Tuesday, November 29, 2011

That is Defining Their Legacy

He's hungry.


You can't blame him; all he's been fed for the past three years is crap.  "Hey Denard, you can't throw."  "Hey Denard, you can't win."  "Hey Denard, you can't play in a pro-style offense."  He has listened to it all since high school when no one knew what to think of him, told him he'd be a corner back or a slot receiver, and he knows they still don't know what to think of him now.  Five-feet-eleven in the spikes he would probably run out of even if they were tied, big million dollar grin that he can't help but constantly wear because he still isn't comfortable with all the attention, and dreads that cover up his name unless someone misses a tackle and he gets a crease     then the dreads and the shoes both hang on for dear life.  He's hungry.  He wants this for the seniors, for his coach, for Michigan.  He's been here before.  Knows the game.  Knows that if you want to walk out a winner you have to turn this:

...into this:

...in the fourth quarter.  He's made the mistakes in the past and watched chances slip away.

This time he made his mistake, but he wouldn't let it define him.  He pushed piles and cut back for more yards and waited impossibly long in the pocket to find a receiver.  He refused to let them be overcome by his mistake, so he finished the game with five touchdowns.

Hey, a man's gotta eat.

* * *

He's smiling.

It wasn't always easy to smile.  He knows that.  He has been through worse things than 3-9 or 5-7 and he knows that there is unfair and then there is unfair.  But he never let it affect him.  He just worked harder than the other guys and went from this to this:

He is the guy that swears in press conferences, makes an entire internet community love the reach-block as if it were as easy to appreciate as its highlight-reel cousins the perfectly-thrown-fade and the open-field-juke, and he routinely leaves linebackers curled up in a heap on the second level as someone else runs past with the ball thankful that mean number 50 is the one leading the way.  Those little guys from Florida or Ohio would follow him anywhere.  He does it because that's how he plays football     the only way he knows how.  You work harder than the other guy in the weight room, study harder than the other guy in the film room, then you line up across from him and administer 60 minutes of hell.  Somebody's got to pay, only then he can smile.

But only for a little bit.  Then it's back to work.

Photo credit: Heiko
* * *

He's relieved.

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
“I’ve always said my dream has always been to catch a touchdown in the Ohio State-Michigan game. I finally did that, so that means a lot to me and my family."

That is what he tells reporters after the game.  This was his dream.

But everything else must have been like waking up from a long nightmare.  He was the last player to come to Michigan that also held an Ohio State offer, and he watched the team he committed to play for fall on hard times from almost the very day he stepped on campus.  He has known nothing else, a senior whose career has been spent in a group of 18-22 year-old college kids collectively trying to claw the program back up from the worst records in school history, the first season he knew as a player.  The whole time losing to that team from Ohio that he turned down.

He is relieved because he worked hard, because it turns out the thing he thought he loved, the thing they all thought they loved when they committed would ask more of them than they could have ever imagine, and in the end he is relieved because they answered that call and left Michigan football in better condition than they found it.

He was the last player to commit to Michigan over Ohio State.  Saturday he got the final touchdown in a game against Ohio State.  His dream come true.

* * *

They're embarrassed.

It may not look like it, but they aren't happy with what happened out there.  They are better than that and they know it.  Everybody knows it, and now people actually listen.  They don't just hear excuses or laugh at the rankings.  This isn't last year.  The stuffed beavers are long gone from the sidelines so is the guy with the silver head of hair and all the confusion.  Everybody else is there, and now everybody is accountable, and it is their defense.

They take pride in it.  All of them do.  That's what he wants.  He wants it to be their defense so he teaches them the best way he knows how then he let's them take control of it.  That's why they are embarrassed.  Because they are better than 34 points allowed.  They are better than missed assignments in the secondary and long third-down conversion scrambles.  They don't settle for being just a good defense, and that is part of what makes them great.

* * *

They're even out there at all.

That was hardly guaranteed for either.  Both have spent the past few years battling through every injury and ailment you could think up.  Broken bones and muscle pulls and bruises and even a case of mononucleosis have stood between them and the field at various times.  Yet they both kept going, let time heal old wounds and came back tougher, stronger.

One of them is a leaper who is second to none at high pointing a jump ball and bringing it down.  He's the one Jim Brandstatter calls Big Play     and for good reason.  You throw the ball impossibly high or into double coverage and it just doesn't matter.  He will get it, then he will fight for more yards.

