Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tweaking the Tigers for 2013 pennant run

True Detroit Tiger fans cannot cry in their beers after getting swept in the World Series by a team (San Francisco) that simply pitched better, defended better and hit when required to produce. Getting to the World Series is the first step in what should be a successful run of pennants for Detroit, with the core of the team under 30 years of age, and at the peak of their career.
So this off-season should be a matter of finding selected pieces to complete the puzzle.
Positions of non-need are first base (Prince Fielder), second  base (Omar Infante), third base (Miguel Cabrera), starting catcher (Alex Avila), starting pitching (Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Drew Smyly), and most of the outfield (Austin Jackson, Andy Dirks, Avisail Garcia).
So let’s remove those positions from the free agent list for the Tigers. What is left are those spots on the roster to strengthen.
First, outfielder-DH Delmon Young will be allowed to walk away from Comerica Park for the greener pastures of another American League team. He simply cannot play the outfielder skillfully enough to be a regular lineup presence.
With the return of Victor Martinez, the DH slot is filled for all 162 games. In a pinch, Martinez can also play first base and catch, and his 100 rbi bat will make the lineup even harder for opposing pitchers to handle.
The trade in late July that brought Infante back to the Tiger organization solidified the most glaring weakness at second base but the defense still needs a shortstop with more range, quickness and steadier bat.
Jhonny Peralta, who played decently in the playoffs, is a restricted free agent, but has limited defensive assets, and he only hit .239 this past season. However, compared to the others on the open market (other than Marco Scutaro of the Giants, whose value skyrocketed in the post-season), no one is Peralta’s equal.
Detroit might be wise to package a deal (offering Brennan Boesch, whose time in Detroit seems to be over) with Houston for the Astros’ shortstop Jed Lowrie (younger, better range, same power numbers) and a reliever like Wilton Lopez to bolster the bullpen. Houston is a team desperate to trade away salary to get more warm bodies.
For catcher, Detroit needs a backup to Avila and Gerald Laird did a good job for the price he was paid. Compared to the other names of the FA list, resigning Laird would be a wise move. Otherwise, you’re looking at the likes of Kelly Shoppach or David Ross – neither supply the knowledge and defensive ability as does Laird.
The Tigers have a surplus of quality outfielders on the 40-man roster and in the minor leagues. Garcia is the starting right-fielder of the future and should be a permanent fixture before the end of June, 2013.
But Detroit needs a right-handed hitting outfielder (for left field) with some power, some speed and good defensive skills.
Among the unrestricted free agent candidates fitting that description are: Reed Johnson, Cody Ross and B.J. Upton.
The Tigers have said publicly that signing free agent Anibel Sanchez is a priority, given his final month and post-season results. If Detroit looks, instead, for another left-handed starter, the field is tissue-paper thin (Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis, Francisco Liriano, Joe Saunders, Jonathan Sanchez, Randy Wolf). Frankly, I’d rather keep Anibel Sanchez and go with Smyly, who had a promising rookie season.
The bullpen needs almost complete reconstruction – from front to back. Jose Valverde can no longer be trusted to close games and won’t return. Joaquin Benoit looked very tired in the final month and was prone to giving up big hits at the wrong time. Phil Coke is best in matchup situations or as a bridge to the closer, but NOT as the closer himself.
So among free agent closers, Detroit can choose from the following: Jonathan Broxton of Cincinnati, former Tiger Fernando Rodney now with Tampa Bay, Ryan Madson of the Reds (who sat out all last season due to injury but was inked to BE the Reds’ closer), or restricted free agent Joakim Soria of Kansas City, who was also sidelined for the 2012 season.
I’d investigate spending good money for set-up personnel, including Mike Adams of Texas, San Francisco left-hander Jeremy Affeldt, Atlanta’s Peter Moylan, submariner right-hander Pat Neshek of Oakland, Jason Frasor of Toronto, Joel Peralta from Tampa Bay, another Ray, lefty J.P. Howell, potential closer Casey Janssen of Toronto or a restricted free agent like Sean Burnett of Washington.
If Detroit wishes to resign Octavio Dotel to a one-year contract, it would be acceptable as well.
The Tigers are just an adjustment or two away from repeating as American League champions and possible 2013 World Series victors. This is not an off-season of panic, as it will be for some clubs (can you say Boston, Texas, Angels?).
It will be a time to clean the gun barrel and sharpen the attack. In 2013, it will be serious and business should be picking up.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Michigan falls at Nebraska: Conflicts of interest

When I attended the University of Michigan in the early 1970s, my life would have been soooo much better if I had access to three future technological advancement people take for granted today.
A calculator (of ANY kind, even the “pong”-like Texas Instruments version with the LED readout), a personal computer (hell, yes, I would have gladly accepted the early Apples, Commodores or even the TRS-80, known to all as the “Trash-80,” because all of them would have been superior to my Smith-Corona electric typewriter, courtesy of Montgomery Ward) and a VCR (VHS, not Beta version, thank you).
I could dumped my slide rule, made term papers look like they should have been without the tons of Liquid Paper to cover over lousy typing and recorded all those episodes of “Night Gallery” and “Hockey Night in Canada” when I should have been studying. I actually believe my grades would have reflected more of my ability.
Instead I often caved into the temptation of a new life on my own – where classic movies were shown nightly in places like Angell Hall and the Poly-Sci building, where the clinking of beer mugs at the Village and Pretzel Bells created a siren’s song for innocent young men (and women), where the Dixieland jazz music mixed with hot pizzas at Bimbo’s for a perennial party atmosphere, or where a hockey or basketball game was simply too tempting to miss (and the books could wait until later).
