I'VE HAD JUST ABOUT ENOUGH OF YOU SONNY
Update 7/11: Removed PA QB Pat Devlin, who committed to Miami. Linked to Steve Brown article. Added CA CB Devin Ross, removed OH WR Robby Parris, who committed to ND.
Editorial Opinion: Devlin's commitment to Miami means that Michigan is edging closer to a quarterback class with just Cone in it. Tebow is the last guy out there that has mutual interest with Michigan. I mean no offense to Cone, but that makes me nervous.
Parris to ND is disappointing but not surprising in retrospect. With Stovall and McKnight gone after this year and nothing but the Amazing Two Star Willingham Parade lined up to replace them, immediate playing time stares Parris in the face at ND. At Michigan he would probably have to eat at least two WRs to play much in his first two years. I would have been very happy with his commitment--I know this is against the rules since Parris is white, but he looked like a 6'4" Jason Avant in his film. I think he'll be excellent for the Irish. Michigan will be fine without him, but now future games against ND may end 821-14 instead of 821-7.
The Jake Long hype train is a little slow getting started with unobservant pundits giving eminently "meh" LT Adam Stenavich mucho props, but The Great Blue North Draft Report is on the ball with a somewhat scary mention of Long as one of their "players to watch" for next year's draft:
The biggest and best of the underclassmen who could impact the 2006 draft is Michigan redsirt sophomore Jake Long, a massive 6-7, 338-pound RT prospect. Given the talent at the position this year, Long probably would be wise to wait until 2007 at least to leave school, although as a redshirt sophomore he is eligible to enter this year's draft. Whenever he does opt to turn pro, though, Long who has the pure physical potential to work his way into the very top of the OT rankings. Long is a dominating drive blocker who simply engulfs opposing DEs; and while not necessarily the most agile OT out there, Long has long arms and decent feet that allow him to lock onto even the quickest outside pass rushers.
mgoblog thinks it would be wise to wait until 2008, Mr. Long. I'm just saying.
(HT: Ufer's Spirit on Winged Helmet)
Wisconsin recruit and soon-to-be former Jack Johnson teammate Jack Skille was interviewed recently and had very complimentary things to say about Skatin' Godzilla:
"When I'm on the bench it's amazing to see him go out there and just crush guys," he marveled. "He's just a man among boys out there - it's scary. I'm going to have a rough time playing against him next year, but it's going to be fun. He's great. His stick-handling skills; he fakes one way and goes the other; the spin move; those are all the little things he does that are just amazing. They're things I probably wouldn't be able to do and it's just fun to watch."
Anticipation... level... rising mustcontrolenthusiasm SPOCK.
(HT: Michigan Hockey Net)
Those bastards at ESPN Classic are showing some games that Michigan (you know, the all time leader in win percentage) actually won. In August, but set your TIVOs now:
- 1989 Rose Bowl: August 8th, 1 PM.
- 1993 Rose Bowl: August 11, 1 PM.
- 1998 Rose Bowl: August 15, 1 PM.
(Read the rules and regulations if you're confused.)
If you were looking for a brief summary of the last thirty years of Spartan football, 2004 was your lucky year. It had everything you could want: a loss to Rutgers, heartbreak at the hands of Michigan, two totally unexpected crushings of quality opponents (51-17 over Minnesota and 49-14 over Wisconsin), and a final collapse that prevented Michigan State from going to a bowl game--one that involved giving up 37 points to one of the worst offenses in the nation and a late-game implosion against Hawaii. It had just the right mix of burgeoning hope with soul-mangling incompetence, the right mix of surprising success with surprising failure, the right mix of Duffy Daughterty with Bobby Williams. Michigan State's porridge is never too hot, never too cold, always just mediocre. On a micro level MSU is completely unpredictable week-to-week. On a macro level it's always Same Old Spartans.
So MOTS from the SOS this year? Probably. John L. Smith's offense transitioned to the Big Ten with a bang, finishing tenth in the country in both rushing yards and total offense despite missing Crazy Legs Drew Stanton for portions of seven games. When Michigan State had Stanton they had you dead to rights. When they didn't, it was roadkill time.
