Sunday, October 30, 2016

Michigan 32, Michigan State 23: Home on the road

What tells the story of college football better than colors and sound?

The maize contingent in the crowd at Spartan Stadium stuck out more than usual on Saturday. Twice, a very clear and audible doooommmm rang out when Michigan's Eddie McDoom carried the ball, first for 20 yards and later for 33.

You can often discern the state of a program by how many fans it is able to attract to a road venue. Even the hardiest fan base is not likely to travel when defeat is a foregone conclusion.

In the days of Rodriguez and Hoke, scarlet-clad fans flooded the Big House, providing the audio-visual signpost declaring Michigan's obvious inferiority to the Ohio State Buckeyes. Similarly, the Michigan State Spartans have filled the Big House in recent years, ringing the autumn air with chants of "Go Green, Go White."

On Saturday, things were different, both on the field and in the stands. I'm not sure exactly how many Michigan fans were there, but it had to have been the largest contingent in East Lansing in quite some time. The showing was in stark contrast to, for example, the 2008 Ohio State game (one I attended, for some reason). The Michigan contingent for that game was infinitesimal, a sign of the season and the times.

This time, Michigan waltzed into a road game against a rival with a No. 2 ranking and last season's catastrophic finish on its mind -- once the bullied, now the bully.

Even after the Spartans shocked the Wolverines with a 12-play, 75-yard odyssey of a touchdown drive to start the game, Michigan responded like a team fully in possession of its bearings. The Wolverines cut through the Spartans defense like a speedy defenseman carrying the puck end to end, maneuvering around opponents in the neutral zone as if they weren't even there, like green-and-white pylons.

DeVeon Smith for 20. Devin Asiasi for 15. McDoom for 20. Amara Darboh for 8. Smith for 7. Then, the coda, Jabrill Peppers cruising to the pylon to tie it.

The Spartans never led again, as Michigan began to slowly exert itself over the less talented opponent. When the Spartans dared to air it out -- according to Mark Dantonio, the call was actually a screen pass -- Tyler O'Connor tossed a ball into the waiting hands of Jourdan Lewis. Michigan promptly seized on the error, adding three points to go up 27-10 at the half.

The box score belies the nature of this contest. Outside of the brief collar-tugging stretch following Michigan State's impressive opening drive, it never felt as if the Wolverines were in real danger. And, unlike last year when the Wolverines led by two scores late, Michigan State didn't have Connor Cook to bring them back. This time, Michigan scored five second-half points, and it was fine.

Take, for example, the start of the second half. Michigan drove to MSU's side of the field, but a Wilton Speight interception gave the Spartans a brief sense of hope. MSU marched down to the Michigan 8, after which they bashed their heads into a wall seven times.

Earlier in the game, MSU failed to convert a fourth-and-1 from the Michigan 38. Times they are a-changin'.

Michigan didn't play its A game, but it didn't even need to. Down 30-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Spartans had a first and goal from the Michigan 8-yard line. Instead of methodically pounding the Wolverines into submission like the Spartans have done so many times before, the Spartans lost 9 yards, then Damion Terry tossed two incomplete passes before Dantonio opted for a 34-yard field goal, which Michael Geiger missed.

Sure, fourth and goal from the 17 is not exactly a promising venture, but a field goal gets you from three scores down to ... three scores down. The field goal attempt was thus pushed off line by a subtle mathematical breeze.

Even late, when the Spartans scored to cut the lead to 30-23, they opted to go for two, which promptly offered up the most pleasing conclusion for Michigan fans: Peppers scooping up the ball and jetting the length of the field to add two final points to Michigan's total.

Michigan fans were hoping for a more lopsided result, and they were certainly justified in expecting one. The Wolverines boasted all the gaudy statistical advantages, while the Spartans entered with a 2-5 record, a listless passing game and a defense bearing no resemblance to the stalwart groups of previous Dantonio teams.

Despite all that, the Spartans racked up 401 yards of offense, 23 first downs, 23 points and 5.2 yards per carry. They brought what they could -- unfortunately for Michigan State, it was not nearly enough.

