Friday, September 26, 2014

Friday Night Descent to the Fiery Depths of Despair: Pre-Michigan

Probably worth noting upfront that I’m in a foul mood, so I suspect what little hope I had for a positive outcome tomorrow will be ball gagged and flogged by my present demeanor. Sometimes booze just ain’t enough. You’ve been warned.

Ah, Michigan. It seems like every year we go into this game with the faintest glimmer of positivity, that maybe this time we won’t piss ourselves at the sight of the winged helmets. And every year, but for three, in my entire life, the curb stomp happens. Sometimes we lose in heartbreaking fashion (see 03, 20), sometimes we would have been better off forfeiting (hi, 58 – nil!), but most of the time, it’s just a traditional beat down. We’ll look game for a quarter or two, but you always know what’s going to happen: Michigan will make a big play, we’ll fold ourselves neatly into the fetal position and go quietly off into that good night.

I’ve been thinking to myself all week that games like tomorrow’s are the worst. The Wolverines have been our bugaboo for 50 years – but they look beatable. Their offense is in disarray: their line is weak, Gardner has been a turnover machine and they can’t seem to score any points. They have looked pedestrian at best against every FBS opponent they’ve played. Yes, their defense has been sound, particularly against the run; but, as Gopher fans know well, if you can’t score any points, the greatest defense in the country is of limited value.

And while we haven’t exactly been world beaters, we’ve looked better, more consistent than Michigan. Our defense has been solid against both the run and pass in all four non-conference games and our running game last week was as good as it’s ever been. Yes, we haven’t been able to pass, it’s true. But if we can do just enough, find some way to move the ball through the air, make Michigan’s linebackers hesitate for a moment in their run fits, we should be able to score some points. And our defense should be good enough to contain the Wolverine’s impotent offense.

And there it is. The hope. The dream.

All week we’ve seen and heard prognosticators pick the Gophers to win. Some have said to lose this game would be worse than the way we lost to them in 2011. Pointing to Michigan’s deficiencies, they suggest we’ll be able to do enough offensively to punch them in the mouth early, and turn the 100,000 Coke drinking fans against their own team. From there, we play Gophers man ball through 15-play, 75 yard grind-them-to-dust drives and allow our wily defense to shut them down. Game over. The Jug returns to Minnesota.

Dreams are ephemera. Hopes are broken, white-hot coat hangers shoved into your sinuses.

I want to believe. I do. Part of me genuinely does. And that’s what brings the pain. We may very well be a superior team to Michigan right now. Judging by recruiting rankings we are inferior; but we have been much more consistent functioning as a unit, at least offensively. The Wolverines looked grossly overmatched against Notre Dame and Utah and fairly ordinary against a poor Miami of Ohio team. We legitimately could be seen as the better squad.

But history is a savage. And history is smothering my hope with an old, musty pillow. I hear people saying we have a chance, but all I see the specter of the last 50 years. 1966: 49 – 0; 1972: 42 – 0; 1976: 45 – 0; 1985: 48 – 7; 1992: 63 – 13; 2008: 29 – 6; 2013: 42 – 13. These are inescapable truths. The record is bleak. Players graduate, coaches retire or are fired, teams change and evolve. But the constant has been ignominious failure.

Can we win tomorrow? Absolutely. We can win tomorrow and launch the wretched Wolverine money into the aether with his Nebraska-branded cousin. We can win tomorrow and situate ourselves for a 4-0 start to B1G play. We can win tomorrow and likely end Brady Hoke’s tenure at Michigan. We have the players, the coaches and the system to make it happen.

As a fan, though, I may be too damaged to believe. I hope, I always hope. But, throughout my life one Gopher football maxim has generally held true: football is a simple game – 22 men chase a ball around for 60 minutes, and in the end, Michigan always win.*

* Paraphrasing Gary Lineker’s quote about the German national soccer team, of course.

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