Monday, September 12, 2011

Is This Real Life, Is This Just Fantasy


via JeepinBen
I waited outside the the entrance to one of the student sections with a Diet Coke and a pretzel about an hour before kickoff. As excited as I was for the game, I was surprisingly calm at that moment, and you might even say I wasn't thinking much at tall. The ice in the drink had already started to melt and the drink had become diluted and deprived of its cold, crisp pop. The pretzel was ridiculously salty but I wanted to have something, anything, in my stomach before getting to my seat. The air was heavy but the sun was beginning to go away. It was probably 7:10, 7:15 at that moment. I waited and waited with bated breath for the person who was going to assist me in Operation Get Into The Student Section, which, I'm assuming, everybody has executed at one point or another. I started to get nervous that it wouldn't work out and I'd be stuck sitting with a bunch of random old people in Section 38.

As I stood there chasing the entirely too salty sting of the pretzel with the warm diluted Coke, a lady walked up to me and asked me if I could take her picture. I said sure, and I reached out for her phone while giving her the standard "what button do I push" motion. She pointed it out and then her phone turned off or something so I had to go back to her so she could put her password in to unlock it. As I pulled back again, in my peripheral vision (which, as you will see, shouldn't have been too peripheral at all), I saw something tremendous. That's right. Lloyd Carr. Of course Lloyd Carr was standing right there in front of me, the guy whose tenure as Michigan's head football coach caused me to feel the following emotions in various mixtures and a number of different sequential manifestations between 1995 and 2007: sadness, happiness, elation, frustration, disillusionment, pride, respect, depression, hope, grief, dissatisfaction, anger, admiration, nostalgia, and a number of slight variants of all of the aforementioned and an additional list of emotions and pseudo-worldviews that is too long too list and probably a little bit ridiculous.

I realized that it was in fact Lloyd Carr, standing there smiling with those glasses on and that would have made  him look like he should've been standing in front of a group of undergrads in an Angell Hall auditorium, lecturing them about Kipling. The wrinkles in his forehead were there still, as prominent as ever, as if they had been etched into his being forever, a facial feature that, accompanied with his own special brand of communicating with everyone, became intertwined. Bo chewed his gum violently and talked about accountability, chewing so hard that it seemed like he wouldn't to crush it out of this world as if to prove the pure candor and viability of his ideology. Lloyd talked about tremendous things, and his forehead was always the same, furrowed and divided into little segments that seemed to become more pronounced over time.

I'm thinking all these things now, but at that moment I completely froze. Of course I would meet Lloyd Carr while I was standing there like a complete idiot with a drink and a pretzel in my hand. I took the picture and handed it to the lady, seceretly jealous of her accomplishment because I knew I wouldn't ask Lloyd for a picture because I didn't want to stop him from going wherever it was he was going to go. I tried to think of something to say to him before he walked away; the last time I was this close to Lloyd was two years ago in Angell Hall between classes in the corridor where all the auditoriums were located, and I wasn't sure when the next time I'd be this close to a person like him would ever come again. It was crunch time, it was time for me to say something. Naturally, my brain fizzled and turned into a fried egg on a Blimpy burger. The entirety of a childhood and adolescence's worth of watching Michigan football--with Lloyd as its leader--flashed through my head. I was eight years old when Michigan beat Washington State and I remember it like it was yesterday. Everything, from the Pac Ten Road Games of Death to the 2003 Ohio State game to the 2006 Ohio State game to "What kind of stupid question is that?" to the Florida game flashed through my head in a single moment. I had to say something meaningful, and each tenth and hundredth of a second that passed made it less and less likely that I would say anything good enough to encapsulate everything that was running through my head at a million miles an hour.

The lady said thank you but I barely acknowledged it; Lloyd began to walk away and I said two words in the last moment that he was looking at me: Go Blue. He smiled and waved goodbye without saying anything and he didn't even have to. He walked away into the mass of people roaming about the concourse, by himself, as if he was just another guy and not the guy who won a national championship when I was eight. Like that he was gone, and I was left wondering if that had really happened, a moment so bizarrely real and coincidental--for instance, why did I choose to stand at that spot on the concourse, as opposed to any other where I would not have been approached by the woman and Lloyd?--that it's hyper-reality caused me to stop for a second and assess what had just happened. It had happened, but I wasn't sure if it was real.

And that is what Saturday night was like.

The Offense

So, that game. As unbelievable as the game was in every aspect, it brought several issues to the forefront that were concerns merely bubbling in the subconscious of Michigan fans everywhere but are now legitimate, out-in-the-open things to fret about. The first half was just plain frustrating to watch. Other than the 43-yard Hemingway touchdown, Michigan was going nowhere, and it's clear that Borges is still trying to feel out what he can and can't do with Denard. At this point, I think it's pretty obvious. There are certain throws that he definitely should not be making, but, at the same time, Denard still has some work to do on knowing when it's a good time to throw it and when it isn't. I realize that it may be anti-productive re: Denard's development as a pro-style/West Coast/non purely spread quarterback, but there were times where I just had to think that Denard should have taken off. At the same time, I like that we're two games in and Denard isn't broken, so that's good.

