Beating App State on Saturday means about as much for the future of the program as losing did in 2007.
(A couple years ago when I was still plugging away on my old Blogspot blog, I wrote an article that focused on Michigan's loss to App State and how it changed the way I looked at Michigan games. Since tomorrow's game is going to happen, I figured now is as good a time as any to reprint it almost in its entirety. I've added a new bit to the end. Enjoy.)
I clearly remember the beginning of the 2007 season. I was in my final semester at UM, and was staying in my temporarily vacant apartment on the kindness of my landlord who allowed me to crash on an air mattress until I found somewhere else to live. I had no access to TV or internet, most of my friends had graduated and moved out in the last month, and the only bright spot I had staring down this final semester was one more round of season tickets.
Being without internet in my empty apartment, I wandered down to the Michigan Union the Saturday of the first game. I knew of a few iMacs tucked away in an alcove on the 4th floor because I worked in an office around the corner (obligatory SORC shout out). I went up there mostly to pass time, but also to see what nuggets of information ESPN might have for me. I read about the team, and about the game, but I wasn't really interested.
The game was largely an afterthought. "Appalachian who?" I smugly thought. Teams from Div. I-AA are just warm ups. I had seen enough early season cupcake games in my last four years of in the student section to feel I knew the script. UM scores a couple early touchdowns the old Big House two touchdown advantage coaches used to talk about and the game is in the bag by halftime.
Nobody writes off I-AA teams anymore, at least nobody but Houston Nutt. Some of these small programs have built themselves into powerhouses of the FCS division on great coaching, schemes, and players who fall through the cracks at the highest levels but can be very productive in the right system. Then the big dogs from the FBS come calling for an easy win with a big paycheck in hand. Four I-AA teams beat I-A teams last week. The week before Jacksonville St. beat Ole Miss with two of the most exciting final plays I have ever seen, a 4th and 15 pass to the back of the end zone for a touchdown, then a miraculous scramble and shovel pass for the go ahead 2-pt conversion in the second overtime. So much for easy wins.
I spoke with a friend of mine who is a VA Tech alum late Saturday (after the JMU upset of Virginia Tech) and I could sympathize. I knew exactly how me felt. It wasn't supposed to happen like that. After Boise State had crushed the dreams of a MNC for Tech fans, JMU single handedly crushed the season.
In my life I have never left a Michigan football game when it was in doubt. I have walked out in the waining minutes of the 4th quarter with teams thoroughly buried, but never before then. Certainly not at halftime. Yet there I was, trudging through the sea of cars parked outside Crisler Arena, heading back to my apartment to listen to the game on the radio as the first half ended and UM was down 28-17. I wasn't mad at the team, I was mad at those around me. I have never been a big fan of the obnoxious Greek crowd who rolls in near the end of the 1st quarter and leaves sometime before the end of the 3rd, talking about anything but the football game for the entire duration of their stay. Or the obnoxious fans who spend the entire game yelling obscenities at Chad Henne, refs, and anyone else they can find a flimsy excuse to pin blame on. I couldn't take it. I wanted to be alone.
Even as I walked out I never questioned Michigan's ability to win the game. I was sure that they would storm out at halftime and regain the lead en route to a ten point victory and a massive sigh of relief from 110,000 people. So I laid down on my air mattress in an empty second floor apartment across the street from Schembechler Hall. I left the doors and windows open so I could enjoy the weather and hear the sounds of the game. Michigan marched back slowly, just like I thought they would. When App St. scored to go up by two I was worried, but was quickly comforted when Manningham reeled in a 46 yard pass. Everything would be ok.
Because of the delay on the radio I already knew the game was lost before the announcement. The sounds of the crowd carried over the parking lots and trees long before the radio belted out, "it's blocked." I didn't feel angry or sad really. I mostly felt like I had been on the losing end of a cheesy Disney sports movie storyline. And I hated it.
I-AA games don't matter. Until they do.
(Flash forward to the present day)
When I wrote this column it was 2010 and Michigan was just about to take on UMass in a game that ended up being way too close for comfort. Of course we didn't know at the time how bad that season would end. Michigan had just beaten Notre Dame in another instant classic and the offense had come together. Things were just about to fall apart completely. Damn, naivete felt nice in hindsight.
Now its 2014 and Michigan is largely in the same place. A once great college football power struggling to keep its balance as the world changes around it. But the promise is there. This team has talent, and while questions abound up front on the offensive line, it feels like this is the now or never moment that Michigan could actually capitalize on.
I hate that Dave Brandon scheduled this game because it just serves to remind me of these bad memories. Not just that day in September 2007 when it seemed like Michigan ceased being "Michigan", but everything that actually happened to cause Michigan to no longer be "Michigan". App State didn't cause Michigan's football program to get lost in the woods for the better part of the last decade, but its the scapegoat. That moment in time that we can all point to forlornly, wishing that one or two things could have gone differently, saving us from the past we've recently lived through..
In truth Michigan's hard years were already well on the way. The roster wasn't in great shape after a few years of lackluster recruiting and some pretty big busts, and Michigan's athletic department was woefully unprepared to replace Lloyd Carr despite it being obvious that his time was drawing to a close. This football program made its own bed, and we've all been sleeping in it ever since — no doubt tossing and turning the entire time.
Tomorrow's game should run smoothly for the Maize and Blue, and Dave Brandon will feel vindication if Michigan walks off the field after easily conquering a team thanks to a do-over that could only be drawn up in an intro marketing class.
Beating App State has the same effect on the program as losing in 2007 did: none whatsoever.
If Michigan is going to be Michigan again, its going to take a lot more than payback tomorrow. We just have to get through tomorrow's game first.
And maybe in another seven years we can look back and point to this game — wrongly — as the moment it all turned around again.