Sunday, November 17, 2013

… and a placekicker shall lead them

Whether you believe there is a special place above where human souls go after their earthly experience ends, or if you use the terminology in the metaphorical sense, there is something to be said about the power of the “Football Gods.” A team can taunt them or tempt them, but the ghosts of uniformed standouts leave their indelible fingerprints and handiwork all over the sport every weekend.
Ask Auburn and Florida about how a misdirected pass gets deflected by Gator defenders into the hands of an Auburn receiver and a game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds.
Ask Northwestern and Nebraska about the same outcome the week before, on the final play of the game. The term “Hail Mary” does not do enough justice to the instantaneous outcome from prayers (which should possess the same chances of success – zero-to-none).
This past Saturday, in Evanston, the Football Gods did to Northwestern what lightning almost never does – strike twice … in a week’s time upon the same subject. The recipient of this good fortune was a team in desperate need of just such a miracle – the Michigan Wolverines.
For 59 minutes, 58 seconds, U-M was staring into a fairly dark abyss – a third consecutive Big 10 loss (its fourth in five games), an almost certain 6-6 regular season record and more fan bellowing about the inconsistency performance of its offense, notably the seemingly deteriorating play of its quarterback.
Instead an unexplainable final 12 seconds, where a pass conversion, failure to get out-of-bounds with no timeouts remaining to halt the clock, and bodies running back-and-forth like shoppers at Macy’s on Black Friday (apparently now called Thanksgiving to the uninitiated), suddenly became a successful 44-yard field goal in the final tenths of a second, to force overtime in the driving rain by Lake Michigan.
Michigan then discover a hidden secret – how to score a touchdown – not just once, but twice in the three extra “innings” (according to referee Bill LeMonnier). And when strong safety Thomas Gordon intercepted a Wildcat pass in the end zone on the final chance for Northwestern to tie the contest, Michigan was able to hold its head high for the first time in November with a 27-19 victory.
The win guarantees Michigan will have a winning record in 2013 (now 7-3 overall, 3-3 in Big 10), with two games remaining on the regular campaign – at Iowa this Saturday, and the home finale against the juggernaut that is apparently undefeated Ohio State. For the second consecutive week, Michigan will face a squad (Iowa) getting two weeks’ rest and preparation time; it will happen for a third straight game against the Buckeyes, who should brush aside Indiana like unwanted dandruff on a date with Kate Upton.
That indescribable final play in regulation will become the subject of Wolverine lore for decades to come, and scores of questions of “what if” will encapsulate those final 12 seconds.
How was Michigan able to get its field goal unit on the field, into a set position, and hike the football before the final whistle sounded?
How was holder Drew Dileo able to come out of his pass route, literally slide (like Rickey Henderson) into the proper spot and holding position and still call for the center snap in the nick of time?
How did placekicker Brendan Gibbons get himself properly aligned without so much as a momentary glance at the distance and wind conditions before smacking the kind of line drive through the uprights that the North Side Cubs wished they saw in the 2013 season.
How did the side official complete the pigskin relay to the U-M center in time after Jeremy Gallon had caught a 12-yard pass from Devin Gardner, but could not get out-of-bounds to stop the clock and avoid the sideline jailbreak?
How did it all fall like dominoes (the game, not the pizzas) in Michigan’s favor when a coaching decision had apparently backfired and looked to have cost U-M the game?
How does a team win by breaking a cardinal rule of football – never leave points on the field – when the Wolverines rejected an easy three points, which would have deadlocked the game at 9-all with 5:34 left in regulation but saw Gardner lose a yard on fourth-and 2 from the NU 4?
How??? The Football Gods is how, and Michigan will be eternally grateful that fortune finally smiled on them this time around.
Meanwhile, Northwestern players and staff need to head to the hospital to be tested for acute poisoning from taking all those rattlesnake bites that continue to inflict them. The loss was the sixth in a row after the season start which saw the Wildcats go 4-0 and be ranked 11th in the polls.
It would be highly inaccurate and unfair not to say that this affair saw many positives emerge for the Wolverines, despite that nagging, itchy rash called the U-M offense to score touchdowns or even convert on a single third-down conversion (out of 15 chances in regulation).
To start, a win is a win is a win! It was the first road conference triumph of 2013, and despite traveling to a place which has proved to be tough sledding in the past (Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, starting at noon/11 a.m. CST on the Big Ten Network), there is actually a sense of momentum in the Wolverine locker room.
Second, lo and behold, two true freshmen running backs – Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith – combined for 27 carries and gain to a cumulative 130 yards, which doesn’t sound much until one remembers the prior two games resulted in a combined minus-69 yards on the ground (or what seemed to be quicksand).
Green averaged 4.2 yards per carry while Smith, seeing more playing in this game than the entire season, averaged 5.1. Up to Saturday, Smith was all of seven carries for 12 yards, pressing the U-M faithful to collectively ask, “Where has HE been?”
Damn! Stop the presses! Michigan CAN run the football when some power is combined with some speed and the offensive line is determined to stop being embarrassed by its performance.
Third, the Michigan defense had an outstanding game in its “bend, don’t break” mode. It would have been nice if the unit hadn’t surrendered the long end-of-the first half Wildcat drive for a go-ahead field goal with no time remaining, but why quibble? When a sack or tackle-for-loss was needed, it was delivered, especially by tackle Jibreel Black on a second-down play in the final moments of the third overtime.
Third, for the second week, the defense was led by the stellar performance of wide side linebacker James Ross III, the sophomore from Orchard Lake, Mich. He led all players on the field with 13 tackles (including nine solos) and is quickly assuming an on-field leadership role.
Fourth, it was a game without a turnover despite the weather conditions, although Devin Funchess came REAL close in the second overtime, recovering his own fumbled reception at the NU 16.
Sure, the Wildcats had a possible half-dozen “possible” interceptions that either bounced away, slipped through hands or some other excuse. Come on, you either do or you don’t. Being “close” only counts with horseshoes, hand grenades, Miss America pageant and the seat you get when you come to the movie theater too late.
Obviously, the Football Gods were simply enjoying themselves too much at Northwestern’s expense, teasing the poor red, white, blue and grayish clad Wildcats – a cruel, dastardly deed indeed. All those plays allowed was for folks like telecast analyst Glenn Mason to keep harping on the same talking point over and over and over and … because the man seemed devoid of new material for reference and observation.
Fifth, look what Michigan has officially discovered – a big-bodied (6-6, 245) real tight end named Jake … Butt (appropriate enough). The freshman from Pickerington, Ohio showed he can be an effective blocker on running calls and his one-handed catch of the touchdown in the first OT period was a major highlight, since it was the initial third-down conversion of the game (although not credited on the NCAA stats).
His play should be enough incentive to move Funchess permanently to a wide receiver. There is no need to pretend otherwise moving forward; Funchess is now a big bodied target who will be hard to handle by smaller defensive backs.
By the way, if you want to entice me into a spirited discussion about football, let’s talk about why overtime stats should NOT count among the official tallies in any game. My reason is simple – when the clock does not run (unless it is an untimed down), no one counts those plays (extra points) as yardage, runs or passes in the game total. So why have artificially bloated numbers added to regular game conditions? One day, let’s grab a Vernor’s (diet for me) and do that.
Sixth reason this was positive for Michigan – senior Jeremy Gallon is truly honoring his Legends jersey number (borrowed from Desmond Howard) with his 10-catch, 115-yard showing, despite a constant double team on him. Gallon now has more than 1,000 yards receiving in the 2013 season, making him the 10th player in Michigan history to do so.
He shows the mark of every great Wolverine receiver in the school’s long history – the ability to gain most of his yardage AFTER the catch. He now stands with 2,393 yards for his career, placing him fourth all-time and is the obvious MVP on offense in 2013.
On the OTHER side of the coin (which Michigan has not called correctly in the past three games), problems that need mending were NOT corrected, for the most part. U-M has scored just one lowly touchdown in regulation time over the past three games – totally unacceptable on any gridiron level.
A series of events to open the fourth quarter shows everything that has gone off the rails for the U-M offense, and Gardner, its quarterback. The Football Gods must have been playing one-upmanship with each other just to see how wheels-off the sport can be.
When Joe Hamilton downed a Matt Wile punt at the NU 1, three plays garnered the Wildcats just two yards, forcing them to punt. Senior Brandon Williams promptly shanked a kick for a grand total of 8 yards distance, to the NU 11 (I wonder why if that counted as a punt inside the 20?), giving the Wolverines the break (and field position) it sought.
Alas, three plays (two incomplete passes now here close to any receiver and a 1-yard loss on a running play by Gardner) forced Gibbons to nail a 28-yarder to narrow the deficit to 9-6.
Then after another short punt (24 yards) by the second NU kicker, Michigan took the ball downfield on its most impressive march, converting long plays (a 22-yard run by Gardner and a 25-yard pass to Gallon). But when Smith was stopped for no gain on third down at the NU 4, Coach Brady Hoke and offensive coordinator Al Borges chose (even after a timeout to consult) to go for the first down, two yards away.
In golf, a six-foot putt can be tough on your nerves and in football, two yards can be a marathon distance if past success is not evident. So when Gardner tried to run to the short side of the field, without a supporting trailing back, he lost a yard in the process … and possibly the game.
Now how Michigan recouped in the final two minutes, and survived the fifth sack of Gardner, for what looked like a back-breaking 15 yard setback, remains a mystery to everyone other than those Football Gods.
And how could any Wolverine follower have any ounce of faith entering the overtime if the team could not produce a touchdown at the NU 11 and each OT series started at the 25? But someone (up above?) flicked the switch and all of a sudden what was past was no longer prologue.

