Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Michigan 29, Minnesota 26: Pendulum Swing

Not all forms of luck are the same -- this much is true if you've watched sports for an extended period of time. 

Michigan dropping a punt snap and having that fumbled ball recovered and returned for a touchdown by its opponent as time expired? That's some serious luck (if not luck, then it's something...it's football, I suppose).

But not every form of luck is so pronounced, so apparent, so capable of being distilled so singularly.

Michigan left the Twin Cities with its sixth win of the season, one of those games you watch and, after exhaling, think: "Well, that was lucky."

Michigan was half a yard away from defeat. Minnesota was half a yard away from victory. That small stretch of green might as have been a canyon, a wide gulf between the Minnesota fan and the Michigan fan, standing on either side of a heartbreaking outcome.

But this one was a different strain of luck, the kind that is more about defiance of expectations in the moment -- Jake Rudock went out in the third quarter and I thought "well, it's over," a strange thought given Rudock's play this season.

Wilton Speight, he of four career passing attempts (three against UNLV and one against Maryland), entered the game. Yes, we all thought the same thing: 2012, Lincoln, Russell Bellomy. It must have been a funny time when you could make these observations during a game and think yourself unique -- thanks to Twitter, our reactions are quickly confirmed to be part of a homogeneous hivemind.

Over the years, games sort of just blend together. You remember plays, maybe, or the general circumstances around a certain win or loss. In certain cases, games get tagged, transfixed with a moniker that lasts for the rest of time.

The 2012 Nebraska was The Russell Bellomy Game, remembered in the unfortunate way: a quarterback clearly not meant to play at that time at that level thrust into a difficult situation, playing at night in Lincoln, red balloons floating in the dark. As much as that game is remembered for his appearance, it also sticks as a reminder of Denard Robinson's worth to Michigan. As flawed a quarterback as he was, Michigan was sunk without him.

This, of course, wasn't exactly Denard exiting the game and crippling the offense -- still, it was something. Speight may never start (not counting the non-zero possibility of a start against Rutgers) at Michigan. Even if he doesn't, the 2015 Minnesota game will forever be The Wilton Speight Game to me.

It is possible that we puffed our chests a little too much after the BYU and Northwestern games. The defense is excellent, but not wholly unassailable, especially not when Jeremy Clark is getting "beat" by ridiculously underthrown balls that turn out to work perfectly for Mitch Leidner, who played likely his best game of the season (maybe his best game ever against major competition). 

Not that "humility" is a thing that matters for fans, but a deficit of it can make one unappreciative of wins that deserve appreciation.

Minnesota is probably an average football team, at best. But buoyed by the sudden yet sadly unsurprising departure of its head coach, the Gophers didn't back down after the Wolverines jumped out to a 14-3 lead.

But when Michigan needed to, they answered. The "Wild Wolverine" formation (I know it's easy to roll your eyes at the wild+[insert team mascot] construction, but you have the admit it has a ring to it), Speight's touchdown strike to Jehu Chesson, the stop as time expired.

Yes, Michigan benefited from Minnesota's tomfoolery at the end -- what they were doing, nobody will ever know. The Minnesota offense was paralyzed by inaction, as if met with a Cheesecake Factory menu. After many seconds of debating the merits of a sandwich vis-a-vis pasta vis-a-vis seafood vis-a-vis various stir fries, the Gophers remembered they're Minnesota, opting for hotdish (I imagine this is an option at Minnesota Cheesecake Factories).

Alas, Maurice Hurst et al were ready with napkins on their laps and forks in hand, ready to feast on said QB sneak hotdish. 

I almost feel bad trivializing the moment this way, as Minnesota is that odd rival you don't really "hate" (hate in the sports sense, not the real world sense). They truly are Minnesota Nice. 

I like their uniforms, the Rouser, their new stadium, their coaches. They're easy to root for when not playing Michigan, and their philosophy of defense-plus-running-game is easy to get behind, especially as a plucky underdog (e.g. the TCU game). 

So when it was over, I did feel a little bad, especially after what happened to Michigan in its last game. 

But such is college football. Michigan marches on, looking shakier than they did pre-MSU, but 6-2 is still, I would say, exceeding expectations to this point. 

Realistically, Michigan is probably not going to win out. Penn State is looking like a much tougher out, Indiana will be tricky and Ohio State is Ohio State. 

Nonetheless, on Saturday, Michigan won back the jug on the heels of its yearlong stay in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Michigan survived, with a dash of Peppers, a flash of Speight and a touch of fortune. 

Recipes for victory are always-changing. On the road, Michigan made do with what it had in the pantry. More restocking needs to be done, but for now, the Wolverines are making it work, more often than not. 

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