Sunday, October 20, 2013

Michigan-Indiana recap: Mirror, mirror on the field

“Mirror, mirror, on the field
How many points will our defense yield?”
Among the circles of personal interest I navigate in my life, Celtic music ranks among the top three. I have met and befriended many of that genre’s top performers through my association with the North Texas Irish Festival (held annually at Dallas’ Fair Park on the first weekend of March).
One such good friend is Nelson Stewart (and his wife, Jeania) as the front man and leader of the Celtic rock band, the American Rogues (even though Nelson is a proud Canadian from Hamilton, Ont.). If you are ever presented with the opportunity to see and hear them perform, at a festival or venue near you, do NOT miss the chance to do so.
I tell you this (in brief) because the Stewarts were among the 109,503 fans at Michigan Stadium last Saturday to see the Wolverines play Indiana. A friend of the band invited them to enjoy their initial Game Day experience – the Full Monty treatment, complete from tailgating, collecting souvenirs and the game itself!
Rather than be jealous of their good fortune, I was giddy for them, knowing they would see what a great time can be enjoyed at a U-M game – from downing a few brats and suds to seeing the Michigan Marching Band enter the premises to hearing the thunderous roar of the largest crowd in college football! I’d have given a million dollars simply to witnesses their faces as each chapter unfolded before their eyes.
Little did I know they would watch what turned out to be nothing more than a video game on turf. Michigan’s 63-47 victory was certainly nothing the defensive coaching staff wishes to cherish. Frankly, it mirrored the famous (or infamous) 2010 triple-overtime 67-65 win over Illinois in Rich Rodriguez’s last season in Ann Arbor.
In this case, Michigan was facing an almost identical facsimile of the RichRod-led team – an all-out, hurry-up offensive onslaught but a team with absolutely no semblance of defense. The Hoosier secondary was shredded by the combination of Devin Gardner-to-Jeremy Gallon worse than any pulled pork sandwich you can find.
The numbers were staggering AND absurd as they collected 369 yards on 14 completions (not counting three passes Gallon dropped when wide open) – a Big 10 and U-M record for reception yardage in a single game (and second-highest total in NCAA FBS history). For the most part, Gallon was so wide open, left alone so often by the IU defenders, you’d thought he was carrying a lethal virus or something; no one wanted anything to do with him, other than Gardner.
He finished with 503 yards passing for a new school standard and 584 yards in total offense, just one yard shy of tying the Big 10 record, set in 1980 by Illinois’ Dave Wilson (of whom no one can remember). The team offense of 751 yards was a record and Indiana was allegedly a better program than Delaware State, against whom U-M put up 727 yards in 2009 … under you-know-who.
At the final whistle, the two teams combined for 110 points (no overtime needed) and 1,323 yards of offense. I’m sure Al Borges’ thumbs were sore from all that action on his Xbox clicker in the press box – because that’s what it looked like.
Frankly, it was getting ridiculous to have big play after big play on every second-half possession, without any team deciding to demonstrate a lick of defense. The prospect of suffering another upset to a decided underdog took the crowd from mild annoyance to definite possibility, especially having lost an 11-point halftime lead on the first series of the third quarter.
Each time Michigan scored, Indiana struck back with lightning quickness and no one could feel comfortable, even when leaving the stadium to go home. People went to sleep wondering if IU was still on the field, scoring more touchdowns.
After Gardner fumbled a center snap at the IU 2 with the home team up by only 2 points, you could feel (through the TV) the terrifying shiver sent through the crowd, with visions of the Penn State debacle flashing before their eyes. Could this be happening two weeks in a row?
All those high-powered offensive numbers would have meant diddly-squat had Indiana hurried its way on a 98-yard drive to secure the lead. Yet, in the end, it took three mistakes (two Thomas Gordon interceptions, which were great because he was MIA up to those moments) to seal the victory for Michigan. Gordon’s first interception (and return) allowed Big House fans to exhale.
No one knows, the Gardner turnover could have broken the back and spirit of the Wolverines ... but no one will ever know, thanks to an ill-conceived decision by IU coach Kevin Wilson late in the third quarter.
Late in the third quarter, after Indiana had closed the gap to 35-34 on a 23-yard field goal, and then drew to within two points (42-40) on a 67-yard touchdown pass from Tre Roberson to Kofi Hughes, it was the choice to go for the tie ... at that exact moment and time. But a pass from Roberson was off target and when Michigan scored 100 seconds into the fourth quarter, an automatic PAT kick pushed Indiana behind a bigger eight-ball than was necessary.
With more than a quarter left to go, and lots of opportunities remaining, the premature call from the IU sidelines meant the contest was a two-possession affair provided Michigan produced touchdowns – which it did three times in the final 15 minutes!
Such small decisions often play significant roles when post-mortem autopsies are performed – such as this one. Indiana had Michigan reeling after scoring an unimaginable 23 points in the third period, and if it were constantly within one play of tying the game, a better opportunity might have presented itself.
But that’s the kind of small mistake first-time head coaches, like Wilson, can make. He’ll learn from it, but, for the sake of Hoosier fandom, he’ll also discover football is a three-sided triangle – offense, defense and special teams. Michigan was able to exploit one side to its fullest and came away with a victory, albeit nail-biting to the very end.
I can’t wait to e-mail, or Facebook message, with Nelson, to obtain his reaction concerning his Big House experience.
“Welcome to the Michigan football family … even if what you saw wasn’t real.”

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