As for Michigan, the win marked their first against Michigan State since 2012, and just the third in 10 tries against Dantonio. MSU fans will still say Michigan is 3-7 in their last 10 meetings against the Spartans -- and that's fine. It is a fact, after all.

But the past can be a sad place to live, as Michigan fans know. The past is fixed, and what has happened has happened. Nothing changes recent results -- in the past decade, Michigan has faltered, over and over and over again.

What does change, though, is the here and now, and in turn, the future. One team is ascending while the other descends. Will Michigan State continue to fall? That remains to be seen. It's hard to believe a Dantonio-led program will continue to be this bad, especially a year removed from a playoff appearance. It's also fair to say that the Spartans benefited from Michigan's post-Carr decline.

Well, it appears the era of benefits has come to end. That account has closed. The windows are boarded shut and the tellers have gone home.

On Saturday, Michigan won a game reminiscent of some box-score close Ohio State victories over undermanned Michigan teams (2009 and 2013 come to mind). While a total blowout may have been more satisfying for Michigan fans -- not unlike the 2002 Michigan-Michigan State game -- there's something to be said for a "close" game, one in which Michigan didn't play nearly its best and still emerged without suffering a heart-pounding final moment, a position of true danger, trouble with the snap.

This time, Michigan State fans chanted "f--- Jim Harbaugh" as the Spartans went out to attempt a meaningless two-point conversion.

Whether you believe in some sort of cosmic justice or not -- and, if you do, whether you believe such a thing can be applied to the ultimately meaningless world of sports -- the idea reveals itself from time to time, like a rare bird casually strutting into your field of vision before equally casually disappearing from view.

"[O'Connor] pitches it backwards and it's scooped up and there goes Jabrill Peppers ..." 

Peppers picked up O'Connor's wayward option pitch around the MSU 13-yard line -- O'Connor and his fellow teammates did not even bother to give chase, and justifiably so. The cause was lost.

Michigan's No. 5 sprinted unabated for two, crossing the goal line like a sprinter going through the finish line tape.

"Dantonio hates it," Brock Huard said. "That's the worst thing that could possibly happen."

I suppose, in the end, we will see about that.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Michigan 41, Illinois 8: Riding the M Train

Fouad Egbaria
Sometimes, with the passage of time, you look up at a long-standing symbol and see something in a different light, new and reborn.

I returned to the Big House on Saturday for the first time since 2012, when Michigan scored a hard-fought -- and what then seemed meaningful -- 12-10 victory against Michigan State, the first win against the Spartans since 2007.

What I saw on the field Saturday was something entirely different, unrecognizable in every way from what existed four years ago. Just like the City of Ann Arbor itself, which has seen businesses come and go in just the past few years, Michigan has gone forth with an entirely new business model.

From the very beginning, Michigan flashed its new-age business acumen. The Wolverines took another ride on the M Train, capping a long touchdown drive, the first of four touchdown drives to start the game. The Wolverines set up in a row, like camel riders in the desert, one behind the other, sowing some degree of momentary confusion in the sand.

Then, action. Winged helmets move like electrons around a nucleus of stolid protons and neutrons, zipping to and fro, changing the makeup of the structure, stabilizing and destabilizing, but most importantly, changing. It's difficult to say how much the M Train -- maybe the People Mover is a more physically and locally apropos nickname -- actually flummoxes a defense, but its early returns are indicative of efficacy.

The Michigan offense emerged from the M Train car, headed downtown or uptown or out of town, and lost in the ruckus of travelers was Jake Butt, who crossed the middle of the field for an easy 3-yard touchdown grab (which I saw unfold beautifully from my end zone seats in section 34).

And just like everything Michigan is doing these days, it looked too easy.

You can say Michigan's level of competition hasn't been great, but, then again, great compared to what? The Wolverines have dispatched a very good Wisconsin team, easily handled a Penn State team that just beat Ohio State, eventually handled a Colorado team that is one of the biggest surprises of 2016, and easily handled non-power conference teams (Hawaii and UCF) that, at the very least, appear to be not totally horrendous (UCF is third in the American Athletic Conference's East division, while Hawaii is second in the Mountain West's West division).

The only moments of tension in the stadium occurred when Chris Evans went down on the turf, and later when Illinois scored a touchdown.

