Monday, October 10, 2011

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

I usually watch Michigan games alone.  It has been that way since I graduated college and left the communal atmosphere that makes one feel a part of the school and the games.  Being an alumni just isn't the same.  The love is there, but the camaraderie is missing.

Of course, the last few years didn't help that much.  I spent 2007 as a holdout in one final semester, most of my friends graduated and moving on with their lives, me clinging to my student tickets and the only thing that ever made sense to me: going to school.  The next two years I lived in East Lansing with a house full of MSU fans, who, while generally rational, enjoyed watching my in-game nervous twitching, tantrums, and manic depressive behavior too much for my comfort.  I spent many Saturdays in my room alone.  Last year was my first away from the Midwest, and living with a friend who couldn't have cared less about college football in any form, it was easy to find solitude in which to watch games.

In any case, the last four years of Michigan football, combined with my already nervous disposition, have driven me away from football as a communal experience.  I've become a college football hermit.


This year things are a little different.  I have more friends in the area, one of them a good college friend and one of only two people outside of my father who I go to to talk Michigan football.

I also don't have the Big Ten Network at home.  This has driven me find places outside the comfort of my house to watch games     something I'm not entirely comfortable with.  It has also driven me to sports bars more often than I would have liked.  Most games so far this year this  have been fine.  I watched the EMU game in an empty bar in Mio Michigan, I watched the SDSU game early in the afternoon in a half empty Buffalo Wild Wings that was just quiet enough for me to worry out loud and crack jokes to the others at my table, and I watched the Minnesota game at a friend's apartment as he got ready to watch the MSU game at 3:30.  All three cases were low stress.  Games were never in doubt, and I never had cause to flip out*.

Saturday night for the Northwestern game a few of us decided to go back to BWW.  I got there early and found a table right under a screen already tuned to the Big Ten network.  The Virginia Tech game was in the final minute (living in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, this is overwhelmingly the favorite team despite the a heavy military presence) and the whole place had a great college football buzz, different cheers erupting from corners of the bar, everyone closely following a game, and occasionally the majority of the place hooting and hollering at the game in Blacksburg.

Then the Tech game ended and the crowd started to thin out just as my blood pressure was rising.  The beginning of the Michigan game quickly went from ideal to, well, less than ideal.  You already know that part.

As the second quarter started the mood in the bar changed.  It was a UFC fight night, and slowly the place started to fill up with people waiting for the fight.  Pretty soon our TV got changed one of the under card fights and we had to track down the nearest manager to get BTN back, but not without hearing that no matter what, at nine o'clock the big screens were all going to be turned to the fight, and we would have to make due with a smaller TV tucked away  in a corner somewhere.  Over the noise of the patrons was the juke box playing just about everything I don't want to hear during a Michigan game with the exception of In The Big House     thank god for small miracles.

I don't know what your thoughts, dear reader, are on MMA fighting.  Whether you fancy it the sport of gentlemanly combat between well-trained chiseled Adonises, or a brutal Romanesque spectacle that excites only the basest instincts of meat heads and forearm tattoo enthusiasts** is immaterial.  What is most egregious in this writer's mind is the fact that on a football Saturday, with a handful of great college games available, the sports bar's main interest was showing an MMA fight.  Don't even get me started on the fact that the ALCS was shown on one TV, tucked away almost directly behind a large pillar***.

The crowd and the noise and the infuriating string of interceptions was too much, and by the time Pat Fitzgerald was lobbying for two seconds to be put back on the clock     all the while I couldn't tell what the hell was happening     I made up my mind.  The prospect of watching the second half of Michigan's return-to-earth game in a packed bar cheering for blood was too much.  I called a friend that I knew had BTN, asked if we could head over, and by the midpoint of halftime we had paid our bills and left.

*(Contrast this to the Notre Dame game, which I watched alone in my room in a depressed funk, then state of charged ecstasy.)

**(Seriously, I'm usually not one to stereotype, but by the fourth person who walked past in an Affliction t-shirt with some ridiculous forearm tattoo, I knew something was up and the congenial college football atmosphere had taken a turn for the worst.)

