Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Twitter world: baking up sweet tweets

This football season, I did something I swore upon the lives of my children I would never do. No, not rooting for Sparty; my kids KNOW how loyal I am to Maize and Blue (hell, I have my 5-year-old granddaughter shouting it out as she practices to be the next star cheerleader).
No, I joined the world of Twitter, but under specific ground rules. I only tweeted during Michigan home games, joining this blog represented in the press box by podcast executive director Brian Kiernicki and podcast host Jeremy Miller, a member of the 1997 U-M national champions.
During the 3-½ hours of air time, it allowed me to share my inner thoughts, and rants at the TV screen, with them and other followers. Last Saturday was no exception, only the game was bigger. It seemed like an eternity; the game ran through two pre-programmed DVR slots into the second afternoon game (between who knows and who-could-care-less).
In truth, not much can be said in 150 characters or less and if you specify the recipient, FAR less can be explained. But I want to expand, in full blogging regalia, some of what I was thinking at the time.
More food for thought: why is ESPN Game Day on site at a game that belongs to CBS?? Why can’t it support one of its own telecasts?
Last Saturday morning, ESPN Game Day plopped itself down in Auburn, Alabama to preview THAT game – a contest to be broadcast on a rival network. For two hours, or more, it was simply a commercial for people to watch that “other” game – not the ABC/ESPN contests at that time slot.
That sounds counter-productive to me. It would have been better if that crew was in Ann Arbor, or Madison, Wisc., or on the USC campus, or anywhere else BUT Auburn. Why give your rival free publicity to steal your potential audience? Or was the thought of more F-bombs from Lee Corso (cursing the memory of the 1980 Indiana-Michigan outcome) too frightening for ABC executives?
Not even five seconds into broadcast and Spielman is already waving his school colors. Why can’t ABC find neutral mouth to put on air?
ESPN is loaded with Buckeye alumni while Desmond Howard is the only Wolverine talking college football on air (and never as a color analyst onsite). There needs to be some balance; people belly-ached when Bob Griese was permitted to call games when his son, Brian, was playing for U-M (although I understood those concerns).
But Spielman seemed to go out of his way to nag and rag on the Michigan coaching decisions. Hey, at 10-2, I guess most of those choices were right, huh?
Too many schools use “nation” for fan following! We’re bigger, better. Make it WOLVERINE WORLD!!!!
There needs to be a statute outlawing making every team’s fan base into “nation.” It’s been beaten to death (let Red Sox fans have it because it was their’s first). I like my name – Wolverine World!!!!!! Encompasses more and is better reflective of the power of Michigan alumni!
From UMGoBlog: "The Buckeyes went after that fumble like it was a voucher for a free tattoo."
My answer: “Cruel, but funny.”
I must say the UM PSA shown during time outs hasn’t changed in 3-4 years. Needs refreshing guys! Spotlight Mott’s hospital.
The 15-second public service clip that is shown whenever Michigan plays on TV – The Michigan Difference – is the exact same one, with the exact same images, for the last THREE years. Perhaps a new series could be produced that spotlights some of the best parts of the university, such as the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital … or the Ford Presidential Library … or the Ross Business School … or many outstanding research programs …
Something please other than the warmed-over visuals than needed some serious updating.
Number 856 for Horns was not expected. Biggest win by team with worst offense EVER! Little McCoy ain’t big brother.
Had someone sat next to me during the Thanksgiving farwell to college football’s third-longest running rivalry, you’d have heard that from my lips. Never has a team with as bad an offense won such a big game. I don’t know how A&M coughed (or choked) up its fifth double-digit lead of the season (out of six losses), but it did. Aggies deserve to leave the conference with its tail between their hindqaurters.
There should be a law that only fans at Fenway can sing “Sweet Caroline.” Otherwise, it’s copycat. Instead sing “Kick out the Jams!"
Why in the world are 110,000 people doing bad Neil Diamond? Can’t someone at least get some classic Motown? Or “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors? Imagine how THAT would sound in the stands?!?!
Shazier pulls a “Suh” ... looks around and asks “Who me???” Yeah, YOU!
OSU freshman linebacker Ryan Shazier got flagged for a personal foul (face masking for ripping Toussaint’s helmet off his head) and, in front of God and the ABC audience, got up and acted as if he was as innocent as a newborn. Palms were raised and face was contorted in that “Who me?” stare. Worst job of salesmanship since Detroit DT Ndamukong Suh tried to ignore his version of “The Bristol Stomp.”
Robinson’s TD pass total, passing Brady ... remember Brady just played 1-½ seasons.
I believe most Michigan fans forget that Tom Brady, who actually matured as a quarterback once he got to the NFL, only played a season and a half for Michigan. He sat behind Scott Driesbach and Brian Griese and became the starter midway in 1998, battling with Drew Henson.
However, nothing can diminish Robinson’s sparkling career numbers (329 completions, eighth all-time; 4,814 yards; eighth all-time; 38 touchdowns, sixth all-time) and his accomplishments having undergone a major change of offensive philosophy after two seasons. With some tweaking (not tweeting), he will be an absolute offensive beast as a senior and one of the odds-on 2012 Heisman Trophy favorites.
Must be said that Ohio State is playing more on pride than actual talent. Its O-line has been equal to UM defense since 1Q.
I tweeted that the Buckeye front line was falling apart quicker than the fa├žade given by Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky. After all, the Bucks DID have several top-flight recruiting classes and there WAS lots of talent on the field, dressed in Scarlet and Gray.
And despite one’s animosity towards that program, it must come with lots of respect. After all, OSU did won the last seven meetings, did win a bunch of conference championships and felt the same way about Michigan as the Wolverines felt about them. Those kids weren’t going down without a fight.
Hey, ABC!!! STOP TALKING ABOUT URBAN MEYER ALREADY! That was only the umpteenth time! Enough already!
I swear to God, the ABC on-air crew could not stop itself from bringing up Meyer’s name and no-show presence throughout the broadcast. It felt like “Coach” “Urban” “Meyer” was inserted into every third sentence.
