Monday, October 02, 2006

Promise You'll Never Leave Again

I Didn't Know How Much I Missed You
Until You Left

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it's queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there's some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

As Michigan marched across the field to reclaim the Little Brown Jug on Saturday, Robert Frost crept into my mind. Seventy-five years ago Forst wrote those words about a man stopping briefly to admire a snowfall before continuing on a more serious journey. In many ways the latest incarnation of the Michigan Minnesota rivalry mirrored Frost's poem and gave us a little deeper insight into this year's Michigan team.

Michigan's team leaders, especially Mike Hart, have made clear this season is about erasing last year's disaster from our collective memories. Their mission is not just to win football games, but to forever purge themselves and their supporters of any thought of the preceeding season.

This journey wends a familiar path through places and teams we know all too well. Yet new dangers and new challenges are hidden at every bend in the road. Occasionally there is a root in the road, or a fourth quarter lapse, that causes them to stumble briefly. But unlike past years, this team does not fall. They catch themselves. They stand tall and they assess their situation before moving forward on their journey.

Momentary pauses on a path to redemption.

Saturday showed us that even this Michigan will trip over a root, or pause to watch the snow fall when there are greater matters at hand. However, Saturday also showed us that this is a team capable of realizing its greater mission is not accomplished. They seem to know this year that the only time to admire your work is when it is complete. Michigan showed us on Saturday, when they marched across the field arm in arm, it is well aware that its journey remains incomplete.

There were a number of us who went into Saturday's game with the knowledge this was going to be a tougher game than it looked on paper. Just because Minnesota dropped two to Cal and Purdue didn't mean they didn't have a good offensive line. I thought they might. They proved they did. For the first time this year Michigan gave up 100 yards rushing to an opponent as a whole. Michigan failed to record a sack for the first time this year and two sustained drives by the Gophers turned into points.

We knew going in Minnesota had a pair of very talented, very tall receivers. If those receivers could establish themselves, the game would be a lot closer than anyone though. They did and it was. Logan Payne emerged as not just "possession receiver" but as a legitimate recieving threat after posting a two touchdown day on one of the nation's best defenses. Charles Stewart, filling in for the injured Moragn Trent, got burned twice. One was negated by a penalty, but it is still a cause for concern. When he couldn't take Trent's place Johnny Sears played admirably in stead. But it's clear, Trent is the best corner on the team next to Hall and his absence is cause for concern.

In reality, Michigan was in control of the game from the outset. Five minutes in to the fourth quarter Michigan held a 21 point lead. Cupito sat comfortably around 160 passing yards and Michigan hadn't yielded enough rushing yards to scare anyone. But being a Michigan fan has taught me never to feel secure with a lead. My fears gorged on the banquet of my Michigan insecurity as English called soft zones late in the fourth and Minnesota marched down the field consuming 84 yards and a touchdown in a 1:15.

Next came the onsides kick everyone but Steve Breaston seemed to know was coming. Like an outfielder playing short for the first time he booted what appeared to be a routine grounder and Minnesota recovered. Panic slowly began creeping into my heart.

Then, as if their momentary view into the woods was over, Michigan resumed on its journey. Almost as if it needed competition to awaken, the Defense reared on its hind legs, showed its fangs, and buried the Gophers short of the goal line. Johnny Sears wore a giant bullseye throughout the series but was impossible to take down. Minnesota attempted to match him up against Payne on every down. At the goal mouth Cupito threw twice to Payne, once to Wheelright and once to Spaeth only to miss on every occasion. Michigan's rest was over.

Upon reflection, this was a crucial game for Michigan in many respects. Perhaps most importantly Adrian Arrington stepped up and became our legitimate No. 2 receiver. He caught his first two career touchdown catches on two decent corners. He showed excellent separation speed and very good moves getting out of his jams. That Henne can now count on two burner receivers with excellent hands makes this team even more dangerous. Mannigham was Mannigham. It's hard to believe how much we now expect of him. It's even harder to believe that he keeps delivering. Mike Massey appeared out of nowhere with an excellent blocking game and three catches when Tyler Ecker left the game with an injury. Massey's importance as a pass catching tight end who actually possesses blocking skills will come into serious play as the year rolls on.

The Gopher D overloaded the line and spent a considerable amount of time in our backfield as witnessed by their 4 TFL and the game's only sack. Even so, Hart blew up for 195 yards and a 54 yard run to seal the game. His value to this team cannot be overstated. Grady, despite a helmet to football fumble, looked alright scoring our only rushing touchdown. He needs to think a little less and drive with his legs a little more.

The player of the game seemingly always goes to Mike Hart. However, a close second was Chad Henne. Henne continues to do what we've all thought he is capable of. 3 TDs no INTs. It seems the only reason he didn't throw for more was the second half game plan. His passes were on the money. He completed 71% of his passes. He didn't throw a single interception. What impressed me the most is the faith DeBord seems to have in Henne early in the game to freewheel the offense. Almost every down you could see Chad changing the protection and the play to take advantage of the Gopher defense. When the game was safely in hand, DeBord tightened the reigns a tad and made Michigan grind out the clock.

It is easy to forget that Minnesota had a single possession in the third quarter, and that it only lasted 5 plays. Had Rivas not missed a cake field goal from 20-some yards out, Michigan is up 24 points well into the fourth. DeBord called an excellent game and Henne & Co. excuted it to a tee.

Offensively and defensively this team showed it is capable of regaining its focus even when it has obviously been lost. When the 2005 defense momentarily replaced its 2006 incarnation, the 2006 team re-emerged and put the clamps down on Minnesota. Then the offense did its part. Pinned deep, Michigan drove out of the shadow of its own endzone to ensure Minnesota never had a chance to threaten again.

They performed coldly. This was just a short glance into the woods on a 13 game business trip. They left the Metrodome as they entered it, on a mission. This was simply a stop along the way to redemption.


At 6:36 PM, Blogger Johnny said...

You're one of the few who I think have been able to keep their emotions in check thus far, Dave. And you articulate that perfectly here - it's a journey, a voyage with a few stops. Great read.


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