The other is a tiny Floridian mountain goat that blocks like that piece of dirt you are standing on right there is his and he damn well plans on taking it back.  He showed up "too small" to handle Big Ten football ended up earning his way on the field immediately by being the toughest son of a bitch out there.  Four years later he's still the toughest son of a bitch out there.

And both of them were Out There on Saturday.

* * *

He's arrived.

And he's putting everyone on notice.

He could have fallen by the wayside.  Became another ghost from the second hand accounts of practice that you can almost picture get passed along to guys like Brian as whispers from dark corners of dimly lit parking garages; water dripping into storm drains, traffic off in the distance, and the echo of squealing tires all bouncing through different levels like your reflection in a house of mirrors     distorted sound coming at you from all directions.  Woodward and Bernstein got Watergate.  Brian Cook gets "that kid whose name sounds like he should be playing jazz in Midtown Manhattan in the 50's is really wowing everyone at camp."  All but for the injuries.  The shoulder, the knee, it seemed like he would be one of those players that was only ever healthy enough to be a myth.  Not anymore.  Now he is a thousand-yard back who makes this happen:

And still cuts back into the defender because there are five more yards there, dammit.

* * *

At no point was it easy.  I wasn't supposed to be.

Why would the breaks start now?  This is the game that Michigan wasn't supposed to lose until the game started, and then it seemed like a repeat of every other year.  The Denard fumble, the overturned Fitz touchdown, Will Hagerup encapsulating everything the internet loves about college football in one .GIF.  Why else would Braxton Miller play like the bastard son of Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor?  Things go wrong when you play Ohio State: Shawn Crable throws a late hit out of bounds, Michigan gains less than 100 yards in a rainstorm, a prevent defense and a nine point lead is shredded in the final eight minutes, a six-win Buckeye team walks away with a three score victory.

This is how Michigan loses to the Buckeyes.

This is how Michigan used to lose to the Buckeyes.

The fact that Michigan won this game is far and away the most important thing to take away.  Michigan won.  Against Ohio State.  That is, and forever will be, enough.

However, few things could make it more meaningful and cathartic than winning despite the misfortune.  Early in the game Michigan forced a fumble on a Buckeye kick return.  The ball floated skyward and slipped past Courtney Avery into DeVier Posey's hands.  It was a harbinger of things to come.  There would be no gimmes this time.  The team was going to have to work even harder.

This season has been one largely of blessings.  Fortunate bounces and big plays at the right time.  If there is one thing that this team has had all season     that is only more notable because of it being mostly absent the last few years     it's a knack for being in the right place at the right time.  Brandon Herron's two touchdown day, jumpball-a-poolloza, the second half against Northwestern, the third-down stops, the fumble recoveries, all of it seemed to happen at the exact right time.  Even in losses Michigan had doors opened for them, golden opportunities in the form of phantom fumbles and lucky bounces, yet the Wolverines simply failed to capitalize on them.

In this game, however, there would be none.  Braxton Miller played the best game of his life, Denard and Hagerup gave up game changing fumbles, and the game-icing touchdown was called back on a review only to be followed by the second game-icing touchdown being called back on a penalty.

If you didn't at least think of 2004 or 2005 or 2006 for an instant after that happened and the Buckeyes got the ball with two minutes left and only down six points, then you obviously didn't watch any of the games.  We'd seen all this before.  Michigan had done all it could and Ohio State was still going to get the chance to steal a victory.

Then something funny happened.  The defense made a couple of plays, Ohio State missed on what would have been the go-ahead touchdown pass, and then all but sealed it with an ill-advised spike on third-down at midfield.  Those are our mistakes.  That is how Michigan loses the Game.  That is how Michigan used to lose the Game.

Finally, Courtney Avery tipped the ball to himself, the whole place went berserk, and I walked around my house grinning like an idiot in total silence for the next half hour.

* * *

They call themselves Team 132.  There were 131 before them and God willing there will be 131 after (who knows what football will look like in 2142 but its hard not to think that Denard Robinson is some kind of evolutionary leap toward the future).  Some of these young men played on the worst team in 129 years.  A little less than half of them were part of the worst defense in 131 years.  Still, they all stayed.  They wouldn't fracture and crumble like the last time.