I’m sure other legitimate scribes (meaning they actually get paid for the same opinions) have written and discussed what ails Gardner. From my Laz-Y-Boy, he looks … slow, as if he cannot get his feet to move quick enough to avoid these devastating drive-killing sacks.
He appears to be hesitant in the three-step pocket, often unable to avoid hitting stationary linemen in the paws, and absolutely terrified of third down plays. And the proof, in this case, is in the numbers. In regulation, when the ball was snapped on third down 13 times, Gardner ran the ball four times for a minus-15 yards (including two sacks) and was 0-for-8 passing.
Only a no gain run by Smith in the fourth quarter was the sole third-down conversion attempt not directly attributed to Gardner.
And all those near-interceptions Northwestern couldn’t corral were a result of poor decisions and throws by Gardner, begging to be picked off, doubling Northwestern’s misery.
He just isn’t the player Michigan fans hoped he’d be, unless that switch which was activated in overtime remains in the “on” mode for the next two weeks. This sounds crazy but the fate of Team 134 STILL in his hands and when things, and stars, are properly aligned, Michigan can defeat almost everyone.
As said, it was a win, which was the single most important fact on the day. Perhaps the Football Gods will continue to favor (or pity) the Wolverines over the next two games, especially at the end of November when those freakin’ over-confident Buckeyes to into “that state up north.” It would be SOOO cool if the Football Gods had a little mischief planned for Ohio State.
And then … a placekicker shall lead them!!! Amen!

No comments: