Sunday, November 22, 2015

Michigan 28, Penn State 16: Greater than its parts

Michigan hadn't won in Happy Valley since 2006. And on Saturday, they headed there again, looking to move to 9-2 on the season.

Even when things don't seem to be going so well, Michigan flexes, you look up and the opponent is done. Like that, disintegrated.

At least watching the game live, it didn't feel like the Wolverines played particularly well. In addition, the officiating was typically poor, with many of the more egregious calls going against the Wolverines (and in this case, it was so frequent as to be beyond partisan interpretations).

Yet, when it came down to it, the Wolverines clocked the Nittany Lions, even if it doesn't show it on the scoreboard.

Through 11 games, it's undeniably true that the coaching staff has squeezed everything out of this collection of players as is humanly possible. More players are seeing the field, improving incrementally as the season trudges forward into the frigid final weeks.

After a big 56-yard run by Saquon Barkley early in the game, visions of Michigan's vulnerability on the ground against Minnesota popped up again. But that would be Penn State's last huge chunk play of the game. Wide receiver Chris Godwin reeled in 38 of his 51 receiving yards on one play, and Jabrill Peppers got lost in coverage on the touchdown underthrow to Saeed Blacknall.

Other than that? Zip, zilch, nada. The clearly frustrated Christian Hackenberg completed just 13-of-31 passes for 137 yards, good for a putrid 4.4 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, after the big run, the speedy Barkley was held to 12 yards on 14 carries (making for a statistically inferior performance to Michigan's infamous "27 for 27" output against Penn State in 2013...albeit on fewer carries, true).

Michigan hurt itself with a number of pre-snap defensive penalties, and some that are still beyond explanation. Nonetheless, Michigan went on and completed its first undefeated road slate since 1997.

Say what you will about the quality of the Big Ten -- even if you say it's bad, Michigan hasn't gone undefeated on the road in this league for almost two decades.

Michigan's defensive line once again looked dominant, constantly getting in Hackenberg's face. The Wolverines are only marked down for four sacks, but even that seems to underrepresent the level of dominance the line flashed, albeit against a not-so-quality offensive line.

Perhaps most encouragingly, Taco Charlton stepped up and had likely his best game as a Wolverine, leading the defense with a pair of sacks and playing like the athletic, big-time recruit he is. He notched three tackles for loss, and Chris Wormley (2 TFL) and James Ross (2 TFL) found their way into the backfield, too. Other than Jake Rudock's late-season renaissance, the emergence of a different defensive lineman each week has been the most exciting part of the season.

On the other hand, no, it was not Peppers's finest hour. It would do fans well to remember that this is his first full year of college football; mistakes will happen, and coverage skills are still a work in progress.

On the other side, despite throwing 38 times, Michigan only let up two sacks -- let's take a second to remember how things were on the offensive line not too long ago, when poor Devin Gardner never had a chance each time he dropped back to pass. Yes, the running game is an ancillary at best part of the offense, but at least the line is not only holding its own at something, it is excelling.

As for Rudock, two turnovers are the only blemishes on yet another tremendous outing, his third-straight game with 250-plus passing yards. In case you missed it, that makes him the first U-M quarterback in history to pass for that many yards three games in a row.

Not so quietly, Rudock has transformed from liability to net-passable to a real asset. That improvement can in part be attributed to increased familiarity with the offense, but also, of course, to coaching.

This is still far from a big-play offense, but those are starting to trickle through in recent weeks. Rudock completed a 26-yard touchdown pass to Jake Butt, a 26-yarder to Amara Darboh and a 39-yarder to Jehu Chesson. Michigan needed that, as it stumbled to just 2.9 yards per carry on the ground, with the longest run of the day, 20 yards, coming from Chesson.

Comparisons to the 2006 game will be made. Michigan's defense once again overwhelmed a PSU offense in a game that appears closer than it actually was.

So, here we are.

Michigan is 9-2, outshooting probably at least 95 percent of the fan base's expectations. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, Ohio State did not take care of business yesterday, making Michigan's road to Indianapolis seem more like a dead end than a viable route. Michigan needs help from the same Penn State team it just defeated.

Also, of course, they have to win in the Big House against the Buckeyes. I don't need to tell you that Michigan has only come out on the winning end of The Game once since 2003.

