In racking my brain for some kind of parallel to this weekend's near debacle I came up empty. Nothing. Saturday was a disaster that wasn't. Sure you can call the game a mountain that was really a molehill. Pneumonia that was really just a light cold. But not a single experience in my Michigan fandom even came close to the near nightmare that unfurled on the Michigan Stadium carpet on Saturday.
I couldn't find the game anywhere. those bastards at ESPNU kept me from my normal Gameday Saturday morning rituals. When I realized I could watch the game I spent a few hours trying to find game audio. Well, audio feeds were spotty at best, and I was regulated to begging ESPN to run highlights of a Michigan game I could neither hear nor see unfold. Periodically, I would see the scores change. Then, as time was winding down, I saw the wrong score change far too often. It was only after the score went final that information was slowly allowed to leak out of Ann Arbor.
Initially I was mad. How could Ball State hang with UM? Ball State!? Then as more information came in it starter to make sense. Um. Was that Charles Stewart getting burned? What the hell is he doing in? Effing Sears! We were up by that much? Why were they in? As I learned more, my annoyance remained, but I truly had no place to direct it. Weird.
What's even stranger is I can't blame the starters for doing anything other than coming out cold. Henne and Hart were uncharacteristically careless with the football, spotting Ball State 9 free points. Even so, when the majority of Michigan's first stringers took a seat in the third quarter it was 31-12. With less than a full quarter remaining in the game the score was 34-19 and the starters were putting their feet up on the bench.
Then diminutive Terry Moss torched Michigan's backup secondary for a 62 yard catch and everyone started getting nervous. Michigan couldn't do anything when it got the ball back and was forced to punt. Ball State promptly marched down the field. They managed to climb to the Michigan 6 before finally being turned aside by the Michigan first team defense.
A great collective exhale was heard 'round the globe as the Michigan fan base took its first breath in 35 minutes.
Normally, in a game where a clearly inferior team hangs with the No. 2 team in the country there is cause for alarm. Here, not so much. Michigan outgained Ball State nearly 2 t0 1. Michigan had two 100+ yard rushers, and three different running backs scored TDs. Despite an INT, Henne was 17-25 with a TD and more drops than anyone cares to think about. Michigan basically scored 9 of Ball State's points (Safety and INT). Ball State never touched Henne. Michigan, however, touched Nate Davis a lot, sacking him 3 times and generally making his life miserable. Michigan spent a considerable amount of time Ball State's backfield racking up 7 TFL. Two blown coverages in the second half by backup corners cost Michigan 14 points and 116 yards in offense. At half time Bal State had 62 total yards.
Don't get me wrong this was a baaaad game, but it's not going to keep me up at night. Michigan's offense scored 34 points (40 if you count Chad's INT). Manningham is back, even though he only played a few downs it's still a bonus. Harris had 14 tackles, and 3 TFL. Minor and Hart both had runs of over 40 yards. Every meaningful indicator tells me the score was the only thing in doubt.
But it's the score that matters. For all the good that can be pulled from Saturday's game, the fact that Ball State was a touchdown and 2pt conversion from tying the game is nauseating.
I've been hard on other teams this season for allowing bad teams to hang with them. Many people, in turn, have been critical of Michigan for failing to crush teams rather than simply beating them. It's a strange balancing act. The only people I can truly be critical of are Stewart and Sears, two backup CBs who apparently can't cover a bed with a blanket. Without them tripping over their own two feet, perhaps Ball State scores one more touchdown but the outcome of the game is never in doubt. I want to be critical of the team that let Ball State back in the game, but that team won't see the field again this year. Did the backups suck? Yes. Does that mean the whole team does? No.
My biggest criticism of Michigan's game was the failure to convert a first down after Ball State's last touchdown. The one negative constant of this year is the inability to gain yards and run out the clock at critical moments. Not being able to pick up a first down in that situation is particularly galling to me.
Where does Saturday leave us? Ohio State is 10-0 after struggling to beat an inferior team as well. Michigan is 10-0. Louisville (8-0) had the best win of the week, popping West Virginia despite being outgained. Boise State sits at 9-0 and Rutgers stands 8-0. On Thursday we'll see whether Louisville or Rutgers is for real. Boise State, well, they fall victim to the same criticism I have about Rutgers to this point, they haven't played anyone.
Ohio State and Michigan will remain where they are, 1 and 2. The Lousiville Rutgers game will establish whether Rutgers is a legitimate BCS contender. But even with a victory, their December 2 showdown with West Virginia looms. If Louisville wins, they're close to stamping their ticket to Arizona with only a Thanksgiving match-up with Pitt in the way. Basically, everything is still on track for the winner of the Big Ten, barring upset, to play in the National Championship game as an unbeaten.
Michigan won a close one that shouldn't have been. Michigan dominated the game statistically, yet barely hung on to the game. I'm pissed, but have nowhere to direct my anger. I'm not even really sure I should be angry. Strange days.
I rest my case.