Sunday, October 21, 2012

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
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.

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