Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Indisputable | by Jay

(aka, the Wolverine wrap-up)

I've been to the Big House three times now, and I'm 1-2.

First time was 1991, my senior year - the Desmond Howard game. Sitting in the opposite end zone, ...Elvis puts it's overthrown. Had to be, right? Nobody could catch that! effing way. He caught it? We were dumbfounded -- we were the team who always had the last-minute heroics. We left Ann Arbor in shame; our Ryder truck packed with couches from Goodwill and a half dozen kegs that had been so rowdy on the way up was now a rickety conestoga on the Trail of Tears back to South Bend, a passel of surly drunks from Morrissey who ended up turning on each other around Kalamazoo.

Second time was two years ago, the 38-0 shellacking where nothing went right, and where I wandered out of the stadium in a messy haze, across the golf course to the tailgater to endure the taunts of my Wolverine "friends" for the rest of the day.

I think you could say that this year my feelings after the game were a little different.

Wow! First, the opening drive -- all confidence. Rhema! Here we go, baby! Just like last week. Henne under pressure...nice! We got stopped, okay, punt, watch out for Breaston -- no return. Nice job, Brian Polian. Batted down. Batted down again. Punt. Punt again. Still no Breaston. Corner blitz -- pick it up! Crap. Long drive. Rhema...yikes. Ball's up-- tip-- Smarj! Holy cow what a catch. Ecker. Ecker. Ecker again. ZIBBY! Fitz booms it. Here's Grady. Where's Hart? Blitz-- Brady got away-- Smarj down the middle! Fourth down. Avant to the one! Oh my. Sneak--sneak. Who's got it? Our ball! Punt. Manningham? Wow, wide open. Henne, last chance. Incomplete. Incomplete. Tip! Incomplete! Ball game. We just beat #3 Michigan at the Big House. Unbelievable.

And yet, it wasn't really a roller coaster of emotions; it was more like watching a two-car Indy race, Foyt versus Andretti, the drivers fighting their own cars as much as each other, every turn fraught with the peril of a spin-out into the wall, with one guy staying just ahead of the other until the checkered flag.

Man, that place was quiet after the game. There was an old Wolverine behind me who just kept muttering, "We shoulda won. We shoulda won." Next to us, a group of students from ND were all smiles. "Only one of us had a ticket, but I'm glad we decided to make the trip, because we ended up finding some this morning," one girl said. "This rocks."

Going into the game we'd been wary of the Wolverines, yet somewhat confident that we'd give them a game. We knew we'd play tough, having seen what happened in Pittsburgh, but a loss was well within the realm of possibility (or even probability, depending on your level of pessimism/realism). And a well-fought loss would have been fine, right? New coach, big underdogs to a tough opponent on the road and all that. Moreover, the night before there was a dire warning flare: Pitt had lost to Ohio. Suddenly the big win at Heinz over a ranked opponent looked like a nugget of fool's gold, shattered by Solich's Bobcats. Who knew how good we really were?

So we had been sufficiently emotionless, or were trying to be. Now, as Powers-Neal took the final handoff, and the seconds ticked away, the floodgates opened. We won. (We won!)

The players came over and raised their helmets, we sang the alma mater along with the students, and the fight song a couple of times. Sunburnt, sweaty, and happy, we picked our way out of the stadium, and a wave of euphoria washed over me. When you don't win at a particular venue for over a decade, you start to think of words like "curse" and "jinx" and "hex"; you wonder if and when it's ever going to end. My friend John made the observation that even though we had beaten Michigan just last year at ND, it felt like the end of a long drought, like diving into a pool of cold water after walking across the desert.

We wandered back to our tailgater, a mixed bag of mostly Michigan folks (our hosts in the Victors lot - longtimers; dyed-in-the-wool Maize and blue) with a handful of Irish fans scattered about. We tried to stifle the cheers as best we could and wait until we were out of earshot to celebrate, because a) our Michigan friends are good people and b) we were starving, and they had the food. After filling up at the keg (yes, imagine that: kegs allowed at a tailgater) and scarfing a few brats, we were off to the bars to begin the serious breakdown of both the game and our livers.

Over the course of many beers, first at Dominick's (a great spot - outdoor beer garden, mason jar pitchers of beer, walking distance from campus - ND needs a place like this), then during a slow-speed chase through the pubs of Ann Arbor, several points of discussion were raised throughout the evening, mostly revolving around the reasons why the Irish won and the Wolverines lost. Here were the debate points.

Michigan lost because Henne sucked. Spontaneous post-game beer-soaked reaction: yes, he did. From thirty rows up in the end zone, he definitely seemed shaky. He overthrew receivers a couple of times, sometimes didn't spot the open guy, and didn't take care of the ball.

Post-hangover Tivo-assisted reaction:
you know, he made some good throws at different times, and was the victim of a couple of drops. But ND got a lot of pressure on him all throughout the game. By my count, there were half a dozen times he was flushed out of the pocket, five times he threw the ball out of bounds on purpose, five passes were batted down, and he was sacked twice. Kudos to us.

Credit Henne for some great plays, too: the Manningham TD was a perfect read, and he did a good job of finding Ecker when Breaston and Avant were locked down. Still, he threw that terrible interception to Zibby, with a receiver open down the middle, and he dropped the ball on the goal line. Two of the most crucial, game-changing blunders are on his shoulders.