Fouad Egbaria
Michigan games this year have been an exercise in cognitive dissonance, not unlike watching certain once-in-a-generation players run, like Vince Young or Jabrill Peppers. The frequently uttered sentiment about Young was "he doesn't seem to be moving fast" -- then you look and he's outpaced the chasing defensive ends and the linebackers, and pulls away from the defensive backs like a sports car racing past a fleet of rickety minivans. 

The Wolverines, similarly, have cruised through some of these blowouts with remarkable ease. Sure, facing Illinois' third-string quarterback had something to do with it, but the Wolverines managed to put the game away before anyone in the stadium even had the chance to ask their neighbors about their post-game plans. Main Street? Sure, but let's sing The Victors for the 38th time first. 

Not long after that, Tyrone Wheatley Jr. caught a ball in the middle of the field and cruised 21 yards to the end zone, looking like Devin Funchess if Funchess gained 40 pounds and didn't lose any speed. 

Illinois did get a first down on its next drive, but Michigan responded to this grave injustice with its customary Gradgrindian efficiency: 10 plays, 81 yards, capped by none other than DJ Khalid. Touchdown runs of greater than 1 yard are unseemly, and Mr. Hill does not bother with them. 

And with all of Michigan's shiny new offensive weapons, namely Evans and Eddie McDoom, it's been surprisingly easy to forget that De'Veon Smith is the senior back who's been through it. Against the Illini, however, he carried it a season-high 18 times, and ran in Michigan's fourth touchdown of the first half. Like the linebacker position, the running back spot has evolved from a preseason sea of disparate pieces to a working committee of diverse, talented players. Smith does Smith, Evans does Evans, Ty Isaac does Ty Isaac. Anthony Thomas, Chris Howard, Clarence Williams -- there's a pretty nice precedent. 

And that's all without even mentioning Karan Higdon, who on pure running ability might be Michigan's most complete ball carrier -- this is a guy who carried the ball 11 times for 19 yards in 2015. He carried it eight times for 106 yards on Saturday. 

On what was a sunny, beautiful day, I couldn't have asked for a better homecoming. "The Victors" sounds much better during a blowout win than in the waning seconds of yet another defeat. 

Michigan is now 7-0 for the first time since 2006 and just the fourth time in 40 years (the others being 1986 and 1997). In the final days of October, the air of perfection builds, breathing palpably -- the form of expectation wisps like frosty breath. 

Later, running toward my end zone, Higdon weaved his way through the Illini defense, 45 yards for another Michigan score. Having not been to a game in several years, the feeling of being in on something that's about to happen came back to me. He hit the hole to the right side, unperturbed by any defensive presence, but eventually cut back to the middle and then carried a couple of Illini defenders for the final two or three yards. 

It looked easy. 

That's probably because it was just that. And while homecoming crowds at Michigan Stadium tend to be somewhat subdued to begin with, this crowd gave off the air of one watching a game without a sliver of tension. 

No tension makes for boring games, but that's sort of the whole reason for the path Michigan has taken: so many games that should have been boring were not boring. Hence, fired coaches, then Harbaugh. 

With that said, no matter how dominant Michigan has been, Ohio State's loss at Penn State on Saturday is proof that guards must stay up. Michigan closes its season with three out of five games on the road, including a much-anticipated trip to East Lansing this Saturday. On Nov. 12, Michigan heads to Iowa City for a night game -- while the Hawkeyes don't appear to be nearly at the same level as last year, night games are night games. A mistake here, a mistake there, and what should be a boring game becomes a nail-biter becomes a loss. 

But, Michigan can only cross that bridge when it gets to it. For now, the road has been far easier than expected. After all, there's no place like home. 

I look back on my senior year at Michigan, 2010, and feel as if I'm watching a different program entirely. That year, Michigan took crushing home losses, all by double digits, against Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin, the latter of which encapsulated Michigan's inability to stop much of anything. Michigan was one-dimensional, unorganized, dependent on vague, sporadic bursts of magic. That year, Michigan beat Illinois, at home, in triple overtime, 67-65. 

Six years later? It's a different story, in a different book, in another language. 

Fouad Egbaria