Of course, after he basically LIED the week before about having no interest in the job or no contact about it, no one should be shocked that before the sun rose Monday in Columbus, he had agreed to be the new head coach at Ohio State. It was the worst-kept secret in America.
That said, the new sheriff in town resides in Ann Arbor and the word needs to be sent to all corners of the Big Ten, including East Lansing (the next streak to be ended) and Madison. The road to the Big Ten title not only runs through Ann Arbor, it will stay there for the next few years to come. Meyer going to Columbus will NOT change that!
That took longer than the entire Journey Greatest Hits album.
Since I am basic old school, the thought of classic rock tunes blaring over the Michigan Stadium public address system, during timeouts or play reviews, is unsettling. Why? And when to heard almost the entire version of “Don’t Stop Believing” during the Toussaint touchdown review (yes, his knee hit before the ball crossed the goal line) means the referee was taking too much time.
It should be like Final Jeopardy; play 60 seconds of that ditty and let’s have your answer!
In this rivalry, that spiking the ball on 3rd down will be the same as Chris Webber’s TO call vs. UNC in NCAA hoops final. DUMB, DUMB, DUMB!
There have been iconic moments in this rivalry – Woody ripping apart the first down markers at the end of the 1971 contest comes to my mind. Everyone has their own special moment.
Ohio State fans will have to ask themselves and their team what happened in the final minute when the Buckeyes had the ball, and a chance to WIN the contest. After a short second-down completion, and the clock ticking under 60 seconds, quarterback Braxton Miller went to the line of scrimmage (on THIRD down) and spiked the ball into the ground, stopping the clock.
Why did he waste that play, leaving him only one more chance to get a drive-sustaining first down? Who made that call? An untrained freshman? An unproven coach (who looked pissed but not shocked that it happened)? It appeared as if a two-minute drill was foreign to the OSU offense, so who was to blame?
Those are the kind of gaffes that will keep the best of Buckeye fans warm on Columbus sports radio talk shows throughout the winter – warm from inner anger that U-M fans have felt for the last seven years. Those same fans should remember that it took a SECOND coaching change to remedy Michigan’s woes.
Finally a tweet from the Nebraska game one week earlier where I asked whether a team that cannot win its conference, or its own conference DIVISION, should be allowed to play for the BCS National Championship.
Sorry to disappoint all those Roll Tide backs, but you get ONE shot at the apple … er … crystal; two chances is one too many. In this season where only one school has stood above all others (LSU – a legitimate number 1), to have a post-season rematch is cheating the fans.
The first LSU-Alabama affair was so tight of a defensive battle, it was impossible to squirt liquid through the respective water bottles. Tension is one thing but, for most of the contest, it was not compelling. Kicking field goals does not make for good television (which is the lone purpose of holding the BCS game).
So Oregon, you’re out. Alabama, you’re out. Anyone already on LSU’s schedule is out! USC, you’re not eligible. Big Ten title winner, you’re just not good enough this season.
Oklahoma State, you might have a puncher’s chance if you beat OU in “Bedlam.” That offense versus LSU’s defense would be quite entertaining.
Of course, if Georgia throws the monkey wrench of all monkey wrenches and beats LSU in the SEC title game, then throwing darts at a board might be the only solution to the final pairing. Personally, I root for chaos!
I shall put the Twitter account away until the next home game, or if I can secure tickets for the Alabama affair in Arlington, Texas come September. But I’ll bring my son because he can actually type on those ridiculously small smart phone keypads.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Michigan-Ohio State: Magic number is now 1

In Times Square stands one of the most photographed sites in America; sadly it’s not what you think, instead it’s the U.S. Deficit Clock with its running total of debt. It’s a constant reminder of our past economic decisions and future choices to be made.
A different running clock has plagued Michigan football – its program and its fans with the number 2,926 – the number of days since U-M defeated its bitterest, and most hated, rival – Ohio State. Instead of the furious pace at which the deficit grows, the U-M clock of bitter misery moved at a snail’s pace … day by day by day.
Until Saturday. After seven YEARS of complete frustration, and two coaching changes, the clock had moved into positive territory. Ding! Dong! The Vest (and all its surrogates) is dead! When the stadium clock ran to 0:00, the new magic number became ONE! Michigan 40, Ohio State 34!
Unless that last three years where Michigan was an offensive flat tire, the Wolverines outgained OSU 444-373 and controlled play for 10 minutes more than the Bucks. U-M scored more points in the first three quarters against Brutus Buckeye than in the entire Rich “Mr. Offensive Genius” Rodriguez era.
However, if truth be told, the ashes of his spread offense certainly served the Wolverines well Saturday as Denard Robinson continued to burn the Buckeye defense on the spread option and halfback Fitzgerald Toussaint avoided the interior of the Ohio defensive line to gain his yards by angling to daylight.
With their rushing performances Saturday, Robinson (26 carries for 170 yards, two touchdowns) and Toussaint (20 carries for 120 yards) each sprinted past the 1,000-yard mark on the season (with one all-but-certain BCS bowl game to play … perhaps the Sugar in New Orleans?)
Michigan now has its most dangerous 1-2 running combination in decades, surely since the 1975 duo of Gordon Bell (1,388) and Rob Lytle (1,030) – the last two U-M backs with more than 1,000 yards rushing in the same season. And that was a 10-game season and included the 21-14 loss at home to the Archie and Ray Griffin-led Buckeyes.
Michigan moves to 10-2 on the season and has been on the lips and minds of all analysts trying to matchup opponents for BCS bowl. For this program to have gone from a defensive embarrassment to a BCS team has nothing short of amazing. It is the exclamation point on a campaign to name Brady Hoke as Coach of the Year (sorry, LSU fans).
Defensive coordinator Greg Mattison should be named Assistant Coach of the Year for converting a bottom-feeding defense into one of the 2-3 best in the Big 10. It cannot be repeated enough; the defensive reversal was done essentially with last year’s personnel. Yes, Virginia, miracles DO happen!
Still, Michigan should never have had to sweat the outcome; it was a much better team entering the game and after the first quarter, should have been blowing out the Buckeyes. But mistakes and missed opportunities permitted the upstart visitors to hang around – a dangerous proposition for any proud, determined program. Say what you will about its rules violations, coaching ethics and its future, but Ohio State wants more than anything in this world to beat Michigan. Period! Hell, it awards a special (and exchangeable) award for achieving that outcome.