The win in the Game on Saturday was the first since I was a freshman in college.  At that time I had only met my eventual college roommate and best friend once     as he drunkenly introduced himself by his then-roommate's name at 3am one Saturday night, leading to a month of confusion over which one of them was which.  In the time since we have both graduated and worked a couple different jobs, he got married (an gave me the honor of being one of his groomsmen), and I moved 12-hours away and started writing here.  The whole time we have known each other we bonded over a shared love of Michigan football, celebrated all the wonderful wins, and talked each other off the ledge through the most heartbreaking defeats.  I called him for the last two minutes of the game on Saturday.  It only seemed right.

We throw around the words of our coaching idols a lot, we cite The Team (The Team, The Team), talk about everyone being All-In, and remind ourselves in bad times that Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.  But it isn't us.

On Saturday, those young men lived up to all of it.  They stayed through the worst period of Michigan football any of us have ever seen, they had to live with it all every single day, this wasn't their distraction from real life.  It was real life.  We have heard their stories and grown attached to them and now it is hard to feel anything but happy for every one of those kids.

They stayed, and they got their win over Ohio.
Quint Kessenich:  "How did your seniors define their legacy today?"
Hoke:  "Well, see 'em down there right now, that's defining their legacy."
Kessenich:  "Whats it like for you coach to win ten   "
Hoke: "Aw, I'm so, it doesn't matter, I'm happy for those kids, that's what this game is all about."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Moving On from Three and Out

(This started out as simply a quick essay on my thoughts about Three and Out, but after the weekend it morphed into something different     and, um, considerably longer.  I'm still not sure if that is entirely good or bad.  You be the judge.)

I studied history at the university.

It didn't start like that.  First it was philosophy, inspired by my father who always had a deep interest in the subject and had studied it himself while attending UofM Flint.  I enjoyed philosophy, but I suspect that was more of a function of how easy I found it.  Philosophy was always my comfort zone.  Writing last minute papers on close readings of Hobbes or Locke was second nature to me.  For a college freshman/sophomore still dealing with a transition away from the structure of high school and toward the freedom of college, something I could largely do while on cruise control was very attractive.

That never changed, but I soon began to realize that a philosophy degree was about the equivalent of a degree in ancient pottery or Ojibwa     it was unjustifiable in a larger sense unless I planned to make a career out of it.  I didn't.  I had taken enough philosophy to be exposed to the grad students in the subject, whose long discussions with professors only vaguely resembled the language I spoke in class.  I was good at philosophy and I knew it.  But they were great, and I knew that too.

Besides, there was always another love of mine: history.

It would be a full year of college before I took a history class, and it wasn't until late in my senior year that I decided to take the three extra classes required to move my history minor into a second concentration.  I'll admit that this switch was partly driven by the fear of being A Philosophy Major* and having to confront the sideways glances that would follow for the next decade when I tried to explain why on earth someone would choose to major in something that didn't easily translate into a 40-hour-per-week office job (So I added a history concentration.  Go figure).  More than that, however, was simply that as long as I could remember I loved reading about history.  When I think of the things I am proud of, academically speaking, in my years before college, I inevitably think of the book on the Civil War that I must have had checked out of the library for two months during fourth grade, a book that I furiously consumed as if it had been written just for me.  Or I think of my first long research paper assignment as a ninth grader when I wrote twelve pages on the underlying causes and the far reaching consequences of the Montgomery Bus Boycott; dozens of notecards that contained hours of research all scattered across the floor in an intricately arranged web that would soon come together on the page before me.  Finally, for a number of poorly thought out personal reasons     not the least of which was a chance to get football season tickets one last time     sticking around Ann Arbor for one last semester was appealing.

Whatever my reasoning, I ended up graduating in December of 2007 with a double major in History and Philosophy.  I could say, "and I never looked back" here, but that would be a lie.  I looked back early and often, but that is another post for another blog.

*(Ironically enough, the fear of a "worthless degree" was one of the things I mentioned to Jonathon Marwill, my adviser in the history department and the professor of 20th Century American Wars     the class that inspired me to dive headfirst into history on the college level.  His advice, and I am paraphrasing here, "If the only reason you are sticking around is to turn a history minor into a second concentration, you're just wasting time and money.  A double major in this is worthless unless you plan on going to grad school in history."  My response might as well have been, "yeah, but...football."  In the end, he was probably right, but I'd like to think I got enough out of my history colloquium to make it worthwhile.  The 2007 football season certainly wasn't as rewarding as I had anticipated.)

