Monday, September 20, 2010

Looking for a Silver Lining: UMass

A superior Michigan team took the field early on Saturday against an outmatched opponent.  Most figured the game was simply a tune up for more important games in the future.  A chance to rest starters and give younger back ups a few game time reps.  Michigan doesn't lose games like this.

The underdogs had other plans.  They shocked the favored Wolverines early, forcing turnovers and stealing an early lead.  Like a prizefighter who comes in complacent the home team was knocked on its heels, but soon stormed back to reclaim the halftime lead.  The Wolverines kept the foot on the gas pedal in the third, but a funny thing happened in the final quarter of play:  the underdogs wouldn't go away.  Capitalizing on defensive mistakes and a shift in momentum the game closed in to within one score late, and it looked like the unthinkable might happen.

We know how the story ends.  Michigan held off Ball St.'s late charge for the win.  A team that had looked invincible against superior competition earlier in the year came out flat and couldn't sustain a defensive effort.

What does a Michigan team with the best defense of the last dozen years edging out a MAC team have to do with this year's incarnation of the Wolverines holding on to win against a scrappy UMass squad?

Both were victories.

I was just as angry as everyone else for the first 28 minutes of the game Saturday.  Wasn't that sequence of events what we had all feared all week?  Not UMass capitalizing on a couple fluke plays or a defensive touchdown swinging momentum in favor of the Minutemen (a la Toledo), but a disciplined UMass team stepping on to the field like they belonged and executing plays with startling efficiency.  The real test for this Michigan team was to see if they would be able to build a lead early and dominate a Minutemen team en route to a comfortable victory.  It didn't happen.

Raise your hand if you saw this upset coming.
Football can be a fluky sport.  It is why the expression "they don't play the games on paper" is thrown around so often.  Even teams with huge advantages in personnel and coaching find themselves victims of random chance and slow starts.  USC has made a living of dropping the most unlikely games over the past few years to screw their chances for a shot at the BCS title.  How do you dominate BCS bowl games, win all your marquee out of conference games, only to drop a game to Washington or Stanford?  Even a team that has a two-deep littered with NFL caliber talent takes its lumps sometimes.  It's why we play the games.

By all accounts, Michigan should have had a relatively easy time on Saturday.  Not quite an Oregon-like de-pantsing of some patsy by 60 plus points, but a comfortable victory where the favorite takes a stranglehold early and puts up around 40 points while only allowing a couple late touchdowns.  There is always the argument to be made for UMass being a legitimate opponent (Sagarin ranks the Minutemen 72nd this week after placing them 69th last week.  Better than both MSU's previous week warm up games FWIW), but the fact of the matter is good teams routinely come out and take care of business in these games.

It is easy to find bad omens in what happened Saturday.  Thirty-seven points allowed to an FCS team on 439 yards of offense.  A ypc of 4.4 and two forced turnovers.  A distinct advantage in time of possession.  These aren't debatable, but they miss the larger point.  Even after dropping behind by 10 points late in the second quarter, Michigan stormed back to take a lead in at halftime.  As the worn down defense gave up yards and a bad special teams mistake let the Minutemen back in the game, the Wolverines did what it took to stay ahead and finish the game with a win.

Good teams routinely take care of business in these games, but sometimes good teams have to find a way to win when things go wrong.  This hasn't been the case the last couple years.  Michigan has dropped winnable games the last two years in the final minutes.  Purdue has beat Michigan twice this way, MSU did it in overtime, Iowa prevailed by stopping a late drive last year, Illinois turned a momentum swing into a crushing victory, and the Toledo game happened (and that is all I will say about that).  All these games are examples of the Wolverines being unable to overcome mistakes, unable to hold on to leads, and unable to escape close games with wins.

Yes, it is "just UMass."  But ask yourself how this game would have turned out last year or the year before?  What happened on the field for the first 59 minutes was a mix of some spectacular plays and a whole lot of face-palm moments.  However, if you allow yourself to overlook the end result   another one in the win column   you miss another sign of growth from this team.

The Wolverines walked off the field as winners on Saturday.  It wasn't pretty, but a win is a win.

After the last two years, I'll take it.

Boom Denard'd

1 comment:

  1. This is sort of what Carr said, too (look for "3-0 Wolverines"):