Two nights ago, my fiancé and I — like several of you reading this — decided to host a Big Ten Championship party. For high-stress games, I typically like to watch with a limited few, if any, but this was expected to be less stressful than watching The Wolf of Wall Street with your conservative father-in-law.
The 2023 Big Ten West race was one to remember for all the wrong reasons. It was comparable to watching drunk college students race downhill in shopping carts with the one crashing last being deemed the “winner.” Despite some stiff offensive wheels, Iowa’s cart proved to be the best and the Hawkeyes earned the right to be pummeled (again) by the Michigan Wolverines in Indianapolis.
We prepared two crockpots full of chili, a football-themed charcuterie board was provided by one of our 12 guests, and the bar was restocked and fit to serve a frat house. “How’s your job?” questions were exchanged as everyone ate and drank their fill, and a simple drinking game helped along any stragglers during the game. The party was intended to serve as an enhancer for the viewing experience, but quickly turned into a much-needed distraction from a clunker of a game.
Defensively, Michigan put on a clinic against an overmatched Iowa offense. It was like watching the high school varsity scrimmage with deaf middle schoolers. But offensively, something was off with the Wolverines. Granted, Iowa has an elite defense, but Michigan was making mistakes that were not opponent-influenced.
The offensive line was disconnected and slow, quarterback J.J. McCarthy was indecisive, sure-handed tight end Colston Loveland dropped one of the easiest passes he will ever see in his career, and fullback Max Bredeson — the most consistent player on this team — had a critical missed block that could have sprung a huge play, just to name a few.
The doomsayers were out in droves immediately. “If we play like this in the playoff we are going to get smoked!” Yes, Captain Obvious, and the same was true when you fired off an identical tweet after the Maryland game warning of misfortune against the Buckeyes. But unlike the Maryland performance, there is even less room for projecting from this lackluster 26-point victory.
Seven days ago I wrote that Michigan’s win over Ohio State was the most important win in the history of the program. The win was an act of vindication and proved Michigan’s recent historical run of success had less to do with grainy iPhone footage and more to do with the players on the field. OF COURSE, a win with that level of emotional gravity is going to have some lingering side effects.
Michigan played hungover against Iowa, not from alcohol or any substance, but from success. The Wolverines hit a high last weekend that very few will ever understand and a drop-off in motivation and drive should have been expected. Team 144 validated 37 wins by beating Ohio State for the third consecutive season (something that hadn’t been done since 1995-1997, and something no player on this roster had ever witnessed —sixth-year senior Michael Barrett was born in 1999), and punched a ticket to Indy.
Awaiting them as the final obstacle between a third straight Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff berth was this Iowa team, whose offense had become a punchline during the season. This team wasn’t focused on beating the Hawkeyes, Michigan just didn't want to lose and knew a soft 35 percent effort offensively could get the job done by four scores.
I am not making excuses for this team, but simply adding some humanistic context because, at the end of the night, Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti was still presenting Michigan with the conference championship trophy after a win that was never in doubt.
Back at our party, we had fired up the Michigan hits on the aux — Mr. Brightside, Pump It Up — and popped some champagne to celebrate the Wolverines’ victory. The event lasted longer than expected and concluded with a raucous 3 a.m. GameCube battle between couples.
I understood I had a dinner planned with my soon-to-be in-laws on Sunday evening, but I didn’t care. Michigan had just won three straight Big Ten Championships. No one reading this needs a reminder, but the Wolverines did not win a single outright conference championship for 18 years from 2003-2021.
However, on Sunday morning/afternoon there were some lingering side effects from the late-night celebration. Hangovers post-30 feel like a death sentence, and yesterday’s felt like a slow long walk to the electric chair. My head throbbed and my stomach felt lost at sea. There was no reprieve through ibuprofen, Gatorade or my typical cures, and before too long, we headed to dinner.
I wasn’t the life of the party, but I knew a 35 percent effort with the occasional self-deprecating joke and witty comment would keep me in their good graces. If I was like this all the time the family might have concerns, but the occasional hangover survival performance builds character for the long term.
Michigan — like me — will look back on its performance and be proud. Not proud of its execution, but proud of the way it found victory on a bad day. The difference between good and great teams is how they perform on bad days, and on their “bad day,” the Wolverines won by 26 and pitched a shutout.
Who’s got it better than us?