No, the Buckeyes didn't exactly look invulnerable this past Saturday, playing against Michigan State's backup quarterbacks and running an offense that was baffling to partial and impartial observers alike. Who knows what Ezekiel Elliott's postgame comments mean for next Saturday, what state of mind the Buckeyes will be in, what sort of team will be coming into Ann Arbor two days after Thanksgiving.

Michigan might not get a shot at Iowa, even if it wins this Saturday, because of one faulty punt snap in October. In the topsy-turvy world of college football, sometimes that's all it takes to knock you off course.

Even so, it's been a while since Michigan has been playing for something in earnest.

Nonetheless, there's no doubt that Michigan has had a successful campaign. But a product of that success is increased expectations. We all know this, like we know the sky is blue or that when in the red zone, Michigan wins far more often than it loses (on both sides of the ball).

But if Michigan plays Ohio State tight, and loses? Well, for that day, no one will remember 9-2. The 2006 season is remembered for many things: the Notre Dame blowout, the Penn State game, even the too-close-for-comfort Ball State game. Above all that, though, that season is remembered for No. 1 vs. No. 2 -- and, to a lesser extent, the disappointing second half of the Rose Bowl.

Unfortunately, that's the nature of sports and humanity. We only remember the last thing.

The road to Indianapolis might close in East Lansing next Saturday. If it does, Michigan will wait -- Indianapolis will be there next year, and for years to come.

On Saturday, the only thing that matters is the two teams on that field, and what they do on that field. On Saturday, this season's legacy hangs in the balance. Lose, and it's just a nice season with two losses to Michigan's rivals.

Win? That's a season to remember, Indianapolis or not.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Michigan 88, Elon 68: Sharpshootin'

Michigan moved to 2-0 with a relatively breezy 88-68 win against visiting Elon tonight in Ann Arbor.

Derrick Walton led the Wolverines with 24 points on 8-for-10 from the field (6-for-7 from three, plus seven assists and six rebounds).

Funny enough, though, the point guard wasn't even Michigan's most accurate shooter.

Transfer Duncan Robinson went a perfect 6-for-6 from the field, and 5-for-5 from downtown. If you aren't used to it already, get used to the phrase "he just doesn't miss."

I didn't have a chance to watch this past Friday's Northern Michigan game, so I finally got to see him in action for the first time tonight. I read some of the offseason practice reports with skepticism -- after all, we've heard flowery praise like that before about so many players, some of whom turned out to be pretty good but maybe not quite as good as such praise indicated.

But, so far, Robinson's outside stroke is as good as advertised. Obviously, we'll need to see it against real competition before he gets thrust into the Nik Stauskas Honorary Ring of Sharpshooters, but early returns are promising, to say the least.

In any case, there's not much use overanalyzing this game too much. Elon offered more size than NMU, but not so much to overwhelm. (Elon grabbed 33.3 percent of its misses in this one, which seems a little high, but it is what it is.)

Defensively, it wasn't a strong performance, but it's still early, obviously, and guys like D.J. Wilson are still getting their sea legs, not to mention Zak Irvin, who is still working his way back from injury and didn't start.

Elon shot 39.1 percent from beyond the arc, but Michigan made up for that by turning the Phoenix over 17 times. On that front, Caris LeVert (3-for-8, 11 points), flashed his length and general disruptiveness in the passing lanes and on the ball. He might not be a defensive stopper, per se, but he's good for at least one scoop and score a game.

In this one, he notched four steals, with at least a couple resulting in scores going the other way.

And not to sound like a meathead, but Michigan is going to need that sort of perimeter defensive intensity, because interior physicality is once again likely to not be their forte. On one play late in the first half, Elon's Brian Dawkins backed down Mark Donnal with startling ease, putting up an easy layup.

Ricky Doyle is the best option Michigan has on the physicality front. He picked up a ticky-tack foul outside of the three-point line on a hard hedge in the first half. That is something to watch out for going forward; if that continues to be called tightly, Michigan could be looking at some quick two-foul outings for the sophomore big man.

Overall, though, nothing has really been too surprising so far. Defense is a work in progress, the Wolverines can shoot the lights out and the frontcourters have a long way to go, even Doyle (who actually had a nice game, going 3-for-4 for eight points).

