happens, we still have things to be thankful for. Wins will come, I'm sure. In the Grand Scheme of Things, however, people remember people. I remember 1997, not because we did not lose, but because Charles Woodson, Glen Steele, Tai Streets, Brian Griese, Chris Howard, and so on and so on and so on, brought us to a final and unadulerated state of perfection on New Year's Day in 1998. I'm sure the same line of thinking applies to other generations.

27-21. But who remembers the numbers before the names that made them happen?

Remember the names, then worry about the rest, or you might be left...wondering.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Judgment Day

It's late...and I can't sleep. Spartans are flooding the streets of AA and I wonder if we can handle the emotional stress of the coming clash. State, a monolithic entity that represents the barbaric hordes that invaded Rome, violent and mostly stupid, inferior and yet not explicitly so; after all the last two meetings have seen us come up on the short end of things. There is very little to say that hasn't already been said. I know this, but I still must say my peace.

 I remember watching the 2007 Michigan-Michigan State game in my dorm room in West Quad, running down the halls and yelling until my lungs gave way after one Mario Manningham hauled in the game-winning touchdown. And yet, it all seems like a vague memory, something that might not have actually happened because it seems like it occurred so long ago...and yet, it did. We beat State. We haven't beaten them the last two years, but we can hope to write that off, a mere blip on the radar. We hope. 

This year is different. I can feel it, and I know you can too. Denard Robinson won't let us lose, I know he won't. I watched him take the energy out of a stadium last week at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. It was something. If you weren't there, you really missed out on something special. A Michigan away game, in general, is something to see. We are so hated around the Big Ten, even moreso this year. We have our own Tim Tebow, humble yet reviled because he is so good and so fast that he outruns the petty hatred of opposing fans, not even giving them a chance to catch their breath before he's in the endzone; kneeling, praying.

Other than the fact that we are Michigan, we have an indefatigable entity driving our team, a force that will not quit until he is partially broken, and even when he is dealt a blow that forces him out for a brief moment--comparable to the brief period of time that sees one Denard Robinson run from Michigan territory to the opponent's endzone--he is still there, still ready, in all his humility and skill, ready to do it all again. The same plays over and over again, because we need not do anything else. In life, you do what works until it fails, and until this point, we have not failed. Undefeated...invincible. 

Amongst the rabid hysteria that is State weekend, I would like to pause and recognize Denard Robinson. Many have seemed to already take him for granted, as if he were some impersonal force that produces at will and without any sort of external influences. This is not the case. Denard is a product of the team. Yes, he is perhaps the greatest individual talent this team has seen since the 1997 campaign and Charles Woodson's run towards immortality; yet, it would do us all well to remember that it's all about The Team. Denard is but one. He is the heart and soul of this Michigan team, no doubt, but when you're heart and soul is ripped from you you cannot simply quit, give in to the forces that have impinged upon your the source of your comfort, the epicenter of your football world. If Denard goes down, support Tate, support Devin...too many times have I seen a Michigan crowd give up too early on a Michigan team. Please, don't give up. Whatever you do, support the team until it's over, until the last shred of potential victory has been eliminated, sent away, gone with the wind. Not today. Today is different. For once, State actually means something to us. It's okay to admit it; I really want to beat State, and not in a Hart-ian "we are Big Brother and you are Little Brother and therefore it is our divine right to beat you" kind of way, but a "we are equals, for once in our long and embattled history, and therefore we will beat you because we are simply better at what we do than you are at what you do" kind of way. It's okay. Accept it. We are at that point. We cannot rise until we beat those who so badly want to beat us. This is all a part of the resurrection. We are not truly "Michigan" yet, but, when we are, you will know that we are. It will hit you, and you will know. We are back; but, we are not. There is work to be done.

Unfortunately, emotion plays its part, and all comes down to execution. It seems cold and impersonal, but it is what it is. A missed block here or there, a Cam Gordon missed tackle in the secondary, etc., could swing the needle any which way. Football, this game, is often incomprehensible in its verdicts. All we can hope. As fans, all we can do is yell, scream, and hope. Primal manifestations of our football fandom are all we have. And, I'm okay with that. I have my place, and so does Denard, and Coach Rod, and all the way down the line. We all have our part. Do your part.