Life would have been so much easier to schedule, studying would have been less complicated and less stressful and I STILL would have had the time of my life without missing a beat.
But … it didn’t happen. Technology was yet to have penetrated the student scene in such meaningful ways. A computerized journalism class meant typing stories on punch cards to feed into a huge reader at the Computer Center and getting a flywheel printout of one’s efforts.
For one assignment, I realized the computer was only seeking key words for its judgment, so I only typed in the key words without benefit of any formal sentence structure, just to see what would happen. As believed, the computer graded my effort as excellent; when I noted this silliness to the graduate assignment, leading the class, he was none too pleased.
But I proved my point; journalism (back in the day) was something you learned from a hands-on approach. It was most important to be right than to be first.
My classroom was the Michigan Daily, NOT affiliated with the Journalism Department, and thank God it wasn’t! Only by talking to people, doing the shoe-lather work of actual reporting and establishing solid relationships with news sources did one learn the art of writing, interviewing and … ethics.
I would not have traded all the degrees on someone’s wall for what I learned with some of the best writers around on the collegiate level, who have matured into some of the finest columnists-journalists of our times (Robin Wright, Eugene Robinson, Sara Fitzgerald, David Margolick, John Papanek – just to name a scant few).
We learned to edit using the composition process of “hot type” – where our typesetting was done with hot, molten lead in single lines of type (called linotype). And when it came time to get rid of excess copy, people meant it; the overset was tossed back into the boiling lead pot and could never be retrieved again (no control-z key to bring it back).
You learned to write “tight” and within confines of that open space to be filled with all that lead.
But eventually (within the span of my career) linotype was replaced by the portable computer to the point where everything can be done (writing, layout, composition, delivery to printer) without using a single piece of paper. The television has morphed into a fancy machine (monitor and hard drive) to record multiple shows at the same hour. We now have our lives controlled by personal hand-held units we laughingly term “smart phones” and tablets (“take two iPads and call me in the morning”).
No one could have predicted that when sitting at the Daily on a late weeknight, waiting for that issue to be finished, eating cold Cottage Inn pizza and drowning our thirsts with half a dozen nickel Cokes from the machine in the corner. Those WERE fun days, my friends.
I tell you all this because I had my DVR working overtime last Saturday night. It recorded the Michigan-Nebraska encounter while I watched the Tigers host the Giants in the World Series. Sorry, but baseball is my FIRST priority and when the Tigers play, it moves the needle beyond that, into a religious experience (I tend to pray a lot when certain hitters are at the plate).
As it turned out, I should have done something else that night…perhaps an impromptu root canal. The Tigers’ bats continued their sleepwalking journey through the Series and Michigan played lousy on the road (again) at Nebraska, falling 26-9.
And the Wolverines learned a hard lesson that can only be corrected in the next few years – a team can NEVER allow itself to have an injury to one player bring everything to a complete standstill! If your depth at that spot is that low, you remain just a twisted ankle, bruised ribs and elbow stinger away, from losing.
In Lincoln, Michigan fans discovered, to their dismay, what losing quarterback Denard Robinson means to this year’s team. Without an adequate replacement having practiced for that game’s opponent (which is why Devin Gardner did not step under center following Robinson’s departure), the UM offense went from decent (it was 13-6 at the time of the injury) to non-existent for the remainder of the contest.
Without Robinson’s untied shoes actually on the field, Michigan had no running attack whatsoever and replacement Russell Bellomy proved unable (physically) to meet the challenges of completing simple pass routes. His 10 straight unsuccessful passes proved that – many of which were wounded ducks that anyone with a .12 gauge in the stands could have blasted out of the sky before reaching a Wolverine receiver. Bellomy didn’t, and doesn’t, have the arm strength to face the likes of Nebraska.
I’m sure Bellomy is a nice young man, good to his mother and father and well-respected among his teammates. But his signing two years ago was a mystery to me (in particular) because he was on NO ONE’S recruiting radar when he inked with Michigan.
He was an all-district quarterback out of Arlington (Tex.) Martin High School, located a scant few miles from Cowboys Stadium, where Michigan opened the 2012 season. But he was NOT among the top 10 quarterback recruits as a senior in the DFW area, let alone in the state of Texas. I have no clue why he was signed, other than to speculate that he was filling a hole with the cupboard pretty well bare once Brady Hoke replaced Rich Rodriguez.
On the Michigan depth chart, only three quarterback are listed – Robinson, Bellomy and Gardner. Three others are “in” the program but are invisible – freshman Brian Cleavy from Detroit Jesuit (not listed among incoming freshmen in 2012 Football Guide), fifth year senior Jack Kennedy from Walled Lake Central (who has played once or twice in those five years and never throw a pass in all that time) and sophomore-freshman walk-on Alex Swieca from the Frisch Yeshiva in New York City (who has not played anything resembling quarterback, even in high school).
Robinson was a RichRod recruit when Rodriguez was hired from West Virginia and Gardner followed the next year. Rodriguez’ last recruiting class did NOT include a quarterback of note, leaving Hoke, and the Wolverines, with this gigantic hole to fill. Michigan was skating past that hole until going to Lincoln and the hole opened wide, like the whale’s mouth to swallow Jonah.
Next year, Michigan is expected to have a prized freshman recruit on campus, quarterback Shane Morris (6-3, 183) from Warren DeLaSalle High School. He is ranked as the number-two quarterback recruit in the country despite being sidelines most of his senior year with mononucleosis. And after what coaches and fans saw Saturday, getting playing time as a freshman should not be a problem.
