Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Remember When: 2007 Northwestern

People forget about this one a lot. In fact, I haven't given it much thought since it happened. I decided to watch Wolverine Historian's Chad Henne tribute video last night on a whim and it brought it all back. You might think that it's "just Northwestern"--a 6-6 one at that--and, well, it is. It also isn't. I would posit that if there was a game that defined Chad Henne was as a player, I think this one is it. Five-star quarterbacks are not all the same. I mean, they're all generally great passers with strong arms and either great size or great athletic ability, but after that things start to get clear. It's like a microscope slide--at a resolution that is a touch less than needed everything looks the same, but a subtle uptick in focus reveals a world crawling with particles all different from each other. Sometimes you can't tell the difference even then, and you need to see how things act under natural conditions. If a slide in a controlled laboratory environment is a 7 on 7 camp or the Elite 11 then a real, live game is the unpredictable swampland, swishing with flotsam and jetsam, a place where destinies fulfill themselves without rhyme or reason. It was 2007. The Wolverines had lost their first two games after beginning the season with a top five ranking, and Chad Henne had gotten hurt in a thumping against the Ducks. Chad Henne came back for this: why?


Chad Henne passes as Justin Boren looks on, confused

This is a game that nobody will talk about in the grand scheme of things. It was an inglorious contest, one that Michigan escaped from with a victory but only barely after entering the half with down by 9. After Henne engineered a masterful opening drive--leading to an 11-yard Manningham touchdown reception, in which he made calmly dismissed the defensive back before him with a shimmy and a burst that we would see again months later against the Gators. Even throughout this first drive, it was obvous Carr and Co. were protecting Henne via a gameplan that featured short drops and quick passes to the sidelines. Northwestern wasn't very good, so it worked, but Henne had to exit the game for a while. Enter Ryan Mallett, the hero of the Penn State game and the caretaker throughout the Notre Dame Yakety Sax contest (for the kids). 

Of course, some people were already calling for the young upstart to ascend the Michigan quarterbacking throne, kicking Henne to the curb like the Borgias "dismissed" their rivals. Unfortunately for Mr. Mallett, he was not quite that good yet. From the moment he entered the game in the first quarter until Henne's return at the beginning of the second half, no points were scored. The offense was stuck in the mud and it was obvious that the freshman wasn't up for it. In a drive near the end of the first half, he was able to complete a bomb to Manningham down the right sideline, followed by a nice scramble to avoid a near sack to find an open Manningham for a first down*. Those two plays were just about the extent of Mallett's good play that afternoon: one frantic near sack and a completion that was almost ruled incomplete. He was downright bad and this performance was a bitter disappointment after he performed so admirably against ND and PSU (especially in the latter, during which he completed a number of fairly clutch late game passes). My intention is not to trash Ryan Mallett; rather, it is to show how good Chad Henne was by comparison, and what he offered that Mallett didn't then (and arguably never did, but that's a story for another day). Sometimes it's easier to tell what it is that you have before you if you juxtapose it with something else. 

Chad Henne returned and with a workmanlike efficiency resurrected Michigan's offense, applying a defibrillator to Mike DeBord's brain and saying just let me finish this so we can go home. Once he returned, the outcome was never in doubt. Henne led Michigan down the field once again in the 3rd with a little help from his friends--namely Mario and Mike--punctuating the 10 play, 77-yard drive with a touchdown pass to Carson Butler (!) of all people. Despite knowing that it's going to happen and having seen the above highlight video many more times than a normal person probably should have, it always surprises me that Carson Butler catches that touchdown for some reason. 

Henne went on to throw another touchdown pass, this time to Adrian Arrington, in the fourth to put the Wolverines ahead 21-16. It wasn't even some long, triumphant drive, either. 

Michigan at 11:15MICHNW
1st and 10 at NW 16Mike Hart rush for no gain to the Nwest 16.1416
2nd and 10 at NW 16Chad Henne pass incomplete to Mike Hart.
3rd and 10 at NW 16Chad Henne pass complete to Adrian Arrington for 16 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.2016
Jason Gingell extra point GOOD.2116
Bryan Wright kickoff for 65 yards returned by Stephen Simmons for 29 yards to the Nwest 34.
DRIVE TOTALS: Mich drive: 3 plays 16 yards, 01:22 Mich TD

After a stuffed rush by Mike was followed by an incompletion, Henne said bastante. He was sick of this, like John McClane, wondering how he get himself into all of this. Henne dropped back and unloaded a precision strike to Arrington between two hapless Northwestern defenders floating around like buoys in the sea, helpless and ineffectual in their movements. Henne's arm and precision was the perfect storm. 

I imagine Henne walking up to Lloyd in that knee brace, even more immobile than usual. Lloyd probably had that same look he always had, the stonecut wrinkles in his forehead in their most compressed state. He was probably anxious on the inside because Mallett play was the antithesis of tremendous. Henne to Lloyd: I'm good. Lloyd nods.

*Jason Gingell went on to miss a 26-yard field goal...history repeats itself and whatnot. 

Nobody will ever remember this game, which is a shame. This game is a reminder of so many things: how good Mario Manningham really was, what a somewhat competent defense looked like, what Obi Ezeh was before he was bludgeoned by unsolicited expectations that outpaced the growth of his abilities on the field, and what a quarterback with nothing to lose but a little more dignity could do. It also featured a hilarious interception return by Tim Jamison, as well as a somewhat depressing play in which Brandent Englemon failed to close in on a pretty slow Omar Conteh, who went on to bust a long touchdown run past him. That was one of the more embarrassing moments in Michigan safety play of the last 10 years, of which there are,of course, many. I remember thinking this exact thought after that play: "Man, we really need to upgrade our safety talent." 

Either way, this was the game that officially got Michigan's head above water, putting them at 3-2 (2-0) for the season. It had to be done and the senior did it, silently and without pomp. He'd done this before. 

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