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!

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