Of course, that will depend on whether Gardner remains as a valuable option at the wide receiver slot, or move back to the position for which he was recruited. But depth is important at every position, no more so than quarterback and the thinness was exposed and exploited by Nebraska in the cold, cold night.
Good news? If Michigan still handles its business properly, and runs the table (with winnable games) and then stops Ohio State IN Columbus, it should have the spot against a weak Wisconsin team in the Big Ten Championship game on Dec. 1. You see, many of us believe Nebraska has another loss within its schedule – at Michigan State, home against Penn State or at Iowa in the season finale.
The Huskers remain an inconsistent team offensively and proved it can stop an offense incapable of executing with its backup quarterback on the field. Other future opponents might not be as handicapped as Michigan was in Lincoln.
The Wolverine defense acquitted itself fairly well (giving up an early touchdown on a clear pick play which should have been flagged) and delivered a goal-line stand after a Bellomy interception gave NU the ball at the UM 2.
Michigan still must find a running attack and it is not running the ball east-to-west; and receivers need to show they can catch the ball better. The offense must prove it can score a touchdown instead of settling for field goals (no entries into the end zone for two consecutive games) Apparently, in a reversal of fortunes, Michigan has a potent field goal kicker in Brendan Gibbons, with his own personal best from (shockingly) 52 yards out!
Thank God Michigan is playing Minnesota next week because be it Robinson or Gardner at quarterback, this should be a fairly easy win simply due to talent level. Still … Michigan’s talent level at that critical position can no longer by like skating on thin ice.
And I didn’t need my DVR to show me that.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Nebraska preview: Going to a one-horse town

"One is the loneliest number you can ever do;
Two can be as bad as one;
It’s the loneliest number since the number one.”
- Harry Nilsson
Come this Saturday, the Michigan football program will do something it has not done in almost 20 years – make a maiden voyage to a collegiate institution for a critical conference game.
The Wolverines, having completed the first of a three-contest gauntlet in order to earn a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game (Dec. 1 in Indianapolis), will go where no Michigan man has gone before in the modern college football era – to Lincoln, Nebraska.
Not since U-M journeyed to Happy Valley for its first encounter with the 11th member of the Big Ten (Penn State), on Oct. 16, 1993, has Michigan gone to a facility it has never seen, playing before a crowd it has never heard and having no idea what conditions will be in Lincoln.
It makes for a fascinating experience.
This will be the eighth game between the two schools with U-M leading 4-2-1. The first contest goes back to 1905 when Michigan won 31-0. Six years later, Michigan made its only trip to Lincoln for a 6-6 tie. In 1917, Michigan won 20-0 and that was that for 45 years.
In 1962, Nebraska returned to Ann Arbor to whip Michigan 25-13 and neither school played each other in the regular campaign until last season.
They met in two different bowl games – the 1986 Fiesta Bowl (a 27-23 U-M win) and 2005 Alamo Bowl (a 32-28 NU victory).
Long has the legend of Big Red Country been known throughout the Central Plains of the U.S. Game Day Saturdays at Memorial Stadium involve long tailgating parties, fans dressed from head to toe in bright red and all of them (well in excess of 82,000) screaming at the top of their lungs. It used to be said that the crowd in Memorial Stadium exceeded the population of every Nebraska city, except for Omaha.
Well, that’s not quite true … in fact, Lincoln (named for President Abraham Lincoln after originally tabbed as Lancaster, Nebraska, and serves as the state capital) is the third largest city housing Big Ten institutions.
For the record, only Columbus (797,434) and Minneapolis (382,578) are bigger than Lincoln (258,379). And to take it further, West Lafayette (Purdue) is the smallest (29,596), followed by State College (Penn State at 42,034) and East Lansing (MSU at 48,579). Ann Arbor is actually the fifth-largest Big Ten city at 113,934 (a far, FAR cry from the sleepy City of Trees when I was a U-M student).
But on Saturdays, in the autumn, all eyes in that state turn to Lincoln; there is NO other major football (or sports) program in the entire state. It is truly a one-horse town when it comes to sports.
Once upon a time, it split ownership of the old Cincinnati Royals of the NBA (with Kansas City) from 1972-85, before relocating to its current home in Sacramento. Even back then, most of the games were played in Kansas City, Mo., which took sole location possession in the 1976 season.
And while Creighton basketball has had its moments, as has NU hoops and baseball, it’s ALL about Husker football in every cafĂ©, barber shop, diner, playground and corn field. There are other states with dominating athletic programs, but those with no professional teams and single state schools aren’t big enough to challenge the likes of NU. I’d argue this situation (where one single sport plays such a role from border to border) is unique to Nebraska.
Nebraska football sports a proud history and heritage. The 2012 season will continue a string of 50 YEARS of consecutive sellouts at Memorial Stadium. That field has seen some of the best players in college football history sport the red, such as Johnny Rodgers, Erick Crouch, Mike Rozier (all Heisman winners), Tommie Frazier, John Dutton, Ndamukong Suh, Irving Fryer, Roger Craig, Mick Tinglehoff, Broderick Thomas, Neil Smith, Pat Fischer, Dean Steinkuhler, Dave Rimington, Ahman Green, Vince Ferragamo, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Prince Amukamara.
While there are no such things as ghosts, there is a tradition of excellence in Lincoln. It WILL be spoken about in hush tones among the fans, and in louder words when action kicks off.
So on Saturday, Michigan will step into the shoes the Huskers had to fill 12 months earlier – playing in a venue unique to that program. A year ago, Michigan dominated NU 45-17 before more than 113,000 fans, and the Huskers will have more than an adequate sense of revenge on their mind.
