Sunday, October 01, 2006

Saturday was the first time Michigan would be playing in Minnesota since I moved to Minnesota, and needless to say, I was excited to finally get to see Michigan in action again. By the end of the the Michigan State-Illinois game, I couldn't wait any longer, so my girlfriend and I headed up to Minneapolis, nattily attired in our new MGoBlog shirts. I had a yellow New Math shirt, while she had a blue I heart Hart shirt.

We ran into some heavy traffic on 494 because construction had closed one of the left lanes, backing up traffic for a couple miles. I realize signs indicating this construction weren't placed back for enough, but it amazes me how many people see three lanes of gridlock traffic and an open fourth lane and think "I'll just be smarter than everyone else and go in the empty lane." There needs to be some sort of an instant death penalty for motorists who make it all the way to the merge point during highway construction without getting into the right lane.

We got off the highway and went for an alternate route. We ended up driving through downtown Edina and my car felt shamefully out of place. I swear the exhaust on one guy's car actually shot out $5 bills.

After working our way through the detour, we finally arrived on campus. The Minnesota website is crap in terms of telling people where to park, since it's an off-campus stadium. The lot I had originally planned to park at was closed because two hours earlier, it had undergone the ceremonial ground-breaking for the new on-campus football stadium. I found a different lot with one side labeled for Gophers, and the other labeled for Wolverines. The lot was pretty much empty, though it was still about 2 and a half hours before game time. The sign in front said event parking $9, but the gates were up, so we didn't have to pay.

Next issue was finding a shuttle bus. We were sort of on the outskirts of campus, so it was basically a ghosttown. After waiting about 15 minutes and not having a bus come by, we decided to head more towards campus. After walking about one block towards campus, we found some shuttle officials who told us we were at the right place for a shuttle stop. An empty bus picked us up and we were the only two to get on. The next stop was closer to campus, and we picked enough to fill up the rest of our bus. It was mostly students, except for one older guy who sat behind us and was wearing way too much cologne. We tried to keep a low-profile, and we weren't hassled too much for cheering for the other guys.

We got to the Metrodome and I was not impressed at all with the Gameday atmosphere. We saw some Michigan fans tailgating, which was nice, and I guess there were some Minnesota fans tailgating in another parking lot(and they have a different tailgating area further away that they shuttle people in from), but overall, it didn't really have that gameday feel to it.

I picked up our tickets and waited in line to get into the stadium. They didn't open the doors until an hour before gametime, rather than the usual 90 minutes because they were still busy converting the stadium from baseball to football. Plus, they had to hang all those banners around the stadium to let people know who was boss in the Big Ten back in the 1920's and 30's.

They finally let us into the stadium at 6, and I convinced an usher to let us into the lower bowl for warm-ups. I saw Morgan Trent out there and he had a cast on his hand. He was able to go through the warm-up without shoulder pads just fine. His cast looked pretty big, but he had no trouble catching the balls that were thrown to him. Who knows what that means for the future, but I really hope he comes back. He wasn't out with the first or second team defense later in the warm-up and obviously didn't play. He was definitely missed though.

After that, we went to our seats. We were in the upperdeck endzone, right between the uprights, in literally the last row of the upperdeck. Other than the long haul to get to the seats, they were actually great seats for watching the game. Sometimes it was a bit of a strain to see numbers on jerseys, but you really get a great feel for how plays develop. I wouldn't mind sitting there again.

The main Michigan section was about three or four sections over to our right, and there was a smaller group of Michigan fans(including someone with a sign that said 86=1 on one side, and I heart Hart on the other) a section to our left, so we weren't totally surrounded. Our section was mostly Minnnesota fans, but they were all pretty tame. I ended up sitting next to a high school football coach and his young kid. They were both really knowledgable about the game, and most of their observations were pretty well spot on so they were enjoyable to sit next to. My girlfriend was next to an older couple who didn't seem like they really followed the Gophers. The old guy next to her was confused by my shirt and asked her why 86 equaled 1. She explained, though I still dont' think he got it. Anyway, after that, any time Mario did something, he felt he had to point it out to us that Mario was the one who made the play, like we wouldn't have noticed.