And the roster DOES have a decent amount of talent, led by a heralded freshman quarterback in Braxton Miller, from Huber Heights, Ohio. His initiation into big time college football has been somewhat rough, but the talent is there!
Miller played better than my expectations and much better than most Wolverine fans believed before kickoff. Although not exactly fair, in comparison to the man who SHOULD have been there (but got, to quote Mick Jagger “tattoo you” out of there), Miller resembles Terrell Pryor in some ways.
He is a strong, elusive runner and difficult to tackle. He possesses a strong, but highly inaccurate, arm and totally lacks touch on the short routes. However, that can be coached into the young man, provided he stays away from certain parts of Columbus and grows an allergy to ink.
He ran (literally away from the front four pressure) for 100 yards on 16 carries and completed 14 passes in 25 attempts for 253 yards and two touchdowns. By all standards, that was a performance worthy of a victory.
Still, the Buckeyes were fairly one-dimensional in the game and had it NOT been for two huge mistakes – the missed center snap by punter Will Hagerup and a turnover inside the UM 31 – Ohio State would NOT have been in the game as much as it was. And the disastrous double-penalty at the Ohio State 1 almost cost U-M the game. The eventual six-point margin still allowed OSU the opportunity to win the game, since the flags and subsequent field goal didn’t provide the needed two-score margin Michigan sought.
Miller played a heck of a game, BUT … it might not be his legacy from Saturday. The spiking of the ball on a crucial third down play, with time running away, was as dumb a move as I’ve seen in years. I do liken it to Chris Webber ill-timed timeout in the NCAA Finals against North Carolina, which has dogged him for years (even to the point of defining him as a player, which is unfair). Unless Luke Fickell accepts responsibility for the call, even if he didn’t ask for it from the sidelines, it will be a play shown over and over and over … on every highlight reel this weekend and for weeks to come.
The difference Saturday was Michigan’s ability to get up off the mat when knocked down – not once, not twice but a third time. When OSU took a 17-16 lead, Robinson marched his teammates on the next possession for a score.
Trailing at halftime, Robinson again was the conductor of this train, throwing an absolute dart between defenders to senior Martavious Odoms for a 20-yard touchdown and the lead U-M would not relinquish.
The emergence of Odoms is a welcome sight because of his speed and ability to run precise routes. He might be as strong as Junior Hemingway or Roy Roundtree, but he’s more of a threat at times … and Robinson has plenty of confidence in him.
Robinson also utilized his senior tight end Kevin Koger smartly throughout; two key completions included a 4-yard touchdown pass.
The game ended exactly how a close Michigan-Ohio State game should – an interception at midfield by a Wolverine defensive back (i.e., Thom Darden’s pick that set off fireworks within Woody Hayes in 1971). This afternoon, it was a diving Courtney Avery who sealed the deal and lit the fuse on the frenzied crowd of 114,132 – second-largest in history (only the night game against Notre Dame had more eyes in person).
At 10-2, Michigan is back in the talk when it comes to college football’s top-flight programs. It should make recruiting easier and richer, even if OSU hires Urban Meyer as its head coach. Meyer will become to man with something to prove because Michigan, and Hoke, already have made that statement loud and clear.
For Ohio State, its clock now reads “1.” It has 364 days to wait… tick, tock.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My new hero

My new hero is Rice University professor, and noted historian, Dr. Douglas Brinkley, who stood up to the rudest kind of behavior and attitude in Congress during a relatively minor hearing on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When he was disrespected by Alaska Republican Don Young (one of those entrenched Congressmen the Tea Party hates in theory, but supports in practice), Brinkley didn’t bat an eye:
It starts when Young called Brinkley “Dr. Rice.” (whether it was a mistake remains to be seen)…
“It’s Dr. Brinkley, Rice University is a university,” Brinkley responded. “I know you went to Yuba (Community) College … ”
An angry Young then said, “I’ll call you anything I want to call you when you in that chair. You just be quiet.”
Brinkley didn’t bat an eye.
“You don’t own me,” he said. “I pay your salary. I work for the private sector and you work for the taxpayer.”
At that moment, Committee Chairman Doc Hasting (R-Wash.) broke up the heated argument.
Brinkley, a history professor at Rice (one of the nation’s most prestigious schools), wrote "The Quiet World," about protecting the Alaskan wilderness. He also penned a guest column for The New York Times seeking to protect the land surrounding Arizona's Grand Canyon.
Go to the 31-minute mark to see the exchange.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The game of the century – this year’s version

Earlier this month, LSU and Alabama (two teams with Michigan connections) squared off in Tuscaloosa for the Game of the Century – v.2012. It was somewhat of a snoozer, though, a 9-6 overtime contest between the two top-ranked programs in the nation (LSU emerging on top).
It had drawn comparisons to the 21st century’s initial GAME OF THE CENTURY just five years ago when Michigan played Ohio State, in Columbus, with the same rankings placed one each squad.
But ... that is where the comparisons cease; the games were NOT comparable in meaning, purpose and emotion. It wasn’t the game of the century, decade, year or even game of the week. It was too over-hyped by the folks at CBS and SEC and didn’t come close to the affair that REALLY assumed that mantle five years before.
The date was Nov. 18, 2006 and the buildup was enormous. The Buckeyes were ranked slightly ahead of the Wolverines in the polls (and BCS rankings), both at 11-0 and the game would have double meaning attached to it. The winner would earn the Big Ten championship outright and have a slot in the BCS National Championship contest, set for Glendale, Ariz.
It was a nationally-televised affair showcasing the schools involved in the bitterest rivalry in all of college football. For the first time in this battle, each school held the top two spots in the sport.
The sports nation knows that legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler died from a heart attack the day before the contest, and cast a pall over the entire affair. The man who engineered the greatest upset in collegiate football (the 24-12 victory in 1969) was as much a part of the rivalry as any human could be. His “10-Year War” with Woody Hayes became the stuff of legends – mythical in the stories retold for the next three generations.