The importance of this game cannot be minimized by anyone. If Michigan can score a win on the salt plains, the momentum garnered should propel the Wolverines past Minnesota (on the road), Northwestern (at home) and Iowa (the home finale) before that fateful trip down south to Columbus.
I propose, because of the large unknowns involved (crowd, conditions, scheduling, it is THE game of the year for Michigan – not Alabama, not Notre Dame and not Ohio State. Nebraska is THE challenge and the biggest hurdle to the coveted Big Ten title every U-M player craves so much.
Even one-horse towns can be traps.

Just an old-fashioned Big Ten 'slobberknocker'

In Texas, there are many colorful euphemisms to describe events and happenings. When two football teams battle and battle, mostly between the 20-yard lines, and little is given and little received, and the final score is low and close, Texans call those contests “slobberknockers.”
Please don’t ask for a literal definition; it’s one of those words which is immediately understood when tossed into the conversation.
Last Saturday, there was lots of slobbering and plenty of head-knocking in the Big House, but it took a rare occurrence for Michigan to edge rival Michigan State 12-10 before the third largest crowd in the history of Michigan Stadium.
Junior Brendan Gibbons (who is actually a senior but a junior for eligibility sake … oh, never mind) blasted a 38-yard field goal with five seconds to play in regulation, the last of four three-pointers that accounted for the entire point production on the afternoon. And who would have “thunk” that Michigan would win a game using ONLY field goals after the debacle of a kicking game a mere two years before?
Let’s remember that in 2010, Michigan’s kickers (including Gibbons) made just 4 of 14 field goal attempts, most of the misses not even coming close. This year, through seven games, Gibbons is 10-for- 12 on field goals and has converted on all 25 point-after kicks. Amazing … when you think about it.
The victory was the 900th in the long history of Michigan football – the most of ANY school in NCAA history – and took a long time in coming and without benefit of any time to spare. The win snapped an agonizing, itchy, bothersome losing streak to the Spartans; it was the first time the fifth-year seniors left the field feeling victorious against Sparty.
The last time Michigan won a contest without scoring a touchdown (on either offense or defense) was on Nov. 11, 1995 against Purdue, winning 5-0.
The last game-ending kick technically came in last January’s Sugar Bowl when Gibbons kicked the winning field goal in overtime against Virginia Tech. Before that, it came on Aug. 31, 2002, in the season opener against Washington when Phil Brabbs won it with time having expired.
A sidenote: A shout out goes to Brabbs, 33, who is battling a deadly blood cancer (multiple myeloma), with the courage required by placekickers in today’s college game. For a great Sports Illustrated article by Lee Jenkins, go to http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1205980/index.htm.
It was quickly obvious that those taking the “under” in this game were holding the winning ticket. Both schools played excellent defense and the individuals who were expected to be standouts were, in fact, among the stars of the game.
On U-M defense, linebacker Kenny Demens solidified his All-Big 10 qualifications while sophomore Jake “The Snake” Ryan had eight solo tackles and brutalized Sparty on offense, helping limit halfback Le’veon Bell to just 68 yards for the game (and no gain longer than 8 yards).
For MSU, middle linebacker Max Bullough, a junior from Traverse City, proved to be the equal of ANY middle linebacker among BCS schools.
True, senior quarterback Denard Robinson had a good game (his best against MSU in his career), completing 14-of-29 passes for 163 yards plus 20 rushes for 96 yards. But it seems as if each week brings a new hero for the Wolverines; that’s how Devin Funchess was discovered, how Ryan was truly noticed and how players like Raymon Taylor get recognized.
Against Michigan State, one of the smallest men on the field played one of the biggest roles – junior wide receiver Drew Dileo, all 5-10, 180 pounds of him. Dileo (who only towers over Vincent Smith at 5-6 and Jeremy Gallon at 5-8) played like he was 6-4 in catching third-down critical passes from Robinson, almost all of which led to field goals. And let’s not forget the role Dileo plays in the field goal process as holder.
After a scoreless first quarter, Robinson converted two critical third-down passes – all to Dileo, mostly in traffic.
Then junior Fitzgerald Toussaint gained a season-long 38 yards, down to the MSU 6, to set up U-M’s first score, a chip shot 24-yarder by Gibbons.
A key Ryan sack on MSU quarterback Andrew Maxwell took some of the sting out of a 45-yard pass completion the UM defense permitted (its worst mistake of the day), and then Sparty missed its own field goal attempt.
With less than two minutes left in the first half, Robinson found Dileo open over the middle and when Dileo was finally stopped, the ball sat at the MSU 35. But three plays gained a mere 4 yards, and instead of sending Gibbons to try a 48-yarder (his personal long was 43 yards), Coach Brady Hoke went to sophomore Matt Wile, who handles the kickoffs and “short” pooch punts.
Many Michigan fans have been wondering when the strong-legged Wile would become a factor, and assume the role of placekicker. The San Diego resident boomed his attempt straight down the middle with yards to spare, opening speculation as to future use of such a weapon to the Wolverines. A reliable long-distance leg could 1) add points when punting has been the only other option, and 2) change third-down play calling to safer, less riskier choices knowing someone was standing there who could deliver something out of nothing.
The second half started with State holding U-M on its first drive and then smartly executing the best offensive drive against the Michigan defense all season long (including whatever Alabama did in its win). Without relying on Bell at all, Maxwell, long criticized as a pedestrian quarterback, looked better than that, marching Sparty 80 yards for the touchdown – a 2-yard pass to tight end Paul Lang.
Maxwell is no one’s version of a quality quarterback; show afoot and with a tendency to focus on one receiver. But when the overall offense trends away from Bell running left, Bell running right and Bell up the middle, Maxwell is allowed to spread the field and hit a variety of receivers.