I was surprised at what a late-arriving crowd it was. The lower bowl didn't really fill up until late in the first quarter. But the lower bowl did fill up and the upperdeck endzones were full. The tops of the uppderdeck sidelines were about half full. The reported attendance was 50,000 or so, which is believable. I wouldn't call the stadium noisy, since I don't think people were making that much noise, but because of the roof, it sounded a lot louder. Before the Gophers come out of the tunnel, they absolutely blare this rock song over the PA system that I think was just slightly shorter than Stairway than Heaven. Michigan came out of the same tunnel as Minnesota, which I guess they don't nomally do, but since the White Sox had there stuff in the baseball dugout, that was sealed up.

I haven't been to a Michigan football game since the 2003 season opener against Central Michigan, which wasn't really much of a game. Before that, my last game was the Phil Brabbs game against Washington, which was great, but a distant memory. It felt amazing to be back at a game. There's a certain undefinable energy you feel when you're at a game that you can't get through a TV set. There's nothing better than getting that excited/nervous feeling in my stomach before a game. I haven't played competitive sports in a few years, and that feeling is as close as you can get to actually playing a sport.

And now for the actual game itself...

Our opening drive really set the tone for the entire game. Michigan opened up with 6 straight zone running plays to the left, all away from Steve Davis. Michigan was dominating Minnesota at the line of scrimmage and Mike Hart had plenty of nice holes to choose from. Michigan's first passing play came on third down when Chad Henne hit Steve Breaston on the sideline. I'm not sure if the tape will show it, but if Henne threw a better pass there where Breaston could catch it instead of having to drag his feet to stay in bounds, he probably scores because there was no coverage within 15-20 yards of him. Michigan did cap off the drive though with a nice pass to Adrian Arrington. Again, he was absolutely wide open.

The next offensive drive, Henne had Mario wide open for an easy touchdown by laid it out just a little too far. I think it's obvious though that that play is there any time we need it. Minnesota was getting dominated at the line and had to risk leaving our receivers in single coverage to help with the run. Zoltan had a beautiful punt on that drive, which was really the only one all day he had to put his full leg into. Though really, he kicked it 54 yards, but Michigan gave up a 12 yard return, so a 42 yarder with no return would have been just as effective.

That was the story pretty much the whole day on offense. We could pass whenever we wanted to, but Hart was running the ball so well that we didn't really need to. The 28 points doesn't look impressive, but we could have scored as many points as we wanted to. Michigan just wanted to make the game as short as possible and keep their offense off the field.

In regards to Kevin Grady, watching him from above, he doesn't seem to have that same instinct that Mike Hart does. It seems like Hart hits the optimal hole every time when we run those zone running plays, whereas Grady only seems to hit the optimal hole about half the time. I'm not exactly a football expert, so maybe I'm wrong about what the optimal hole is, and maybe Hart is just a freak in terms of picking the right spot, but Grady is definitely way behind Hart. Grady also had the fumble, which nobody likes seeing. It was one of those helmet on ball things that I don't know think you can do much to prevent. Breaston made a nice play to recover the ball, but as Astute Guy next to me pointed out, Breaston also missed his block which allowed Grady to get popped.

Rueben Riley deserves some credit for how he played against Steve Davis. Davis still made some plays, and there was that one holding penalty, but Davis was pretty quiet while the game was in doubt.

Michigan has kind of brought the waggle, but I dont' like it as much. Instead of having the TE line up on the left side of the line and come across the field, they have Massey line up on the right side of the line and Henne dumps it off to him. That play just seems so much easier to defend, and doesn't have the big play potential that the old waggle did.

Our defense didn't look as dominating as they have this season, or at least it wasn't as obvious. The real beauty of the defensive performance was Michigan was able to get Minesota to go away from what they wanted to do. Minnesota's offense is predicated on running the ball, and then working in the deep pass. Michigan did a great job of stopping the run, and Minnesota was afraid to go for the deep ball because they wanted to neutralize Michigan's pass rush.

