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.

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