Maxwell’s biggest mistake of the afternoon – an interception to Jordan Kovacs – led to Michigan’s third field goal from 20 yards out and a 9-7 lead with 13:37 left.
On the next series, Sparty caught Michigan napping on a fourth-down punt attempt and pulled off what should NOT have been a surprise (since MSU always uses trick plays against U-M) and gained a valuable first down on a 26-yard fake punt and run to near midfield. A few plays later, a stupid roughing the passer penalty by Will Campbell added salt to the wound of a first pass completion deep in Wolverine territory, giving MSU goal-to-go at the U-M 6.
But Michigan’s improving defense stiffened like Viagra and forced Dan Conroy to settle for a 19-yard field goal with just 5:48 remaining.
And it was time to summons the magic of last season for Michigan. Almost immediately, the forces of Merlin appeared when Robinson dashed down the sidelines for 44 yards to the Sparty 31. But a 6-yard loss, an offsides call and a holding flag made everything previous look for naught.
Wile’s short punt gave MSU possession with just 3:07 to play and a golden opportunity to win the game by merely retaining possession. But up stood the Michigan defense, when Ryan almost forced a turnover at the MSU 13, only to be recovered by State.
I was stunned that no one on the field (or in the TV booth) sought an official review on whether the pass to Larry Capers was actually completed or dropped before possession had been established. It would have saved Michigan a timeout at the end of the game, but a later “non-call” would be even more mystifying.
With two minutes left, it was do-or-die time for Michigan. A rare big gain by Vincent Smith (12-yard run) and a key offsides flag against MSU’s William Gholston helped move the ball to MSU 42.
Sidenote no. 2 – Who wears the numeral 2 as a defensive lineman? And what was up with those Sparty helmets??? No one can reasonably describe their color scheme and only proves that psychedelic pharmaceuticals still exists a-plenty on many campuses.
Robinson used every inch of his wingspan to stretch the ball to touch the first down marker, while laying on top of a teammate but not hitting the ground, with 43 seconds left.
Sidenote no. 3 – The officials took their time to review the play BUT allowed 11 seconds to expire before calling for the review. The clock should have stopped for the first down, but when a play is reviewed, and it stands, shouldn’t the clock be RESET to the original time of the play’s conclusion? It could have made all the difference between victory and defeat.
So with a mere 18 seconds to play, Robinson found Dileo (the savior and star of the game) open 20 yards downfield for a first down at the Spartan 21, setting up to make Gibbons the BMOCSOG (Big Man on Campus Star of the Game). Dileo had career highs in catches (4) and receiving yards (92), but none bigger than that final reception.
The “slobberknocker” win was key for Michigan in its march towards a Big Ten championship, now sitting atop the Legends Division at 3-0 (followed by Iowa 2-1, Nebraska, 2-1, Northwestern 2-2, Michigan State 1-3, Minnesota 0-3).
In the Leaders Division, it’s all over but the string needs to be played out. Wisconsin will be in Indianapolis on Dec. 1 because with its 3-1 conference record, those three victories have come against the remaining “eligible” schools (Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, all at 0-3).
This Saturday’s Probation Bowl will see the two undefeated division teams – Ohio State and Penn State – meeting in Happy Valley.
Other notes:
• The announced crowd of 113,833 marked the 242nd consecutive game of more than 100,000 fans at The Big House; no other program even comes close.
• The Wolverine defense has stepped its performance to a higher level over the past month; U-M has held its opponents to 13 (or fewer) points in each of the last five games.
• Sophomore kicker Matt Wile (he of the booming kickoffs) notched his first career field goal as a Wolverine (on his first attempt) from 48 yards out in the second quarter. It is the longest successful Michigan field goal since Nov. 7, 2009 when Jason Olesnavage boomed a 51-yarder against Purdue. Other than a blowout, it is hard to imagine when two different U-M kickers participated, and made field goals, in such a critical conference game.
• Robinson moved to fourth all-time on Michigan’s career pass attempts list with 735. With another 100 attempts, he will reach third place, currently occupied by Elvis Grbac (835, 1989-92). Robinson has 900 rushing yards on the season.
• Gibbons has made seven field goals in a row, dating back to the Purdue game on Oct. 6, and upped his career total to 24 for sole possession of eighth among U-M’s all-time leaders. With just two more field goals, he’ll be seventh, currently held by Hayden Epstein (26, 1998-2001).
• For the record, Michigan now has an overall mark of 900-312-36 record in 133 years.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The post-meal meal

Pardon us while we burp!!!!!!
We'd love to have a little redbirdie ... for dessert. :-)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Two for the price of one: Recapping Illini win, previewing Sparty coming to town

Random questions to answer during Illini shellacking
“Why do we never get an answer
When we’re knocking at the door?
With a thousand million questions
About hate and death and war."
– The Moody Blues
… and football.
In all honesty, the less said about last Saturday’s soggy dismantling of the non-Fighting Illini by Michigan, the better. Hell, the score never fully indicated the complete domination in all aspects of the game; at 45-0, it wasn’t even THAT close!
Yes, yes, U-M quarterback Denard Robinson continued the impressive new-look methodical offense for Michigan (he ran for 128 on just 11 carries, threw for 159 yards on 7 of 11 attempts and scared the bejeebers out of 110,000 fans with what might have been a “finger stinger” midway through the second quarter).
Yes, yes, fans actually got to see sophomore Thomas Rawls finally display his considerable talent (nine carries for 90 yards, including a 63 yard rumble to the end zone), and there was even a Justice Hayes sighting on the pitch (10 carries for 66 yards).