***(Like watching a game at old Tiger Stadium.  Am I right, folks?  Am I right?  I'll be here all night.)


I guess where I am going with all of this has less to do with the external environment of watching football than the things going on in my head (although to be fair, I am never going to watch a Michigan game in BWW again as a matter of principle.  Your boneless wings may be tasty and your large glasses of beer cheap, but you insistence on deifying MMA fighting is an outrage, but I digress).

I guess I have been spoiled as a fan.  I have for the most part stayed away from sports bars, avoided hostile fan bases (never once going to see Michigan play an away game other that the '07 Rose Bowl, which don't get me started on that), and been able to crawl inside a cocoon of self loathing and defeatist cries at every wrong turn.

Are other people miserable to watch Michigan football around, or is it me?  I'm afraid to answer that.
This game was no different.  I like to joke that the repeated blows of the last few years have hardened me to the failures of my alma mater, that I have become numb to incompetence and defeat.  This is a lie I tell myself so I feel better during all those hours I'm not actively freaking out about Michigan football.  I'm not numb to defeat, I find defeat in everything and constantly expect the worst.

This game was no different.  I spent the entire first half miserable about the failure of Denard Robinson to throw to his receivers, the failure of the defense to stop the Northwestern speed option, and the failure of Al Borges to stop calling The Most Surprising Waggle In History.

I wonder if this is it.  If I have been broken.  Have I wound myself too tightly in the success and failure of this team?  Do I not give the coaching staff enough credit when it comes to subtle in game adjustments and fixing player mistakes during the game?  Will every October bring a feeling of impending doom, as if it is only a matter of time before the other shoe falls and I end up pouring over recruiting rankings and repeating, "next year, next year" to myself like a crazy person?

I don't know the answer, but I certainly hope not.  This game is too much fun to take too seriously, and the players on the field work too hard to judge on the basis of wins and losses.  I would still think the world of Denard Robinson if he threw three more interceptions in the second half.  It would still be an honor to have Jordan Kovacs on the team even if he kept missing tackles on the option that led to touchdowns.


I know the cosmos doesn't care how I watch football and whatever higher power is up there has more important things to worry about than some neurotic 26 year old fan getting too worked up over things he can't control.  But it still feels like this season so far has been about healing the fan base.  Slow first halves give way to strong finishes.  Early mistakes are corrected during the game.  The impending October collapse is shaken off as Denard Robinson settles himself in the pocket and leads the team to four touchdowns on five drives in the second half.

I have no illusions of this team going undefeated.  It could very well lose next week to Michigan State.  But I am starting to get more comfortable with the idea that sometimes a loss is just a loss, and not a sign that the universe is unraveling at the seams.

But don't ask me my thoughts on that next Saturday.

Baby steps.


Now, what you are really here for: actual football talk.


