I write for a Michigan fan site. It’s what a fan who writes might do, if, as is the case with me, that fan lives thousands of miles from Ann Arbor, can’t get to the Big House, and needs some connection with a legendary football program that essentially provides all the excitement and validation he is likely to get in the course of the year. To be a fan is to experience the seasonal roller coaster; one year your team wins the big ones, the next they can’t dress themselves and get lost on their way from the locker room.
And, but, then … Michigan, a program that has won more football games than any team in the nation, sputters, coughs up a sequence of hairballs, and loses to Ohio State in fourteen of the last eighteen games. Ohio State’s latest streak stands at six in a row. There are worse things in life than losing to Ohio State; my perspective is not entirely grotesque. Many worse things. But still, it hurts bad.
The pre-season buzz about Michigan remains oddly animated, as if the results of the past year don’t count when it comes to legendary programs; Michigan is often ranked in the top ten or fifteen. And, but, then … week by week, its highly recruited players, highly paid and frequently canonized coach, and the best helmets in football take the field, muck around for a bit, and limp back to Ann Arbor with a 5-4 record in the Big Ten.
The current season began with a humiliating loss to Notre Dame followed by somewhat encouraging victories over Western Michigan, SMU, and Nebraska. Heartened (suckered), I wrote a jolly and optimistic piece for that fan site, predicting a run away stomping of a Northwestern team that had recently lost to Akron.
My current assessment of Michigan is notably less jolly. Here’s what I sent to the site this morning:
If you took Michigan football and fourteen points against Northwestern, you lost. If you took Michigan and four points, you lost. The Wolverines squeezed out a last-minute victory over a team that lost to Akron and Duke, and once again Michigan fans endured a brutal first quarter, yet another questionable first half, and then saw Michigan outscore Northwestern 13-0 in the second half, with six of those points coming from Quinn Nordin’s field goals.
Let’s not forget that Michigan football is a team seeking a conference championship, a team still ranked in the top 20 in the nation. Top-ranked teams do not get pushed around by teams that lose to Akron. Top ranked teams improve game-by-game. Top ranked teams showcase top recruits improving game-by-game. Right now, Michigan looks a lot like the other perfectly ok teams that play big time football. Texas, Florida, NC State, Colorado, Virginia Tech. Perfectly ok, but none of them are heading to a conference championship, and for sure, none of them are going to be playing for a national championship.
Once again, the stats seem to indicate a strong performance by the Wolverines, racking up 376 yards on offense to Northwestern’s 202, 180 yards rushing to the Wildcat’s 28, nearly 10 more minutes of possession, and yet, the game was still in question throughout the second half. In the first quarter, Michigan could not move the chains while Northwestern piled up 105 yards and 17 points. A stat that doesn’t reflect well on the team and its preparation are the 11 penalties, only one of which was from Mars.
Coach Don Brown ran a remedial diagramming session during halftime to pull the defense back into reasonable shape, and Chase Winovich had his best game hauling down 8 solo tackles and a sack. Winovich was called out by Brown last year; he wanted to see Winovich bring leadership to the defense. Mission accomplished. Nevertheless, Northwestern’s speedy offensive sets in the first half threw off a defense that has been touted as one of the best in the nation. Penalties in the secondary continued to add yards and opportunities that ought not to have been given the Cats.
The offense has improved, thanks to Karan Higdon, a bull at full speed, who picked up 110 yards and 2 TDs, essentially pulling the Wolverines’ to a victory. Patterson made some good throws. Gentry looked solid… in the second half. A slow start against Northwestern, a 17 point deficit to Northwestern – scary but possible. A slow start against the tough teams looming ahead?