The vast, huge, enormous problem is the defense. It gave up seventeen points to Michigan in six minutes. It gave up thirty-seven points to Penn State. Converted running back Jaren Hayes is the team's best corner. The defensive line is thin and fat at the same time. There are hardly enough linebackers for a two-deep. There are few defenses in the Big Ten this side of Illinois that look as flimsy.
Still, I have a simple system by which I rate Big Ten players: how much do I fear this particular person? Stanton is #1 on my list this year. That's got to count for something.
Unit By Unit
Rating: 4. Whenever Drew Stanton takes off down the field next year, he'll be scaring the crap out of everyone. Opponents will worry that Stanton will chew their defense to shreds. Spartans will worry that Stanton won't get up after the play is over. Last year's backups are gone, either to graduation (Damon Dowdell) or DUI (Stephen Reaves), and the remaining quarterbacks--redshirt freshman Brian Hoyer and 'greenshirt' freshman Dominic Natale--got absolutely ripped by Tourette's-stricken coach John L. Smith after spring practices.
The injury angle on Stanton is a little overblown, but last year he was in and out of the lineup because of three separate injuries, not one nagging one. That has to be alarming to Spartan fans, especially because Stanton is going to take a lot more hits than quarterbacks that stick to throwing. In all Stanton missed portions of seven games. If Stanton remains healthy, however, Spartan opponents will have their hands full. He is an unparalleled dual threat and the best quarterback in the Big Ten. What? Henne Tate you crazy!
Seriously. Stanton's arm isn't far off the two quarterbacks generally considered to be head and shoulders above the Big Ten pack. He completed almost 64% of his passes last year. His yards per attempt and passer efficiency don't stand up to Henne and Tate's numbers, but how much of that is on Michigan State's inconsistent and big-play-deficient wide receiving corps? mgoblog thinks most of it. Tate and Henne had Hinkel, Solomon, Edwards, and Avant at their disposal. Stanton had a ragtag bunch (more on them later) of trash-talkin', pass-droppin', bomb-makin' fools.
What Stanton gives you that Tate and Henne don't is crazy goddamn legs. Stanton rushed for 687 yards last year, averaging 7.2(!) yards per carry. His mobility was also a major reason that Michigan State yielded only four sacks all year. Stanton's ability to throw on the run makes his rollouts a deadly weapon. Linebackers tasked with defending him are often caught in no man's land; by the time they make a decision it's the wrong one. Stanton will rush for 1,000 yards this year and pass for 2,500... (you know the drill) if healthy.
How can I give this unit a four, then? No depth. MSU was terrible without Stanton last year save for a few long Cobb runs in the Michigan game and they'll be worse this year should Stanton go down, which is a pick-'em.
Rating: 4. It doesn't feel right giving this group a four but it's impossible to argue with the numbers. Michigan State finished tenth in the country in rushing yards and that wasn't all because of their quarterbacks. Michigan State had three running backs finish with better than 4.5 yards a carry: Jason Teague had 4.6, Jehuu Caulcrick 5.5, and departed senior Deandra Cobb 7.6(!).
The Spartans will miss Cobb, who had the ability to go "meep meep" and severely confound the plans of Wile E. Coyote defenses around the conference. If not for Braylon Edwards and the greatest comeback in Michigan history, Cobb's ability to hit lightspeed would have led the Spartans to a precious victory over Michigan last year. Neither Jason Teague nor Jehuu Caulcrick has that game-breaking ability. In fact, mgoblog wouldn't be entirely surprised to see Caulcrick shift to linebacker (a position he briefly played last fall) if the two incoming recruits are ready to play immediately.
Those two incoming recruits are Ohio's Javon Ringer and Missouri's AJ Jimmerson, though there is a possibility that Ringer may not qualify at the moment, which would be a major loss. Ringer tore his ACL midway through his senior year, which caused several major programs, including Ohio State, to back off of him.The Spartans continued to pursue him and were rewarded. Many Ohio high school football watchers considered Ringer to be a major steal for MSU. Jimmerson wasn't quite as highly regarded, but is a pounding back in the Caulcrick style who, should Ringer not qualify, will see immediate playing time.