Lloyd called a bad game. You always hear this after a loss from fans of any team; it's the easiest excuse to make, and simultaneously the hardest to qualify. It's a classic known/unknown set of facts: we know what happened on the field, but we have no idea what the play call was, what the progression read for the receivers was, if the back hit the right hole, if the blocking scheme was executed correctly, etc. In the smoky haze of The Little Brown Jug, my friend Bob (UM grad) was all over Carr, complaining about "playing it safe" late in the second half and calling for his head on a platter with a side of onion rings. Although we both picked out a couple of plays that seemed questionable -- the slip screen on third and long, the final incomplete pass to Ecker that would have been ten yards short of a first down -- much of Bob's frustration with Carr seems to be cumulative, built up over the course of several gut-churning losses over the years.

In watching the replay, two things came to mind on the issue of playcalling. First off, while Michigan had several terrible plays, you can't isolate any one call that was boneheaded -- even that final pass to Ecker might have gone for a first down, as the field sure looked empty in front of him. And second, a point not conceded by my friend Bob Saturday night: Notre Dame's defense did an excellent job of stifling several options for Lloyd. Namely, 1) a consistent rushing attack and 2) Steve Breaston.

Injuries just killed Michigan. Bob and I fought this one to a standstill. Here's how it went.

"Dude, we lost Hart. He's our best running back."
"Yeah, but Grady looked damn good. He might be better."
"But Hart doesn't fumble the ball."
"Hey, we lost our best receiver, so I'm not too sympathetic."
"Big deal. We also lost our best tight end right before the game."
"So what? Ecker played well."
"Massaquoi's better."
"Well, we lost our starting center and had a couple fumbles as a result."
"Really? Hmm."
[long pause]
"You know how I know you're gay? You macramed yourself a pair of jean shorts."

The refs screwed Michigan. A siren call, often heard that night in Ann Arbor. Since we had been at the game, there was literally no way to accurately gauge this one at the Little Brown Jug other than to go by the reaction of the Michigan fans throwing crap on the field after the announcement of "indisputable evidence" after the fumble recovery. We were on the opposite corner, so we had no idea if it was a good call or not. Bob said that since the students were going nuts they must have seen something amiss; I said that throwing stuff on the field doesn't imply any special insight and only indicates that said fans are classless losers; and we left it at that.

Replay (my replay at home after the game) clearly shows that the refs got the replay calls right in every instance. Therefore, I would like to announce that after further review there is indisputable evidence that the further review and subsequent claim of indisputable evidence by the referees was in fact correct. The overturned calls stand.

(One disturbing thing about instant replay to point out from Charlie's presser.

Q. I want to put a fine point on something you said about instant replay yesterday. You said something about the officials are going to err on the side of safety and I'm not sure what that..

COACH WEIS: Yeah, it confused me, too, a little bit, that's a good question. Because when the official came over to the sideline, I said, "You couldn't see that he was down"? I might have had an adjective or two in there. I said, "You couldn't see that he was down?"

And he goes, "Don't worry, Coach."

"Don't worry? You just called a fumble, you tell me not to worry?"

He goes, "We're told, what we're told to do is if it's close, for them to call it the way they called it," because the officials because the replay official could always correct it. Because if they called it the other way, if they called that he was down, then for the replay official, it was a moot point. Because if they had already called it down, then they could not have reversed it the other way, so that's why they are told that.

So at least I understood the explanation, but I just thought that he was down so obviously to me. Maybe I was wrong, but he was down so obviously that I could not understand when he said that to me. But as I sit back to reflect on it, I do at least understand what the thought process was.
This is the official policy? If so, it's terrible for at least two reasons and probably many more.

One, it encourages referees to make a wrong call. The ref in this case clearly knew it wasn't a fumble; he called it the wrong way anyway, and under his marching orders, was justified in doing so. It seems to me that we ought to be encouraging correct calls from our referees, but maybe that's just me.

Secondly, and as a result, this "over-calling" a play and passing the buck to the booth will necessarily lead to more replay reviews. And gee, that's what every fan wants, right? Give us MORE breaks in the action!)

After the Little Brown Jug, we went to get a slice, then over to a sticky-floored dive called Touchdowns, then another place, and another place after that, and one or two more maybe. I finally crashed on a friend's couch at some point that night, although the only evidence that that actually happened is that I woke up there. (I tried to go to the replay official in my head to see, but he'd packed up and left around 11:30 the night before).

As I was driving back to Chicago Sunday morning, it occurred to me that we had spent a lot of time the night before talking about how Michigan lost, and very little about why Notre Dame had won. So I started to make a mental catalog of the superlatives on our side. The beautiful, no-huddle opening drive that set the tone for the game, and really, won it for us. The coverage on Breaston on the punts. Another special teams tackle by Casey Cullen. Zibby's pick and thirty-yard ramble. Samardzija plucking a tipped ball out of thin air, and holding it for a touchdown. Corey Mays, blitzing through the line like a bottle rocket. Our secondary, flustering the hell out of Henne. Wooden saving two touchdowns. The Duke, like a prospector panning for gold, fishing an ingot out of a roaring stream. Walker, spinning and knifing his way down the field. Our jackhammer defense, punching holes and disrupting passes.

Michigan may have lost, but Notre Dame definitely won.

Onward to game three.

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