Best: Who’s Next? You’re Next!
Professional wrestling has always been, at its core, a bit of a show and a bit of a sham, a way to scam the “marks” under the pretext of “legitimate” fighting. It’s always had a certain carnival taste to it, this roving band of actors and actresses who put on a show 300 nights a year, replaying storylines and character tropes before moving on to the next town under the cover of night. The stories are a bit evergreen, or at the very least easily recyclable; like the movies of Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow, the story resets when the lights go out. The suspension of disbelief required to be a fan has this baked into it, and so that’s why the companies could cycle through the same territories at will, bringing in a couple of new characters to liven up the product but generally relying on the stalwarts. And in the event one of those new performers popped, then you better believe they would be pushed to the moon in order to raise the returns at the gate and the concession stands.
Back during the Attitude/Monday Night Wars Era of professional wrestling (or colloquially referred to as the time it was somewhat socially acceptable to chop your crotch and suggest others partake in it), you had perhaps the greatest collection of performers who had some level of mainstream visibility. People point to the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling boom of the 80s, Bruno Sammartino making a name in the Northeast and owning the Garden ever night, or the NWA putting up huge shows in the South during the territory days as other times wrestling controlled the zeitgeist, but people forget that in the late 90’s and early 00’s, you had the internet, you had cable, you had video games, you had other avenues to draw your attention. And yet, for a couple of years, professional wrestling was able to elbow drop its way into the conversation.
In the WWF/E, you had Stone Cold Steve Austin, a “good hand” who had toiled in smaller promotions and half-cocked WCW stables (I’m admittedly a huge fan of both the Hollywood Blondes and the Dangerous Alliance, but neither set the world on fire) for half a century before he cut an iconic promo in Extreme Championship Wrestling that led to another iconic promo and a decade of being one of the biggest draws in professional wrestling history, which culminated (to me, at least) being able to pick games on College Gameday after doing this:
Around the same time, WCW was trying to create a viable opponent to combat the New World Order, which had started off as a teaming of Scarface rip-off Scott Hall and noted male exotic dancer Kevin Nash as The Outsiders, (probably) reached its apex when aggrieved plaintiff Hulk Hogan turned heel in what was legitimately a shocking moment, and was the catalyst for “exposing the business” to the masses. So they looked over at the competition, saw a bald, plainly-dressed former football player dominating the airwaves and figured, and took a page from the playbook.
What emerged was Bill Goldberg, a former All-SEC LB at UGa with prodigious strength and palpable intensity. We talk about Jim Harbaugh tackling the day with enthusiasm unknown to mankind, well, I imagine if it was in the budget he’d walk to his office like Goldberg every morning.
Beyond the obvious physical attributes, Goldberg’s career was highlighted by a much-publicized undefeated streak. The official number is 173 victories in a row, which I’m sure is a number that annoys Nick Saban and once Alabama falls short of it again will lead to a couple more kids being sent to the ol’ St. Saban Medical Campus. But anyway, what made this streak so impressive was how the difficulty was ramped up. Early on, it was just Goldberg beating huge, moonsaulting Riddler cosplayers and Saturday Night Fever homages, but that loses its luster quickly. So then it was whole collections of wrestlers, most famously Raven and his Flock, which wound up being streamrolled. And along the way, Goldberg just demolished guys, no-selling their offense and displaying ever-more-violent means of dispatching them. Then it was time to take on the head of the NWO, Hulk Hogan, and wrest away the top prize from the cabal he was destined to combat, and he did so with authority.
He proceeded to take on all comers, including the “largest athlete in the world” and stalwarts of WCW/NWA history like noted UM fan Ric “Nature Boy” Flair and Sting. And yeah, at some point you run out of viable opponents, and people get bored of the guy at the top when the chase is what excited them, and you wind up getting “tasered” and pinned by said male stripper.
But Michigan isn’t there yet; they are firmly on the rise, in the dominating performances over (seemingly) sacrificial lambs, in letting no injustice, no blemish go unpunished.