Wide Recievers & Tight Ends
The Spartans have a slew of wide receivers who have performed well intermittently but don't have a standout that defenses have to focus on. Basketball moonlighter Matt Trannon has the physical tools to be a star at 6'6", 225, but runs sloppy routes and has hands that can be kindly described as inconsistent. Kyle Brown, Terry Love, Aaron Alexander, and Jerramy Scott are all thoroughly all right but none are particularly inspiring. Brown has the most athletic ability but hasn't emerged as a go-to receiver despite not exactly being overshadowed by anyone on the team at the moment. Love specialized in unexpected critical third down catches but is smallish and not particularly elusive. When defenses become more aware of him his effectiveness will plateau.
Agim Shabaj was declared academically ineligible but probably won't be missed partiuclarly much. Redshirt freshman Carl Grimes, who nearly signed with Florida State, can fill Shabaj's role as a slot receiver who can grab screens and pick up yards after the catch on crossing routes. Maybe Grimes will actually, you know, catch the ball before trash talking the opposition. Losing mouthy tight end Eric Knott is addition by subtraction. Projected replacement Kellen Freeman-Davis is an excellent receiver and isn't on the sexual offenders registry.
Altogether this set of receivers has a number of guys who would make effective #2 or #3 wideouts but no one other than Trannon who can really strike fear into a defense, but Trannon has been plagued by mental mistakes his entire career. If the prospect of a major NFL paycheck lights a fire under him he could emerge into a nightmare for opposing defenses but the mistakes and cement hands aren't going to disappear overnigh
t. Everybody else is uninspiring, guys who are decent cogs but not threats. The unit, taken as a whole, is average.
Rating: 4. When you end up tenth in the country in rushing and yield eight sacks all year, the offensive line is doing something right. RT Sean Poole and RG William Whitticker have graduated but the entire left side of the line returns. C Chris Morris is probably the second-best center in the Big Ten behind Greg Eslinger of Minnesota, and both LG Kyle Cook and LT Stefon Wheeler played well last year. Several players are competing for the open jobs on the right side of the line.
The Spartan offensive line doesn't have quite as much pass protection to do as most teams given the frequency of rollouts and the elusiveness of Stanton, but they were extremely effective at engaging blockers and keeping them off the running backs until they crossed the line of scrimmage last year. Morris, Cook, and Wheeler all returning bodes well; that side of the line's effectiveness in the run game should shift defensive attention there and take some of the burden from the new starters.
Rating: 1. The defensive tackles are overweight or unproven. Neither Brandon McKinney or juco transfer Domata Peko had much impact last year, amassing a mere three TFLs between them. You can get away with that kind of production as a defensive tackle if you're part of a defense that is stiff against the run, but Michigan State was certainly not that, yielding 4.5 yards per carry in conference. Only Illinois and Indiana were worse--not the kind of company you want to keep. Behind the two projected starters is very, very little. Sophomore Joe Toth has six tackles, and that's it. JUCO transfer Bobby Jones may have to step in immediately spelling Peko and McKinney.
The defensive ends are slightly deeper but little better on the surface. Clifton Ryan was expected to be the star of the line last year, but a nagging quadriceps injury hampered him all season. Ryan finished with only 2.5 sacks. Redshirt freshman Justin Kershaw, sophomore Nick Smith, and junior Michael Bazemore will battle for the other defensive end spot. Whoever doesn't win the job will at least provide the Spartans with a quality two-deep at defensive end. Watch out for Kershaw.
Rating: 2. Michigan State runs one of those 4-2-5 defenses with one guy who's a sort of a really strong safety with a cool name like "Apache" or "Hawk" or "Bazooka Rambo-man"--in Michigan State's case he's the "Bandit." The bandit position is covered in this section.
