Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Michigan State 27, Michigan 23: Things Happen

A time-tested mantra I've found myself resorting to over my years of watching sports is a simple one, but resonant: Things happen.

Michigan completes a Hail Mary against Northwestern in 2012. Colorado completes a Hail Mary against Michigan in 1994. Yin and yang, a grand swinging pendulum of Fortune, karma, mindless spinning of a dimpled, brown prolate spheroid through wind and rain and snow and the sun's reaching rays in the Midwestern fall.

In 2001, with the Wolverines and Badgers tied at 17 in Madison, a Wisconsin punt bounced off of Badgers special teamer Brett Bell and was recovered by Michigan's Brandon Williams. Hayden Epstein then kicked the game-winning field goal with 10 seconds left to give Michigan a 20-17 win.

That same year, the now infamous "Spartan Bob" gave the Spartans extra time, one second -- so the story goes --and MSU's T.J. Duckett caught the game-winner as time expired. Predictably, and sadly, Spartan Bob received at least one anonymous threat by phone.

Now, fourteen years later, the threatening is done over Twitter, targeting Australian punters who would be lauded as heroes if not for one fatal mistake.

One mistake amid a sea of inviting data.

Things happen.

And the sports world continues apace. Michigan fans still talk about Spartan Bob from time to time when invoking memories of wrongdoing against the Wolverines. Meanwhile, two extra seconds granted to the Wolverines in 2005 against Penn State continue to stick in the craw of Nittany Lions fans. Time finds a way to come back around, balancing precariously on an axis made of popsicle sticks and fragile dreams waiting to be crushed or upheld with one slight sway in either direction.

In a sense, things have a way of evening themselves out, albeit chaotically and nonsensically. For a program of Michigan's level playing against other similarly competitive programs on a yearly basis in the highly variable world of college athletics, things are bound to happen.

Oh, things are bound to happen.

On Saturday, they did, in a flash. Only 10 seconds remained, with one final routine play separating Michigan from a major victory, both in the context of the rivalry and the overall health of the program as it attempts to dig itself out of the post-Carr Dark Ages.

For 59 minutes and 50 seconds, Michigan looked ready to notch a win against the rival Spartans, the first since 2012 and just the second since Mark Dantonio arrived in East Lansing. Even more improbably, a win would've vaulted Michigan into serious contention for the divisional crown, and, more improbably still, an outside shot at the college football playoff.

I only mention all of this to note how quickly expectations can accelerate. Of course, expectations adjust with results, and Michigan's results to date had been exceptional, to say the least. Shutouts, a grinding ground game and erudite coaching all foretold a distant future full of promise and a near future already overshooting expectation.

Then a punter dropped a snap, and in a moment, those burgeoning hopes collapsed in a moment of concentrated shock. I'm still not quite sure that it happened, and I've watched the replay of it more times than I'd care to admit.

I can bring up additional examples of Michigan's positive trysts with Lady Luck. The list is a long one, and, by comparison, there have been far unluckier programs out there. 

Still, I would be lying if I said this one didn't sting more than the others, simply for its suddenness and the lack of comprehension that followed. 

Things happen -- sometimes they happen before you even have a chance to say oh, no. 

That moment, unfortunately, rendered a largely positive performance moot. I could tell you about how Michigan's run defense and special teams (sans the obvious) looked superb, or how tantalizing Jabrill Peppers's offensive debut was. I could tell you how Michigan looked, at minimum, Michigan State's equal, which I don't know could even be said after the 2012 win. We could even talk about officiating, but even that is a faint plea against a howling wind -- it matters, and it doesn't. 

I could tell you how this is just one game, and what's one more rivalry loss in a season Michigan fans began by looking at 8-4 as a highly optimistic outcome. I could tell you how Michigan's season appears headed for at least eight wins, and probably more barring a bad loss and figuring in a potential upset of Ohio State (things happen, you know).

But all of the numbers and logic on Saturday were darkened for a moment, the sun blotted out by a cloud of chaos, casting a shade that still lingers. 

Things happen -- and sometimes there's nothing you can do about it. 

Naturally, Michigan now enters the bye week, a cosmic taunt in and of itself, as if the Universe is saying "think about this and the irrational nature of your recreational pursuits."

The only thing to be done now is to, as Harbaugh put it, steel the spine and move forward. 

The theme here, things happen, can consume you, of course, but it can also make things whole in a sports world that often makes no sense. Staring at it too long is like staring into the blinding, burning sun: it's there, because it is, and will be until it isn't, until it's exhausted its stores of hydrogen and chaos. 