Other than Borges's playcalling, the offensive line was just manhandled b Notre Dame's front. I admittedly have not had a chance to watch the game again, and maybe ND was just loading up on the run, but we could get nothing going on the ground for quite some time...which brings me to my next concern: the running backs. At this point, I think Michigan's situation is basically going to constantly be like the 2004 season before the San Diego State game (which, if you'll remember, is when Mike Hart officially become The Man), unless Toussaint can stay healthy, which, good luck with that. I'm still not sure what his deal was, but I'm assuming he was injured, which is frustrating but expected, sadly. However, I will say this (and again, being in the stadium it was hard to notice a lot of things): after looking at the box score, I had no idea that the backs had so few carries. Not only that, but Hopkins getting the most out of any of the backs is kind of absurd. I've been really excited to see what Hopkins can do, especially going forward with his ostensible skills being the logical fit for the offense of the future that they are, but that hype train has completely derailed. Hopkins with 5 and Smith and Shaw with 1 and 2, respectively, is ridiculous and just won't do going forward. Not that Shaw is lighting the world on fire, and not that Smith can really realistically be expected to carry the ball more than a maybe 5-7 times a game, but Hopkins has shown absolutely nothing thus far, while also showcasing a bad case of fumbleitis. Luckily for him, Denard was there for the scoop and score, but it won't work out so nicely the next time that happens. Shaw and Smith can both do what he does (i.e., plow into the line with no vision), but at least they can either take one to the distance if the hole is there (Shaw) or make somebody miss (Smith). Hopkins's only "skill" right now is being big. In short, he needs to not get too many more meaningful snaps, and he definitely shouldn't lead the backs in carries in any game the rest of this season.

The running game is going to hurt us, because Denard is not going to go 11/24 for 338 yards (!) every game. We can only hope that Toussaint gets well soon. Obviously no game is a gimme these days, but we shouldn't need him for a few weeks. Let's hope he's ready by NU or it might have to be Denard left and Denard right once again.

As for the receivers, it was a pretty up and down affair. A few drops from Hemingway and Roundtree were plays that just need to be made, but the big plays of course made up for them in the end. To say that Denard and the wideouts have the ole underthrow the deep ball maneuver down pat would be an understatement. With only 11 receptions spread among seven different guys, it's hard to say anybody had a great game but they made the plays when it counted. Hemingway needs to continue to post up and get the ball going forward...the guy is just a master at that. Also, Jeremy Gallon looked like a player. I'm not so sure about the whole "throwing jump balls to a tiny guy" strategy, but who knows. As sad as I am for the apparent disappearance of Martavious Odoms from the face of the earth, it appears that Gallon passed him up on the depth chart for a reason.

The Defense

It's all relative, I guess. Just putting it out there, but Michael Floyd is pretty good. He consistently made out defensive backs look silly, as he was just bigger, faster, stronger, and better than any of them. Anybody who expected us to shut him down like we did last year was a little naive.

It's obvious that Michigan just can't create any sort of pressure without blitzing, and as I'm sure Brian's UFR will show, blitzing has its costs. On the bright side, the defense really hunkered down and did what it had to do in the second half. Oh the wonders of second half adjustments! Yes, Mr. Mattison, Greg Robinson is interested in what you have to say and would like to subscribe to your newsletter. Other than the complete breakdown on the final ND touchdown, it's hard to be anything but proud about how the defense showed up in the second half. Maybe the Irish are just not good at taking care of the ball (10 turnovers in two games), but you have to credit the defense some.

ND was killing us in yardage in the first half but in the end it didn't matter. Third down defense is of course still an enormous issue, as it has been for pretty much the last eleventy billion years of Michigan football. ND's 8/14 is not what you want to say the least, and that absolutely needs to improve, whether through pressure from the front four (paging Craig Roh) or more zone blitzing from the mind of Coach Mattison, but something needs to change. You have to give ND credit, though; despite the disappointing start to their season, I think you can safely say that that offensive is straight up good and knows how to move the ball. If they can figure out that whole things called "ball security" then they can still somewhat salvage this season. ND will continue to put up yards and points on a lot of people this season, so I don't feel too badly. Rees is plainly a better quarterback than Crist, so they'll at least have continuity at that position barring injury. Floyd is ridiculously good and Cierre Wood looked fast and shifty and quite honestly better than anything we've been trotting out there in the backfield. Even Jonas Gray looked good. ND has some serious talent on offense, and the way that Michigan was able to make some stops and collect some turnovers was encouraging. Baby steps.

