Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Brief Moment of Sunshine on a Rainy Day, Michigan 20 Iowa 6

Photo Courtsey: Rashaun Rucker/DFP

When the alarm went off at 6am Saturday morning, even though I was excited about going to the game, I was not excited about getting out of my bed. A quick glance out the window didn't help my mood. Rain. Fog. Nastiness. In short "perfect" football weather.

As the seasons begin their gradual descent from autumn to fall to winter there is a fetid dampness that hangs in the air. The kind that reaches into your bones and chills you no matter how many layers of clothes you put on. "This," I told myself, "Is what you're willing to do to go to a football game."

The drive from Chicago to Ann Arbor was easier than the walk from my place to my friends car, but not by much. My buddy was equally as exhausted as I was and I submit to you that four tired, hung-over hours in a car are just as grueling as running a marathon.

Yet we persevered. Coffee and a Sausage Egg McMuffin as our fuel, we motored into Ann Arbor.

When we arrived at our tailgating destination the weather had improved slightly from the steady drizzle we faced rolling east on 94. Even so, the air was cold and the ether had palpable aura of rain. To hell with it. Mother Nature ain't spoiling my day. With that the first of many beers and laughs were shared friends old and new.

Over the next three hours we proceeded to backslap and laugh the rain away. Suddenly the clouds started to part, the sun shone through, and the dampness that was so prevalent earlier, disappeared. It was almost as if the gods were rewarding our stubborn devotion.

Saturday turned out to be a crystal clear afternoon to watch a talented Michigan team run up against its fiercest competition. Like the late afternoon and early evening it inhabited, the game was something the behold.

After a crippling loss to Indiana, Iowa appeared to show no aftereffects from the loss. For the majority of the first half Iowa stymied the Michigan offense, somehow forcing Michigan to settle for 3 points instead of 6 on a goal line stand late into the second quarter.

Even as the sky above stayed blue, the offense below remained grey. Zone blocking is effective against larger D lines, not smaller faster gap filling ones. Iowa's defenders made the first half miserable for the Michigan running game. Michigan's slow marches down the field, when not stopped prematurely, were the result of steady short throws by Chad Henne to a variety of receivers. With three catches in the first half, red shirt freshman Carson Bulter actually led Michigan in receptions.

Arrington appeared twice to have caught touchdown passes only to have them waived off by laziness or on review. So Michigan strode into the half nursing a three point lead.

However, it wasn't as though Iowa was doing much. To the contrary. Most of their drives were enveloped by the Mongol horde that is our Defense. There was the occasional 12 yard run or the 15 yard pass, but the majority of pass went for no or slight yardage. Of Iowa's six first half possessions only one drive lasted longer than 5 plays. That drive resulted in a Crable induced fumble that was recovered by Brandon Harrison.

While the run defense turned in its usual spirit breaking performance, Michigan's oft maligned yeah-they're-good-but-are-they-good-enough secondary had an outstanding day. Pre-season super QB Drew Tate was held to 197 yards passing and no TDs. During the first half, as Michigan's offense sputtered, Hall, Trent & Co. made sure Iowa's came to a complete halt. Tate was held to 78 yards passing in the first half. his longest completion was for 18 yards, with the majority being surely tackled for 4 yards a piece. Iowa may not have the athleticism of an Ohio State, but the sure tackling and steady coverage of the secondary was a constant the entire game.

The second half got off to a poor start when Henne, truly forcing a pass for the first time in a long while, got picked off. It was a throw Henne knew better than to make. Not that anyone can blame Chad for being a little antsy at that moment. Late in the First Half, Reuben Riley injured his leg and attempted to start the second half (basically) without it. That effort, while admirable, resulted in a sack, fumble, and 10 yard loss. Two plays later Chad forced his bad throw and Iowa had the ball at the 26.

The turnover proved to be irrelevant. Gaining only 8 yards on a single completion, Iowa was forced to settle for a field goal. The Michigan defense quickly recovered any momentum that had been lost during that stand. They also proved it doesn't matter where you get the ball, you're not getting in the end zone.

