Maturity is something that, by definition, comes with age. It's something you get as you go through life's little challenges and emerge from them with a little scar to remind you of the things you're really not supposed to do. Maturity takes time. I mean it's not like you can learn what to do and what not to do in an afternoon. You grow into things. You take your knocks. You eventually emerge from it stronger, and sometimes victorious. But it doesn't happen in an afternoon, does it?
Saturday afternoon started the same way the last three have. Fumbles. Mistakes. Fumbles. Mental errors. Fumbles. Poor play calling. Fumbles. So, as Michigan left the field at the end of the first quarter, the Michigan faithful, men and women, rose to their feet and voiced their displeasure. Could you blame them? Five turnovers. One first down. Negative seven yards passing. And the fifth turnover was an end of the half interception that nearly found its way back into Michigan's endzone. And as the chorus of boos rained down on the field, much to my surprise, I found myself riding this wave of frustration and anger and let loose a good hearty "Boo!"
It was a first for me. I'd seen worse beatings inflicted on Michigan during an opening half, last year's Oregon game for instance. 2002's Iowa/Brad Banks' delivered butt-whuppin'. This year's Yackety Sax in South Bend. But as I glanced back through my treo at my thoughts on the first half, I'd used more expletives than a longshoreman's convention and used the word "criminal" in describing the play calling more than once. I wasn't mad at the kids on the field. I was mad at the situation they'd been put in. And, well, honestly, I was a little mad at the kids who kept fumbling. Human nature being what it is, right? How could we spend two weeks "getting better" and do the same damn thing we'd done against Notre Dame? Why was our offense so damn inept?
Seriously? The offense was a disaster. Wisconsin stacked the line, keying on any movement by McGuffie or anyone else in the backfield. It was as if the two coaches were in a staring match and Michigan kept blinking, determined to not blink first and run the ball until it found success. Student body left. Student body right. Those were Michigan's two plays for the first half. That and the 15 yard scamper by Stephen Threet that resulted in him both getting plastered by Wisconsin's safety and losing the ball. Michigan's passing game was strictly horizontal, even more so after Threet sailed every down field pass into geostationary orbit. The running game was predictable. The line was getting beat. Nothing was going right. It was as if DeBord never left. And what the hell was with the constant fumbling?
Buried in the specactular, steaming turd the offense left on the field was a diamond of a performance by the defense. Despite spending the entire first half on the field the defense held Wisconsin to just 19 points. 19 points when three Wisconsin drives started inside the Michigan 40, and their own touchdown drive of the first started at the Wisconsin 40 yard line. For the first time this season Stevie Brown and Charles Stewart weren't just serviceable, they were actually pretty good. Even more important, Jonas Mouton was a force at Linebacker. Making plays in the backfield, pressuring the quarterback, tackling and wrapping up. And the line, oooh boy, the line, was just awesome. Both Jamison and Graham were in Evridge's face the entire day and the Taylor/Martin/Johnson rotation was simply dominant against a line that they were giving up an average of 30 pounds to. More on this later.
But defense wins championships and offense wins games, and without any signs of life from the offense when Michigan went into the locker room everyone in my section looked as though they'd just seen Seven Bells not only euthanized but thrown on the barbeque.
Unbeknowst to those of us in the stands or at home, the defense not only controlled the first half, but the locker room as well. At halftime, apparently before the coaches reached the locker room, Terrance Taylor went off. Not-fit-for-print went off. He teed off on everyone, challenging them. In my head I imagine it went something like this:
Reggie Dunlop: Goddamn lard-ass Barkley Donaldson, I'm tellin' you he jumped us!
Steve Hanson: [nodding head] Mm huh.
Reggie Dunlop: Gloves off, stick down, no warning, he challenged the Chiefs!
Steve Hanson: Called us names!
Reggie Dunlop: Called us names! But Dave was there.
Steve Hanson: Dave's a killer!
Johnny Upton: Dave's a mess.
