Then and Now: Some Thoughts Before Entering the Heart of Darkness

Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Michigan has been here before, albeit under slightly different circumstances: how will things come to pass this time around?

The last time Michigan was as hyped (rightly or wrongly) as it was this preseason, it was 2007, Lloyd Carr's swan song. Like 2007, Michigan has gotten off to a 2-2 start, although Michigan's fourth game that season was a league victory against Anthony Morelli and Penn State, whereas the Wolverines have yet to delve into the Big Ten schedule this year.

There's no need to rehash that fateful September, back when I was just a naive little freshman with dreams of avenging the final bitter salvos of the 2006 season. We all know what happened, and I only mention it all to make the tenuous connection that this team and that team both started 2-2 with senior quarterbacks and a not insignificant amount of preseason esprit de corps squandered. Like you, I hear "2007" and immediately think of that and that. It's instantaneous, not unlike the tidal wave of adrenaline that shoots through your body when you realize that something is about to fall off of your desk like a Medieval caravel careening off of the edge of the flat earth and into an abyss of Nothing.

Now, 2012 is not 2007. Denard Robinson is not Chad Henne, Taylor Lewan is not Jake Long, Fitzgerald Toussaint is not Mike Hart. This is fact, not a relativistic judgment. That and that are not Alabama and Notre Dame. Of course, it goes without saying--but I'll say it again anyway--that the Big Ten is fairly terrible. The Big Ten wasn't exactly a juggernaut in 2007, when Michigan rattled off that eight game winning streak, predominantly against conference foes...but it was still much, much better than this iteration of the conference.

And yet, despite these differences, it is natural to look back, to make connections, to attempt to rationalize a solid thesis from a bunch of paper clips, cynicism, and fevered extrapolation.

The 2007 team rattled off eight straight wins after the cataclysmic pair of losses that ushered that season in. This included grit-astic affairs against Penn State, Northwestern, Illinois, and Michigan State, games in which Mike Hart and Chad Henne usually weren't playing at full speed; in Henne's case, I'm convinced to this day that his right shoulder was held together by nothing more than some unseen altruistic magic (also, modern medicine maybe, which is basically magic anyway).

The point is, they bounced back. Yes, the thing collapsed in on itself in the end, with Hart not playing at all against Wisconsin and Henne leaving the game after five passes; the final one hit the turf harmlessly, making it painfully obvious that no amount of magic of unironic grit could keep that shoulder in place. The next week against Ohio State, my first experience with The Game as an undergrad, was one of the most hopeless 14-3 losses that I have ever seen (Michigan or otherwise). There was no hope to cling to after Michigan's opening drive, and the weather, in the 30s and drizzling lightly, was a passive-aggressive reminder of the fact. It was like watching a fighter with a bum leg enter the ring with a guy two weight classes higher than him. After the initial shot of adrenaline subsides, it's just you and him and that bum leg, floundering.

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If we're continuing this mostly fruitless analogy, then this upcoming Purdue game is to Team 133 what the 2007 Northwestern game was to Team 128. That Northwestern game was ugly, to say the least. Michigan was forced to deploy a freshman Ryan Mallet for parts of the game due to Henne's injury issues. This went just about as you would expect.

Of course, Henne eventually emerged from the phone booth, revealing the S on his chest that existed beneath the layers of unadulterated pain and the knowledge, the existential angst, that this task he was doing was a thankless one. Although none of those guys would ever say it, you knew that an internal dialogue of what could've been was constantly firing in each of those seniors' heads.

A week after carrying the ball 44 times against Penn State while nursing a case of strep throat, Hart carried it 30 times for 106 yards against Northwestern, good for only 3.5 yards per carry. Similarly, Henne's passing line will likely never be remembered amongst the many virtuoso performances of his career. He was efficient, however, going 18/27 for 198 yards and three touchdowns, a week after sitting out the Notre Dame game. He sat in the press box, a large brace on his knee, his leg propped up, his face a cocktail of longing and stoicism.

For Chad Henne, that game was like your Dad taking you to Chuck E. Cheese's after you had complained about it throughout the entirety of the noon game on a fall Saturday. He didn't want to do it, he didn't like doing it, and he knew that he wouldn't enjoy it, not to mention the fact that, once executed, this favor would be lost to whirling sands of time in an instant. No one would remember this deed, and the child would complain the next week, forgetting what had been given the week before.

2007: Michigan 28 Northwestern 16 (via WolverineHistorian)

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This time, Michigan once again has a senior quarterback, a cloud-filled sky raining angst, and a Big Ten road game in its fifth game against a potentially tricky opponent. Michigan pulled off an ugly, 2007 Northwestern-esque victory in West Lafayette two years ago (a game that I was at), the last victory of the Rich Rodriguez era*. Michigan is going to need something like that again this week.

Michigan is only a 3-point favorite, and I can't quite reason my way out of thinking that that is probably accurate (which, if you're keeping score, is not a good thing). Michigan is not yet at a point where a game against a Purdue team like this is a slam dunk...obviously. Also, it should be mentioned that Purdue, while probably not great, does have some top notch talent at spots, particularly on the interior of the defensive line and at corner, as well as some decent talent at the offensive skill positions other than quarterback. I should probably mention that Purdue's starting corners, Josh Johnson and Ricardo Allen, kind of have a nose for the ball. Purdue is tied for 7th with a pack of teams in interceptions with 8 thus far. Yes, schedule caveats apply, as Purdue has played Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, and Marshall other than Notre Dame so far.

Still, combine the pocket-busting pressure that Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston will afford, plus Denard's predilection for off-the-back-foot passing in the face of that pressure, and it's hard not to feel a bit nervous about this game, especially with guys like Allen and Johnson looming back there to make a play on any errant passes (of which there will be a few).

I'm not trying to say that Michigan's 2007 win in Evanston propelled it to its extended winning streak, because I'm pretty sure an avalanche of CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION comments would begin to fall down on my head if I did. At the same time, as Saturday approaches, I keep feeling as if this is Michigan's watershed moment, for better or worse, kind of like that 2007 NU game was (in retrospect).

It's easy to say that X is the biggest game since Y when you're in the moment, but this Purdue game is the most important game Michigan will have played against the Boilermakers since the 2004 game (another game that I am thankful to have been at...SHAZOR!). Every Big Ten team that's having a decent season gets up for Michigan when the Wolverines come to town, and I expect nothing less this Saturday.

While we would all love for Michigan to come out and handily defeat this Purdue team, a team that also gave Notre Dame a game in South Bend, that is most likely not in the cards. However, like the 2007 Northwestern game, the order of the day will be thus: just win, baby.

If history teaches us anything--and sometimes it does do just that--it's that even the strangest, off-key tune can become an increasingly resonant masterpiece with time. If Michigan wins on Saturday, it likely won't be pretty, and in the aftermath of this outcome, just look back. You don't have to search too far in the distance for that faraway star, shooting piercing rays of déjà vu that will never ever reach you but that you know exist nonetheless.

*Not related to anything, really, but it's still weird to think that that team was 7-3 at one point.
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