As for the others, Kam Chatman still seems to be searching for his outside shot, and he did get some good looks tonight (0-for-3 from downtown, 3-for-5 overall). At some point, some of those have to start falling for him.

Aubrey Dawkins had a relatively quiet night (3-for-5, 7 points) and Spike Albrecht wasn't much of a factor -- not that he needed to be -- although he did take a nice charge in the second half.

Moritz Wagner has a long way to go, obviously, physically and otherwise, but did have a nice strip that led to a transition opportunity. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, the subject of much "guy who is going to possibly be lost in the shuffle" talk, didn't do much, but had a nice strong take to the basket for two, just the sort of explosive slashery we saw from him in his Michigan debut season.

Michigan won again, and comfortably. The defense wasn't great, and several possessions ended in long jumpers at the buzzer (some ended with makes, but still), but expecting a well-oiled machine in November is far from reasonable.

The competition will pick up, and eventually we'll be able to make meaningful observations about these performances.

For now, though, the most encouraging things are clear. Walton, who has already been excellent in his career to date, looks ready to round into elite college point guard form. It's a long way off, but the matchup against Indiana's Yogi Ferrell on Feb. 2 is going to be one of the best position-to-position matchups of the conference season, in my opinion.

Walton's ability to get the transition game going is paramount: on one sequence in the first half, he threaded a beautiful bounce pass from the back court to hit Robinson in stride for two going the other way. Every assist only counts as one, but that's a super-assist right there.

Otherwise, Robinson's shot appears to be as ridiculous as advertised, and LeVert continues to do LeVert things when he's not having a particularly exceptional night from the field.

With these first two preseason-esque games out of the way, Michigan gets set to face Xavier, UConn and NC State in its next three. The competition picks up -- so does the chance to see some of these guys in meaningful game situations, in which mistakes matter and deficiencies can't be covered up by talent mismatches or a barrage of wide-open threes.

Michigan 48, Indiana 41 (2OT): Different parts

Not all wins are the same.

Some are easy, some are hard. Some are aesthetically pleasing, some are 2014 Northwestern. Some make you sweat, some are laughers.

Some rip your heart out. Some get it beating, shaking uncontrollably like a pinging tuning fork, so much so that it threatens to burst from your chest.

Saturday's trip to Bloomington was a strange concoction, a combination of all of the above. Disorienting, confusing, terrifying: in other words, a normal game against Indiana in the Kevin Wilson era.

Defensively, the Wolverines, now undermanned -- or, at least, relative to prior depth levels -- on the defensive line, were worn down by Indiana's relentless pace. All offense and no defense, the Hoosiers overwhelm with a barrage of passes and quick runs, aided, of course, by the talented Jordan Howard, who would be a good player in any offensive system.

The Michigan defense didn't come away from this looking good, even though 27 regulation points allowed (seven on the punt return touchdown) is actually not that bad against that offense.

It's often said that playing Air Force in your nonconference schedule is a lose-lose, simply because that offense is difficult to prepare for, and even if you beat them, it's not going to be counted in the quality win ledger. Indiana is like that, only Michigan doesn't have the choice to not play them.

So, the Wolverines will have to deal with this every year going forward (that is, until the next tectonic shift of Big Ten alignment). The Hoosiers aren't going away, which is somewhat of a funny statement to make about a team that is now 4-6 on the season, including a loss to Rutgers and close calls against Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky.

But that's just how Indiana rolls. The Hoosiers are nonsensical, a striking configuration of asset and super-flaw, competing against one another. It makes for entertaining viewing from afar, but is nerve-racking to be a part of, whether as a fan of the Hoosiers or a fan of their opponent.

Fortunately for the Wolverines, Jake Rudock seems to finally be coming into his own. Despite sarcastic, eye-rolling comments after first-down scampers (made by yours truly) about his being like Denard, he looks like a completely different, more confident player.

Yes, I know, Rutgers and Indiana likely have something to do with that. Still, Rudock has had an excellent couple of weeks, and I don't need to recite the records broken in Bloomington on Saturday (by the way, it is still somewhat startling that the Michigan record for touchdowns thrown in a game was "only" four).

So, this was Michigan's Air Force of the Big Ten season. With the chance at a division title hanging in the balance, Rudock delivered on the final play of regulation after a frustrating trio of unsuccessful runs leading up to that five-yard strike to Chesson, who had a breakout game of his own.