Many fans spent the run-up to kickoff with tears in their eyes. Even the Columbus faithful were touched; stores displaying messages such as “We Miss Bo,” or “Bless you Bo.” He was honored with a video tribute on the Ohio Stadium jumbotron, which drew a prolonged standing ovation. The Ohio State Band formed the word “BO” to start a moment of silence (after all, Schembechler WAS an Ohio State assistant under Hayes).
But it wasn’t the only tragedy ... another member of the Michigan football family had died earlier in the week. Dr. Tom Slade Jr. lost his battle with leukemia the Sunday before “The Game,” at the far-too-young age of 54. His death ended a relationship with the U-M program beginning in 1970.
The world lost more than an outstanding dentist; some of us lost a long-forgotten friend from old days in Ann Arbor.
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Tom Slade, a square-jawed, tough-as-nail competitor with a million dollar smile BEFORE he officially became a dentist, was born in Manotick, Mich., but raised in Saginaw after he had been adopted. He was an All-State quarterback for Saginaw High School, and also played basketball and tennis.
As a 1970 high school graduate, he was one of the first quarterbacks recruiting by Schembechler, along with Larry Cipa, and the pair battled for the starting position throughout the 1971 season (when they first became eligible to play varsity football).
Although they shared playing time for the first half of the season, Slade eventually garnered the full-time starter’s role and led Michigan to an 11-0 regular season mark. Neither the swiftest of runners, nor the strongest of passers (Cipa was acknowledged to  have had the better arm), it was Slade’s leadership ability, and the guts to use himself as a lead blocker for tailbacks like Billy Taylor that impressed Bo the most.
In the 1972 Rose Bowl, Slade came within 19 seconds of completing that perfect season, and possible national championship. However, Stanford, led by QB Don Bunce, upset the apple cart.
After the two teams exchanged field goals in the first three quarters, Michigan took a 10-3 lead on a 1-yard plunge by Fritz Seyferth in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, but with 6:29 to play, Indian halfback Jackie Brown tied the contest on a 24-yard run (after his 33-yard run on a fake punt).
Side note: Stanford was still known as the “Indians” back in the day before going all politically correct and changing to Cardinals (then  singular Cardinal) the next season. The 1972 Rose Bowl was the last game by which Stanford employed that Native American mascot moniker.
Late in the game, Michigan pounced on a Stanford fumble close to midfield, but was unable to drive inside the 20. So Dana Coin attempted a 42-yard field goal, which was short. However, Stanford safety Jim Ferguson tried to run the ball out of the end zone, only to be slammed to the turf by Michigan fullback Ed Shuttlesworth for a two-point safety.
With three minutes to play, and the ball following the free kick, things were coming up “roses” for the Wolverines. But the Indian defense stiffened and forced a three-and-out by Michigan. With 108 seconds to play, Stanford started at its own 22, on its fateful scoring march.
Bunch (who had been Jim Plunkett’s backup one year before when Stanford beat Ohio State in the 1971 Rose Bowl) connected on five consecutive completions down to the U-M 17, with 22 ticks left. After two plays, little Rod Garcia would begin a “tradition” of undersized kickers beating Michigan with last-second field goals – this one from 31 yards out with 12 seconds to play, and the 13-12 upset over the Wolverines.
Bunce was named the game’s MVP but only played pro ball for one season in Canada. He eventually became an orthopedic surgeon and served as the Cardinal team physician for a decade. Slade also served as Eastern Michigan University’s athletic team dentist from 1984-2006.
Slade lost his starting job in 1972-73 to Dennis Franklin and turned his thoughts to his post-athletic career. After his undergraduate work, Slade attended the U-M School of Dentistry, earning his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree in 1978. He remained there for three years as a teacher before setting up a private practice in Ypsilanti Township for the next 24 years when his illness forced his retirement.
And one of his best clients was ... Bo Schembechler.
Slade never left athletics during his business career. He served as a Michigan High School Athletic Association official for basketball, working several state finals contests, and was a Big Ten and Mid-American Conference official for women’s basketball.
He was a member of the Ypsilanti Area Chamber of Commerce and served three terms as president of the EMU Baseball Dugout Club.
If all that wasn’t enough, he was in the press box every Saturday as a color analyst for U-M broadcasts over WUOM-fm, the campus’ official station.
In 2004, Slade was inducted into the Saginaw County Sports Hall of Fame – an honor of great pride to him.
But just a year later, in 2005, Slade was struck down with leukemia, In June, 2006, many former teammates, including fellow Saginaw native Calvin O’Neal, an All-American linebacker at Michigan, organized the Tom Slade Marrow Donor Registration Drive to assist in finding matching donor for Slade and other leukemia victims. The once-vibrant Slade could no longer participate in those outdoor activities he cherished – golf, running, camping.
“You do everything, live every day the fullest. Today could be the last day of your life.” He told WJRT-tv reporter Terry Camp in June of 2006.
Slade’s former coach never forgot him up to the final days. Bo would send weekly notes and messages and frequently visited the ailing Slade in the hospital.
“During a particularly difficult day in the hospital, Slade woke up to see his former coach sitting in a chair against the wall,” wrote U-M athletics historian John U. Bacon in the Detroit News following Schembechler’s death. “They looked at each other, but said nothing, and Slade fell back to sleep. When he awoke again five hours later, Bo was sitting in the same chair, looking right at him.”
According to all reports, Schembechler, ailing as he was, attended Slade’s funeral the Thursday before the 2006 Michigan-Ohio State game and followed that up with one of his traditions – a pep speech to the Wolverine team that night.
As written in the Detroit News, “Bo’s speech was not about Ohio State, the Big Ten title or a national championship. The whole speech was about Tom Slade and how, if the players worked hard, listened to their coaches and stuck together as teammates, one day they might be as good a Michigan man as Slade. That was the goal at Michigan, not national championships.”
A little more than 12 hours later, Schembechler collapsed at the set of his weekly television show in Detroit and died, of heart failure at the age of 77.
At the time of his passing, Tom Slade was married to Pam St. John, a former U-M cheerleader, and was survived by his two sons, Andrew and Spencer, from a previous marriage.