This is another area at which Michigan State is horrifically thin. Junior "whip" linebacker David Herron and sophomore middle linebacker Caleb Thornhill are the only players who saw anything more than token duty at linebacker. Freshman Hugh D'Imperio--one of the prizes of last year's recruiting class--was kicked off the team for an off-field incident. Herron is the guy who has to step forward this year. He's a proverbial 'playmaker' and the only one on the entire Spartan defense except (potentially) Clifton Ryan.
The bandit appears to be former safety Eric Smith, who has been racking up tackles and blowing coverages the past few years. He screwed up the angle on Ted Ginn's slant that beat the Spartans, and though mgoblog can't prove it, I am pretty sure that John L. Smith called for Braylon Edwards to be double covered over the top late in last year's Michigan game, because he's not totally insane--no matter how many recruits he slaps. Eric Smith was nowhere to be found, however. Maybe he'll thrive without extensive deep coverage responsibilities, but Smith is awfully slight to be taking on the (increasingly few) Big Ten teams that can break out a thudding ground game.
Thornhill did okay backing up Ronald Stanley as a freshman but isn't particularly athletic. He's the kind of guy who could be the third, unnoticed piece of a good linebacking corps if the other two guys drew a lot of attention--unfortunately that describes his situation in no way whatsoever. He'll rack up a lot of tackles, but too many of them will be six to eight yards downfield.
No one outside of the MSU coaching staff has any idea if the backups will have a clue. The only one with a modicum of hype is sophomore 'bandit' SirDarean Adams, who came to MSU with much athleticism but hasn't translated it to the field just yet. Any injury in this position group will be a major worry, and even without any the Spartan's can't expect much in the way of big plays from this group. If the don't screw up and occasionally make a play in the backfield, that would be a huge win.
Rating: 1. I don't see how this position group can be anything other than a total disaster; Jaren Hayes looks to be Michigan State's #1 corner next year. Michigan State fans can't be happy about that. No one in the secondary cracks six feet tall since Smith was moved to bandit. FS Greg Cooper was toasted regularly last year and senior Ashton Watson, the starter at corner opposite Hayes, has hardly played despite having only converted running backs and toastmaster Roderick Maples in front of him. Sophomore SS Cole Cooper has almost zero experience.
Anyone covering anything would be great here, at least until freshman Kendall Davis gets acclimated. Davis is fast, rather large, and athletic, which means he beats everyone currently starting on all three counts. If he has a clue he'll be seeing extensive time immediately and maybe even starting halfway through the year. This position group needs help from a heavy pass rush. Without it, expect a repeat of last year's poke-eyes-out-with-stick performance.
Rating: 2. Without Cobb and Shabaj MSU doesn't appear to have anyone who can serve as a threat returning kicks. If Ringer makes it to campus he is reputed to have the speed to be dangerous, but there is a lot more to returning kicks than just being really fast. Unless you're Ted Ginn. And you probably aren't. No one currently in the wide receiver corps or the defensive backfield has shown an ability to duplicate Cobb's numbers. Michigan State will likely take a step back here.
Punter Brandon Fields has a monster leg but is inconsistent and has a tendency to hit returnable line drives. If he could just kick 45-yard fair catches (something well within his leg's, er, reach) he would easily be the conference's best punter and a Ray Guy finalist. As it is, he will occasionally be brilliant and occasionally shank one out of bounds after 15 yards or set someone like Ginn up for a touchdown.
Michigan State will break in a new kicker this year after Dave Rayner's departure. It is official mgoblog policy to not wildly speculate on the fortunes of kickers who have never seen the field, because I am just not (quite) that arrogant.
State's nonconference schedule features a terrible Kent State team, a Timmah Chang-less Hawaii squad (in East Lansing) and Notre Dame. That should be 2-0 and then... the ND matchup, which is critical to MSU's season. It's a swing game that looks like a shootout. Notre Dame's shallow defensive backfield will be extensively tested and should be beaten repeatedly, but the same can be said for Michigan State.
