Monday, September 29, 2008

A tale of two halves at the Big House


It was as if Michigan fans knew what was coming.

There I was, standing on the corner of Main Street and Stadium Boulevard Saturday afternoon, and ticket sellers outnumbered buyers by an enormous ratio. I had walked up Main thinking it'd be hard to find a cheap ticket to the Big 10 opener. Usually a keen scalper, I jumped at the early opportunity to snag a pair of end zone seats — row 64 — for $56.

Face value for a ticket is, after all, $59. Two for less than face, I thought, was a bargain.

But I was a fool. An hour later, I bought a new pair of end zone seats — this time, ninth row — for a mere $40. And then my man Bubs and I desperately tried to lose the tickets I originally purchased. Finally, just minutes before kickoff, I sold one for $10 and gave away the other for $5.

It was as if no one wanted to go to the game.

It was as if — did I mention this? — they knew what was coming.

And the product the Maize and Blue produced in the first half wasn't worth five bucks, or even a nickel. Knowing how much I'd paid, I tried to look at the bright side during the 20-minute intermission. I texted my friend Pete, who was also at the game, "Ugly. Could be much much worse." And that was very, very true.

Despite Wisconsin dominating every aspect of the game. Despite the Badgers driving into Michigan territory six times. Despite the Wolverines mustering a total of 21 yards. And despite an abysmal five turnovers.

It was just Wisconsin 19, Michigan 0.

Still, it felt like 45-0. It felt over. With the way Michigan's offense was moving the ball — check that, not moving the ball — 19 points might as well have been 82 points. I returned to my seat for the second half, ready to cheer for any subtle positive. And sure enough, when the Wolverines picked up a first down on the initial play from scrimmage, the crowd went nuts. Of course, a punt came four plays later.

But everything changed after that.

First, there was the key stop of a Wisconsin drive that ended perilously close to field-goal range (any more points, at that point, would have killed the Wolverines). Then there was the first scoring drive, completed with the TD on third-and-10.

Two more big stops followed. Then the second scoring drive. And then, just seconds later, the interception return for a score that gave the Wolverines a 20-19 lead.

The stadium became absolutely delirious. Bubs gave me a bear hug. Fans were as shocked as they were excited. This couldn't be happening. How had a 19-0 deficit become 20-19 in just a few New York Minutes?

The Wolverines, apparently, were just as stunned, because they were a mess after John Thompson's romp to the end zone. They needed to go for the two-point conversion, but none of the right people got on the field. With the play clock near zero, and the offensive players scattered, Rich Rodriguez finally took a timeout.

Looking back on the moment, I could only laugh. They are kids, after all. I didn't blame them for getting lost in the moment. There's no way they could have believed what had transpired so furiously, so quickly.

My day inside the Big House had a happy ending, as the Wolverines hung on for a 27-25 win. The second half more than made up for the first half. In fact, those initial 30 minutes — however odious they may have been — were key in this regard: They set the stage for the greatest statistical comeback in the history of Michigan Stadium.

Rodriguez leaped in the air when it was over. The players rushed to celebrate with the students. The boo birds of the first half couldn't stop cheering their Wolverines after the final play.

What a difference a Terrence Taylor halftime speech makes, huh?

Of course, the question now is whether the second half was simply a fluke, an aberration. Wisconsin sure helped Michigan by dropping passes, committing crucial penalties and turning the ball over twice (four times in the game).

I don't know how good Michigan is. I've no idea whether the thrilling comeback will mark the beginning of a winning streak.

But I know this: The young Wolverines learned how to win Saturday. This lesson shouldn't be overlooked.

The defense carried them all afternoon, first holding Wisconsin to the quartet of field goals and then stopping key third-down plays in the third and fourth quarters that gave the ball back to the offense. And members of the offense made plays when they had to be made.

There was freshman quarterback Steven Threet putting Michigan on the board with a perfect lob pass to tight end Kevin Koger on third-and-10. And there was Threet again, two possessions later, completing an absolutely necessary third-and-9 pass to Greg Mathews for a first down. On Michigan's final scoring drive, Threet rumbled for 58 yards after a perfect play-fake.

And freshman Sam McGuffie finished off the scoring march with three tough runs in-between the tackles, the final one putting him in the end zone — barely — on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line.

All those plays were necessary. Take any one of them away, and Michigan is probably 1-3 right now. Yes, the Wolverines got lucky, too. Wisconsin was its own worst enemy in the second half. But a wise man once told me, "Son, you make your own luck." (OK, I heard it on "Lost," but you get the gist.)

Long after the marching band had stopped blaring, the field was barren and the stands empty, the fact remained that a patchwork Michigan team with a new coach had turned an almost inevitable 1-3 start into 2-2 and 1-0 in the Big 10.

And something tells me, even from 657 miles away now, that there might be a few more buyers on the corner of Main and Stadium for the Illinois game next Saturday.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Nice title for this one, your english teacher would be proud. That's awesome you were there, that was probably much more enjoyable than last year's historic Michigan home game. Looks like college football is suddenly relevant again for both of us.