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.

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