Unlike the sun, I don't think college football's supply of chaos, of games concluding in a flash and bang, will ever run out. 

On Saturday we saw a college football finish that we may never see again. It probably won't happen again. Probably. It probably won't happen to Michigan again. 

But when it does, I'll shrug and say the same thing, a rhetorical anchor in roiling, unstable waters. 

Things happen.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Michigan 38, Northwestern 0: Visions of verisimilitude

It's only a matter of time before Jabrill Peppers breaks one, they said.

So, when Jehu Chesson took the opening kickoff 96 yards to the house, I laughed, because of course.

As the redshirt sophomore from St. Louis left everyone in the dust, the next thought that rolled down the brain stem was: That's probably enough, right? 

A rhetorical question, tinctured with rationality (Northwestern's offense is not that prolific) and hubris (Michigan's defense is good at methodically grinding offenses into a pulp).

The onslaught didn't stop there, as the Wolverines added two more touchdowns in the first quarter and another in the second. Meanwhile, the visiting then-undefeated Northwestern Wildcats managed just four first downs in that first half to Michigan's three touchdowns.

It's gotten to the point where the defense giving up anything at all -- missing a tackle, allowing a ball carrier to get outside the tackle box, giving up a score -- is almost an assault on the senses. When bad things happen so infrequently, the rare mistake is magnified.

Conversely, take recent years, when it seemed like a pass was a 50-50 proposition at best: by some miracle, a completion, or a sack or turnover. Defensively, after solid starts, it was almost a certainty that things would fall apart down the stretch, due to fatigue or whatever reason to which you'd like to chalk up those declines.

Now, Michigan is predictable, in a good way. It's difficult to talk about this team without resorting to the sorts of cliches that are often derided when it comes to sports writing, but this team fits them to a T. The running game produces and the defense plays with a toughness, tenacity and confidence that hasn't been seen in years. They'll rush five, four or three, even, because they can and things will be fine.

The secondary looks like a secondary a good [insert title-winning team name here] SEC team would field. The same goes for the front seven, which at this point might be forced to pay the City of Ann Arbor in property taxes for their constant forays into opponents' backfields. Ann Arbor has built quite a few luxury buildings since my time there, and I suppose it fits with the new vibe of the town for the Wolverines defenders to follow suit, with a brilliant building constructed of tackles for loss, replete with in-unit laundry machines -- for cleaning dirtied uniforms -- and quartz countertops to display the helmets of the fallen.

At first, this was a novel feeling, watching this team incinerate opposing offenses while the offense grinds its way to what it needs.

Halfway through a season in which the Wolverines have already dispatched two ranked opponents with ease and hung tough on the road against another, this is clearly real.

At no point could this have been said during the previous two regimes. Even Brady Hoke's 11-win season felt like a thing that maybe shouldn't have happened, that could've fallen apart when inspected under the light. (It did, beginning with the rout against Alabama to open the 2012 season.)

Rich Rodriguez' tenure never even got the chance to reach this level of reality -- even in the moments of usually Denard-Robinson-inspired brilliance, the Wolverines subsisted on vague magic to move forward, mana that was observably finite.

When it ran out, there was nowhere left to turn.

But Michigan rolled what looked like a strong Northwestern team, one that was 5-0 with a win against a Stanford squad that has looked much better since the 'Cats beat them at Ryan Field. That all felt like a distant memory this past Saturday, as the Wolverines made them look like a generic, overmatched pre-1995 Northwestern team.

Michigan notched three straight shutouts with the win for the first time since 1980, and the first in FBS play since 1995, when Kansas State did it against the following unranked foes: Akron, Northern Illinois and Missouri.

Michigan held the Wildcats to 168 yards of total offense and a 2-for-13 mark on third down. Running back Justin Jackson carried it 12 times for just 25 yards. Clayton Thorson finished with 106 yards passing -- on 4.7 yards per attempt.

The defense gives nothing -- charity is not its forte.

Way back in 2011, after Michigan followed a positive first Hoke summer with a rain-soaked thumping of Western Michigan, I dubbed it the Era of Good Feelings.

In retrospect, like many things in life, that is a little funny now, considering what followed and what is currently happening before our eyes.

If that was the Era of Good Feelings, then what is this? The Epoch of Excitement? The Age of Augmented Positivity? The Time of Tenacity?

Whatever it is, something is being built with capable hands and a plan, something that has been missing for a long time. When Gary Moeller and then Lloyd Carr came after Bo, they weren't so much cementing a plan as continuing the success that came before them. Yes, the game changed quite a bit post-Bo, and Moeller and Carr changed with the times as they had to, but what they did wasn't a wholesale upheaval of the previous order.