On the surface, it didn't look like Michigan had a great pass rush, but they were only rushing four most of the game, and they were still getting at least a little pressure. Alan Branch in particular destroyed Cupito a couple times after he released the ball. If they had tried to go down the field more, there would have been a lot of sacks.

I don't recall too many blitzes, but like I said, Michigan really didn't need to. There were a couple times they did come with the blitz and Minnesota dumped it off to a receiver coming across the middle for a nice gain. You could tell Minnesota was expecting a lot of blitzing and it was a great adjustment by the coaches to counter that.

The other big thing that really helped our defense was just bad Minnesota's passing game was. For the first three quarters, it seemed like every pass was either poorly thrown, or on target and the receiver just dropped the ball.

Stewart was the goat on defense, and for good reason. Minnesota definitely tried to pick on him all day. I can't fault him for the first TD though. He had good coverage that was just a perfect throw and a nice catch. The second TD on the other hand was just ugly. When Payne caught the ball I said "Keep him in bounds". I assumed the "but still tackle him part" was implied but i guess not. Morgan Trent's hand can't heal soon enough though.

Special teams was ok. Zoltan had the one beautiful punt, and two pooch kicks that were excellent. The ball we (almost) downed on the one was on the other side of the field, so I couldn't see it, but it seemed like he put it in the right place. The other one was inside the 10 yard line. I don't think we've had a punter be that accurate in a while. He was certainly better than Minnesota's punter who was just terrible. The highlight was his 21 yarder in the fourth quarter. I suppose that's one way to neutralize Breaston. I have no idea what was up with Ross Ryan's one kickoff. I guess he just shanked it. Rivas didn't inspire much confidence. Maybe it's harder to kick at the Metrodome, because Minnesota's kicker was comically bad in warm-ups as well.

I was amazed at how much the stadium emptied out before the game had ended. People started filing out when it was 21-7 in the fourth quarter, and our fourth touchdown sent another, bigger wave. I guess I can understand some of it because it was a night game, and anybody not from the Twin Cities metro area has an hour and a half to hour drive to get to any other city in the state, but the student section also really cleared out. By the time Minnesota scored their second touchdown, the stadium was probably less than half full and there were only a couple hundred students left. After they got the onside kick and were driving, I joked that maybe they should start letting people back into the stadium.

I was a little worried about something weird happening at the end of the game, but it was nice to see the defense come up with that stop, and then Hart had that huge third down run on the following drive to ice the game. Overall, Michigan's win was much more functional than fashionable. They could have thrown the ball around and lit things up on the scoreboard, and they could have tried to keep Minnesota out of the endzone late, but at the end of the night, Michigan did what they had to do to grind out a win on the road. As long as they keep winning games, it's not gonna matter how they do it.

It was interesting to see the team get the Jug back. They just sort of sauntered over there, got the Jug, raised it in the air once, and then walked off the field. I doubt the Jug will be focal point of our school's exhibit at the State Fair like it was this past year. It seemed like the perfect metaphor for the game though. Get the win, get the hell out of there, and then it's on to bigger and better things.

Leaving the stadium was just bizarre. As we filed out to the upperdeck concourse, we saw nothing but Michigan fans. It was just weird to see that many Michigan fans and not a single Minnesota fan. I was a little worried about having to take the campus shuttle home with a bunch of drunken Gopher students, but luckily, we saw pretty much all of their students on the first wave of buses, since they left the game early, and we were able to hop onto the bus with about 4 students, and a bunch of old people who looked like they had to be woken up at the end of the game.

It was a great experience. The MGoBlog shirts were mostly met with confusion, especially the 86=1 shirt, but it was fun wearing them. One Michigan fan we saw outside the Dome was impressed that I had a Mario Manningham shirt. It was great to get to see Michigan play live again, and it was great to see them get the win.


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