The fancy stats will tell you Michigan has played about as well as expected, like a championship team should. They’ll say UM has a better-than 93% chance of going 11-1 or 12-0, which is dangerously approaching football singularity.
The less fancy stats will note that UM is outscoring their opponents buy a total of 341 to 70, that they’ve outrushed teams 1800 to 672 yards, 28 TDs to 2. That on third down, opponents are converting only 13% of their attempts, and hell that number is goosed by conversions late in blowouts. But pointing these out almost seem superfluous as a means to validate what you see with your eyes, much like you didn’t need “the streak” and all the pyrotechnics to remind you that this hulking bull marching to the ring was going to wreck shop.
At some point this run will end, but it doesn’t look like it’ll be in 2016. UM is the best team in this conference and is neck-and-neck with Alabama for best team in the country. They make mortal teams, good teams, seem like chum thrown into the water to attract sharks. That PSU team UM dismantled last month? They just beat the #2 team in the country and UM’s main speedbump on the way to a conference crown, and that followed up a game where Wisconsin look far more capable against a Buckeye defense than they ever did against UM’s death machine. Colorado has a chance at a division crown in the Pac-12, but and they gave UM probably their biggest challenge all year – and lost to UM by 17, 38-7 if you throw out that weird first quarter. This isn’t 2011, a feel-good story helped with a crazy turnover margin and some down rivals. No, this is a swirling ball of death helmed by an evil genius who wonders what would happen if you tried to make 5 guns into 1 gun, and that isn’t going to change any time soon.
Best: Just Another Victim
Keeping with the wrestling theme for a second, you remember how I mentioned wrestling was mostly a cash-grab run by carnival barkers in suits? Well, a byproduct of that was shameless commercialization of anything and everything related to professional wrestling in the early 00’s, including the unholy alliance between wrestler’s theme songs, good old “Nu Metal”, and (I guess) terrible focus-group testing. What resulted was the hilariously-poorly titled “WWF Forceable Entry”, a Gold-selling CD of wrestlers’ entrances remixed by some of your favorite angry white-guy rock that absolutely was blasted out of the boombox in your gym while in HS and college. That’s right, you could hear Drowning Pool scream their way through a cover of Motorhead’s “The Game”, Kid Rock somehow out-trash the already-trashy “Legs” by ZZ Top, and the “original” Rollin’ by Limp Bizkit that was co-opted by the Undertaker during his Biker Taker gimmick era.
And as someone who was absolutely the target demographic for this stuff, I’ll shamefully admit to liking more of this rap-rock than I should have. That’s why when someone points to Radiohead, the Flaming Lips, etc. releasing great works, also remember that this guy who was responsible for this song was not-kidding one of the biggest musical acts in the world.
But anyway, one of the tracks on that CD was a redone entrance for Tazz. Tazz was an odd character in that he was a tough kid from Brooklyn (back when Brooklyn wasn’t synonymous with $1200 strollers and artisanal honey bees) who was built like a brick sh*t house and went by the moniker “the human suplex machine”. He made a name for himself in ECW as a terrifying force of nature, won everything that he could, then made the jump to the WWF where he choked out Olympic Champion Kurt Angle in his first televised match at MSG. The rest of his career never reached those heights and he’s shuffled between promotions since, but probably the lasting image I have of him was Tazz in a dimly-lit room, staring into a shaky handheld camera, snarling his trademark line “Beat me if you can. Survive, if I let you.”
UM allowed Illinois to survive this game moreso than Rutgers, and the score was a bit closer, but make no mistake about it: this was still a profoundly dominating game by UM.
Ace mentioned it in his game recap, but I’m legitimately running out of ways to describe how, well, cruelly-efficient UM has been. UM gave up 4.4x as many yards this week as the last time they played a game (172 to 39), and still put up nearly 400 more yards of total offense than the Illini. They lost their leading rusher (Chris Evans) early in this game to a concussion (which felt like a fine-if-accidentally-dangerous hit to me)…then proceeded to reel off 217 yards on 36 carries for a nice 6.0 ypc by Higdon, Smith, and Isaac. Speight had his best game in what felt like a month, handling some pressure by the Illini (who had 8 TFLs on the day, including 2 sacks) to throw for 253 yards on 23 attempts and 2 TDs, a nice 11 ypa. Even with a couple of drops and a fumble by Chesson, the receivers found openings all day in the Illinois secondary and picked up lots of yards after the catch.
