Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Sugar Bowl love: Kisses sweeter than whine

The 2011 Redemption Tour of Michigan football is now complete and no place could have been a better finishing port than New Orleans – land of laissez faire and “Laissez les bons temps rouler” … let the good times roll. Before an announced crowd of 64,512 in the Louisiana Superdome (some of us will just have to wait until the Mercedes naming rights have been seared into our brains), the collegiate football program left for dead, just a shade over one year before, was officially resurrected and made nationally relevant by the unlikeliest of sources – its defense, its resilience and its coaching.
The 23-20 overtime Sugar Bowl victory over a very fine Virginia Tech squad brought the Wolverines their 11th victory of the season and more than immense satisfaction for its display of defensive tenacity and good fortune – on at least two overturned calls which, for once, went Michigan’s way in the post-season (just two words to say – Anthony Davis).
This victory was earned; it was NOT given by anyone. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Michigan also had lots of help from an unlikely source – the Virginia Tech coaches. On three occasions, poor game decisions and play calls led to Michigan’s win, and Frank Beamer, now the tenured dean of big school coaches, must assume responsibility and blame for what happened.
First, in what was obviously a defensive struggle from the start, leading 6-0 late in the second quarter, Beamer set aside a sure three points to call for a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 from the Michigan 4. Although Hokie QB Logan Thomas runs well in the open field, at 6-6, it’s harder for him to get that quick first step needed to make the play successful. The Big Blue defense rose up and held him short of the first down marker. And 9-0 would have been a much bigger hurdle to face than 6-0 with the ball.
In truth, Virginia Tech never fully recovered from that failed execution for the remainder of the game. Michigan, helped by a roughing-the-punter call, marched (actually stumbled) down the field until senior Junior Hemingway made one of his patented midair catches, broke free from a gambling defender and sprinted into the end zone for a 7-6 lead with 49 seconds left in the first half.
On the ensuing kickoff, UM’s J.B. Fitzgerald stripped the ball from Hokie returner Tony Gregory and Delonte Hollowell recovered at the VT 26. Three unsuccessful plays later, Michigan executed a fake field goal play … uh, not exactly.
Holder Drew Dileo did throw a pass into the end zone, which was tipped by the Hokies before it reached that destination, only to see it fall into the friendly arms of Michigan long snapper Jareth Glanda, who rumbled to the VT 8 with 8 seconds left in the half.
All those voodoo dolls being employed by Michigan fans in the stands were obviously working. They absolutely were affecting the VT coaching.
Brendan Gibbons gave UM a 10-7 halftime lead with his first field goal on the night and a team which was completely outplayed was still winning. The difference was the play of the much-maligned Michigan defense and by halftime, no one could rationally question its worth, its talent or its bend-but-don’t-break mentality.
The second Michigan touchdown came when true freshman linebacker Frank Clark literally stole a pass out of Martin’s hands, setting up the second Robinson-to-Hemingway scoring pass and a 17-6 advantage. Again, had Virginia Tech kicked that field goal instead of trying the QB sneak in the first half, it would have made, in my mind, a major difference in how the game was played.
The second VT coaching mistake was calling for a fake punt with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter; it had no chance to succeed from initiation and the punter was smothered by the swarming Michigan defense from the snap. The gadget mistake gave Michigan excellent midfield position instead of pinning the Wolverines deep in their own territory.
In a close encounter of the fourth (quarter) kind, position means everything. Michigan took advantage by kicking the go-ahead field goal for a 20-17 lead.
Finally, as regulation time rolled down, Virginia Tech, clearly marching to a possible victory, went “defensive” on offense in the final minute. Too many plays were called to merely to establish position for the game-tying field goal (which came with 2 seconds left in regulation). But Beamer never really tried anything true shot to win the game outright…or so it seemed.
This was the first-ever meeting between the schools and showed how a lack of familiarity can come back to bite a team (and coaching staff). For sure, the amount of team speed possessed by the Hokies could never be properly measured on film/tape. You cannot practice for it if you’ve never seen it up close and personal (not permissible since the pairing was made AFTER both teams ended regular season action).
VaTech’s speed on defense gave Michigan’s offense fits all night long, holding the Wolverines to 184 yards and just 56 yards rushing – all season lows. Quarterback Denard Robinson was the obvious focal point of the Hokie attack and with just a few exceptions, he was NOT in control of his fate Tuesday night.
Speed versus power is what distinguished the four major conferences (the Big 10 represents power football for the most part with the SEC and Big 12 displaying most of the speed). In a one-game, winner-take-all matchup, speed usually holds a significant advantage, but over a nine-week schedule, power often reduces the speed factor through sheer wear-and-tear. So it is to Michigan’s credit that it emerged victorious since speed is NOT its middle name.