Did I just say “pitch?” Am I watching too much Barclays Premier League Soccer?
Of course, the Wolverine defense, led by an All-American performance by sophomore Jake Ryan (11 tackles, 1 ½ sacks) and a superb effort from linebacker Kenny Demens, chewed up and spat out the most anemic offense in the Big 10 (perhaps the nation). Illini was permitted just 29 yards passing and just 105 yards rushing on 37 carries in a performance that would have shamed most Pop Warner teams.
And when you add lifelessness to the equation, it was no wonder that a large percentage of the Homecoming crowd bolted for high and dry grounds by the end of the third quarter (didn’t the alums just die to reminisce about dreary October afternoon in the City of Trees?).
It’s been a long time since a conference team flew the flag of surrender so early as did Illinois; when head coach Tim Beckman chose NOT to challenge a lost fumble at the Illini 6 (or at least seek an official’s review of a borderline call at best), everyone in the stadium knew the final 18 minutes was the equivalent of pure garbage time.
In almost any collegiate game, the opposition makes the contest and Illinois never bothered to leave Champaign. Hence, it was a one-sided affair – pleasing to the U-M fans but less-than-stellar as competition.
I quickly discovered that making brilliant observations was not the order of the day, from my La-Z-Boy, so I started jotting down random thoughts and questions (not always about Michigan football mind you) that begged for answers:
Q: You think there was ANY thought of using Devin Gardner as the quarterback when Robinson went to the sidelines in what appeared to be agonizing pain? Or did the crowd begin to see what the Wolverines will be in 2013 A.D. (after Denard)?
Q: Anyone else seen just about enough of hot pink on uniforms, pom poms, referees – you name it? Can we honor the cause without ALL the misplaced color schemes?
Q: Whatever happened to Band Day at Michigan Stadium, when 25,000 high school players were in the stands and on the field for halftime, creating the largest marching band in the world?
Q: Who agrees with the fashion premise that football uniform pants, unless dressed in primarily white, should NEVER be the same color as the jersey tops?
Q: How far has Auburn fallen, just two years removed from an undefeated national title?
Q: Does it simply feel wrong to see West Virginia battle for the Big 12 championship?
Q: Why does the Big 12 have only 10 members and the Big 10 have 12 members, yet the conference names don’t change?
Q: Why does the NCAA allow overtime plays to count as game statistics, even when the clock doesn’t run, but two-point conversion, and yardage associated with that action, is not recorded … for the same reason?
Q: Why is Tom Harmon’s number 98 NOT included in the group of “legacy” uniforms being honored? And when it does, can I get Mark Harmon’s autograph? (By the way, the Wisterts’ number 11 should go to Jeremy Gallon; an offensive player is needed for that numeral).
Q: Is there anything more disgusting than the Southern Comfort TV commercial with the oiled-up, balding guy with the beer gut on the beach in his Speedos, showing off his package?
Q: Why does Notre Dame deserve such high praise and ranking when, in the final minute, at the Stanford 5, the Irish played … for a tie (instead of an outright victory)?
And finally, Q: When, or when, will the Michigan public relations people produce a new, updated PSA to show during college football telecasts instead of the same old, same old images U-M has employed for the last FIVE years?
If you’ve got the answers, I’d love to hear them; it would have added some life to what was a rather mundane (frankly, boring) football game.
“It’s not the way that you say it
When you do those things to me.
It’s more the way you really mean it
When you tell me what will be.”
Look who’s coming for dinner? Sparty on a platter
When you discuss college football rivalries, the annual contest between Michigan and Michigan State is on the relatively short list of rivalry games that normally matter. And this Saturday, Michigan will face the first of back-to-back contests to see if it will be in Indianapolis on Dec. 1 to play for the conference crown.
For some reason, this “marquee” game has been relegated to the less-watched, less-acquired Big Ten Network at 3:30 p.m. (local time, 2:30 p.m. in my living room). I cannot comprehend why the Illinois yawner was on the ABC/ESPN rotation last week, but this contest will not be there.
We have discussed the meaning of a “rival” before and will do so later on in this piece, but first, let’s examine the three keys to victory over the Spartans (4-3, 1-2) are:
1) Stop the “Bell” from ringing;
2) Let the front lines eat more Soylent (or Sparty) Green;
3) Don’t just beat them; BURY THEM six feet under!
Michigan State has become, week after week, so one-dimensional, it has taken it out of ANY serious Big 10 title contention … and it’s just through Week 3. Many U-M fans would have sworn it would have taken a week or two longer, but Sparty has no teeth, except for its fine running back, Le’Veon Bell, who has run for 916 yards on 200 carries and eight touchdowns.
However, he CAN be stopped; three teams have held him in check – Central Michigan (70 yards), Notre Dame (77 yards) and Ohio State (45 yards). Bell IS MSU’s entire ground game; against Iowa, all other ball carriers ran 10 times for nine yards. By comparison, for the first time this season, quarterback Denard Robinson accounted for a shade over one-third of Michigan’s 353 total rushing yards. The shock of shocks saw three halfbacks (Fitzgerald Toussaint, Thomas Rawls and Justice Hayes) rush 37 times between them for 218 yards. Be still my beating heart!
And if Bell isn’t able to grind out yardage, MSU must go to the erratic passing game of junior Andrew Maxwell (139 of 256 for 1,607 yards, just six touchdowns, four interceptions and 10 sacks).
For all that, State is just 3-4 on the year and in serious trouble to advance to ANY kind of bowl game, let alone repeat as Big 10 championship finalist. No, that fantasy is over-and-out!