* * *

During the tail end of the Great Rich Rodriguez Debate of 2010, I had moved over to write for Maize n' Brew at the request of MnB Dave, a friend and someone who supported my writing from very early on.  It was on that site that I became the last of the Richrod-apologists; at least that is how most of the regular commentariat saw me as.  As the rest of the contributors slowly Had Enough of it all and began to argue for a quick end to the Rodriguez experiment, I would write articles calling for patience, putting offensive numbers into what I thought was proper perspective (not as good as they looked to the advanced stats, but too adversely affected by the horrible defense and special teams), and lamenting, "if we only had a defense."

There was on particular commenter on the site who became incredulous with every new post.  The gist of his  criticisms were always the same: it didn't matter Why Rodriguez was failing, it only mattered That it was happening.  Inevitably this would be the first shot in a long series of comments in which I would offer a litany of explanations as to why there was a disparity between offensive yards and points (youth, first year starter at quarterback, etc.) or why the defense was universally bad against everything (a porous secondary limited the options of the defensive coordinator, and it didn't help that the coordinator in question was Gerg).  He would then counter with the arguments that the offense was bad against anything resembling a good defense (something I still don't buy, but don't care to argue about; water under the bridge and all) and that the specific failings with the defense ultimately came down to Rodriguez no matter what the cause (something that one would have to be pretty myopic to dismiss out of hand).

This would go on and on and on until we both worked our way back to the same impasse: I cared about Why things were happening, he cared That they were happening.  We begrudgingly agreed to disagree, until the next time.

I can't say that his viewpoint is necessarily wrong.  We live in a results based society and it is hard to gloss over the fact that in bare-bones results     wins and losses     Rodriguez was mediocre at best.  However, one day I was fed up enough that I sat down to articulate just why I felt so compelled to break down the failings and successes of Rodriguez as his coaching tenure, unbeknownst to any of us, wound down.

It was history.  Living, breathing history.

What I was watching was a stand-in for the things I learned about in college.  Here were real life conflicts, actions, and motives all played out on the contained stage of a sports arena and press room.  I wasn't watching the rise and fall of an empire, but I was watching a free standing analogy: the rise and fall of a football team.  This turbulent time in Michigan's history was like a stage play in which the scale is smaller and the characters fewer, but the underlying issues: the tension and stubbornness and ulterior motives, all still exist and drive the plot forward.  The whole thing felt like a tragedy**.

And just like with the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement, the Why wasn't just one thing that mattered; it was the only thing that mattered.  That MnB commenter was concerned with the equivalent of high school history*: "The Rich Rodriguez regime began on December 17th, 2007 and ended on January 5th, 2011.  While there he was involved in the battle of the Freep-Jihad, lost three times to the Spartans of East Lansing and Buckeyes of Columbus and he ended with a record of 15-22."

This was multiple choice shit, the kind of history that doesn't deepen understanding for the future.  It is date memorization for the sake of memorizing important dates.  It is rudimentary and shortsighted, and in the end it ignores the one maxim we all hold true about history: he who fails to understand history is doomed to repeat it.

I bristled at the idea of the Rich Rodriguez era being reduced to just a collection of numbers, start and end dates.  There was more to it than that.  Don't tell me what, tell me why.  The whole thing had grown in my mind.  Not only was this three year saga its own mini-history which I could chart along through the months and years, but it became a philosophical battle that attempted to pin down the essence of Michigan Men vs. Outsiders, what exactly constitutes "Big Ten Football", and how many times one man can shoot himself in the face and survive.

Granted, a part of me wanted to be right     not the most noble justification for three years of being an argumentative asshole     but there was also a lot of curiosity. 

*(I know that this is a very disparaging characterization of the whole anti-Rodriguez crowd's raison d'etre, and I do believe that some people on the other side of the aisle had spent just as much time thinking about the Why as I had, only to come to a different conclusion.  Rest assured, this analogy doesn't apply to everyone that disagreed with me.  It only applies to the people who dismissed any discussion of Why out of hand.)