In the Big Ten the Spartans miss Wisconsin and Iowa. Missing Iowa is extremely fortunate as Drew Tate and the Hawkeye linebacking corps are terrible matchups for the Spartans and that would have been a very tough game to come out of with a win. Wisconsin, eh, not so much, but you never
really want to face a team you utterly humiliated the very next year. Things generally don't go as swimmingly.
Michigan comes to East Lansing fresh off a ridiculous win last year in a game that promises to be a bloody affair. Many Michigan fans immediately wrote off that game after the Wolverines' fortunate escape last year; Michigan never plays well in East Lansing and is incapable of stopping mobile quarterbacks. But with defensive line coach Steve Stripling defecting from the Spartans to the Wolverines, Michigan will have a very good idea what goes into the Spartan offense, and without Cobb that counter draw won't be as effective.
Keys to the Season
For God's Sake Keep Stanton Healthy. John L. Smith has crafted a devastating ground game around the multitalented junior but no one on the roster behind him has taken a competitive snap and Smith specifically lambasted Stanton's backups after Spring practice. The dropoff from Stanton to one of his backups would be vast and terrible, especially because neither Brian Hoyer nor Dominic Natale seems to be much of a run threat, and Michigan State's offense depended heavily upon the threat of Stanton or backup Damon Dowdell taking off from the multitude of rollouts and bootlegs the Spartans run.
Beat Michigan. State fans have to be hopeful after taking Michigan to the brink last year. Describing Michigan's escape as "miraculous" doesn't do it justice. Now they have Michigan at home with Stanton poised like a dagger ready to enter the Wolverine hearts at their weakest point: running quarterbacks. A loss in East Lansing would put John L. Smith at 0-3 heading into Ann Arbor next year with the hangman's noose at the ready.
Banzai blitz. A pass rush is absolutely required. The defensive backfield is going to be a disaster; sitting back and playing conservatively will eat up time on the clock and merely extend the time the defense is on the field. A passive MSU will be playing a bend-and-then-break defense. The right way to play in MSU's situation is to freak out and blitz from everywhere constantly. Big plays will be given up, but MSU has to trust that the offense can get it back. Blitzing will at least put the opposing offenses in some distress.
Worst case: Stanton goes down, and none of the backup quarterbacks is much of a running threat, forcing JLS to scrap large portions of his offensive game plan. The defense plays exactly like it's expected to. Michigan State implodes impressively, finishing 4-7 and driving the RCMB to the
brink of suicide basketball season.
Best case: Stanton stays healthy. Someone, anyone, emerges as a reliable midrange receiver and Trannon puts brain together with 6'6" 230 to become the second coming of (ugh) Plaxico Burress and starts ripping jump balls down like he's Braylon Edwards. The defense... well, it doesn't do so bad stopping the run. And Ryan lives up to expectations, covering the defensive backfield a little. The defense still cracks a few times at inopportune moments, but it's good enough for 8-3 and a bowl that doesn't say "Motor City" anywhere in it.
mgoblog says... You predict whether a quarterback with an injury history who runs around constantly will stay healthy, and I'll tell you how Michigan State's offense does. If he manages to remain upright the entire season, MSU will have a decent to good year. A healthy Stanton will be neck and neck with Drew Tate and Chad Henne for the title of Best Quarterback in the Big Ten, and he will have a slew of targets to throw to this year. One or two of them will emerge into threats. The running game got Jason Teague, who mgoblog secretly considers to be severely average, 4.6 yards per carry--its scheme and execution are impressive to behold as long as the threat of old Crazy Legs is there. As long as he is (and the bet here is that he make it through the season mostly okay), Michigan State's offense will be a nasty problem.
The defense will be another story. Ryan and Kershaw may provide some pass rush but the defensive tackles are shallow and unimpressive, the linebackers are mediocre, and the secondary is foul. Michigan State will have to win shootouts against teams with decent offenses. They'll end up slightly better than last year, finishing 7-4 and 4-4 in the Big Ten, looking to nuke the hell out of some poor sap bowl opponent who won't know what the Stanton is coming.
I suppose it's inevitable with a list like the most memorable sports moments of your life there is going to be a slapping of the head and a "dammit, I can't believe I forgot that" afterwards. And I've got a doozy that demands attention, plus some comments on objections lodged in what turned into a great comment thread.
