Saturday, September 08, 2007

Old News

With Lou Holtz getting me all fired up for Week 2, I hate to use my front-mounted eyes to look backward, but refusing to trust highlights to tell the whole story, I wanted to know for myself how Appalachian State pulled off their historic victory in the largest of all gridiron cathedrals. Thanks to the magic of DVR and a 2-hour syncopated replay on the once-and-again-named SportSouth channel Thursday night, I can honestly say it was indeed a sincere triumph on the part of David, not a choke on the part of Goliath. Lengthy recap after the fold.

Michigan takes the opening kickoff and drives it quickly to the endzone. Running back Mike Hart impressively hammering 46 of the 66-yard march, including the profitable last 4.

Appalachian State answers back even quicker. Quarterback Armanti Edwards hits the sure-handed Dexter Jackson in stride as he boldly slashed across the middle, turning it up and leaving all Wolverine defenders in the dust on his way to a 68-yard touchdown.

The teams then trade 3-down possessions. When Michigan would go for the longball, quarterback Chad Henne would leave it short, allowing Mountaineer defenders to close the separation that wideout Mario Manningham had created. The undersized Mountaineer front seven attack the ball with shark-like frenzy, pressuring Henne to trash passes before he can even attempt to go through his reads. Nevertheless, Michigan methodically moves the ball on their third possession, scoring their second TD with 3:16 left in the first quarter.

App State counters with pinpoint precision in downfield blocking and backs blazing to the point of attack. Receiver Hans Batichon scampers in with Edwards’ pass from 9 yards out, tying it with 13:35 left in the second quarter.

The Mountaineer defense continues the intensity, forcing 3 and out, and allowing their offense to start the next drive 13 yards into Michigan territory. They capitalize with another inside slash pattern, Jackson taking it in untouched for his second score. 21-14 ’Neers with 9:47 in the half.

On the ensuing drive, App State takes over on downs after Michigan fails to convert 4th and 5 from the Mountaineer 35. It was correct for Michigan head coach Lloyd Carr to go for it there, but incorrect to try for a long pass instead of giving it to Hart behind the All-American left side of the line in order to move the chains.

The ’Neers respond by ripping off blistering gainers straight up the center of the field. Edwards takes it himself the last 6 yards, diving through danger and across the goal line to go up 28-14, 2:15 before halftime.

Michigan follows with a solid drive, moving it 66 yards with relatively short passes, but App State stands firm in the red zone, forcing Michigan to settle for a field goal on 4th down from the 5 yard line. 28-17 in favor of the overachieving underdogs at the intermission.

Mountaineers get the ball first in the third quarter, but on the second play from scrimmage, Michigan defensive back Morgan Trent intercepts, giving the Wolverines a short field of 40 yards. Hart is conspicuously absent from the action, and a couple of Henne bullets slip through fingers. Jason Gingell’s second field goal of the day cuts the lead to 8.

App State moves it well on the next drive, adeptly reacting to Michigan blitz packages. Freshman receiver Brian Quick drops a certain touchdown pass right in his gut, and Mountaineer kicker Julian Rauch boots the lead back to 11. 31-20 App State, about midway through the 3rd quarter.

Hart still out, on the next drive, running back Brandon Minor coughs up the football. App State recovers in Michigan territory, but they cannot move the chains. Rauch plunks a 46-yard attempt off the right upright.

Now Michigan is unable to convert on 3rd down. Four plays after Michigan’s punt, Edwards fumbles, giving Michigan just 31 yards to paydirt. The Maize and Blue pick up a first down at the 15. Hart returns to the game, bowling straight into the endzone on the last of three consecutive carries. Down 5 with 24 seconds left in the third, Carr opts to go for 2. Henne bobbles the snap, picks it up moving forward, but the App State defense slams him short at the 1.

The Mountaineers sputter on the ensuing drive and leg a punt that ends up netting all of 8 yards after a facemask tacks 15 onto the end of an already solid Michigan return. App State sends the D back out with the ball at their own 34. After back to back Hart rushes of 7 yards each, it looks like Michigan would at long last take back the lead, but App State DB Leonard Love picks off an ill-advised Henne pass at the 15, taking it back 26 yards to the 41. There is 12:23 left in the game.

After three plays yield no yardage for the Mountaineers, Michigan fair-catches a punt, back at their 24 yard line. The Wolverines are able to reverse field position, but they fail again passing on 4th down, this time at the App State 33.

The Michigan defense shows some fire on the ensuing series, sacking Edwards on both 2nd and 3rd down.

The first play after the punt, Hart singlehandedly evades the entire App State secondary on an electrifying, otherworldly 54-yard touchdown run, bursting through tackles, reversing his field, stopping and starting, breaking ankles all the way to a 1-point lead. Understandably winded, Hart sits out the failed 2-point try, in which Minor stumbles to the ground after receiving the handoff. 32-31 Michigan, 4:31 to go.