**(I, of course, mean this in a strictly literary way.)

* * *

Luckily for all of us, someone well qualified to parse out the Rodriguez coaching experiment was on hand to witness it all and report back.

I am of course speaking of John U. Bacon's book Three and Out.  I finished it a couple nights ago, in what was just under a week of reading whenever I could find time.  It was simultaneously a hard book to put down and hard to keep going.

Unlike most of the non-fiction that I read, this story was all too familiar to me.  It was fresh in my mind from wounds that were still not healed.  So many mid-season collapses kept fresh by this year's team (briefly, and probably only in the mind of the media and fatalistic fans like myself) teetering on the edge of the same fate.  Every transfer this year takes me back to another player who transferred under similar circumstances during Rodriguez's tenure.  I am still very much chained to the three years of Rich Rodriguez.  Brady Hoke is here, and he has my full support, but that doesn't mean that everything he does isn't judged against the record of Rich Rodriguez (or more appropriately: everything Rich Rodriguez failed to do is judged against the success of Brady Hoke).

There were times I wanted to put the book down.  When Bacon began to allude to a change in defensive coordinators between 2008 and 2009 I wanted to stop.  When the first mumbles of the Free Press story began to crop up I wanted to walk away.  When the back to back games against Illinois and Purdue in 2009 were on the horizon I wanted desperately to look away as if to avert my eyes from a brutal car crash.  Before the mid-season collapse of 2010 I almost put the book down again.  Finally, it was so painful to read the penultimate chapter about the 2010 football bust that I wanted with all of my being to jump inside the pages, and go at the cord to the Laurel Manor sound system like an ax-weilding Pete Seeger in an attempt to change the course of history.

Instead, I kept reading.

Finally, last week I finished the book.  I was exhausted and angry and sad.  Many of my suspicions were confirmed and many events I thought I understood were put in greater context with an inside look at how the players and coaches dealt with them.

I have no grand conclusion; no point by point review of the book.  It was not perfect (as has been widely noted, some of the game summaries are inaccurate     a glaring mistake for a book ostensibly about the games on the field) but if you are a fan of Michigan football, you should read this book no questions asked.  (Although if you are reading this, odds are you already have.)  In the past year I have read a few very good non-fiction books about sports* and this one holds up well.  Bacon is certainly sympathetic to Rodriguez, but the overall conclusion of the book     that this was a collection of individual failures rather than that of one man     is accurate given everything we now know.

The two biggest characters other than Rodriguez are arguably the two ghosts floating around the football facilities     only one of whom by choice.  If this is a book about the presence of Rich Rodriguez as Michigan's head football coach, it is equally about the absence of Lloyd Carr and Bo Schembechler.  Just like with any history, it is easy to wonder "what if" in regards to those two names.  One thing is certain, the story would be a whole lot different.

Writing this around the five year anniversary of Bo's death, it is easy to get caught up wondering how Bo would have handled things.  My deep and profound respect for the man was only made greater by reading Three and Out and hearing just how wide reaching and beneficial his influence on the program had been since his arrival.  It is hard to fault any man for failing to fill his shoes     even someone as beholden to Bo as Lloyd Carr is     because Bo's greatness was almost otherworldly.  He seemed almost capable of being the program's patriarch by force of personality alone, as if the wins and speeches flowed out from his power and influence, not the other way around.  That isn't an easy thing for any man to aspire to, and it would be disingenuous to try.  The very reason Bo was what he was to the program was his complete and utter lack of personal aspiration.  He acted For Michigan.  Everything else came second.

At the same time, however, it is hard not to wonder if the memory of Bo, and his deification within the program was ultimately responsible for the cultural tension between the old guard     mostly Carr's camp     and the new coaching staff.  Most of the clashes that Rodriguez had within the Michigan family were with those from the Carr years, the players who never knew Schembechler as The Coach.  He was simply Bo to them.  His legend had already been written.  They then twisted and distorted that greatness to fit their own desires.  They elevated an ideal     the Michigan man     without understanding what it was.  It became a rallying, a justification to do what they wanted, not to do what needed to be done.

