Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Victors

Saturday, 1 October 2016 / Michigan Stadium
(№ 4) Michigan 14-7 Wisconsin (№ 8)
5-0, B1G 2-0

The № 4 valiant Wolverines' victory over the № 8 pesky Badgers was a glorious anachronism in this decadent age of high-flying offenses & defense as an often-mocked afterthought. (In some quarters, № 5 Clemson's 42-36 victory over № 3 Louisville was called an "instant classic. Afterward, Clemson leapfrogged Michigan to № 3 & Louisville slipped ever-so-slightly back to № 7.) The game might have been low in points scored, but it was high in drama. The valiant Wolverines faced their stiffest test of the year & the pesky Badgers battled their third top 10 opponent in just five games.

Uncle Don's Murder Machine was a joy to behold, giving up only a single score, a touchdown on a short field set up by a long interception return. Wisconsin's signature running attack was held in check all day & their quarterback was constantly harassed, the far-famed maize-&-blue winged helmet now becoming a common sight in opposing backfields. Senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis's interception of Wisconsin's last-gasp, fourth-&-ten pass play drew instant comparison's to Heisman Trophy-winner Charles Woodson's interception against Michigan State in 1997. Lewis's body, in the course of the interception, bore a definite resemblance to the Jordan "Jumpman" logo that now adorns Michigan's Nike-sourced uniforms. This is a good, good thing.

Michigan's offense, by contrast, was a source of some nervous moments. First, the good news: The rushing attack, lead by seniors De'Veon Smith & Ty Isaac, was more productive than expected, putting up numbers that look unspectacular only until one considers how utterly the pesky Badger defense had annihilated the rushing attack of all their previous foes. The bad news: sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight looked shaky. I don't mean his second interception of the year (the first since the season-opener against Hawai'i), that set up Wisconsin's lone scoring drive. No, I'm talking about the couple other passes that could have been intercepted & the several others than were just off the mark, impossible for the receivers to corral. True, the Wisconsin pass rush was fiercer than any the Michigan O-line had before faced, & Speight worked his awkward magic in the backfield to avoid most of the pressure, but he looked throughout the game very much like a man ill at ease, if not a man under siege. Speight's job in the offense is to be a game manager not a gunslinger, not so much to shoulder the burden of winning games on his own as not to put Uncle Don's Murder Machine into disadvantageous positions, as happened when his pass was intercepted & returned to give Wisconsin's theretofore impotent offense a short field. That kind of game-management strategy is fine, that was the script for the Brian Griese-led offense in 1997, the National Championship year, but if the valiant Wolverines are to be the elite, legitimately top ten club we all wish them to be, Speight will have to progress. That said, let us give credit where it is due: Speight's pass to U.S. citizen Amara Darboh for the go-ahead touchdown was perfectly thrown.

No kidding, folks, the Wisconsin defense is beastly. I was irked when on B.T.N.'s Saturday wrap-up show, The Final Drive, the debate about the B1G's best defense was limited to a binary choice between Uncle Don's Murder Machine & the hated Buckeyes' defense, which earlier that day had shutout the alien Scarlet Knights of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Where was the respect for Wisconsin, which that same day went on the road (whereas Ohio State played at home) & held the valiant Wolverines' high-octane offense, averaging fifty-two points per game, to just fourteen?

The game was more tense than it need to be due to Michigan's atrocious field-goal kicking. What a nightmare! With Jabrill Peppers's electric kick returns, one of which has already been returned for a touchdown, special teams was considered a strength for the maize & blue in the opening third of the season. But against the pesky Badgers, we missed not one, not two, but three field goals, turning a two-score 16-7 lead before the Speight-to-Darboh touchdown into a nerve-raking 7-7 tie. Starting placekicker Kenny Allen (who is overburdened, also kicking punts & kickoffs), missed two, to fall to four of eight (4:8) for the season; backup Ryan Tice came in for only a single play & missed the field goal. Leaving points on the field, especially in low-scoring affairs against stingy defensive opponents, if almost always a sure recipe for defeat. The field-goal kicking simply has to improve, or it will cost the valiant Wolverines a victory at some point in the regular season.

So, where do we stand? Through the first five games of the season, including two B1G games, Team 137 is scoring an average of 44.4 points/game while giving up an average of 12.4 points/game. That average score off 44.4-12.4 works out to six-plus touchdowns per game for the Fighting Harbaughs to less than two touchdowns for the nameless opposition. That's a recipe for winning a lot of ball games. Rich Rod thought he could utterly neglect the defense & special teams & win games solely with offense, & he was wrong. Hoke the Joke thought he could win games with defense alone, & he was wrong. All three phases of the game are necessary for success at the highest level of college football. (Ask then-№ 22 Oregon about that, whose margin of defeat to then-unranked Nebraska was exactly the points the epithetless Ducks failed to score by going for two after every touchdown & failing to score four out of five tries. Oregon have fallen out of the Top 25 while Nebraska now sits at № 12.) Michigan suddenly have serious questions on special teams, but the valiant Wolverines look strong on defense, offense, & kick-returning. Before the victory over Wisconsin, a common knock against the maize & blue was "Who have they played?" That argument is, as my old debate coach The M.A.P. used to say, "weak sauce." No one disputes the hated Buckeyes' № 2 ranking, & yet their only victory over a ranked team came against then-№ 4 Oklahoma, a 2-2 club who fell out of the Top 25 & only this weak climbed back in at № 20 (& even that ranking looks like biased grade-inflation). By contrast, the valiant Wolverines have victories over № 11 Wisconsin, a solid team with two wins over top ten opponents (compared to Ohio State's one), & № 21 Colorado, the epithetless Buffaloes having averaged forty-seven points per game against every opponent who isn't Michigan & thus doesn't field Uncle Don's Murder Machine as a defense. Now, am I saying I think the valiant Wolverines, at this stage of the season, are the equal of the hated Buckeyes? Alas, no, not yet, but that assessment is based on factors other than the "Who have they played?" critique. In year two of the Harbaugh era, expectations are still being exceeded ahead of schedule.

Next: Michigan's first road game of the season, against the alien Scarlet Knights of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Once again, let me reiterate that it is an abomination that Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey is a member of the Big Ten Conference. By no conceivable criteria do the alien Scarlet Knights belong in the B1G. Still, playing outside of the friendly confines of the Big House will pose its own challenges.

Go Blue!

Champions of the West
There are presently four B1G clubs ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

№ 2 Ohio State, the hated Buckeyes (4-0, B1G 1-0)
№ 4 Michigan, the valiant Wolverines (5-0, B1G 2-0)
№ 11 Wisconsin, the pesky Badgers (4-1, B1G 1-1)
№ 12 Nebraska, the conniving Cornhuskers (5-0, B1G 2-0)

The B1G has four clubs in the first twelve, but none in the second thirteen, thanks largely to the implosion of both the tenacious Hawkeyes of Iowa (3-2, B1G 1-1) & the dastardly Spartans of Michigan State (2-2, B1G 0-2). About the latter, let me say this: Bwa ha ha ha ha! Schadenfreude! It has been interesting to note in the last couple weeks how my Moo U.-supporting friends are suddenly both less boastful & less confrontational. Perhaps, as Mark Dantonio once remarked, "Pride comes before a fall"? Bwa ha ha ha ha!

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