Go Blue. Win...please.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Tattoos and Scars

"All the old accumulated rubbish-years which we call memory, the recognizable I, but changing from phase to phase as the butterfly changes once the cocoon is cleared, carrying nothing of what was into what is..."

"The chance and probability of meddling interference arising out of the disapprobation of all communities of men toward any situation which they do not understand."

The season is here. Everything, including inertia itself, gives way to the unimpeded galloping of unceasing action, of touchdowns and interceptions and fortunes misfortunes and so on. Of everything, really. Once it all begins you can't stop it even though sometimes you would like to.
I have been counting down the days, minutes, seconds since the last second ticked off the clock against Ohio State and the scarlet masses, offensively prominent in the melange of blue and maize and neutral, drowning out everything, even the lugubrious Victors, rendered solemn and pathetic, a painful chorus of we tried but it wasn't enough and let us play to that, let us play something one more time because it's all that's left. Ever since that point in time, I have had my eye on UCONN, on September 4th, and if was certainly a struggle to get here. Six months ago UCONN was just a vague shadowy entity on the horizon, a foe that was known but not well-known, and one whose threat to our way of life was not imminent. Now, on September 3rd, they are real. Ordinarily, talking about UCONN is such apocalyptic terms would be absurd, and yet these times are not ordinary. We've seen our share of times this offseason; there's no reason to recount them here. They're well-documented (unfortunately).
In the doldrums of summer, the whittling away of rumors from fact to retain some semblance of involvement, as any good fan (atic) ought to do, I started this humble blog. When I began, I was bothered that I didn't know what I was doing, really. I didn't know if it was worth doing or if there was a point, sort of like pretending to play defense on 3rd and 26, offering up a hopeless pretence of some future success. To be honest, I still don't know what I'm doing. I'm still trying to figure it out.
"You cannot know yet whether what you see is what you are looking at or what you are believing." 
And that's okay; we all are, to an extent. The fact that anybody at all has noticed this is encouraging, as opposed to my previous over/under of approximately zero attention whatsoever. So, that's nice. I figure that so long as people notice that you're trying to do good, that's good enough. This will be my first time writing during a real, live football season, and I'm sure that I will grow and adjust accordingly, just like the boys on the field. I don't know if I'm ready, I don't know if they're ready; we'll find out soon enough. 
"We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales, we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable..."


Whether I believe we will win or lose tomorrow or any other day is irrelevant*. There are a few things that I do know, though, that are particularly important to us all and always will be.

"What is probably the most moving mass-sight of all human mass-experience, far more so than the spectacle of so many virgins going to be sacrificed to some heathen Principle, some Priapus--the sight of young men, the light quick bones, the bright gallant deluded blood and flesh dressed in a martial glitter of brass and plumes, marching away to a battle."

The colors and sounds and sights, the primal evocations of our anatomy, will all still be there, beckoning to pay attention the the story itself because the aforementioned is assumed and omnipresent. We all came in, bragging about our tattoos, flaunting our brash and insolent right to victory. We were met with resistance, wounded, and those wounds have become scars, a visual testament to that resistance, and even more importantly, that lack of foresight. The scars have healed, and we are back to finish what we started.
"Maybe nothing ever happens once and is finished. Maybe happen is never once but like ripples maybe on water after the pebble sinks, the ripples moving on, spreading, the pool attached by a narrow umbilical water-cord to the next pool..."


Nothing more and nothing less; we now sit in the Purgatory of The Night Before, the weightless stretch of Maybe. Tomorrow, we will exit that Maybe-land, emerging into the definite world of yes and no. As horrible as the offseason is, as devoid of football and actions and answers as it is, I bid it a nostalgic adieu. No longer can we have the time to wait and see and give ourselves a second to breathe and consider what has just happened and what is about to happen. The time for that is over. Now is the time to go and worry about the result of the going later. In short...Go Blue.
*38-21, Michigan...FWIW.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Look At The Wisconsin Offense: Champs Sports Bowl

So, I know all 2 of you who were expecting an UFR of the Florida game are looking at that post title and thinking, "Dude."