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As the world knows, Ohio State won the 2006 game, 42-39, viewed by almost 22 million fans – the largest TV audience for a regular season college football game in13 years. At the time, it set an attendance record for Ohio Stadium at 105,708 (since broken twice against Penn State and Southern Cal).
Some might challenge the superiority of all SEC schools to the Big Ten and those two representatives in 2006, pointing to what happened after “The Game.” Ohio State did lose 41-14 to Florida in the BCS Title Game while Michigan fell 32-18 to USC in the Rose Bowl.
Could it have been a case of each team having spent all its emotional capital on the field in Columbus? Perhaps; it wasn’t a question of talent. Some 40 players on each roster for the 2006 “Game” were drafted by teams in the NFL (not counting others who were free agent signees).
And there was this post-script, just 30 minutes after the conclusion of the 2006 clash – the winning numbers that night, in the Ohio Lottery PICK 4 were ... 4-2-3-9! Each person holding those winning numbers received $5,000 (a total of $2.2 million was paid out).
It WAS a special night!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Michigan-Nebraska: Welcome to the REAL Big 10, Michigan-style!

Sorry, it just didn’t look proper to have Nebraska coming to Ann Arbor for an important “BIG TEN” conference matchup in November. Just as it took a few meetings to adjust when Penn State first entered, Wolverine will need a few home-and-home cycles to feel comfortable is claiming the Cornhuskers as a Big Ten school.
And after the 45-17 whipping administered to UN in this initial conference visit before 119,000 fans, the newbies now realize what true Big Ten football is all about – toughness, a power running game and up-front hard-nosed defense. In truth, their former home (the Big 12 Conference) was about speed, hoisting the pigskins 40-50 times a game and coverage.
So welcome to the Big House and the Big Time, UN (these initials should be used with Nebraska for the next year because the other “NU” – Northwestern – earned the right to that abbreviation by beating Nebraska in Lincoln two weeks ago … so UN it is!).
In what can only be described as the most complete team performance this season, all facets (offense, defense, special teams) were hitting on every cylinder. In fact, the only power shortage was inside Michigan Stadium itself, giving the contest an old school atmosphere without scoreboard replays or fan cams. It was just about the action on the field – REAL Big Ten football, Michigan-style!
It was quite appropriate that former head coach Lloyd Carr was honored before the game for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame because this team, coached by Brady Hoke, finally bore a strong resemblance to Carr’s best squads. It was good to see Carr on the sidelines when the final whistle blew, basking in the moment of victory.
Michigan, now 9-2, has the opportunity to do something no pre-season forecaster would have believed – produce a 10-win season and a possible BCS bowl appearance. Should that outcome come about, there MUST be serious consideration given to Hoke as 2011’s Coach of the Year for Division 1. And add the name, Greg Mattison, U-M’s defensive coordinator, as one of the top candidates for Assistant Coach of the Year in doing the impossible – improving Michigan’s defense from worst in the nation to best in the Big Ten…with the same talent pool from one year ago.
If the Wolverine defense retains the same level of competence delivered against Nebraska in seven days’ time, a lot of pain, suffering and frustration will be erased against that school from down south. It’s been many moons since the Big House crowd was heard chanting “Beat Ohio” in the final quarter of ANY ballgame.
Mattison’s scheme against Nebraska seemed to focus on UN halfback Rex Burkhead, who had been averaging 107 yards rushing per game. But the front line, led by Jake Ryan, Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin, completely bottled up Burkhead to just 36 yards on 10 carries (nothing longer than 9 yards). In fact, the U-M defense collected seven tackles for loss (24-yards to UN’s detriment).
This meeting, the first between the schools at Michigan Stadium since 1962 and the first as members of the same conference, was the first time in 2011 since the start of 2010 that quarterback Denard Robinson appeared in full Shoelace regalia. He was an offensive threat with his feet throughout the contest, either on straight option runs, scrambling out of most trouble for positive yards or rolling away from pressure to find open receivers.
Not only did Robinson beat the ‘Huskers with his arm (11-18 for 180 yards and three touchdowns), but the Wolverine offensive line held its own most of the afternoon as U-M totaled 418 yards in total offense and held the ball for more than an astonishing 41 of the game’s 60 minutes of play. Michigan also more than doubled the number of running plays (61-30) – a clear sign of domination up front.
But the REAL key to the Michigan offense is not Robinson (regardless of what Urban Meyer or Chris Speilman believe or say). The Wolverines now possess a legitimate backfield threat in sophomore Fitzgerald Toussaint, who pranced and danced through the UN defense for 138 yards on 29 carries and two scores.
In Big 10 play, Toussaint had gone for triple-digits for the fourth time and he per carry average is tops in the conference. Not since Mike Hart has Michigan possessed a backfield running threat of this caliber…and to think he was riding so much pine last year, he was developing a bad case of splinters.
Fitz should garner the nickname “Happy Feet” for his outstanding football when hitting the line and the ability to come to a full stop, then instantly move to the open crease at full speed. That’s exactly what he did to some poor (jockless) UN lineman late in the third quarter on a simple 1-yard touchdown run that was anything BUT simple.
Robinson and Toussaint ran for 221 yards and pretty much controlled everything. They helped Michigan convert 8 of 18 third-down situations (the defense held UN without a third-down conversion until late in the third period) and that was not the case in the second half of the last three seasons.
The other area of greatest improvement this season can be seen in special teams play – at first a possible liability but now a weapon to be reckoned with. Punt and kickoff coverage has been steadily getting better each week and even Brendan Gibbons launched a successful 42-yard field goal (a career best) when a Michigan drive stalled in the first quarter.
How good has coverage been? Ask the UN returners who coughed up two fumbles in the second half on solid hits.
The insertion of Martavious Odoms on kickoff returns provides Michigan with a legitimate speedster returning kickoffs and it is only a matter of time before he breaks one for six points (next week would be a real good time for such a performance). His presence as a wide receiver, catching the second touchdown in as many weeks, is simply another major headache for defensive coordinators to factor.
