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.

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