To win, Michigan must continue its dominance on the offensive and defensive lines it has displayed in the first two conference games. In going less to the stretch-the-field passing attack, and more to a control aerial game (nine different Wolverines caught passes against Illinois and no individual mad more than one reception), it has allowed Robinson to make better decisions and forced defenders to either follow his feet or watch his arm (they cannot do both).
On defense, all focus should be on stopping Bell and pressuring Maxwell, whose mobility is limited. Both points of attack should produce turnovers, which will help decide the contest. If Jake (No Hope) Ryan can continue to sublet space in the opposition backfield, it will be a sorrowful day for Sparty.
Finally, there is an element of revenge for Michigan; it’s been five years since the Wolverines walked off the field with Sparty’s scalp in hand. No senior has seen victory over the school which considers Michigan to be its biggest rival.
Sparty has been doing a lot of trash talking and tweeting in past weeks and it is time to wipe the cockiness off that mascot’s smirk. If it were 56-0, I might consider calling off the dogs … ah, probably not. The boys from East Lansing need a good lesson in respect and Saturday is the day to do it.
Which leads back to the subject of rivalries. As said, Michigan is MSU’s BIGGEST on-schedule rival, while Ohio State holds that title in Ann Arbor. Sparty is A big rival, but not THE team upon which the definition lies – the one opponent for whom the outcome of one’s season usually depends. A team can go undefeated against other schools, but multiple losses to THE rival often means a coaching change until that man, who CAN beat that bloody team, can be found.
I, and millions of others, firmly believe that Michigan-Ohio State is the premier rivalry in college football (as Duke-UNC stands alone for college basketball). There are other very relevant yearly matchups – Texas-Oklahoma, Auburn-Alabama, Army-Navy, Harvard-Yale, Stanford-California, Florida-Georgia, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State and Oregon-Oregon State.
These games often decide championships but always attract the attention of any fan, regardless of location. The tradition and history behind all of those encounters help define the journey of college football.
But in the past few years, too many institutions have leap-frogged conference, and rivals, to sniff out the endless waterfall of money being poured into the system as if it were a Presidential campaign … and the victims have been followers of certain teams.
Down here in the Southwest, the departure of Texas A&M to the SEC has effectively ended one of the great rivalries with the University of Texas. So bitter are feeling between the two schools, and its alumni base, that the Aggie War Hymn, A&M official fight song, goes out of its way to disparage its cross-state rivals.
“That is the song they sing so well
Sounds Like Hell
So good bye to texas university
We’re gonna beat you all to Chigaroogarem
Rough, Tough, Real stuff, Texas A&M
Saw varsity’s horns off
Saw varsity’s horns
Varsity’s horns are sawed off.”
No one has expressed a willingness to change “texas university” into Auburn or Ole Miss. But it makes no sense to sing those lyrics in Kyle Field when LSU comes to town this weekend.
For  more than 100 years, around Thanksgiving weekend, those two schools squared off in Austin or College Station – in games played morning, noon or night; in conditions ranging from tornado warnings to stifling Indian summer heat. But not anymore … Texas plays Texas Christian this coming holiday and A&M meets … Missouri. Ho hum.
And there are no plans, whatsoever, for the two school to re-ignite that rivalry – not for at least the next decade and who knows? Congress just might outlaw the sport on grounds of its physical danger (much like the NFL is trying to do to itself).
This conference shape-shifting has cost other longtime rivalries, such as Texas-Arkansas, Nebraska-Oklahoma, Penn State-West Virginia, and Penn State-Pitt. And now, Michigan and Notre Dame. Sorry, I told you it was NEVER a serious rivalry because the series had been interrupted more than once for the same reason – money. If you are a real rival, you don’t cancel your contract by surreptitiously slipping a note to the opposing athletic director a few minutes before kickoff .. as if you’re doing should to be ashamed of.
One of the problems is for a school to be without a true rival on its schedule, as is the case with the Irish. Do rivals extend back to Knute Rockne, or just to the time of Ara Parseghian? Notre Dame plays many good teams, but only at its (or NBC’s) convenience.
A few rivalries could use some oxygen to be resuscitated – the Florida-Florida State-Miami troika, USC-UCLA or Arizona-Arizona State (if they would stop changes coaches every other week). Most “tense” in-state rivalries only hold the interest of those in attendance (Ole Miss-Mississippi State, anyone playing Texas Tech, Iowa-Iowa State, Kansas-Kansas State).
It is getting more difficult for ESPN to promote “Rivalry Week” to its viewers because they are becoming extinct. Unless it is willing to give airtime to Lafayette and Lehigh (the oldest actual gridiron rivalry), it will have to artificially create what it knows not to be true.
And this Saturday, the biggest rivalry game, in the Big House, is on … BTN!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A rush to Josh-ment

Down here in the Dallas area, sports fans are doubly-deflated because of the performances by their beloved Cowboys and new-to-beloved Rangers. The long-standing football team, at times amusingly called “America’s Team” nowhere else but Texas, remains as mediocre as tapioca pudding despite the pronouncements of the glory hound owner. A $1 billion stadium cannot hide the warts and defects throughout the roster and on-field performance.
But the Rangers, a baseball team of long-time suffering, have been discovered as a possible championship squad for its consecutive appearances in the World Series (only to lose ingloriously last year in seven games to the Cardinals a mere one strike away from victory … TWICE!).
However, in 2012, there will be no such three-peat; the Rangers choked away a five-game lead in the AL West Division with nine games remaining and lost on the last day of the regular season to Oakland (of all squads, a team with 17 rookies and nary a star among them).