And for good measure, Hoke employed a fake field goal inside the UN 5 for a fourth-down conversion and subsequent touchdown. It worked because kicking a field goal by Michigan is no longer a losing proposition.
Of course, little of what Nebraska tried to accomplish worked, or made much sense Saturday. The Pelini Brothers (Bo, head coach and Carl, defensive coordinator) gambled on putting 8-9 defenders in the box, daring Robinson to be them. Needless to say, neither man should go to Las Vegas in the coming weeks…
Key penalties (a roughing the kicker and pass interference in the end zone) directly led to Michigan points and pretty much bleached away any starch left in the “black shirt” defense. In fact, the sight of Pelini’s beleaguered face at the final seconds ticked off was nice for any Big 12 fan to see. Of course, his normal mug is not exactly “don’t worry, be happy.”
Even at the end of the game, Pelini left his starting quarterback, Taylor Martinez, in the contest, risking the young man to injury, even though the outcome has well-decided. It simply made little sense as was the over-dependence on a passing attack from a player whose weakness is throwing the football.
Nebraska’s first touchdown (a 55-yard scoring strike) happened only when the Michigan defender slipped on the snap. The other scoring drives came on short fields – an interception and a negative exchange of punts. Otherwise, the Huskers looked like they were stuck in a muddy field most of the game.
And without seeming to be nit-picking, but someone in the UN system needs to teach cornerbacks how to tackle using their bodies and arms to wrap up. Too many Huskers were simply grabbing and trying to throw U-M runners and receivers to the ground. And often, that allowed runners like Toussaint and the receivers to break free and gain more yardage. Very bad technique exposed all game long.
But enough about Nebraska; time to move to the regular season finale – the one game ALL Michigan fans have been waiting for this season (and the past three seasons). For the first time, perhaps since 2003 when Michigan last won, the Wolverines will be expected to put a big hurt on the Buckeyes. Everyone knows the numbers 37-7 (last year’s score in Columbus) will be burned into every player’s psyche.
Ohio State is nothing like teams in the last seven years; it is offensively challenged and defensively not as strong. OSU has nothing to play for other than to keep from finishing .500 and avoiding a low-level bowl game in mid-December (can you say Little Caesars Pizza Bowl or Ticket City Bowl?).
Michigan, on the other hand, might be able to parlay a 10-2 record into a BCS berth in something like the Sugar or Fiesta Bowl. I’d dare say the Wolverines would prove to be an attractive marquee name (as opposed to the toxic nature still surrounding Penn State).
It’s up to the BCS people and rankings and up to the Wolverines to make a rock-hard statement to end the season. To barbecue the Buckeyes!!! Hey, Brutus … time to roast some nuts!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ty-run-til-he is sore-us Rex: Hometown standout

Here’s the thing about all this island/conference hopping by so many collegiate athletic programs: each change is a broken promise to a family. When Missouri joins the Southeastern Conference next season, it means many players and their families will have “iron-clad” promises broken by the very same people sniffing for every stray penny on the college sports beach.
Those players who signed letters of intent to play at Texas A&M fully anticipated, along with their friends and families, to play more than just home games in the state of Texas. They expected MOST of their games to be held close enough to home to drive on a Saturday and see that player before their eyes (minus a remote control). Beginning in 2012, it will NOT be the case because it’s a damn sight harder to hook it over to Gainesville, Fla., than to go to Waco, Texas…or even Lubbock.
One of those players is Rex Burkhead, a product of Plano Senior High School, a couple of miles from my house. The running back was a star for the Wildcats, leading his team to the Class 5A-Division 1 semi-finals in 2008. (Texas divides schools by attendances TWICE for football playoffs; but don’t ask, too hard to explain).
However, he wasn’t that heavily recruited, especially by the University of Texas, which finds nearly ALL its recruits in-state. His 40-yard dash time of 4.84 wasn’t particularly impressive and while he was named the Player of the Year by the Dallas Morning News, the upper echelon state schools weren’t among them.
Eventually, Burkhead was scooped up by Nebraska and on Saturday, he, and his Nebraska teammates, will make their first-ever visit to Ann Arbor to play Michigan … of the Big 10 Conference. But when he signed with the Huskers, I guarantee such a scenario was the furthest thing from his mind. After all, Nebraska was part of the Big 12 Conference and there were potential games close to home in Waco, Austin, College Station and Lubbock. Heck, his folks could make the three-hour trip to Norman, Okla. to see Nebraska play Oklahoma.
But decisions made one year ago destroyed all that. Nebraska, long wishing to escape the far-reaching  shadow of the Longhorns, jumped at the invitation from the Big 10 to join it as its twelfth member (it’s odd that the Big 10 has 12 members and the Big 12 has 10…). Unless the Burkheads spend the money to fly to Detroit, book a hotel room for a couple of nights and spend on meals, they will join me Saturday searching for which ESPN channel will air the game.
As said, that wasn’t part of the deal in 2009 when Burkhead inked his NCAA letter of intent because Nebraska did not maintain its own promise NOT to completely change the scenery.
Burkhead has turned out to be an excellent signing for the Cornhuskers. This season, he has rushed for 1,072 yards on 212 carries (a 5.1 yard per carry average) and 14 touchdowns. In addition, he was caught 15 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns.
All this promise was evident here in Plano. As a junior, Burkhead led his team to a 13-2 record and a spot in the 5A state semifinals where Plano went out to eventual champions Euless Trinity in double-overtime. He finished the year with 1,769 yards rushing and 29 touchdowns.
As a senior, Burkhead ran 256 times for 1,776 yards and 23 touchdowns, plus 42 receptions for 592 yards and 4 touchdowns. The Plano Senior High School schedule contained five schools which had captured state championships.
While not blessed with great speed, Burkhead is a strong individual. In high school, he bench-pressed 320 pounds and squatted 500 pounds. He also had an impressive 38-inch vertical jump, which was employed in basketball where he was starting point guard, averaging 16 points per contest.
Academically, he was a solid high school student, with a 3.6 GPA and 25 score on the ACT test.
“I can catch the ball and take hits. I’m good out of the backfield too and can do anything; I can even punt or play quarterback,” he told local media back in his Plano days. “I do it all. I’m just a do-anything-type guy and can just open up the offense. But I still want to improve my pass blocking skills and make better cuts and reads.”
