UM-MSU 1991  

Many left-handed and right-brained types may complain “Hey, what does this have to do with the elegance and smashmouthness and slobberknockernessness of the games.” They have a point. The game is blocking and tackling and throwing and catching. It is not a game of moving pieces around on a game board. To these fans, and I guess that includes me, the ambiguity of the equation is what makes a beer taste good, what makes it worthwhile being alive. Is there anything better than a cool and sunny October day and the anticipation of Michigan and MSU and all of the history and hubris implied in the contest? Doesn’t the glow of a hard win or the bitterness of a tough loss give meaning to our lives---particularly when we all know, we all really know---that the outcome of the game does not really amount to a hill of beans?

The score is 27-26. MSU leads. No time is left on the clock but Michigan has just scored and is attempting a two point play. Elvis Grbac drops back and looks to his left. Desmond Howard runs a quick slant from the wide left to the middle of the field. He beats the defender, cornerback Eddie Brown, sitting in man coverage. As Desmond clears the defensive back he is grabbed and then tripped in desperation. Eddie Brown falls to the ground, now out of the play. Elvis zeroes in and throws the ball on a line.  A strike. More than 106,000 fans follow the spiral of the ball. The spin is tight and pristine. To this day, it hangs in the air. Uncertain. Unimportant. And so important that all 106,000 are completely uninvolved with the ennui or tragedy of their day to day lives. The only thing that matters is the path of the ball and the impossibly 12pt and skinny wide receiver struggling to keep his balance. Completely stuck in time the crowd is going crazy yet, in my mind, there is complete silence. Not a sound. Stumbling forward now, almost falling but not quite, the ball strikes Desmond in the chest. He catches the ball, losing his balance at last, and as he lands on his back the object squibs away, the random bounces a parody of the game. He caught the ball!!! It is incomplete. He was held and interfered!!! No penalty is called.

And none of it really matters save for the indelibility of the moment and the despair of the Michigan partisans. And the joy, relief and celebration in East Lansing. And the certain notion that on another day these emotions will change. And, when this day comes, comes the truth and delusion there is justice in the world because Desmond really…just…well…I hate the despair and embrace it. And I know that the joy is an artifice. A trick. But I am a junkie. I can’t get by without it. Nor can others. And because of this many of us come back to the moment that is rife with the joy and the pain. If we had just…Why didn’t we try…Why are we so predictable…It is just all of that running…That and the conservative passing.


UM-Northwestern 2000

In the days following the Northwestern loss some fans excoriate Jim Hermann, the Michigan defensive coordinator, as a complete numbskull. This is almost understandable since Michigan fans are used to good defense, especially against Northwestern, and the carnage in the game was serious, an all-time record against any Michigan team. The Wildcats put up 654 yards in the game. A record. Second place ain’t close. And 54 points? Not quite a record, though a scan of the Michigan history book shows just how remarkable the game is. In the 120 years of Michigan football UM has given up 40 points or more only 8 times prior to the most recent contest. In 1883 we gave up 46 points to Yale. Our worst loss, in 1889 to Cornell, was 56-0 but in that game, according to one participant that I questioned, the Big Red was stomping on the naïve Wolverine’s toes with their very sharp spikes. My brother, also known as the Worst Fan in the United States, played for Cornell in the 70s (the 1970s) and claims that foot-puncture continued to be a staple in the Big Red offensive arsenal almost a hundred years later.   

After the Cornell trickery Michigan went 36 years without giving up as many as 40 points in a game until a weak Michigan team lost 40-0 to Minnesota in 1935. I haven’t looked it up, but I hope Gerald Ford was the captain of that team. Twenty-three years later, in 1958, Northwestern scored 55 points against one of the worst Michigan teams.  In 1961 and 1968 Woody ran up 50 against the Wolverines. And in Bo’s debut season (1969) a pack of turnovers lead to a 40-17 loss to Missouri. In 1991 FSU won a 51-31 shootout in Ann Arbor. And that is it. Nine games over 40 points out of over 1100. And more than 53? Only twice.  In 1889 and 1958.  By my calculator that is, uh, zero percent of all games played in the past 45 years.

Putting it in another context, in the 57 games in the 1901 through 1905 seasons, UM gave up 42 points. Total points. Yeah, offenses weren’t as sophisticated then. But the Wolverines did manage to eke out 2,791 points over the same period. [This is an average score 49 to 0.75. How can it be that a team’s average winning margin was 48.25 points? And think about this. A TD was only worth 5 points in those seasons and the field was 110 yards long. And games were often not completed.  Michigan preferred to play 70 minute games but often had to concede to 40 minute contests to find opposition. In the 1902 game against MAC (MSU) the MAC players walked off the field (down 119-0) after 36 minutes. I have passed this fact on to Tommy Amaker as a possible strategy next time we get the opportunity to tangle with the basketball Dukies or Spartans. If we can negotiate a 10 or 15 minute game it might not look quite so bad.] Indeed, Michigan has completed 40 seasons when they didn’t give up 55 points, though I admit this statistic is not particularly meaningful. But in that (a) Northwestern’s scores were not (in the main) turnover predicated and (b) the defense was not put under any sort of unusual pressure by the failures of the offense (51 points and one turnover (no INTs) to Northwestern means the offense was doing its part), I think it is fair to conclude (c) this was the worst defensive performance by any team in any game in Michigan history. I defy anybody to find another game that even comes close. The bizarreness of this is underscored by the fact that the defense was coming off of two consecutive shutouts, one of the shutouts against a team that had shown excellent offensive ability.       

So the criticism of Jim Hermann is understandable, though I am certain it is not justified. Indeed, the post game Internet posts characterized Hermann to be something in the nature of Curly Howard, as opposed to the introspective and thoughtful person that he is. Carr, in his post game comments, merely stressed that Michigan’s tackling was awful. It was. But the pursuit angles of the tacklers were also awful and that might have something to do with the structure of the defense.  But was the coaching poor? I think I am asking the wrong person.  It is an absolute fact that Jim Hermann knows what he is doing. It is an absolute fact that Jim Hermann did not become an idiot since he ran the 1997 defense, one that won a National Championship despite the absence of an offense that could control a game.