Rudock's rise has come at a good time, as the running game continues to struggle. Michigan still doesn't really have a reliable feature back, despite promising stuff early in the year from De'Veon Smith, particularly the BYU game. The offensive line isn't really making those holes, and when they do, the backs aren't hitting them. Or, when there's an opportunity to get the edge, Smith is often unable to get there, sometimes resembling a city bus trying to make a left turn.

This is a situation that probably is not going to magically resolve itself in the next two games, particularly not against defenses like Penn State, Ohio State and whatever bowl team (probably an SEC team, I'd imagine) Michigan has to face.

Here we are, with a struggling running game and a defense that is all of a sudden starting to look mortal, and it's Rudock who is coming through it all looking like he could be Michigan's saving grace.

Maybe things are starting to finally click. Maybe this is to a great extent a product of the competition. Like this Indiana win, it's a combination of things, of different parts at odds and yet complementary.

On the bright side for Michigan, Rudock is seasoned. A trip to Penn State and a tilt against Ohio State won't be too big of a stage. He now has 10 games under his belt as a Wolverine and took a big step forward in Bloomington, making throws requiring him to trust his receivers, throws he wasn't making early in the season (not that unmitigated trust in the receivers is always warranted, particularly given some of the route miscues early in the season).

Rudock finished an incredible 33-of-46 for 440 yards, six touchdowns and only one interception. If I gave you that stat line without telling you to whom it belonged, you'd probably think it was the work of [insert Baylor quarterback here]. But no, it was Michigan's Jake Rudock.

That stat line likely won't happen again. The reality is, however, that given the defense's situation, particularly up front, the Wolverines will again need something close to Rudock's best at Penn State, and certainly against Ohio State.

The margin for error is thin. Perhaps the defense's decline is exaggerated, but with the run game being what it is, and Michigan's special teams experiencing a sudden correction in the wrong direction, the burden will increasingly fall on the fifth-year senior from Weston, Florida.

What happens these next two weeks (and beyond) will go a long way toward determining how Rudock is remembered in Michigan lore. If Michigan plays tough but loses out (irrespective of the bowl game, pending the matchup), he'll be the caretaker quarterback who nursed Michigan through a transition year, performing to the best of his abilities. Not great, not bad, but just the right person for the moment to get Michigan through.

But if Michigan wins out, and gets the help it needs to reach Indianapolis, that's a different discussion. That's a discussion of legacy, waiting to be made.

For now, though, let's put the legacy pen back into the ink well, and wait.

Michigan heads to Happy Valley for a noon start this Saturday, playing in a place they've taken losses in 2008, 2010 and 2013. It won't quite be 1997-level "Judgment Day" hype, but it'll be something. If Michigan wins, they'll have a chance to play for a division title on Nov. 28, pending the result of this Saturday's game in Columbus.

It's mid-November, and Michigan is playing for something other than saving its coach's job. That, in and of itself, is something.

Michigan won the Big Ten in 2004, had a shot in the final game of the 2006 season and competed in 2011 (but two division losses sunk that, despite what ended up being a strong season).

This team is flawed, imperfect, a work-in-progress. Still, at 8-2, Michigan has a chance to win something that matters. Through a combination of luck, masking of said imperfections and isolated bursts of skill, Michigan has a chance to make 2015 a memorable one, not just Harbaugh's first year, or the Year that Jake Rudock Played Quarterback and Did Reasonably Fine.

For the first time in a while, Michigan is in the conversation. Forget the much-discussed top four: the playoffs are already here for the Wolverines.

These November games matter. It's an old, yet new feeling. Michigan is playing for something, even a chance at something.

It's been a while.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Michigan 49, Rutgers 16: One man can change the world

At first, I saw this tweet and laughed, like I've laughed many times before when having the pleasure of reading an amusing Harbaugh tweet, one assuredly sent without irony (which makes it all the funnier). 

Then, I thought about its content: one man can change the world. 

And really, could anything be more true for Michigan football right now? 

That man, of course, is Jabrill Peppers. 

Already up 14-3 early in the second quarter, Michigan lined up at the Rutgers 18-yard line and hit Peppers on a bubble screen to the right side. There seemed an impossible amount of traffic for the New Jersey native to wade through, like so much flotsam and jetsam crowding a shore. 