When I was young my father pointed me to his favorite chapter is Aldous Huxley's Eyeless in Gaza.  I have read this chapter dozens of times (though I have not yet read the complete book).  In the chapter Huxley writes about peace and patriotism and the capacity for humans to treat each other in a benign manner.  One part has always stuck out to me:
One of the great attractions of patriotism     it fulfills our worst wishes.  In the person of our nation we are able, vicariously, to bully and cheat.  Bully and cheat, what's more, with a feeling that we're profoundly virtuous.  Sweet and decorous to murder, lie torture for the sake of the fatherland.  
After reading Three and Out it seems to me that the same could be said of school spirit, Michigan arrogance, or whatever you wish to call it.  That we love our university enough to hold it above all others speaks to its deep and profound effect our time there had on each of us who attended classes in Angell Hall or studied for hours in the north stacks or drank cheap beer on Saturday mornings before a football game.  But losing perspective when it comes to school spirit can be dangerous.  When we elevate what it means to be a part of The Michigan Family above the day to day acts: carrying yourself with grace and dignity, doing good works for your fellow man, holding close the opportunities that your connection to Michigan has provided you while doing your best to keep the place you love worthy of the love of future generations.

In my mind, Rich Rodriguez did all of that.  The guilt lies with those who are ever guiltless.  The ones who said "This is Michigan" so as to be xenophobic and closed off and have to this day never thought twice about what was them putting themselves above Michigan.  The Michigan I know accepts everyone.  No one can be a Michigan Man before he steps foot on campus.  It is what you do with your time, how you carry yourself, and how you ultimately give back to the place that has given you the opportunity that matters.

I love my school, but the way some great men and women acted from 2008 to 2010 will forever leave me saddened.  That wasn't the Michigan that I know and love.

*(Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam, The Franchise by Cameron Stauth, and Playing for Keeps by David Halberstam.  I highly recommend all three for basketball fans of any kind.)

* * *

When I finished the book last week it was late at night, but I couldn't go to sleep so I pulled up MGoBlog to catch up on the day's reading.  I glanced over the always stellar Mid-Week Metric before diving into the main course: the Defensive UFR for Illinois 2011.  Optimism, man.  I'm still not wired to handle it.

I was still haunted by the same demons of the last three years: the thought that good games aren't indicative of a larger trend while bad games are almost always a sure sign that the sky is falling.  It is a hard habit to break.

Then, Saturday happened.

I don't mean this to say that with a dominating win over Nebraska that Michigan is Back.  I don't think it is that simple and any discussion of it inevitably devolves into some stupid argument trying to pinpoint if we ever left at all and where Back really is.  Is Back national championships?  We have one in the past fifty years.  Rose Bowl wins?  Hah.  Big Ten titles?

Besides, when people talk about getting Michigan back to where it was, they aren't really saying what they think they are.  Brian at MGoBlog took the words right out of my mouth when he said:

"If this feels like getting back to Michigan, it's the Michigan of your dreams, the Michigan you left back in Peoria when you shipped to Saigon. You've got one good picture of her and she's that pretty every day in an ugly place.
"This Is Michigan" is about the idea, not the reality—at least not a reality from the last 20 years. So far. Days like Saturday inch us closer to the picture in our heads."
That was ultimately the feeling that struck me on Saturday.  Sometime during the fourth quarter as Michigan was slowly squeezing the life out of Nebraska in all three phases of the game I stopped and realized just what I was feeling.

There was no angst, no worry of how this win was going to affect the program in three or four years or if it would be an effective bargaining chip the coach could use later.  I wasn't waiting for the offense to grow up or the defense to build depth or the special teams period.  I wasn't worried about being caught in a perpetual state of ten-wins and a BCS-bowl loss in a fading regime.  I didn't panic that our two score lead wouldn't hold up down the stretch because the team would jump into a prevent defense and go super conservative on offense.  There was no past or future.

It was just a football game.

The last time I felt like that was in 1997.  Before I knew how hard it was to win a national championship, all the things that must go right to even get a chance (just ask Oklahoma State).  Before I knew the weight of preseason expectations and the unpredictability of college football.  Back when I enjoyed each win in the moment for what it was: another opportunity to cheer on the team I loved regardless of all the other crap.

As painful as it was to read Three and Out, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.  It was a combination of my love of Michigan football and my love of fascinating history.  But it also wore me out.

So, save me your talk of legacy, of program building or the what-ifs.  I just want to live in the moment for a while.  It had been so long that I forgot what it felt like until Saturday.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Third and Doom*

*(The good kind of doom.)