  • I don't know if I have ever seen an athlete capable of a greater range of play than Denard Robinson.  Between everything that happened last year, and the two comebacks this year, we have seen Denard at his absolute best, absolute worst, and everything in between.  This time we must make no excuses. Denard was just flat out bad in the first half Saturday.  Some interceptions are great plays (look at the INT Nebraska had against OSU late in their game), some interceptions are lucky bounces (Brandin Hawthorne nods knowingly), and some are just putrid throws that are completely inexcusable.
  • That being said, Denard was pretty friggin' awesome in the second half.  He looked like a new quarterback.  He was patient in the pocket and on target with his throws.  If we get that Denard the rest of the season we win every game.  We won't get that Denard the entire rest of the season.  It has become a matter of how long he shows up.  Some games we don't need him (EMU, SDSU), some games we only need him for a quarter (ND, WMU), and some games more like a half (NU).  You can bet we will need three quarters of Good Denard if we want to beat Michigan State this weekend and Nebraska/Illinois/OSU in the future.
  • The running backs were quiet, but one thing I really enjoyed was seeing Michael Shaw get a chance to play.  It grew increasingly obvious that the only way we would pick up yards on NU was to get the ball outside the tackles     a Mike Shaw specialty.  I still like the Fitz/Vince one two punch, but it is nice to know we can go to the well and change up the strategy if need be.  Shaw only finished with 25 yards, but he did it on just six carries (4.2 ypc) and got a touchdown out of it.
  • Junior Hemingway was back in a big way, and goddamn can that man high-point a ball.  Any other receiver and I would call that first jump ball a product of luck (I'm looking at you Roy Roundtree, and also the CB that didn't turn around to see the ball almost hit him in the helmet), but with Junior the jump ball is more of an art.  In basketball some guys just know how to rebound; they understand innately how to get position under the basket, what angle to expect the ball to carom off the rim at, and when to jump.  Junior is exceptionally good at doing this on the football field.  I bet he is one helluva IM basketball player.
  • I would like to kindly ask Al Borges to stop running The Most Surprising Waggle In History, but I'll be damned if the thing didn't work a couple times.  Sure, Denard's first throw was inches away from being of the hair-pulling variety, but the offense converted a couple times.  Still, it is pretty bad when I can announce every I-form tight play as The Most Surprising Waggle In History to the room and be right 90% of the time.  Who wants to bet Michigan State isn't fooled.
  • Taylor Lewan, you got lucky on this one.  Savor it, because it isn't happening again.
  • I hoped the offense would do a bit better than 3.6 ypc against Northwestern, but I will chalk that up to the Wildcats being a stout run defense team, and not our offense being ineffective running the ball with anyone but Denard in games against anyone but Minnesota.  We will know for sure next week.  Michigan State has a pretty damn good front seven.
  • Speaking of pretty damn good front sevens, I liked the way the defensive line and linebackers got after Persa and the Northwestern running game.  It is important to keep in mind the injuries to Mike Trumpy and Dan Persa (who wasn't 100%), but I thought NU did a great job integrating Kain Colter into the game plan, and the defensive line did a great job disrupting things once it got its footing.
  • Other than the speed option.  This is troubling, especially because the two toughest opponents left after Michigan State are all teams that can and will spread the field and look to exploit defensive breakdowns with quick option plays.  Persa picking apart the defense through the air was one thing, but the fact that the speed option picked up yards nearly every time*.  Also, the tackling on the speed option looked 2010-esque.  Even Kovacs whiffed on one tackle, leading to a touchdown.  By far the worst aspect of the defense all day.  This same rant could be used to bemoan being bubble screened to death, but Mattison did a good job covering the slot in the second half and slowing that down.
  • Other than that missed tackle, Kovacs had another good day, and Thomas Gordon was good as well, especially on his strip and fumble recovery.  Two good safeties?  Something about that just doesn't seem fair.  I didn't know teams could do that.
  • Blake Countess.  Yeah, I know he got beat by a step on the long pass in the second quarter, but other than that he looks very solid out there.  I am excited to see how this develops.
  • Big Will Campbell also had a nice sack late.  I haven't watched the entire game replay yet to try and pinpoint his contribution (trying to play the 5GB torrent I downloaded was pretty much akin to pouring molasses on my two-year-old laptop) but rumblings from around the blogosphere are positive.  (Insert burned red shirt rant)
  • It was nice to see the defense as a whole step up so much in the second half after allowing 24 points and looking almost completely helpless in the first half.
  • One last note: 14/17 on third down.  I was shocked when I read that stat on Sunday.  It really puts Denard's interceptions into perspective.  If he wasn't stopping the offense, nothing else was on Saturday.  One of the best third down percentages I can remember against a team with a pulse.
*(The one time it didn't: fourth and one.  However, this was a speed option run to the short side of the field with a visibly slowed Dan Persa instead of Kain Colter.  The Michigan defense blew the play up, but the play call did not put NU in a position to succeed.)


Last week I said we couldn't learn anything at all from the Minnesota game.  This week I'm still not sure what we can take away specifically about the offense or defense.

However, the one thing I did learn is that it will be hard to count this team out with all the play makers on it.  Now that there is a coaching staff that's adjustments are more than switching stuffed animals at halftime, this team can finally start growing into something better week by week.

I'll probably still be a nervous wreck, though.

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