Special Teams

Once again, this was nothing to write home about. Wile had a decent but not spectacular day, with five punts good for 38.6 per and a long of 47. Gibbons didn't attempt a field goal for the second week in a row, a thing which is both good and bad. I really hope he gets to kick a few in the coming weeks just for the sake of getting out there and getting some confidence. Eventually, we're going to need him to kick one, as much as we don't want to have to think about it.

The return game was just average again: Smith had five returns for an average of 19.6 per return (a long of 24), and Gallon returned one punt for 15 yards. On the flip side, Theo Riddick had a similar average on kick returns for ND (19.8 per) but he did have a long of 34. Michigan needs to continue to work on this; the defense is simply not good enough to try and stop people playing a short field.

Miscellaneous Minutiae

  • Here's where I talk about the event itself: unbelievable. I still can't talk. I've been to football games at Auburn, Ohio State, and Penn State, and the Big House was definitely as loud and probably louder than all three. It was surreal, and while there were still your fair share of students just standing there not making noise or doing much of anything on some plays, the student section was loud, as was the rest of the stadium. Home field advantage may or may not be overrated but you can't tell me that it didn't help and that it didn't affect ND (in addition to energizing the Wolverine players as well). 
    • Music: I was once completely against piped-in music, but its pretty undeniable that its a net positive, if not a significant one. Other than Pop Evil, which needs to just go away forever, the piped-in music did its job. Sometimes you just have to make a compromise in an attempt to reach out to certain groups of fans (i.e., students, the casual fan, the not-old-and-grumpy adult fan, etc.), and quite frankly it was a huge success. As ubiquitous as Seven Nation Army has become, even the most die-hard traditionalist would have to admit that the moments after they played it the first time were just plain awesome. Obviously, we've got to watch what we play (Thunderstruck, Welcome to the Jungle, SNA, and maybe a couple of others, are on a short list of piped-in music that shouldn't make you upset) and when we play it going forward, but this Saturday was a perfect mix of band and piped-in music in my humble opinion. If we could just get rid of Pop Evil and Sweet Caroline then it would pretty much be perfect.
    • The pom-poms--also known as "shakers" in SEC country--were awesome and an aesthetic victory whether you were in the stadium or watching from home. To the people that complain about them, just watch any old Michigan games and you'll find Michigan fans with said pom-poms (for example, the 1998 Rose Bowl). This isn't a "new" thing, so Down In Front guy needs to chill out and decry something else. 
    • Maybe I'm just imagining things, but the amplification of the band sounded a lot better than it did last season: am I imagining this? I don't even know anymore. 
    • This should easily and without question happen once a year. Sure, night games in the future will never measure up this one, but other schools have them all the time...why not us? The fact that people have treated the concept of a night game as some ridiculous foreign concept that has come down to Earth from Mars or something has been fairly amusing. Traditions have to start somewhere, and I think this could be another one in an already extensive list of Michigan traditions. 
  • Jake Ryan! Again, Jake Ryan showed some promise. 
  • BOOM BRANDIN HAWTHORNE OUTTA NOWHERE. Man, Hawthorne looked like he could be a factor this year. He looked fast and aggressive and overall like a guy you'd want out there on defense that I could imagine being one of those mean, kind of undersized SEC linebackers. I'm excited to see what he does the rest of this season. I'm sure he made some mistakes, but this was an enormous step forward for him: going from an anonymous afterthought to a legitimate contender to start is no small feat. 
  • Desmond Morgan is just not ready to be a starter let alone a frequent participant. Maybe in a year or two, but not now. 
  • In perhaps one of the most encouraging developments of the game, Will Campbell showed some signs of improvement. I can't remember what point in the game it was but he absolutely demolished some poor lineman on one play, and was involved in a number of others as well. He's still not starter material, but if Campbell can become a reliable run-stopping rotation guy then that would be an enormous asset. I'm sure the way his career has gone has been infinitely more frustrating for him than every Michigan fan combined, so it was nice to see him dancing around and getting hyped up there in the fourth quarter. I am legitimately happy for him and I hope he can continue to improve. 
  • Craig I'm not sure what the deal is, but he just has not been a factor at all this season. I honestly don't have anything to say because I have no idea what's going on; Jibreel Black has been a bigger factor than Roh this year. 
  • It looks like 2009 Vincent Smith is officially back. He looked quick on that screen pass after a year or so of not looking like nearly the quick little guy he was pre-knee injury. I don't think he's a guy that should get too many carries on a regular basis, but he's still an invaluable part of this offense. 
  • It was great to be back in the Big House all the current students out there, enjoy it while it lasts. 
  • I know I saw Odoms out there at least once...he came in only to go back out after Michigan called a timeout. I just feel terrible for the guy. I really hope we can get him involved at some point; despite Gallon's emergence, Odoms still brings a lot of things to the table. 
  • Denard is the man. Seriously, has there ever been a more likable Michigan athlete? "THE GAME IS OVER!" 
  • All I have to say is that I'm glad we've got Eastern this week. 

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