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say something that is either so wildly obvious or so naively reductive that I will lose all credibility in the eyes of you, my reader.  Here goes anyway.

It's all about the third downs, man.

I've long held on to third down conversion numbers as a sort of "go to" stat; something that, when looked at in the context of all the other numbers is going to tell me how well or poorly the offense or defense performed.  There is variation, sure.  When you play Minnesota you might not see many third downs because your team is so successful on first and second.  On top of that, some defenses are more designed to "bend and not break" and will necessarily allow more third down conversions as teams move the ball.  And some teams     cough, Notre Dame, cough     may have a lot of success converting third downs against you, but are done in by turnovers of the back-breaking variety.

So yes, I know it isn't a perfect system, but when taken in the context of a game, third down conversion percentage for both offense and defense can paint a great picture of just how good a team played.  Consider the following:

  • Would you have guessed that Michigan's worst loss of the year coincided with its worst day on third down in the Big Ten season? (Michigan State converted 7/14; Michigan converted 3/15; Woof.).
  • Or that Michigan's three most dominant defensive performances in the Big Ten came on days allowing just 29% (Illinois), 23% (Purdue), and 0% (Minnesota).
  • Or that Michigan's defensive third down rate is 40th in the nation right now (36%) while it was 95th last year (43%).  (Although the 2009 defense also posted a 37% allowed rate, good for 40th.  I say this for full disclosure.  I have no idea how that number is so good comparatively, but I do know that the numbers don't include just how crippling some of those allowed conversions were.  So, in that case I'd rather preempt you, dear reader, with evidence of my being an idiot, than have you point it out later).
All of this is going the long way around introducing what has been my favorite part of the 2011 Greg Mattison defensive revival: third down stops.

Over the past few days I have finally gotten around to reading Three and Out, and on Saturday I had a long discussion before the Illinois game began about the book with a friend who is just about as obsessed with the team as I am.  We argued about what the most disheartening loss of 2009 was (I said Illinois, he said Purdue), shared a laugh about the scene in the book where Brian Cook confronts Michael Rosenberg after the Freep-Jihad presser, complained about the lack of discussion of the Shafer -> Gerg transition, and both agreed that the 2008 Utah game might be the most inexplicable thing that happened during the entire Rich Rodriguez era.

Once the game began and the defense came out hot, we both shifted out attention to just how good this team has been on third down, especially third-and-short.  After just having read about a stomach churning third-and-24 conversion that I remember like it happened yesterday, it is strange to see the defense line up to stop a third-and-short conversion and know, I mean know in my soul, that the other team is going to be punting on the next play (or, if coached by Kirk Ferentz, break character and go for it on fourth down to infuriate me).

I mean, that right there is a thing of beauty.  This is what good defenses do.  They demoralize the opponent by refusing to budge even one inch when all the offensive player needs to do is simply fall forward to keep the offense on the field.

So when Illinois lined up in the first quarter in a third-and-one situation at its own 23-yard line, for the first time in years I waited, grinning at what I knew was to come because I had seen it before.  You don't get one yard on this defense without a fight.

It speaks to the job that Greg Mattison has done with this defense that I am more confident in a third-and-one stop that I am third-and-five or more.  Michigan still isn't perfect     no team is     but you can see every time that group steps on the field that the call is right, the effort is superb, and the assignments are carried out.  If another team gets two when it needs one, it isn't because the Wolverines beat themselves*.

More than all the other signs of hope for the future of this defense, from the quick development of freshman like Blake Countess, to the way young players like Jake Ryan and Desmond Morgan fix mistakes from game to game to become better players, to the ever evolving series of blitz packages that are confusing the hell out of opposing quarterbacks, the thing that I have been most impressed with is that Mattison has delivered on his promise of the offseason: the team will work to stop the run.  Nothing is more central to that goal than lining up and stopping the other team when both you and they know exactly what is coming, and they dare you to make the play to stop it.

The offense may still be a bumbling mess tied to a  rocket powered cheetah, and Michigan's special teams play is going to haunt me for years like 'Nam haunts crazy old war vets     including fever dreams that are a series of rapid fire shots of Jeremy Gallon muffing punts     but for the first season in years, I can confidently say that the defense is in the right hands.

Now, about that shotgun formation...

*(Isn't always, I mean.  Typical freshman starters disclaimer applies.)