Wednesday, January 04, 2012

No Really, You Go Ahead And Blow Your Own Foot Off. I’ll Be Here In The Corner, Doing A Lot Of Nothing

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.”  


Robert said...

It was as though Les Miles got a really good team this year and said, you know what Brady, you can have this lucky horseshoe I've had up my ass for the past few years -- I don't need it.

Reality should set in by early September.

4.0 Point Stance said...

The problem is, Michigan didn't actually play mistake free football. They made major mistakes on at least three game changing plays that were called back by the refs - the two interceptions by #20 (although the first was defensible; the ball may have touched the ground, but I don't think it was clear & convincing evidence to reverse) and the blown field goal where the refs inexplicably missed the entire Michigan OL being ten yards downfield when the ball was thrown. And I think the overtime TD call was probably wrong too, although I'm willing to be convinced otherwise.

Anyway I think UM is a prime candidate for the Charles Rogers theorem next year - Sugar Bowl champions with a Heisman contender at QB, but winning the way they did last night is not sustainable.

Jack said...

To begin with, not that you'd care, but I want to say that I find you to be refreshingly honest and realistic about the teams you root for the vast majority of the time. The sports blogosphere has no shortage of homers and pollyannas, and you are not one of them.

But dude, it's okay to just say "man, my team got really, really lucky last night," and then move on. You don't have to try and rationalize that insane amount of good fortune into some kind of skill. As 4.0 said, the notion that UM played "mistake-free football" last night is silly. They made plenty of mistakes, some of the "head a'splode" variety (the fake FG volleyball DERP-a-roo obviously comes to mind). They were fortunate enough to not have to pay for their mistakes (and, in the case of said DERPfest, they actually BENEFITTED from one), and Virginia Tech was not so lucky. It happens. Some days you eat the bear and other days the bear eats you.

Love this win. Cherish it. No one is going to take the trophy away from UM, shouting "You were outgained on a per-play basis!" But saying this game was won via the "skill" of "mistake-free football"? Come on.

Michael said...

OK, how about instead of "mistake-free," I say "made far fewer mistakes than their opponent" in order to account for the insanely lucky fake FG? Being less prone to a false start on a key third and short inside of the last minute, for instance, is a skill. It helps to explain how a team can be doubled up in terms of yardage and still win a game.

I've retired the Charles Rogers Theorem after it produced Georgia in '07 and Florida in '08, but I agree with the reasoning that Michigan will be overrated this summer. The guts of the lines - Molk, Van Bergen, and Martin - are all gone and the depth behind them is questionable at best. The big question will be whether Hoke and Mattison - both of whom have special expertise in coaching defensive linemen - can fashion an average DL. The fact that Michigan fans are already mentally counting on true freshmen at DT is a worrying sign.

Cutting against a high ranking for Michigan is the schedule: Bama in Dallas, along with trips to Nebraska, Notre Dame, and Ohio State. (I wonder if any team has ever played four games against the all-time top ten without any one of the four being at home.) Because rankers have a tendency to view a challenging schedule as a reason to drop a team's preseason ranking, Michigan might not be as high as they would otherwise be.

Michael said...

I just realized that I double posted this entry, so I am pasting the three comments from the first version before deleting it:

Caelus said...

I posted the following in The Victors website:

"My take
Posted on January 4, 2012 at 05:25:47 AM by Caelus

Let me first point out that I love the University of Michigan and fully support their sports teams. I spend a bit of time defending our boys to the local Georgia and SEC fans who think that nothing exceeds their brand of football but I feel that the effort is worthwhile.

That being said, I just finished watching the end of last night's game and only say that I am totally embarrassed by what I saw. Michigan played like crap on offense all night, received every break in the world, and came out with an undeserved victory. It hurts me deeply to type such a thing but I just have to get it out of my system so that I can go on with my life.

Denard Robinson, our savior so many times, was as pitiful as I have ever seen a QB play. He threw the most putrid passes you have ever seen and even the two touchdowns were hail marys thrown into coverage and converted by a Va Tech overplay and a great catch by Hemmingway (IIRC). The one saving grace is that, after watching Va Tech win so many games based on luck and special team miracles over the years, I got to watch their special team play kill them for once.

Now that being said, I can now wait until tomorrow night to watch our basketball team take on Indiana in Bloomington which is always a difficult task. I sure hope and expect a decent effort from our guys....I really need one now.

6:37 AM
VT MikeO said...

Not that it would have guaranteed a victory, but the overturned TD in OT was a shame. I think the definition of the word "indisputable" is different to PAC-12 refs than it is to the general population.

Congrats to Michigan. Hokie fans can spend another offseason wondering why our coach is so great at long-term planning (our teams almost always exceed preseason expectations) and so shaky with in-game adjustments (fake punt, red zone hiccups, etc).
8:25 AM
John W. said...

Caelus, if you are really a Michigan fan and not a troll from another school . . . good grief. People like you give us a bad name. We win a BCS bowl game and you're bitching about it. Unreal.
5:30 PM