You May Almost Begin To Believe
In ’94 I felt pretty confident. Michigan had beaten BC in comeback fashion. Michigan had traveled to Notre Dame and returned triumphant. Unfortunately, our elation quickly turned to disgust. My confidence to sadness. Colorado came to town the following week, and in an instant the season that should’ve been turned into the season that was. So, naturally, you can understand why this past weekend concerned me.
Inevitably, Michigan seems to have that let down game. A game they either have well in hand or a game they never quite show up for. Both usually end in disappointment and both usually follow a big win. In fairy tale parlance, Michigan would always be just far enough ahead to oversleep and watch the tortoise cross the finish line before them. Success bred complacency. Assumed destiny replaced execution. And for the fans, annoyance and resignation took the place of happiness and expectancy.
That is part of the Michigan I know and love
Then there is this Michigan team. The one that defeated Wisconsin 27 to 13 on Saturday. I’m still not quite sure what to make of them.
They make me want to believe with every 50 yard TD pass and sack. Yet they scare me with every turnover and every opponent they leave in a game. Will they revert to the Michigan ways of old? Or are they a new Michigan team that will win the race then turn the tortoise into soup?
On one side, there is an anger in this defense I have never seen before. It is almost as if the mere presence of the other team is an affront to every player’s dignity and family. They swarm ball carriers like sharks after chum. They don't simply want to stop you, they want to make you bleed for trying. They hit with bad intentions. On more than one occasion I saw Wisconsin a player gingerly returning to the huddle. Towards the end of the game Wisconsin’s talented running back PJ Hill slowly lifted himself off the field turf, glanced at the scoreboard, then slowly, sadly limped back towards his teammates. Hill had the body language of a man three hours into a root canal. Beaten, resigned, and waiting for it to be over.
While there were hits by Wisconsin, especially by Jack Whoseewhatsis, 98% of the hits that made mothers cry were delivered by Michigan players. On sacks, Stocco's head was used to drill for oil. On run plays it looked like a contest to see which player could stuff Hill's entire body into his helmet first. Wide receivers were treated like piñatas filled with candy. The safeties and corners seemed to believe that if they hit them hard enough, jolly ranchers would fill the stadium carpet. A defense like that does not come around very often.
The offense again played admirably. When Wisconsin stuffed the line of scrimmage, Michigan went up top. Adrian Arrington continued to emerge from Steve Breaston’s shadow and is quickly securing his grasp on the No. 2 receiver position. Manningham was his usual speedy self as well. Two touchdown bombs down the sidelines, including one I felt I could reach out and touch just before it slid into Manningham’s arms, and he into the corner of the endzone. Steve Breaston was electric on punt returns. Every time he touched the ball on a punt you felt he was an arm away from breaking it open. When Wisconsin punted, Breaston ensured Michigan got it in good field position. At moments it was poetry.
The majority of the game however was a workman like performance by Mike Hart and the offensive line. Michigan pounded the ball behind Long and Kraus the entire day. Wisconsin had 7 to 8 men in the box waiting for them, but Michigan forged ahead anyway. Wisconsin was ready. Zone gaps were quickly filled by linebackers and the occasional safety. Wisconsin linemen continually prevented holes from opening. Hart would get hit before his first move on several occasions. Even so, Hart always seemed to gain 3 or 4 yards a carry. Sometimes Hart got 8, others he got two, but he continued to move the chains. Regardless of what Wisconsin wished to dictate at the line of scrimmage, Michigan wasn’t listening. They simply bulldozed down the field and the clock.
Occasionally, however, there were miscues that made me think twice about fully giving over my heart to this team. Drops again hurt the Michigan offense. Surprisingly, the most egregious errors in the passing game came from Mario Manningham. On Michigan’s first offensive possession Manningham bobbled a sure completion into an interception. On the ensuing Wisconsin drive, they marched down a shortened field for a quick score. It wasn't until the second quarter that Michigan got on the board with a Henne to Manningham on a 24 yard right side post.
Henne would pass for 2TDs and 211 yards while going 18 of 25. However, three of those balls were interceptions. For the first time this year Mike Hart did not go over 100 yards. Michigan was routinely in zone coverage against Wisconsin, allowing far too many dink and dunk completions. Tight End screens, if anyone else can master them, will give Michigan trouble. Steve Breaston continues to be incapable of catching anything other than a punt or a screen. For the first time I thought Manningham was shaken in the middle quarters. Wisconsin pounded on him the entire game. He dropped balls he normally would catch and played two passes into interceptions. The third interception was Henne's fault all the way.
That being said, sometimes it is better to be flawed than perfect. Perfection makes you complacent. Michigan was anything but on Sunday. Despite being hounded and shivved all day, Manningham responded with big catches, trash talk, and two touchdowns. Henne managed the game efficiently and made the throws he was supposed to make. While hart didn't go over 100, he never lost a yard and managed to rack up 91 yards, a touchdown and a 4.0 ypc. The Offensive line allowed only two sacks, both of which were coverage sacks, and only two tackles for loss. Michigan scored 27 points on what was the best defense they've faced all year.
Make no mistake about it, Wisconsin's defense is very, very good. They play with swagger, even when they're getting beat. If not for Hart's elusiveness the result of the game would have been much much different. Wisconsin got consistent pressure on the ball carrier. Hart had no cut back lanes save two occasions. Receivers were absolutely punished for catching the ball. At one point Manningham was reverse-body-slammed to the turf following a completion. Still Michigan rolled up 322 total yards.
Michigan's defense, however, is better. Michigan allowed only a single field goal in the second half. Despite dealing with 3 turnovers, and not forcing a turnover of their own, the defense yielded a single touchdown. PJ Hill left town with only 54 yards on the ground. With the four sacks factored in, Wisconsin only gained 12 yards on the ground. With the exception of a 29 yard screen pass, Wisconsin's longest reception was 17 yards on a zone coverage. On that completion I am fairly certain I saw a watermelon jolly rancher fly by me following the hit that brought him down. Wisconsin left the field limping while our defense looked fresh, and more importantly still angry that they wanted to keep playing.
Something is different this year. Win or lose, this is a different type of Wolverine team. This is no longer a team that expects things. This is a team that earns them. Swagger is not the right word to describe them. Anger is. That's the way they play. That's the way the talk. At what I do not know. But I do know the tortoise is nervous.