With the game and momentum even, Steve Breaston firmly placed them both back in Michigan's corner. Breaking a solid kick off into a near touchdown return, Breaston deposited Michigan on the Hawkeye's 35 yard line. Starting on the 3 yard line in left corner of the field Breaston sprinted straight ahead through the Iowa coverage team. At the 30 he veered sharply to the right taking the ball across mid field and eventually being brought down at the 35.

Breaston stayed in the act, picking up a crucial first down on a bullet from Henne. Then following an Arrington first down completion almost identical to Breaston's, Mike Hart launched through three Iowa defenders, dragging the last one into the end zone. His stellar effort put Michigan up 10 to 3. At that point it was obvious the strategy upstairs had changed. Gone were the zone blocks. In were the we're-bigger-than-you pancake blocks that began to allow Mike Hart cavernous hole to operate in.

As the portable halogens began to replace the sunlight, Iowa tried to respond. Tate finally played like the quarterback we've heard so much about. 23 and 27 yard completions to Douglas and Chandler had Iowa poised to tie the game as the ball rested at the Michigan 11. They would get to the 5 before being forced to kick a field goal. The pass coverage, dormant in giving Tate a quarter of his game yards during the drive, awoke. After reaching the 11 only Albert Young could find a moment of freedom before getting flattened short of the goal line. Iowa's receivers found themselves locked down and helpless as Tate's third down pass fell to the ground with no one around it.

After that, Iowa would have only 6 more plays. Book ending those two possessions were a Garrett Rivas field goal and a Mike Hart touchdown which sealed the game. Tate would pass for 46 more yards during his final possession before turning the ball over on downs, but the game was over when Mike Hart walked into the end zone untouched.

Tate, like the quarterbacks before him this season, received a heavy dose of Michigan's new defensive elixir. Sean Crable planted Tate twice and force him out of bounds four yards short of the line of scrimage for his third sack. Woodley, Branch, Taylor and Biggs constantly brought pressure on Tate, resulting in the defenses fourth and fifth sacks. What was most rewarding in watching the defense play on Saturday was the contain the managed to keep, preventing a mobile Tate from hurting the offense with first down scrambles. The rest of Iowa's offense disappeared into the rushing abyss that lines up in Maize and Blue every Saturday. Michigan allowed only 41 yards rushing further cementing its position as the country's best run defense.

On a day where so much was wrong with simply getting out of bed, Michigan provided justification for our effort. Playing without its best receiver and against a fast violent defense, Michigan posted 20 points and its eighth victory on the year. There were ample reasons for Michigan not to show up on that dreary day. The impending distraction of Adrian Arrington's legal troubles, two tight ends out with serious injuries, their starting right tackle limping out of the game, rumors of injuries to both Hart and Breaston.

Michigan ignored those distractions. Single minded, they marched on and off of the field undefeated. Focused both before and after at the prize close enough to see but not close enough to touch.

That focus will again be tested this weekend as the most mentally challenging part of the season creeps up on them. Three games against teams Michigan should beat, on paper, by a minimum of 20 points. Three games Michigan knows it should win.

Despite those things other people "know" and the distractions they know all too well, Michigan remains focused on the task at hand. During the game you could sense no desperation, no fear. All you could sense was determination to complete the task at hand.

During the ride back to Chicago my friend and I discussed the game and life in general as a steady torrent of rain poured down on our car as it cruised westward on I-94. As we drove our conversation drifted towards what a beautiful afternoon and evening it was while Michigan was on the field. Jokingly, I asked my friend if it was worth it. You know. Getting up at 6 in the morning on a Saturday and driving through a monsoon just to watch a football game.

Concentrating on the road and not picking up my sarcasm, he answered simply and emphatically.

"Oh yeah."


At 1:18 PM, Blogger Johnny said...

Just as good as your shirts (I only noticed them yesterday); which is another compliment in itself. I'll be picking a few from you and Brian before OSU, for sure.


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