Reggie Dunlop: But Dave's out. Who's gonna take his place?
Ned Braden: Is the answer Jesus?
Reggie Dunlop: [looks at the Hanson brothers] Ok guys. Show us what you got.
Whatever he did, it worked. Michigan's offense was entirely different in the second half. Maybe it was effort. Maybe it was emotion. Maybe it was the fact Michigan had to throw the ball vertically. But things were different out of the locker room.
The most notable difference was Stephen Threet. After his first half performance I was fairly certain we'd see Nick Sheridan in the game. In hindsight there's no way in hell Sheridan would've been put in, but it's difficult to describe the level of despair that settled in following his first half performance. But there he was. And he looked pretty good.
His passes were where they were supposed to be. His deep balls were Henne-esque (and I mean that when I say it), and he managed the game within himself rather than trying to win it with every throw. A couple of quick sideline passes to Mathews and Brown and Threet had finally found his rhythm. And then, after a bulldozer performance by Kevin Grady on 4&1 picked up five, Threet lofted the perfect 20 yard pass to a streaking Kevin Koger over two linebackers right down the middle on his third read. It was an incredible thing to watch, really. Even from the other side of the field I could see his head turn from read to read, finally settling on Koger. It may be hyperbole to say you saw a quarterback grow up before your eyes, but that may be what we saw.
Then the defense stepped up again, forcing two punts in quick succession and giving the offense the opportunity to make something happen. They did. If there's one thing the Michigan coaching staff isn't calling enough of, it's the deep pass. Threet has an amazing ability to put the ball into a bucket 40 yards downfield. On the same series he launched to moon scrapers that found the hands of his receivers 30 plus yards away only to have one dropped on a circus catch and the other batted away by excellent coverage. Even though they fell incomplete, they left Wisconsin just enough time to do something stupid, like nail Threet two seconds after his throw and pick up a personal foul for roughing the passer. After that, it was Threet making things happen, even when things went wrong. A couple of drops and a third and long later, Threet scrambled for a first down on an obviously broken play. It was his show now.
The next two plays were all Threet. On a quick read he found Minor to his right on a short pass that went for 11. And then, obviously arguing with the play calling, Threet gave the sideline the bird (though it had to be a signal or something, but it sure looked like the ole' eff you), caught Wisconsin in an obvious blitz, checked off to a run, and Brandon Minor did the rest, sprinting 36 yards to paydirt right before my eyes.
Minor's run was beautiful to watch. Sitting in the corner of the endzone has tremendous advantages. For one, it gives you and excellent vantage point to observe the whole field, including the holds, gaps and lateral issues you can't really see on TV or at a direct or perpendicular view. Second, when Minor blew threw the gap in the line and broke right for the endzone, he was running right at us. Legs churning, eyes darting for the safety he knew he could beat, showing us why we got so excited about him as a freshman/sophomore, and why we expect so much from him today. When he crossed the goal line, highsteping away from a diving safety, all of a sudden it was real. Michigan could run this spread thing we'd heard so much about. Michigan could win this game. Some how, some way, despite the half from hell, Michigan was the better team and they were playing like they spotted Wisconsin 19 points just to make it fair.
A play later this suspicion was confirmed. For some reason offensive coordinators feel like it's a good idea to keep challenging Donovan Warren. I haven't figured out why. Even on a three step drop, when Warren is in tight coverage throwing at him is simply asking for trouble. Seemingly oblivious to this, on Wisconsin's first play after the Minor touchdown, Evridge took the snap at UW 20, took three steps back and fired a bullet to his left. It was a good pass. Really. It sure looked it. the only problem was Warren read the play and got the the ball and the reciever at the same time, deflecting the ball skyward and eventually into the happy hands of Johnny Thompson.
All of a sudden, there was Thompson, surrounded by a sea of blue jerseys running right at the same spot Brandon Minor had recently christened as comeback corner. In front of him was the entire Michigan defensive line, looking for someone to block and/or inflict pain on. It was like the whole thing was in slow motion. As Thompson dodged the first defender, Taylor lined up an offensive lineman and drove him halfway to Philadelphia. Behind this wall of Thompson rumbled into the front right corner of the endzone, setting off jubilation in the stands.
