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.

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