So, I think it's justifiable to say that Michigan hasn't seen what is happening right now, on an ideological level, since 1969, when Bo came to Ann Arbor. Whether Jim Harbaugh will continue on this track and have the same success as Bo -- or greater -- of course remains to be seen.

But, on a basic level, this all feels very real.


Late in the game, something happened that sent a chill up my spine.

The stakes were as low as they could be, on the surface. Michigan was already up 38-0 with 29 seconds left in the game. Northwestern had the ball with a fourth-and-17 upcoming.

Not exactly the most engaging hook, right?

Well, what if I told you a packed Big House started chanting "de-fense" like it was a one-score game? I wasn't there, but watching on my TV, the noise was indicative of a philosophy, a way of being, that has filtered up among the masses.

A shutout is not something you want, it's something you need. Why should they have any points? They shouldn't have any points.

Give nothing and take everything -- points on offense, on defense and special teams. Jourdan Lewis's pick six, rivaling De'Veon Smith's teleportation act against BYU in the incredulity it inspired, was not a chance act or a moment of transcendent brilliance.

Well, it was the latter, but when those moments become the norm, they're no longer extraordinary: they're just ordinary.

And so when the Michigan Stadium erupted in that chant, it felt like one of those moments that would linger.

Matt Millen said that the fans doing so was the mark of a "well-schooled crowd." The first half of this season has been a crash course in Harbaugh's way of doing things. Thus far, it seems like everyone's in good shape after a tough final exam to close the first half of the football year.

But there's always another test on the horizon. Michigan has one week to prepare for another test, this time against the AP No. 7 Michigan State Spartans.

Win that one, and you're talking about some serious verisimilitude being added to this thing.

This one should be a little closer: it's Michigan State, after all. Despite Michigan's offensive limitations, it seems like they haven't come close to showing their hand completely just yet. Michigan has busted out something new in games against BYU and Northwestern, to great effect. It stands to reason that Harbaugh et al probably have some tricks up their sleeve when Michigan State comes to Ann Arbor this Saturday.

And those tricks won't feel like prayers, even if they don't work.

Whatever happens the rest of the way, it's clear that this thing is real. How good this season will be hinges, of course, on how the Wolverines fare against the Spartans and Buckeyes. Lose both and it's still likely a very good season. Win one -- or both, even -- and you're talking about a Harbaugh premiere that blows Hoke's 2011 out of the water.

Michigan football is a real thing again. So are the stakes. It's been a while since either of those things were true.

Narratives of fantasy are often more gripping than those of reality -- but in the case of 2015 Michigan football, the two genres are one. Fantastical yet real, a combination of disbelief clashing against a burgeoning reality.

When the imagined becomes real, you have something. You have crowds chanting "de-fense" near the conclusion of a blowout. You have performances that don't happen too often, one after another. You have records broken and plays that don't seem to be tethered to this world except for by the frailest of threads.

You have all the elements of a good story, a serial Saturday confirmation steeped in a truth so crazy that it has not other option but to be true again and again and again.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Michigan 28, Maryland 0: Boring Is Good

As Michigan went into the half up 6-0 in dreary College Park on Saturday, I felt like I'd seen this game before.

That's because I had, last Sunday, when the Chicago Bears traveled to Seattle to take on the Seahawks, with backup quarterback Jimmy Clausen at the helm for the NFC North cellar dwellers, in for the injured Jay Cutler.

Only this time, my team, Michigan, was the Seahawks, and the Terrapins, led by Caleb Rowe, looked much like the punch-less Bears.

After that Bears game, the coaches and even some local sports personalities praised the first half of play -- the Bears went into the break down just 6-0. The game plan worked, they said, a limited thing in which the Bears didn't allow Clausen to take chances downfield (that, or he chose not to take any) and featured goal line formations near midfield -- the latter was about as close as the Bears got to looking like a Harbaugh-coached outfit.

Even so, it was clear that the Bears had no chance, even down six.

That's why, when Matt Millen -- in an attempt to infuse some sort of life into the surreptitious thumping that was Michigan's eventual 28-0 win -- noted at some point in the third quarter that it was still "a two-score game," I laughed to myself.

As fans, we can often trick ourselves into thinking a game is closer than it is. After all, Michigan fans have had numerous opportunities to be on the trailing end of that in recent years. There's still 10 minutes to go, if we can just make one play and get a stop ... if we can just force a turnover ... if we can just hit this field goal ... if we can just score and recover the onside kick. 