Good lord, we're winning.
The next possession for Wisconsin ended nearly as quickly. Three short plays and a punt to the Michigan 23. Everyone was thinking the same thing. We're up a point 20-19. We're running the ball.
A year ago this would've meant Hart running into a line stacked with Badgers three times before punting the ball away. Maybe after the first half when Michigan showed no ability to disguise its runs or any ability to move the ball in an unconventional way, Wisconsin thought they'd figured things out. That's when Threet showed us he's more than capable of making the other team pay for underestimating him and his offense. On the first play following the punt, Rodriguez sent in Minor, seemingly signifying that Michigan was going to run the ball down Wisconsin's throat and chew up the clock. You could see the linebackers key on Minor as Threet went into his cadence and lock onto him as he darted to the right following the snap, taking a quick step toward and away from Threet behind a wall of blockers.
Only Minor didn't have the ball.
Reading the over aggressiveness of the defense, faking the hand off to Minor, Threet tucked the ball under his right arm and darted through the open gap vacated by the linebackers and weakside DE. This type of manuever you expect to gain 10 or 15 yards with a guy like Threet in the ball game. But just like with the passing game, Threet showed everyone he's got a lot more in his system than measureables. With a quick first step, Threet seemed to be at full speed by his second stride, he blasted through the linebacker contain before the LB even completed his dive at Threet's feet, and simply outran the Wisconsin safety for a 58 yard gain before he was finally hauled down by a cornerback. Describing the visual of a 6'6" quarterback, whose pre-season mobility was likened to office furniture, outrun Wisconsin's hyped linebackers and safeties is as difficult as it was remarkable. Threet may not be Pat White, but goddammit he is one competitive sonofabitch who is full of surprises.
Five plays later Sam McGuffie, who'd been kept in check all game, rumbled into the endzone behind increasingly impressive roadgrader Mark Moundros. All of a sudden it's 27-19 and everyone, coaches, players, fans, and more importantly, Wisconsin, knew Michigan was a legitimate football team. 27 unanswered points will do that to you.
Then it was time for the refs to try to screw Michigan out of a victory and for the Defense to say to Hell with it and win it anyway. Despite the referees awarding a first down on a juggled, trapped first down catch and finding Wisconsin on 6 yard line, Brandon Graham and his buddies stiffened and knocked the holy hell out of Evridge forcing a fumble that Taylor recovered.
To Wisconsin's credit, they forced a punt, then caught Michigan off guard on several plays, before beating Morgan Trent to pull within 2 points. On the two point conversion somehow Brandon Harrison got matched up on Travis Beckum, and Wisconsin seemingly tied the game with 14 seconds to go. But this time the officials got one right. Bekum lined up improperly, negating his game tying catch. The next play, negative five yards later, saw Michigan in a three man rush and Max Martin beat a double team to smash Evridge just as he released the ball, forcing it high and harmlessly into the stands.
Then, it was over.
A kneel down by Threet followed by a jumping chest bump with Mathews, and Michigan's greatest home comeback was complete.
Everyone in our section stayed. Shaking. Unbelieving but believing at the same time. No one could believe the turnaround. No one could believe that the team we saw during the first period was the same team we saw in the second. But we'd seen it with our own eyes. We'd seen the comeback. We'd seen a young team mature in 30 minutes and dominate the 9th or 8th ranked team in the country. Hell, we'd seen them post 27 points in 18 minutes.
From a todler to a full grown team in 30 minutes. That doesn't happen, does it? We'll know for sure next week when Illinois comes calling. But for a day, we saw a team grow up before our eyes and pull off the greatest comeback in Michigan Stadium history.
All photos courtesy the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, Wolverine Photo, the Associated Press and Mike Desimone, who put all these together.