This will be analogous to expecting an X-Box for Christmas, only to receive a box of Wheaties. Due to technical issues (torrent downloading? help? any help in the comments is appreciated), I wasn't able to do the UF UFR this weekend. Additionally, I thought I had it in my DVR, but someone unceremoniously deleted it. Dude, indeed. ANYWAY.

So we're playing Wisconsin and all this year, as we usually do, and they are supposed to be pretty good. So I decided to watch the Champs Sports Bowl again (#havenolife) to see why that is. Just to clear up some of the abbreviations that appear later on in the charting: W=Wide, B=Back (i.e., Runningback), sb=set back.

Down and DistanceField PositionFormationPlay Description
1st & 10Wisc. 22Ace 3-WideTolzien hands off to Clay after an end around fake; there's a lot of space on the outside, and Clay is brought down after seemingly an eternity…gain of 6. Note: Starting line-ups intro indicates the UW line consists of 2 Fr. At the guard positions, a Soph. at RT, and Juniors at LT and C. Also, only one senior skill player (Graham). The upshot: they should be even better this year.
2nd &4W 28I-formationClay rumbles for the first.
1st & 10W 32I-form.Clay runs for 3; Nessler talks about how Clay isn't fumble-prone (HMM FORESHADOWING?); Blackledge talks about how "wide" Clay is and Nessler assents with an "Oh man."
2nd & 7W 35AceFirst pass; Graham on a short pass in the middle for 5. And thus begins TEageddon.
3rd & 2W 40JumboRun right and Clay is hit but keeps the legs moving nicely and picks up the first.
1st & 10W 434-wideAnother fake end around; Clay for a few.
2nd & 6W 472 WideTE in motion; Clay gets overwhelmed in the backfield for a loss; a well-timed blitz on Miami's part blows this play up.
3rd & 11W 43Shotgun 2-Backs 3-WideIt is mentioned that Wisconsin is only 18% in 3rd and long situations this season; Tolzien is then sacked after finding no one after a few long seconds. PUNT.

1st & 10Miami 41I-form., 2 WR stacked close to lineKendricks (#84) goes in motion; PA, pump fake by Tolzien, hits a streaking Kendricks down the left sideline for a nice gain for 37, which works out to about a 389 yard gain for any team not named Wisconsin.
1st & GoalM 4GoallineKendricks in motion; comes back around to lead for Clay through the left side; only goes for 1…THIS TIME.
2ND & GM 3GoallineNessler mentions Miami only having given up 2 rushing touchdowns in their last 7 games (!); 3 TE's on the field; Kendricks goes in motion again, leading for Clay on the left again at the snap; he seals the edge perfectly and Clay reaches the corner of the endzone. Touchdown, Wisconsin 7, Miami 7.

1st & 10W 35Single back, 1 WideClay goes for 5; the initial fumble call is reversed; Clay goes out for Montee Ball
2nd & 5W 40I-form. 1-Wide#84 in motion; seals edge, Balls goes for 5 and the first
1st & 10W 45I-form. 1-WTE in motion; PA, Tolzien, hits #84 for a really nice gain; Miami linebackers completely mesmerized by the run fake
1st & 10M 361-Back 2-WideToon in motion; PA deep to Toon but he catches it slightly out of bounds; Tolzien hit hard
2nd & 10M 36AceBall cuts it back inside for 5
3rd & 5M 313-Wide, Graham motions to slotTol. Drops back to pass; pass deflected and picked off at the line (LOLNAVARRE'D). TURNOVER.