So on and so forth. The sports fan's mind can bend and contort like no other, envisioning realities only found staring back at you in a house of mirrors.

If it wasn't over after Michigan's first two field goals, it was over when Drake Johnson went 31 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown score on another beautifully executed screen pass.

Maryland is not a good football team. They weren't last year, either, and we know how Michigan's matchup against the conference newcomers went last year in Ann Arbor.

The Wolverines led 16-9 in the third quarter. Having advanced to the Maryland 32, a Devin Garden pass on 4th-and-6 fell incomplete.

And it was all downhill from there en route to a 23-16 loss in Michigan's final home game of the season, dropping them to 5-6 and all but assuring a bowl-less season (with a tilt against Ohio State on the road the next week).

Oh how things have changed.

Instead, Michigan ground out a not-aesthetically-pleasing but comfortable win. The defense extended its streak of quarters without allowing a touchdown to eight, not allowing a score in 14 of the last 16 quarters, going back to the second game of the season.

The offense, meanwhile, did enough to make it work. Perhaps the only downside was the offense's seeming inability to make a consistent ground game work in De'Veon Smith's absence. Luckily, it sounds like he could have played, and is set to to do so when undefeated Northwestern comes to Ann Arbor on Saturday.

Drake Johnson (13 carries, 68 yards) did some nice things, but wasn't exactly a replacement for Smith's abilities. Ty Isaac (6 carries, 17 yards) has done some nice things this season, but coughed it up twice (albeit losing just one of them) -- with Smith likely to return to the backfield, I'd imagine that Isaac slips down a slot on the tailback pecking order. How long he stays there will be an interesting early test case in the Harbaugh era vis-a-vis bouts with fumbleitis and their repercussions. Derrick Green (7 carries, 26 yards), in what seemed like yet another audition for more playing time, didn't seem to help his case.

Overall, though, this is an offense that is making do. Jake Rudock's turnovers remain a concern, a week after a turnover-less affair against BYU inspired confidence that maybe the Iowa transfer was set to start playing the generally Big-Mistake-free football many expected him to play.

Against weak competition in Oregon State, UNLV and Maryland, it hasn't hurt the Wolverines. Of course, against Utah, what ultimately was a one-score loss, the pick 6 loomed in its culpability.

Against a Northwestern squad with a freshman quarterback who can run but leads an offense ranked 118th in passing, Michigan cannot afford to gift the Wildcats extra opportunities, especially via turnovers granting them prime field position.

This Saturday's game in the Big House is assured to be a low-scoring slugfest (the legitimate kind, not the euphemism for bad football rationalized as something else). Mistakes could prove the difference when these two teams, fielding two of the statistically strongest defenses in the country, meet this weekend.

But unlike the recent low-scoring Michigan-Northwestern tilts, this one won't make you want to close your eyes and imagine being somewhere else, watching something else, like I felt at Ryan Field last season where the Wolverines won, 10-9, but the game of football lost.

Whatever happens this Saturday, one thing is clear: Michigan football the last few weeks has been boring, but the good kind of boring. Like going to your favorite restaurant and getting the same thing you've been getting for years: the trusty, comfortable standby.

It'll be a while before Michigan once again assumes the mantle of good-boring on a consistent basis. There are still too many variables, particularly at the offense's most important position, to assume that Michigan can't lose to a team it "should" beat (and is it stands now, there are far more of those remaining on the schedule than perhaps previously predicted).

When expectations on a play-by-level are consistently met -- Smith grinding out yards after contact, Michigan's defensive line detonating the pocket, Jabrill Peppers pulverizing the grand designs of an opponent's screen pass -- it can be easy to settle into a feeling of something resembling boredom, stripped of its negative connotations.

I guess -- and this is an old feeling being dusted off and returned to a prominent position on the shelf of the fan base's collective consciousness -- this is what happens when you expect good things to happen, and they do.

This is good. Boring is good. All aboard the boring train to Indianapolis.

It won't be that easy, of course, and I'm being more than a little facetious. But there is something comforting about a 28-0 win in which a 6-0 halftime lead inspired little to no worry.

Whatever happens, despite this team's flaws, I don't dread sitting in front of the TV to watch this team play, even while I know things will go wrong at certain points in a game.

As the Wolverines attempt to put miles behind it and everything that's been, this campaign, almost at its halfway point, has been a success.

This is fun again. It's been a while since I could say that. I suspect it won't be the last.

Eventually, though, I won't have to say "again." It'll just be "this is fun."

Until then, the novelty of the boring reigns supreme.