Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Anatomy of a Comeback

With Windsor running around trying to save himself before he drowns in work and Falco out with something that appears to be a cross between the Black Death and listening to a Bee Jees album while eating Mexican food, I suppose I am the last man up for this week. Please, hold your applause. I suppose this is what the football gods do in return for a great Saturday for Marylanders. They kill the Ravens in OT after Harbaugh had his offense sit down with 90 seconds and 1 timeout left in regulation. As the saying goes, when you play to tie, you play to lose. Then they take out 2 of 3 bloggers for the week. I suppose I will take it after Maryland upset Clemson and Navy shocked Wake Forest for their biggest wins of the season.

However, Windsor and I weren’t at either of those games. No, we were off in Ann Arbor, checking out another football team with long odds of a win and trying to turn their season around. We got tickets to unranked Michigan against #9 Wisconsin, a team that sported the ultimate in old-school Big Ten football, but did it well enough to avoid the criticism that had been rained on most of the Big Ten in recent years. They ran the football up the middle, avoided a great deal of misdirection, and only occasionally took their shots. It did not look good going into the weekend, but I had hope. Michigan could take advantage of their strong but lumbering defense, get penetration with their blistering pass rush and hit star running back P.J. Hill in the backfield. This, it was hoped, could be an upset.

Through most of the first three quarters, it didn’t look anything like an upset. From the very first possession the Wolverines were on their heels. They handed the Badgers drives starting at the Michigan 28 and 35 on their first two drives, but managed to force them into field goals. Throughout the half Michigan attempted the same couple running plays, only to see shifty but small running back Sam McGuffie stuffed behind the line. By halftime the Wolverines had mustered 21 total yards of offense, complete with a whopping -7 passing yards, but only trailed 19-0. It could have been much worse

For anyone who has seen the Michigan offense this year on TV, it is nothing like seeing it in person. It really is like West Virginia’s… only slower. Much slower. There is an air of hesitation, of receivers running the wrong route and quarterbacks unsure where the routes go. It is blockers running forward without knowing who to block. When things work correctly it is beautiful- but they rarely do. By the middle of the third quarter fans cheered sarcastically when a 4 yard pass was completed, they roared with applause when Michigan managed to field a kickoff without a fumble (following 5 turnovers in the first half, with 2 coming on returns). We in the stands were holding our heads in our hands. It was supposed to be ugly. We knew it would be a tough transition, but this tough? The D was steady, but was that because Wisconsin was holding back? With such a conservative offense it is tough to tell.

Then Michigan drove the ball and scored a touchdown. The redshirt freshman, with two true freshmen running backs in the backfield and a true freshman at wideout, threw to his true freshman tight end for a 26 yard touchdown. These players were at their senior prom a few months before, and now it seems like every player is a freshman. But the touchdown wasn’t an aberration. Slowly the fans began to turn around and watch the game. The attempts to start a wave stopped. Quarterback Steven Threet, a typical 6’5” Lloyd Carr statue with the cannon arm broke down the left sideline on a 58 yard run after a perfectly run fake. Moments later, Brandon Minor ran for another score. The very first play when Wisconsin got the ball back the pass was tipped in the air to linebacker John Thompson who guided a caravan of blockers to the end zone. Suddenly, with almost 10 minutes to go in the 4th quarter, Michigan led 20-19. The Wolverines would go on to stun the Badgers 27-25 and go to 1-0 in conference play in the biggest comeback ever at Michigan Stadium.

As a fan this was the greatest game I have had the pleasure of attending. It meant far more than going to 2-2 on the season, or even beating a top 10 opponent. The win symbolized the triumph of Rich Rodriguez’s coaching in getting his players ready to come back and win the game when trailing- badly. Rich Rodriguez will not win the Big Ten in his first season at Michigan. Rodriguez does not have the better players on his roster for his system than Wisconsin has for theirs. Coach Rod rose to the occasion as a motivator and managed to adjust his system not only to fit his players, but to fit his situation. Pat White or no Pat White, Rich Rod is a great coach.

Maryland and Navy had a great Saturday, but nothing that day could compare to Windsor and I beaming as the band struck up the Victors and 100,000 fans celebrated a huge win in the Big House for the first time since the Lloyd Carr era ended.


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