The Big 10 school which manages to produce a significant speed factor over its conference rivals will dominate for the next decade and be better equipped to play Southern-based schools in bowl encounters.
Michigan’s win helped wipe some of the manure splattering off the Big 10 mantle during this bowl season, but it remained a sorry sight for the conference to have lost six of nine games prior to Tuesday night’s Sugar Bowl. Sparty, despite all the whining about its lot in BCS life, finally decided in the second half to show up and went into triple overtime to edge Georgia. Purdue almost embarrassed itself by barely nipping Western Michigan in the Pizza Bowl in Detroit.
The strength (or weakness) of the Big 10 Conference was not on trial; the silly (non-BCS) bowl system itself was indicted for what it actually is … a fraud. To fill all those contractual obligations, a greedy conference has allowed itself to be ridiculed and teams which had NO business playing an extra game merely got further humiliated.
Just because a team becomes “bowl-eligible” means it should be “bowl-selected.” The proliferation of these unnecessary games is hurting college football. As disclosed on HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” these games often are held under some guise for “charitable contributions,” but usually don’t give a penny of money to anyone but themselves. That show outlined how the bowl executives got salaries closer to seven figures than five figures, and how IRS disclosure statements revealed no funds sent to any charities.
They are mere vehicles for sponsors to primp around the host cities like they own the damn place, and college student-athletes become their unwitting pawns. No sponsor with the name “” should be allowed to sponsor ANYTHING related to college athletics and Yankee Stadium (or Boise, Idaho), in late December, is NO place to play a college football game.
I live in suburban Dallas and I can assure you there were fewer people in the Metroplex aware that Penn State was playing Houston in the TicketCity Bowl (sponsored by a service unavailable in this area) than voted for John Huntsman in the Iowa Causcuses. And the empty seats, disguised as ticket-purchasing fans, echoed that fact. For the Cougars, it was a chance to score a big win over a formerly-decent national name; for Penn State, the game meant nothing and it showed.
Same holds true for the Buckeyes, who quit against Florida, and Nebraska, who shut it down in the fourth quarter against South Carolina. Iowa was overmatched against Oklahoma from the moment the matchup was announced and Northwestern didn’t have the talent on its roster to handle an underachieving Texas A&M team, essentially playing a home game in Houston just 90 minutes away from College Station.
Of course, Illinois and UCLA (both of whom should be in witness protection) still got to “play” in the Hunger Bowl, while neither of which had named new head coaches. I wonder if they could’ve filled AT&T Park in San Francisco if they gave those tickets away for free.
To be fair, Wisconsin fought tooth-and-nail in order NOT to lose its second straight Rose Bowl and should be commended.
But you know WHO likes this system? NCAA college presidents. That’s because schools get paid to play and the honchos get wined and dined by this various bowl representatives. Of course, these are the same people (the campus bosses) who have firewalled any NCAA-BCS playoff proposal, citing the myth of semester testing and runaway practice schedules.
This Saturday, a Texas school – Sam Houston State University in Huntsville (home of Texas’ state prison and death row) – will face North Dakota State at noon just a hoot and a holler from my house. The game will be played at a soccer stadium in Frisco, Texas, and will culminate a four-week playoff process. If it works for the Bearkats and the Bison, despite the semester finals, extra practice and week-to-week uncertainty where the next game will be held, it can work for the big schools, earning even MORE money for the NCAA and its institutions.
It’s just that no one gets wined and dined to death and no fans get scammed.
For the first time in a decade, the future looks SO damn bright, Michigan fans will need more than the best shades Oakley makes to hide the shine. Recruiting classes for 2012 (and beyond) are becoming the envy of the conference and the start of a permanent place in the top 3-4 in the nation. There are some big holes to fill in the defensive and offensive lines and more depth needs to be added.
But while other programs scramble to find their way in the dark, hoping old names in new places will be the magical answer, Michigan has defied the experts (and critics within its own circles) and demonstrated how making changes … properly … with the correct choice to be the leader … makes all the difference.
As said time and time again this season, in this blog, the personnel appeared to have been there all along – even on defense. It merely took the right coaches/leaders to have gotten the best (and complete) performance to come to the surface. The fifth-year seniors, recruited by Lloyd Carr and thought to be less-than-stellar performers, proved their worthiness and ultimate legacies in UM gridiron history throughout the season and especially in this Sugar Bowl.
Made all those beignets Tuesday morning taste that much sweeter.
By the way: Best sign(s) inside the Dome was “Spartan. Tears. Taste Like. Sugar.”
Go Blue!

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