Nonetheless, Peppers weaved his way through like a talented high school player clearly operating on a different plane this his peers (which, naturally, was very much the case in Peppers' own high school career). 

Yet, this is college, and the aesthetics are much the same for the sophomore. Peppers caught it at the 25, avoided a Rutgers tackler, sped past three others through to the line of scrimmage, then locked into another gear, following a Jake Butt block past the final potential tackler into the end zone. 

Too easy. 

Even when he wasn't scoring, his mere presence makes an impact. On another play, a trio of Rutgers defenders followed him, a decoy, as if they were magnetized.

College football isn't college basketball, where one player can truly make the difference between a middling (or even slightly above average) team and a title contender.

But take Peppers away and what you have is simply a slightly better version of last year's team. A team that still has a solid defense, but probably not elite, and an offense that doesn't turn it over (as much) or get its quarterback killed via poor blocking nearly as often. Michigan would still be better by virtue of added experience and Harbaugh, but they likely wouldn't be 7-2, with a very really chance to finish the regular season 10-2 (given a little magic to close the season against the currently undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes).

Before going down with an injury, Peppers briefly flashed his raw ability early last season. But now that he's back in the lineup, he's making an impact in every phase of the game. And as eye-rollingly meathead-ish as the following is, he's also returned a bit of swagger to the University of Michigan football team that hasn't been seen in over a decade, and likely not since Charles Woodson played in Ann Arbor 748 years ago, the Heisman-winning do-everything player whose doings are recorded on papyrus, covered in vague and tremendous hieroglyphics portraying one-handed interceptions and detonations of hapless wide receiver screens in nonconference play. The language is old and not known to many, but call the Michigan sophomore Jean-Fran├žois Champollion, for he's cracked the code and is using its secrets in the present day. 

There isn't much to say about this one other than Michigan took care of a bad team the way they're supposed to, a week after the scraped by against a team they probably should not have had to scrape by.

In other spots, Jake Rudock put on his most impressive performance in the winged helmet, passing for 337 yards and two touchdowns on 18-of-25 passing, a week after being brutally knocked out a game. Sure, it was Rutgers, but the Iowa transfer didn't exactly light the world on fire against weak opponents earlier in the season, so this was progress.

When one kick return touchdown that ended up not mattering at all is the only glaringly obvious blemish in a game, you know things have gone well.

Even so, Michigan is still trying to find its mojo on the ground. De'Veon Smith carried the load with 15 carries for 73 yards, in a week when there were rumblings that Drake Johnson might have his chance at becoming the feature back. Michigan is just going to continue this Swiss Army knife, back-by-committee approach, which I think everyone, including Harbaugh, is okay with for now.

In perhaps the most unironically delightful development of the season, fullbacks Sione Houma (6 carries, 19 yards) and Joe Kerridge are actual pieces of the offense beyond the token single carry for two yards.

Michigan has had a surprisingly diverse cast of fullback types over the years (leading to its relative disappearance in the Rich Rodriguez years): Kevin Dudley, Aaron Shea, B.J. Askew and Chris Floyd, among others.

Houma and Kerridge, in their own way, are adding to that tradition. In perhaps a glossed over development of this season, the use of the fullback is one that I hope, and expect, will continue in the Harbaugh era.

And hey, if there ever was a time to be a school angling for the few fullbacks that now exist, roaming the American plains like the rare buffalo, this it it. With this one-year resume alone, the Wolverines should be in good position to possibly landing even more talented versions of guys like Houma and Kerridge going forward.

After parading through five-straight blowout, then two nail-biters, the Wolverines returned to the land of the comfortable win this past weekend. I felt bad for thinking, at several points in the second half, that this was kind of boring. But then I was quickly reminded that these sorts of wins should be appreciated, now and even long past the point that they're no longer rare.

The rest of this season, however, promises to swing the pendulum back in the other direction. Road trips to Indiana and Penn State are tougher than they might seem, and the Wolverines close the season with, well, you know who.

Peppers alone won't win Michigan those games, particularly the season finale. Even so, it's true: one man can change the world (or, in this case, a football team, if we're avoiding hyperbole).

And with the sophomore from New Jersey playing defense, offense and special teams, the Wolverines will continue to have more than a fighting chance the rest of the way.

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'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. 

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.

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.