This stuff is all based on my memories and recollections, so some things that are omitted are due to ignorance, like the famous victory over North Dakota in 1998, which everyone tells me was no-contest louder than the Denver game. In 1998 I knew nothing of college hockey and thus missed that particular game, something for which I am forever regretful. Please stop telling me about it, as the fact that I missed it brings me pain. The first Michigan hockey game I would ever watch would be the semifinal against New Hampshire the next week. I am too young for Wangler to Carter.
The overtime Penn State game was indeed a great game but didn't contain one signature moment (unless you are a paranoid PSU fan, in which case the debatable Bryant Johnson incompletion qualifies). Maybe Marlin Jackson ripping a sure touchdown away from Johnson, but I don't think it's top ten material.
The Minnesota comeback certainly did have a signature moment, when John Navarre (of all people) thundered his way into the endzone flanked by about 1500 pounds of offensive line manbeef in the slowest 57-yard touchdown run of all time. A friend immediately called me to exclaim "did you just see that?" So that's a pretty good one. But it didn't dramatically shift the fortunes of Michigan. At that point it was just faint hope. Anyway. Three additions that cannot be denied, to follow.
Not one person thought that Brabbs would make it. There were approximately 110,001 people watching Michigan play Washington, and not one person thought Brabbs would make it. Except maybe his mother. His dad may have told his mother "he'll make it," but if so that was a courteous lie.
At least it wasn't a 59-yarder. It was a slightly more plausible 44-yarder that Brabbs would obviously miss after Rick Neuheisel had sent 12 men out to defend 11 on the second-to-last play of the game--after a timeout. And at least there was an attempt at all after a questionable fourth-down conversion that was sort-of-caught and then fumbled and then recovered. All for naught, though, because after a comedy of errors throughout the day, there was no way that he would make it.
There was a snap. There was a kick that was not blocked. My eyes pivoted towards the fans in the north endzone, the approximate place where the kick would land after going wide by eight to twelve feet. They looked strangely happy. I looked down at the referees perched under the goalposts. They raised their arms in the air; I was confused; Brabbs ended his Michigan career as the anti-Hayden Epstein--he made no field goals except the one that really, really mattered.
6 (tie) Hello, Heisman #2
Can't reasonably distinguish this from Desmond, now can I?
2.5 Go on, Keano
I spent the summer of 2002 in verdant Galway, Ireland. The plan was to go there, find a menial job of some sort, and have a good time. Unfortunately, when I applied for said menial jobs they said "Do you have any experience?" and I said "At picking things up and putting them down? Do you need experience for that?" and that was that. The working holiday transformed itself into a doing nothing at all holiday. This was quite pleasing to me but annoyed my mother greatly.
My idleness allowed me to watch just about every game of that year's World Cup, including the titanic day when both the USA and Ireland were in action against world heavyweights Portugal and Germany, respectively. I settled in to the couch, torn over whether I should make the approximately 20 minute trek into town to drink by myself and watch soccer at nine in the morning. I decided against it, partially because I anticipated that the day's results would be depressing. Both the USA and Ireland were heavy underdogs. Each team was missing midfielders thought to be critical to the entire enterprise. The USA was absent both Claudio Reyna and Chris Armas to injury while Ireland was without the services of talismanic midfielder Roy Keane after he had a decidedly un-Irish spat with manager Mick McCarthy (<-- MOST IRISH NAME EVER). Portugal had one of those guys who just go by one name, Figo. Germany had the brutally effective goaltending of Oliver Kahn, a name that US soccer fans would come to know far too well in a couple weeks. Prospects for joyous carousing seemed dim. Prospects for swearing sufficiently to end up deported seemed high. Home was best.
