On May 6, 2009, I sat in this room, in front of this computer, and wondered about the meaning of my team winning a big game when it had been both outplayed and the beneficiary of at least one notable close call. In that instance, Andres Iniesta hit a 93rd minute winner past Petr Cech to send Barcelona to Rome. Iniesta’s shot was Barca’s first on target in the match. The Blaugrana trailed for most of the encounter and had to stave off numerous close encounters, including a pair of one-on-ones between Didier Drogba and Victor Valdes and four penalty appeals of varying quality. In the end, Barca were the inferior team, but went through anyway.
In the aftermath, I came to grips with the fact that there are more ways to succeed in a football match than by dominating possession and creating chances. For one thing, a goalie making big saves is not exactly luck. You would think that I would grasp this fact given that I have played goalie since age ten, but after the game, I had to remind myself that Valdes performing to keep Barca in the match counted just as much as Messi or Eto’o creating and finishing chances at the other end. For another, a team keeping its concentration in adverse circumstances is important. Barca could have gotten frustrated with Chelsea’s defensive approach, with the penalty that they were denied in the first leg, and with the general unfairness that their perfect season was about to end without the most coveted prize available. Instead, they kept plugging away and then Iniesta foreshadowed his World Cup-winning strike with the goal that made the treble possible.
Tonight, I’m in the same position. Michigan just won the Sugar Bowl, capping an 11-2 season that, with one notable exception, is as good as any I’ve experienced since enrolling in Ann Arbor in September 1993. By conventional metrics, Michigan had no business winning the game. The Wolverines were outgained 375 to 184. The Hokies ran 24 more plays and were 1.4 yards better on a per play basis. Michigan’s two touchdowns were both Jeff Bowden specials, with Junior Hemingway playing the role of Greg Carr. Michigan’s first field goal in regulation came from an insanely lucky deflected pass to a previously-ineligible receiver. The Michigan defense was stout in a number of respects, especially in the red zone, but they gave up a season’s worth of third and longs to a team without an especially good passing game. In the end, Michigan benefited from a close reversal of a Hokie touchdown in overtime (the right call, I think, but very close) and then an ignored false start on the winning field goal (although it’s not as if Virginia Tech can claim that Michigan gained any sort of advantage from Brendan Gibbons starting, stopping, and then having to start again). Notre Dame in the late 80s, Tennessee ‘98, and Ohio State ‘02 all came to mind; this was lucky.
All that said, the ability to avoid blowing off one’s own foot is a skill in college football. If we have learned anything over the last few days after seeing kickers repeatedly spit the bit, coaches turtle up in end-game situations, and players of all shapes and sizes make mistakes, it’s that avoiding big errors is important. Michigan had one turnover and 24 yards of penalties. They didn’t miss a field goal. They didn’t call a stupid fake punt on fourth and one when their running game was cooking. Fitzgerald Toussaint didn’t take a 220-yard loss on first and goal. They neither roughed a punter to prolong a drive, nor watched the drive end by not knocking down a pass on 3rd and 17. Feel free to shoot me in the face for sounding like a Tressel acolyte, but playing mistake-free football can atone for a lot of sins.
Likewise, just as Barca’s persistence at Stamford Bridge was a skill, so was Michigan’s performance tonight. They came in with their star left tackle limping around. They then added an injury to their Rimington-winning senior center who makes all of the calls for the line and who relies on mobility to make up for a lack of size. A group of players who remember total collapses like Illinois 2009 and Ohio State 2010 showed that they don’t roll over anymore. Virginia Tech dominated most of the first half, but the defense made stands in the red zone and then the offense had a brief flurry to turn a 6-0 deficit into a 17-6 lead. When the Hokies pegged them back to 17-17 and then 20-20, Michigan stood up in overtime and won the game. Add persistence to “didn’t blow our own feet off” to the list of skills that this team used to make up for the fact that they couldn’t block or make a stop on third and long.
In a way, this is how the 2011 season had to end for Michigan. At the end of the Rich Rodriguez era, Michigan was a great offfense and then a smoking heap of wreckage. The defense was unconscionably bad. The special teams were barely above that level, most notably because the Wolverines could not kick a field goal. Michigan did dumb things like not knowing that a blocked field goal is a live ball. The turnover rate was terrible. This year was a palate cleanser in every way. In the end, Michigan won a game despite the offense being completely stymied. The Wolverines won by being good on defense, very good on special teams, and smart enough to avoid the mistakes that killed their otherwise superior opponent. In 2010, I looked at box scores and said “we have to be better than what the scoreboard says.” At the end of 2011, I say “according to that gleaming Sugar Bowl trophy headed to Schembechler Hall, we are better than what the box score says.”