1st & 10W 364W, Trips LeftTol. Checks at the line; all for naught, as he's hurried and forced to throw it away.
2nd & 10W 36AceClay Buffalo Stampedes his way for a long gainer; good blocking by #77 and some shoddy tackling; Clay already has 86 yards and it's not even halftime.
1st & 10M 12I-form 1W, TE set back at the lineTimeout Miami.
1st & 10M 12Wisconsin comes out in the same formation.Fake to Ball, end-around to #84 stuffed by Miami for a loss of 4. Miami speed blah blah blah+end-around with a TE=TFL.
2nd & 14M 16AceGilreath in motion, fake end-around to him; sneaky TE screen up middle to Graham goes for close to a first.
3rd & 1M 4Goal aka "The Beef Package"Run to Clay; same play as first TD; #84 in motion, seals edge and Clay runs it in untouched; TOUCHDOWN, Wisconsin 14, Miami 7.

1st & 10W 182W Stack, 2 TE on left side of the line next to LT#68 pulls and Ball picks his way for 3
2nd & 7W 212W, TE set back on left side of the line#84 in motion; settles on line next to LT; #1 in motion; PA to Toon for nice intermediate gain of 19.
1st & 10M 362W on each side stacked, 1BTol. Drops back and fires to Graham down the middle but it falls incomplete.
2nd & 10M 36Same form. except Graham is set back on left instead of stacked#84 leads again and Ball rumbles for a first; Flagàholding. Miami players look visibly affected by the cold…it is 49 degrees.
2nd & 16 M 41Gun 1B 3WESPN shows a Miami fan yawning; clearly the Wisconsin offense is doing its job. Tol. Moves right and tosses shuffle pass to Ball for 6.
3rd & 10M 35Gun 2B, 3W (TE in slot)Tolzien hits #84 while being hit; #84 makes a great grab on a low pass for a first.
1st & 10M 23I-form 2W#84 in motion; PA, hits Clay for 5 up the middle
2nd & 5M 18AceGraham in motion; another run blitz blows up the play and Ball gets dropped for -3. It happens.
3rd & 7M 20'Gun 1B 4WRight slot in motion; Tolzien pass to Gilreath broken up nicely; incomplete. FIELD GOAL GOOD w/ 0:12 left in the half; Wisc. 17, Miami 7.

1st & 10W 26Ace, TE set backEnd-around to Gilreath only picks up 1.
2nd & 9 W 27AceClay only picks up 2 after frantic Tolzien pre-snap gesticulating; Clay hobbles off to the sideline.
3rd & 7W 294W Trips rightTolzien again gets rid of it at the last second after the RT Oglesby gets completely owned by the pass rush; hits #84 for nice first.
1st & 10W 40I-form 2W#84 in motion; Ball for 2.
2nd & 7W 42AceGilreath in motion; fake end-around to Gilreath, Ball dropped for loss of 1 (Miami's #35 beats Carimi).
3rd & 8W 43Gun 1B 4WGraham in motion and back; FALSE START on #67. Not a good drive for him.
3rd & 13W 37'Gun 1B 3WTE screen to Graham only nets a few; PUNT.

1st & 10W 27I-form 1W TE set backBall hits left side for 5
2nd & 5W 322W TE set backGraham in motion, settles on line; Gilreath in motion; fake end-around pitch back to Ball in space for gain of 23; excellent execution by Carimi and the LG.
1st & 10M 451W TE sbBall cuts and puts head down for 2.
2nd & 8M 422W TE sb#84 in motion; PA, flips to Toon for 6.
3rd & 2M 36Gun 1B 3W TE sb#89 in motion; PA, Tolzien steps up and fires incomplete. PUNT. Telecast moves ahead in the action to 11:08 left in the 4th.

3rd & 3W 40Ace TE sb #6 in motion; PA bootleg; Tolzien pressured and throws parabolic arm punt to a wide open Gilreath; Procedure penalty on Kendricks brings it back.
3rd & 8W 352W TE sb RB offset84 in motion; Tolzien has all day and hits Graham in center of field for 23 (ah, shades of the Michigan game).
1st & 10M 43I-form 1W 2TE on right side of line84 in motion; standard run goes for maybe 1.
2nd & 10M 43AceTolzien overshoots Toon deep down the right sideline.
3rd & 10M 43Gun 1B 3WTolzien rolls left then shuffle passes to Ball for 8. PUNT.

1st & 10M 34I-form 1W TE sbAfter a Jacory Harris fumble; 84 in motion; Clay with a strong run for 7.
2nd & 3M 27I-form 1W TE sb84 in motion; Clay gets the first.
1st & 10M 20I-form. 1W TE sb84 in motion; Clay drives away for 4.
2nd & 6 M 16SameClay for 2.
3rd & 4M 14Same84 in motion; Miami with the heavy run blitz; PA bootleg and Tolzien decides to take the money and run; picks up 2. FIELD GOAL GOOD, Wisc. 20, Miami 7.

Tolzien-19/26, 260 yards, O TD 1 INT
Clay-22 carries, 121 yards, 2 touchdowns (Ball added
Kendricks-7 rec., 128 yards
Graham-6 rec. 77 yards

TOP- 39:15 (!)
The Upshot:

Don't laugh, but yawning Miami fan aside, this was a fun watch in a number of ways. For one, it was nice to see someone other than Michigan have their secondary eviscerated by an endless wave of cyborg tight ends. Also, Wisconsin's offense was simple, yet effective, and as "old school" football becomes somewhat of a relic in the college football landscape, Wisconsin's offense will continue to become increasingly unique.

While it's possible that nothing in this post tells you anything new about Wisconsin; here are some takeaways:

1) Wisconsin uses their TE's basically as receivers. Toon is a decent target, and even he was overshadowed by Graham and Kendricks. I don't know what secret underground lair Wisconsin creates these pass-catching TE's in but either way they're dangerous and definitely a central part of the offense.

2) I'd have to look back at the Michigan game to see if this is consistently the case, but Wisconsin loves to put their TE's and WR's in motion. I didn't count, but if I did, I would guess that about 75% of Wisconsin's plays involved some sort of pre-snap movement. Then again, it could have just been the gameplan specifically tailored for Miami. In this game, it was a safe bet that the man in motion would be getting the ball (this occurred with all 3 primary targets at various points in the game...Kendricks, Graham and Toon)

3) Wisconsin's strong tradition of FAT BUT GOOD tailbacks continues, manifested in the forms of John Clay and Montee Ball. As detailed in the charts, Miami had been defending the run particularly well. While UW only averaged 4 yards per carry, it was an efficient performance; most importantly, they were able to punch it in when they got close to the endzone. Miami was a respectable 31st nationally in rushing defense, 3 spots ahead of Iowa and their vaunted defense, and 7 behind Michigan State (uh?).

4) Which brings me to my next point: Wisconsin loved to use the TE in motion to block when they got close to the endzone. On both of Clay's rushing touchdowns, Kendricks went in motion and kicked out the playside end/LB to clear the way masterfully. So, unlike Travis Beckum, who was more of the Greg Olsen mold (i.e., "I can't block"), Kendricks can in fact block, and well, as evidenced by his play in this game against a Miami team that always has its share of former 4 and 5-star players on defense.

Conclusion: This may have been a pointless exercise, but, you know...oh well. Wisconsin brings back everybody on offense except for Graham, I believe, including the entire OL. That is always a good thing. Tolzien, while unspectacular, is efficient in the traditional UW quarterbacking fashion. Stocco circa 2006 is probably a reasonable expectation to reach for Tolzien this year, IME (they might not necessarily only lose 1 game in the regular season like Stocco's squad did, but still). What does this mean for us?

It is pretty obvious what needs to be done for Michigan to succeed in stopping Wisconsin's attack. IME, it can be done with our current personnel, but a lot needs to happen before now and gameday. Unlike many of the other attacks Michigan will face, this one is the epitome of brute force, with a smattering of strategic first down passing/play action. In short, like any good defense, Michigan must be strong up the middle. Campbell, Ezeh, and Cam Gordon/Kovacs need to come up big, starting of course with Big Will.

Eat up big man (but stay away from that 3 a.m. Bell's Pizza, por favor)...FAT RB'S, coming to ur base this fall.