Three minutes in to the USA-Portugal game, however, American striker Brian McBride (everything you ever need to know about McBride: US soccer fans call him simply "McHead") got on the end of a corner kick and fired a blistering header at the Portugese goal, which was blocked. The rebound fell serendipitously to midfielder John O'Brien, who, as the lovely Irish announcers said, made no mistake. The USA was ahead a mere three minutes in. In the 28th minute a deflected Landon Donovan cross would make it 2-0. In the 36th minute McHead would score on a gorgeous diving header. Even though Portugal clawed one back before halftime, home had entirely lost its appeal. I force-marched myself into downtown Galway and a pub that was getting packed in anticipation of the Ireland-Germany match. I arrived just in time to see US defender score a beautiful goal... into his own net. The US held on to win 3-2, though, and my plan was half complete.
The Ireland game did not start as swimmingly. Miroslav Klose (<-- not Irish) scored in the 18th minute; afterwards the Germans sat back and played cynically, hardly advancing out of their half of the field and suffocating Irish attacks, content to kill 70 minutes of gametime. The Germans played so to stereotype that I began to formulate a new theory of soccer: teams reflect their national character. Thus the ruthless efficiency of the Germans. Thus the magical skill of Brazilian soccer--they play the game like it is Carnivale. Thus the thuggish undertone of teams like Ecuador, teams composed of players who grew up with a knife in their back pocket.
Ireland's situation grew increasingly desperate. They needed a draw to avert the possibility of Cameroon and Germany knowing that a lifeless nil-nil draw would advance both teams. Such a match would certainly play out if Ireland lost here, leaving the boys in green with almost no hope of advancement. A draw would almost guarantee advancement, as anything except a rather high-scoring tie in the Cameroon-Germany game would put Ireland through to the second round as long as the Irish took care of group minnows Saudi Arabia, who had lost to Germany 8-0. All they needed was a tiny sliver of light.
Germany was not forthcoming with that sliver. Time and again Ireland would pressure, and Oliver Kahn would bail them out. Damien Duff--a soccer version of Mike Hart, slippery, somewhat magical, incredibly short--would advance and cross. Someone would get a shot on. Kahn would snuff the chance out, sometimes incredibly. Ireland began making the flailing offensive substitutions a trailing team makes in a soccer game, hopeful moves that seldom amount to anything. Niall Quinn, a creaky 34-year-old target forward in his last international tournament, came in. (The role of the 'target forward' is to play McHead, basically. They get on the end of crosses to fire headers at goal or knock down balls booted from far upfield to their shifty waterbug cousins, something that is called a 'flick on' in the wonderfully expressive language of soccer.)
Ireland's substitutions availed to nothing, though. Deep into the second
half, two minutes into the three minutes of stoppage time, Ireland was dead in the water. Any moment the referee's whistle would blow and Ireland's World Cup would be functionally over. Some anonymous defender lofted one last desperate long ball to the top of the 18-yard box.
Quinn rose up, holding off his defender. His head met the ball. A flick on.
Suddenly Robbie Keane was in space, the ball was heading right for him, and Kahn was rushing out. Someone in the pub cried out "Go on, Keano!" The Germans had cracked the door the slightest of inches and somehow Quinn had put the ball in the only place that he could and Keane had made the only run that he could, chested the ball down, and there it was: the titanic Kahn oncoming, the ball dropping softly to the turf, and Keane lashing out at it. Keane had no time to direct the ball; he just had to get rid of it lest Kahn come right on him and gather the ball up. Ball met foot, and then ball met goalie. That bastard Kahn had gotten a piece of it! The shot glanced off of his hand, deflecting slightly, turning our hope into a cruel mockery of same.
Then, joyously, impossibly, the shot hit the crossbar, rolled along the top of the net for a tantalizing fraction of a second, and nestled safely home. The pub--and, I am quite sure, the nation--exploded. I hugged a confused looking Indian man and several Irish lads of the tough-lip, short-haired persuasion. A second roar went up when the final whistle blew mere seconds after the restart. Ireland had escaped.
After the game, I wandered out into downtown Galway. Seemingly everyone had decided to screw work and sit outside, drinking and laughing on the banks of the Corrib. I did so, sitting by the river, watching the waves roll by, and thinking that the beautiful game was beautiful indeed.