When people think of Texas, they often, and improperly envision, open range, oil wells, lots and lots of cattle and cowboys … and for much of the state, it’s accurate. That describes much of the acreage west of Fort Worth, but for the major population areas (Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Houston), it’s as wrong as it could be.
There is a saying in Texas, as a response to someone from this area: “Hon, I’m not from Texas, I’m from Dallas.” Dallas has always been more about high style than any other region of Texas. “Urban Cowboy” could only have been filmed in Houston because that area reflects part of the film’s message. The TV show “Dallas” reflected what the city was like in 1977, but things have changed drastically, and Plano mirrors all the alterations.
Plano is a northern suburb of Dallas - very flat, plain and ugly in terms of topography. It is significant for its subdivisions, shopping centers and athletic reputation (aside from its dark days as Heroin Capital for the fairly rampant usage in the late 1980s at … Plano Senior High School). Its alumni include several actors of decent note and three former NFL stars (Billy Ray Smith, Pat Thomas and Alan Reuber).
In the late 1970s, Plano was much smaller (72,000) than its current population of more than 277,000. Because of what is known as “build out,” Plano’s size will stay at that level for the rest of most people’s known lives.
Other area and neighboring cities have experienced even faster, explosive growth, but Plano is the model by which most DFW suburbs are marked. Any open space is either viewed as a housing development or retain opportunity.
With such growth comes expansion of the school system and in Texas, it means high school athletics. And Plano has earned more than its share of state championships, seven in football ranking behind only Celina (a small community in the same county), Brownwood and Southlake Carroll. The last one happened in 1994.
The fable of “Friday Night Lights” aside, there is nothing like the experience of Texas schoolboy football, where hundreds of thousands of supporters travel highways and back roads to watch the local sons play for the home town. And when playoffs roll around, the crowds balloon into the thousands and the venues change from high school stands to the likes of Cowboys Stadium, The Alamodome, The Astrodome, Kyle Field (at Texas A&M), Ford Field (at SMU), and many, many others.
When Plano lost to Euless Trinity, it was in front of 45,000 spectators at the (now defunct) Texas Stadium, the former home of the Dallas Cowboys. This Saturday, Burkhead will play in front of the largest live audience he’s ever seen.
And it’s miles and miles and miles away from his Plano home. That wasn’t the deal when he signed, but it’s what’s happening now.
So when schools, like Boise State, negotiate with the Big East Conference for admission, merely to get itself as place at the BCS table and a bigger share of the crumbs (someone else already ate most of the pie), think about all those families out in the Utah cold (or in Texas) who simply cannot go see their sons play in the likes of Pennsylvania, upstate New York, or any place on the East Coast.
Those expectations get trampled quicker than the chariot racer in “Ben-Hur.” And just as painful.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Michigan-Illinois: When was the last time when …?

Gosh, there were SO many questions one really had to ask following Saturday’s 31-14 Wolverine win at Illinois, and they ALL started the same way: “When was the last time …?”
And the first simply goes: When was the last time Michigan’s defense played such a dominant game? When was the last time an opponent was held on its own half of the field for almost THREE quarters?
At no time under Rich Rodriguez did the Wolverine defense look as tenacious, swarming and superior (far better than the alleged second-ranked defense in the conference that was purported to have been the Illini) as it did Saturday. The much-maligned U-M front line held Illinois to 37 yards rushing on 33 attempts.
It produced a ton of pressure on Illini QB Nathan Scheelhaase (only 16 of 31 for 170 yards and no touchdowns), sacking him four times for a loss of 49 yards (three by Ryan Van Bergen).
The defense also had the star of the game, junior cornerback J.T. Floyd. He not only snagged a Scheelhaase pass, and ran it back 42-yards (to help produce the back breaking touchdown for U-M), but his blanketing coverage of WR A.J. Jenkins kept frustrating Illinois’ offensive scheme all afternoon. Jenkins did finish with 8 receptions for 103 yards, but more often than not, in one-on-one coverage, it was Floyd getting the upper hand.
When was the last time any Michigan running back looked as explosive as did Fitzgerald Toussaint, with 192 yards rushing on 27 carries. Certainly, no one since Mike Hart; and Fitz’s performance was tied for 40th best in UM history and the fourth best by a Wolverine against Illinois.
More importantly, he showed the value of straight-ahead running while waiting for holes to develop. Seldom did anyone see him running into his own interference, even carrying several Illini tackler son his back. How this talent was hidden for two years in a mystery even Hercule Poirot can’t solve.
On a side note, when was the last time you saw Big 10 game officials wait SO long to whistle plays dead? It happened often and could have caused several players to be injured by absorbing late hits, waiting for the damn whistle to sound when it was obvious people had been stopped. It was worrisome to say the least.
Otherwise, he was a non-factor and it’s unknown if it was designed that way. Once Denard Robinson left the game with his hand injury, the U-M went conservative, trying not to produce an unwanted turnover. And with the offensive line suddenly being pushed around, it made for more uncomfortable moments than necessary. After all, U-M should have won the game by 31 points or more but failed to get into the end zone three times inside the red zone.
When was the last time Michigan had a punt return game that was an actual threat? Jeremy Gallon, not much of a factor on offense, averaged more than 15 yards per punt return, and the resulting field position made a major difference. It was needed because neither punter performed well (wind might have been a factor but good kickers adjust accordingly).
When was the last time Michigan won a game without completing a single pass (or seemingly attempt to throw one) to one of its two top receivers? If you’re looking for Roy Roundtree’s name in the box score, it ain’t there. The first time he got his hands on the pigskin was recovering Illinois’ late-minute onside kick.
When was the last time you heard a better football name than Whitney Mercilous? And, give him credit, the young man is a damn good player, too. U-M’s offensive line had all it could handle with him.
When was the last time you saw another team start 6-0 and fall apart at the seams which was NOT coached by Rodriguez? That, my friends, is Illinois, which simply cannot count itself among the upper-level schools in Big Ten football.