Two days later, in the first AL wild card “winner-take-all” playoff, the Rangers went away as meekly as a church mouse, losing 5-1 to Baltimore. As fans filed away from the ballpark in Arlington, deep into the night, they seemed to focus their bitterness, anger and vitriol upon one person/player – outfielder Josh Hamilton. In fact, when Hamilton took just three pitches to strike out in the eighth inning (his final at-bat of the season, with runners on base), boos rang down from all three seating decks, as well as the vaunted Home Run Porch, where Hamilton had deposited scores of home runs during his five-year career.
Unlike other DFW stars (Staubach, Modano, Aikman, Pearson, Nowitzski), Hamilton brought a factory full of luggage to his Rangers stint; his past drug escapades were known by the entire baseball public and his acquisition was a bigger gamble than anything seen in Las Vegas. Yet, while in a Texas uniform, he led the league in hitting one season and won an MVP honor because no other player in the American League was as talented and gifted as he was. For the first time since he was drafted in 1999 (the first overall selection by Tampa Bay), he was showing one and all what was expected from Day One.
But Hamilton is also the most mercurial athlete ever to set foot in the Metroplex. It goes beyond his public Christian faith and beliefs; it extends to his approach and attitude about the game, sport and business of baseball. According to every inside report, he is one of the least coachable players on the team and no one knows from game-to-game if he will offer “100 percent” effort … because no one can determine whether his natural lope and stride IS the 100 percent effort.
His expression never changes during the game; anger never is expressed – either at his lack of performance or circumstances during the game. He retains a constant visual of … blankness. He smiles after home runs, but jubilant is not a word associated with Josh Hamilton. To him, everything is in God’s hands (including dropping a relatively routine fly ball in Game 162 that led to the final losing outcome).
And for this – the four home runs earlier in the year against Baltimore, the game-winning hits AND the perceived lack of hustle on defense – Hamilton has become the focus of failure by Rangers fans. Sports talk shows and online comment threads are bulging with “don’t let the door hit you in the backside on the way out of town” sentiments.
The problem is how fans’ expectations NEVER meet the realities of the situations in the locker room and diamond. They expect … no, they too often demand a level of personal performance so unrealistic, based on too much “wishin’ and hopin’” (as Dusty Springfield sang a long time ago). And the acquisition of a ticket to a sporting event does not automatically empower anyone to impugn a man’s family or reputation or do what happened in Kansas City last Sunday when the crowd cheered a potentially devastating injury to its own quarterback. As said by a Chiefs lineman, “that sick!”
It’s sad when fans expect a human being to act in a particular way or manner merely because he plays in front of an audience. Hey Mister Fan, no one comes into your home and demands a particular set of behavioral actions from you. Try going to work at your office and do your job when people all around you are cursing your family, heritage and throwing things at you.
The pedestal where fans place athletes, who (at the core) are just flawed men and women with particular talents, should never exist. Remember, baseball is a sport when a man with a bat, who fails two out of three times, is still considered a superstar! The Rangers’ problem is not merely Josh Hamilton’s on-field play (or his off-field quirks), but people always reach for the simplistic instead of doing some actual thinking.
Compare Hamilton’s love-hate affair with Texas sans with how Detroit fans allowed Miguel Cabrera time and patience in battling his alcohol problems of a few years ago. Detroit fans WANTED Cabrera to succeed and he rewarded them this season with a magical individual season not seen since 1967. And “mercurial” is not a word the press attaches to Cabrera; instead they speak and write about his status as a quality teammate.
Contrary to popular thinking, the “fans” do not pay Hamilton’s contract, current or future … or ANY other team member; players work for owners of those franchises. Owners, in turn, charge fans a certain price for the privilege to attend games, which are only differing forms of entertainment, compared to movies, concerts or plays.
And while some movies are better than others, some teams are better than others. The best form to show displeasure with owners’ decisions on player contracts and rosters is to merely refrain from ticket purchases. Of course, in the modern world of sports economics, most of the roster debt is covered by television revenue and other non-spectator related income.
Yet the psyche of sports being what it is, a team is more than a collective of athletes; the soul and reputation of entire cities (and often states) become intertwined with each pitch, throw and swing of the bat. When the Saints won the Super Bowl, tears flowed in the New Orleans streets – not for the squad but for the city which has suffered SO much just a few years before at the hands of Hurricane Katrina (and government non-response). In 1968, the Tigers literally saved the city of Detroit from reigniting and completely destroying that community from what began 12 months earlier.
Big deal! So the Rangers lost and Hamilton, set to become the top name on the free agent list this winter, probably saw his final action as a Texas Ranger. He will take his show on the road to somewhere else, perhaps Boston or Los Angeles or …wherever God tells him.
While first impressions are often lasting impressions, in sports, you are only as good as your last swing, last pass, last shot and last bit of effort. If everyone was judged by the same standard in their employment, think of what the jobless rate would be then???
What’s the Biblical saying? “Judge not lest ye be judged?” I guess not for $100 a ticket and $8 per beer in each hand…
Chuck Bloom, a Michigan native, is a retired award-winning newspaper editor-columnist-publisher with more than 30 years’ experience in community journalism. He can be reached at chuckbloom@hotmail.com.

Beano Cook dead at age 81

It's turning out NOT to be a good day in sports. THE expert in college football, the great Beano Cook, has passed away at the age of 81.

Dealing with Beano in U-M Sports Information Dept. was nothing like hearing him on the TV. He never pressured any of us for information and treated EVERYONE, from lead SID to lowly intern, with respect.
But, damn, he loved the game and KNEW the sport better than almost everyone. He never clowned his way to popularity; just took the role of curmudgeon in stride.
His voice and wisdom is already missed!