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.

1 comment:

  1. That was an amazing game, surely we cannot hope for a repeat performance? Is our team really that good? Since game one the team has improved, how long can this continue? Just as mind-boggling is what does the future hold since we are only half-way through Coach Harbaugh's first season? This has been an amazing year and I'm thinking the amazement is far from over.