Example? When was the last time you saw a team dilly-dally its way to the line of scrimmage, and needlessly sacrifice a strong wind advantage which seemed to be a factor in the game? That is Illinois.
When was the last time when Michigan actually made a field goal of any real significance? I assume the solution will be revealed in the 2012 season because delivering a sure three points anywhere outside of the point-after kick range is an iffy proposition.
When was the last time anyone game announcer spoke about a Michigan football recruit two years from joining the program? There is a quarterback out there who had Craig James all excited about the prospect of his playing in Ann Arbor. That alone demonstrates how the atmosphere has been changed by Brady Hoke.
When was the last time you saw a Michigan team standing at the brink of a 10-win regular season? Ohio State looks ripe for the plucking and Nebraska is not the big, bad beast rumored to have been when it entered the conference this year. If Penn State had any scintilla of an offense, it would have beaten the Cornhuskers. But faith and will cannot substitute for slow quarterback play and no running game.
NU quarterback Taylor Martinez is best when he operates the option and his top running threat is Texas-native Rex Burkhead, from my neck of the woods here in Plano. However, for the most part, Nebraska was held in check by Penn State and the Huskers are about to experience the Big House for the first time in their history.
It’ll be a slugfest, and probably low-scoring, but the game is very winnable for Michigan.
Michigan State has all but wrapped up the Legends Division title and is on course for a rematch with Wisconsin. A second-place division finish, with double-digit victories, might get Michigan into a loftier New Year’s Day bowl game – better than the Citrus and just below a BCS lineup
When was the last time anyone felt this positive about Michigan football? As is said in Texas, about a certain brand of canned chili, “Well, that’s too long!”

Side rant: Why did ESPN almost deliver ‘Heidi 2?’
It was 2:30 p.m., local standard time in my living room, and I was prepared to watch Michigan face Illinois in Champaign on ESPN … as advertised! I had my pad, pen, maize and blue knit slippers and soft drink in hand; eagerly waiting for the kickoff.
I realized that the Penn State-Nebraska game was running past its allotted time slot (if the networks would stop interrupting the game for two minutes’ worth of commercials at almost every change of possession, these affairs would actually last under two hours, 30 minutes like the old days … before cable television, obnoxious Geico commercials and self-promos for upcoming games every minute or so).
But I missed the first 20 minutes of the broadcast – as did half the country not tuned into the Texas A&M-Kansas State encounter in Manhattan. Instead, we saw all the endless post-mortem on Nebraska’s 17-14 win in State College, ad nauseum. There were interviews with coaches (including Joe Paterno’s son, Jay), cutaways to ESPN reporters in front of Paterno’s house, the same exact mimicking analysis by Lou Holtz and Mark May, trying to find the same sympathetic words for the failure of Penn State’s offense to deliver enough points – just short of bursting into tears themselves.
Then they began to show the press conference of PSU interim president Rodney Erickson, where no questions could be heard and the answers were ALL unrelated to the actual game.
What one didn’t see was the Michigan-Illinois game! Anywhere! In fact, on three of ESPN’s five English-speaking channels (ESPN, ESPN News, ESPNU), the exact same images were being broadcast (ESPN Classic was deep into some documentary and ESPN2 was still winding down the Michigan State-Iowa game and headed to some NASCAR broadcast of absolutely zero importance in the grand scheme of things).
No game … anywhere! I kept waiting for the stupid people in Bristol, Conn. to suddenly start showing “Heidi,” circa 1968. For those too young to remember, on Nov. 17, 1968, some dumb-ass at NBC, exactly at 7 p.m. (New York time), threw a switch and stopped the broadcast of the AFL contest between the New York Jets and Oakland Raiders (being a year before the NFL-AFL merger).
It might not have been so bad except the Jets were winning 32-29 in the final 61 seconds, and Oakland had the ball at its own 22. Then, as Pat Travers sang, “Boom! Boom! Out go the lights!” A gentle voice than said, over the air, “And now … “Heidi.”
In between that monumentally stupid call in the NBC operations center, and the referee’s final whistle, a period of seven minutes, fans missed one of the greatest ending in league history.
Here’s what happened, but unseen: At its own 22, Oakland’s gunslinging quarterback Daryl Lamonica threw a touchdown pass to running back Charlie Smith, but it was nullified by a penalty. But the two hooked up for a 20-yard completion on the ensuing snap and the Jets helped with a 15-yard face masking flag.
On the next play, Lamonica found Smith open for a 43-yard scoring strike, giving the Raiders a 36-32 advantage (PAT by the old man, George Blanda).
On the kickoff, Jets returner Earl Christy fumbled the pigskin after being hit by Oakland linebacker at the NYJ 12. Reserve halfback Preston Ridlehuber scooped up the ball and ran into the end zone.
A second Blanda PAT gave Oakland the win at 43-32 – all in the span of 61 seconds (stadium clock time) and seven minutes (NBC control time). After that network disaster, “the Heidi Rule” was instituted to ensure that ALL sporting events were seen from start to finish – no matter what! Sometime, it comes at the expense of sacrificing regular network programming, but NO network can afford to face the firestorm (and lose of advertisers) NBC saw in 1968.
Normally, when one game is running long, and another is set to begin, ESPN moves the start of that second telecast to another of its channels. They did it all the damn time, EXCEPT for today! As a result, Wolverine fans (NOT seeing the game regionally on ABC) completely missed Michigan’s opening touchdown run, including the 65-yard run by halfback Fitzgerald Toussaint and the 9-yard touchdown run by Denard Robinson. Allegedly, it was as sharp as Michigan looked all game, but to me, and hundreds of thousands of ESPN viewers at the 2:30 p.m. bewitching hour, it was just a rumor.
That was shameful treatment of the fans of those two schools and Big Ten football. Nothing said after the Penn State game hadn’t already been uttered by at least 50 different people on that network; nothing new was learned and nothing new was expressed. It looked more like a vulture picking looking for meat to pick off a carcass.
ESPN should have known better and did the right thing instead of getting SO caught up in the emotion. Hey, it was JUST a game after all – the emotion all happened at the start.
Shame on ESPN for what it did! I lost a lot of respect for that operation today.