Mountaineer dreams continue to fade as Michigan intercepts on the very next play from scrimmage.

The Wolverines drive to the App State 25, but a penalty for delay of game forces 3rd and 10 from the 30. A quick tackle after a short Henne pass sets up a 43-yard field goal attempt from the right hashmark. Perhaps motivated by the memory of his dropped touchdown earlier, Mountaineer freshman Brian Quick leaps skyward behind the line. At the absolute peak of the perfectly timed jump, Quick’s hand deflects the Gingell kick, and the ball rolls to a stop in the endzone for a touchback. The Michigan lead remains at the slimmest of margins, 32-31 with 1:37 left in the game.

On the next play, Edwards keeps for 18 yards. Two plays later, he finds T.J. Courman for 20 yards. Then Batichon for 6 yards. Then Jackson for 5. The ball on the Michigan 29, Edwards scrambles left, throws across his body, finding CoCo Hillary surging into the air and reaching behind his body to snatch the ball out of the air. Hillary then turns upfield and sprints for a 24-yard gain, setting up 1st and goal from the 5. Despite 30 seconds left on the clock, Appalachian State Head Coach Jerry Moore opts to kick on 1st down. The angle is tight from the left hash, but Rauch’s kick is true, and the scrappy Mountaineers retake the lead 34-32.

A new rule for this year has pushed kickoffs back to the 30 yard line, likely to provide better field position for the receiving team. Sure enough, Michigan returns the kick to the 34 yard line. 21 seconds left. 66 yards from the endzone. Henne’s first pass is incomplete. 15 seconds left. Possibly remembering previous underthrown attempts to Manningham, Henne puts as much air as possible under this one. Mountaineer defender Justin Woazeah is step for step with Manningham as the ball turns back toward earth. Each player has his hand on the other. At the last second, a burst of speed hurtles Manningham under the ball, and he catches it cleanly at the App State 20. A yellow flag comes out. The call could have gone either way. The referee says, “Pass interference on the defense.” The spectacular 46-yard pass stands.

Clock is stopped at 0:06 to move the chains. Michigan probably should have sent the FG team to the field while the refs discussed the penalty. They don't. Instead, Michigan calls timeout, potentially icing their own kicker. When the ball finally is snapped, App State’s Corey Lynch tears through the line, arms outstretched, slamming the ball backward immediately after it came off Gingell’s foot. Lynch picks it up himself, unnecessarily racing some 50 yards with it before being tackled after time expired. The faces of a hundred thousand eyewitnesses lose all expression, the collective karmic energy instantly drained from Ann Arbor in order to counterbalance the unprecedented celebration exploding on a Blue Ridge hilltop.

This game was no fluke. The speedy, confident, and determined Mountaineers executed beautifully, and many of the breaks actually went against them. Michigan won the turnover battle 3-2. The two blocked FGs certainly involved some luck on top of the outstanding effort, but it’s not unprecedented. Didn’t Florida have to win in similar fashion against South Carolina, who eventually finished 8-5, last year on their way to the National Title? App State had one of their FGs blocked, too, even if it was by the goalpost.

And Michigan didn’t play all that poorly. With the way App State was executing plays, it is doubtful any defense at any level of college football could have stopped them. Henne’s play wasn’t great, but Hart looked amazing, finishing with 188 yards and 3 touchdowns, and that was with limited play during much of the middle part of the game. It’s unclear why.

Carr is understandably under fire, but this was much more a great win than a horrible loss. I really don’t agree that Michigan wasn’t prepared. The only questions I have about Carr’s performance are why Hart sat so long, and why pass on the two fourth down attempts. I don’t think any of these questions really affected the outcome. One Carr decision that may have affected the outcome was going for 2 before the 4th quarter. Had they kicked the extra point there, they'd have been down 4, and could have kicked an XP after Hart's long touchdown to be up by 3. Instead, they try and fail their second 2-point attempt, and the 'Neers could win instead of just tie with a FG.

Had the last Michigan FG not been blocked, a real question would be why App State kicked on 1st down with 30 seconds to go. Sure you could fumble if you tried to get in the endzone or you could fumble the snap trying the FG, but if you put toe to leather and miss, you don’t get a second chance (or third chance or fourth chance), unless it’s blocked backward before it crosses the line of scrimmage and your team recovers, not that I know that rule for any particular reason. The downside of kicking early, especially with the new kickoff rule, damn near bit Coach Moore square in the booty meat.

What this game came down to was Appalachian State’s players simply playing their asses off. Speed, effort, and execution overcame whatever strength and size advantages Michigan may have had. It was a total team effort, epitomized by the last scoring drive with four straight completions to four different receivers. It was a fabulous game to watch, even knowing the eventual outcome. Congratulations to the boys from Boone. Now get out there and win your third title in a row!