Predictable, Like A Rainy Day In Late October
On a day best left to a detective novel, Michigan slogged through the rain, the sleet and Northwestern to earn its ninth win of the season.
I will say this to Michigan's nay-sayers and critics, the game plan was predictable.
Everyone present in the stands and watching more comfortably at home knows this wasn't a thing of beauty. Michigan passed for a paltry 116 yards. Mike Hart sat out long stretches of the game allowing Kevin Grady and Brandon Minor time to fumble away prime field position. Chad Henne, once declared the new hotness, has cooled managing only a single touchdown pitch against a woeful Northwestern secondary. Young and talented Carson Bulter botched several easy catches that would have resulted in first downs. Even the normally reliable Steve Breaston flubbed and fumbled away a punt he knew better than to get near. It was ugly.
Lost in this critique is the predictable outcome. Lost is the fact that 30 mph winds howled through Michigan Stadium all game. Lost was the fact that the turf and ball were as slippery as a greased pig from hours of rain. Lost is the fact that Michigan emerged without serious injury on a day that should've claimed more than its share of athletes. Lost is the fact that Michigan was never in danger of losing this game.
Michigan did what we expected them to do. While they did not hang 44 on a hapless Minnesota team at home, they did more than enough to win. The defense was nastier than the weather, sacking Northwestern three times despite their constant reliance on the three step drop. Michigan forced two fumbles and picked off three passes. Though Henne and the offense had middling numbers, they kept the game going, and scored enough points to win. Predictably, the game was closer than it should've been. But that is Michigan this year. They simply do what they need to win.
Two things mark this Michigan season. One, always putting enough offense on the board to win. Two, destroying the opposing offense.
With regard to the first, several players deserve accolades for their performances. Predictably, Mike Hart heads that list. With 95 yards rush, 23 of them on 4th and 2, and a touchdown he continues to be the engine that powers our offense. Next, an unlikely candidate, Jerome Jackson. Thrust into the game when Brandon Minor and Kevin Grady's allergies to pig skin resurfaced, Jackson was excellent at not only protecting the ball but gaining needed yards. His 59 yards on 9 carries were not of the spectacular variety, but the were crucial in salting away the game. Further, at 6.6 yards per carry, he showed he will be a reliable backup for the rest of the season. Third, Greg Mathews continues to emerge as a legitimate third receiver. When put in the game Mathews has done an excellent job of doing what he's supposed to, catch the ball. He has found holes in zone coverage and is progressing into a good downfield blocker. The thought of Manninham's return, coupled with Mathews, Breaston and Arrington, is enough to give me 4-wide goose bumps. Fourth, Zoltan Mesko. On a miserable day 4 of Zoltan's punts ended up inside the 20. While a number of his kicks were line drives that needed more hang time, he managed to put the ball where he was supposed to.
Finally, Chad Henne. Easily passed over due to his quiet numbers of 10-20 for 116 yards. Henne posted those numbers despite a 30 mph head wind and at least four drops of accurate passes. Critics will complain Henne didn't go down field and was too eager to check off and run. They will say he didn't move the chains.
They would be wrong.
As Northwestern so aptly proved, throwing the football on Saturday was a bad idea. Any ball that rose more than ten feet above the ground often fell victim to the indescriminate gusts of wind that blew through the stadium all day. Take Northwestern's second interception, lofting a pass toward the back of the endzone C.J. Bacher's pass caught one of those gusts. The wind, robbing the ball of its forward momentum, forced the ball back toward the earth. It was a play that without the wind likely would have resulted in an overthrow out of the end zone, instead turned into an interception 6 yards short of its intended target.
Henne was wise not to chance such passes. Instead he settled for what the game and elements dictated. When allowed to throw down field he did so well. Only drops by Butler and Breaston marred his day. Henne was his usual, efficient and predictable self. As always, good enough to win.
On defense, Lamar Woodley and Leon Hall stood out. Woodley recorded two sacks on the day, 3 TFL, forced and recovered a fumble. Leon Hall proved again that throwing at his side of the field is equivalent to taunting an unchained tiger, attempting to walk across lava with your bare feet, and racing a bullet in the pantheon of "Incredibly Stupid Things To Do." Three tackles, 2 pass breakups, an INT, and a fumble recovery marked one of his best games of the season. On the whole, the Defense posted 12 TFL and three sacks. Tim Jamison added to the Defense's now infamous collection of concussed QBs when he knocked Bacher out of the game in the fourth quarter. This marked the second straight game Michigan has not allowed a touchdown. Saturday also marked the lowest point total Michigan has allowed all year.
Perhaps the biggest thing that will be lost in the head scratching over Michigan's offensive performance is just how bad it was at field level.
With the temperature firmly in the low 40s, every drop of rain hit exposed skin like a little frozen needle. No part of the Stadium was dry. Even if you covered your seat, water somehow found its way into the seat of your pants. If you got up once, your seat immediately as covered in rain or run off. Despite several layers of waterproof clothing, rain drops or runoff seemed drawn to the insides of your shoes and socks. Leaving only after they'd delivered the head sinus cold they brought with them. The wind swirled around Michigan stadium with bad intentions. Every so often a gust would lift the stadium inhabitant's parkas and ponchos over their heads, spraying their watery exterior contents all over their neighbors and themselves. You sat there. Cold. Miserable. Waiting for the game to be over, lest frosbite, hypothermia or some other horrid malady befall you.
And we weren't on the field.
The players bore the brunt of the elements wearing nothing more than a Maize and Blue colored mesh sponge. While our shoes were wet they weren't slogged with enough water to double as an aquarium like Woodley's seemed to be. We weren't trying to cut away from a would-be tackler on a 100 yard slip 'n slide. We weren't trying to throw the hopes and dreams of a fan base into a 30 mph head wind without the ability to properly grip the ball. Michigan was. And they did it well.
This win was not glamerous. It wasn't pretty. It was simply a win. It was another predictable effort and outcome for Michigan.