Against a third-string QB running for his life behind a porous line, the defense didn’t face much of a challenge. During the Friday night podcast (yep, I listen to them all), Brian, Ace, and Craig argued over whether or not Malik Turner might catch one or two contested jump balls in this game, and lo-and-behold a prayer by George Jr. was answered for the sole Illinois TD despite solid coverage by Hill. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, lining up under center a number of times to save George from further pain, did break loose for a big 45-yard run (that led to Peppers pulling out his best Jourdan Lewis impression and sprinting across the field to knock him out of bounds), but that was it. Michigan continued to pick apart a competent offensive unit, highlighted by Thomas intercepting a screen pass off the receiver’s helmet. They didn’t record a mountain of TFLs (4) or sacks (1), but that was mostly a by-product of Illinois trying to get the ball out quickly and (rightly) recognizing that asking their 2* walk-on to beat UM in the air was only going to extend the agony.
So they ran the ball a bit, punted a bunch, and let a running clock be their ally as UM scored on their first 4 possessions. And honestly, considering they are still digging out from under this guy, they’d probably take that outcome.
Worst: So Many TFLs
I have to complain about something with the offense, so one thing I did notice was some continued instability blocking against an aggressive defensive line, this time resulting in 8 TFLs and 2 more QB hits. It’s clear that the drop-off from Newsome to JBB is more than some first expected, and so some shuffling is in order. Normally I’d be worried going into a game against MSU with the front line in flux, but (a) Illinois’s defense is predicated (and capable) of racking up tackles in a way MSU’s isn’t, (b) UM has a number of viable-ish options to shore up the line, and (c) it’s still a team that put up nearly 600 yards and didn’t break out too many wrinkles save for a couple of more Pepcat runs, the return of the train formation for their first TD, and a fake punt that would have worked had Gedeon been able to handle the snap. But again, any offense will struggle if guys are in the backfield, and considering how consistent MSU has been over the years at jumping the count, UM can’t give them (and other opponents) an easier time to disrupt the offense.
Best: Speight Worry…Diminished
I said it above, but I thought Speight played really well in this game. He still misses guys at times and can let the ball sail a bit, but he threw some really good balls into tight spaces (he had one throw to Darboh that sailed through about 4 defenders on a rope), escaped pressure effectively, and even showed a willingness to not force a bad throw (witness him pulling down the ball and taking a sack mid-throw in the 2nd quarter). His ceiling is probably still Rudock at the end of last year, but with this defense and running game you can win a title with that, easily.
Plus, both him and Rudock have displayed calmness and confidence in the pocket you don’t always see from college QBs. It’s clear that Harbaugh drills into this QBs that they need to always be looking downfield, even if it means taking a hit, and that they shouldn’t try to do more than the play asks of them. I know that comes across a bit like “game management”, but there’s Trent Dilfer game managers and then there’s “Not being Johnny Manziel”, and while it’s probably exciting to see guys scamper around in the pocket and launch the ball, good players and coaches understand it’s better to stare down 2nd-and-14 than turn the ball over. Speight displays that awareness and continues to mature as a QB, and I think the version of Wilton we saw Saturday can get this team to the playoffs.
Best: An Assembly Line
It’s sort of amazing how far UM’s running game has come in 2 years. Under Hoke, there was always talk about dominating in the trenches and grinding teams under a gashing running attack…and then you got 27-for-27 or a recording –69 yards on 65 carries against MSU and Nebraska in 2013. This year? 326 yards against PSU, almost 5 ypc against Wisconsin, 9 TDs against Rutgers, and another 270 yards and 3 TDs against Illinois, and that’s probably the worst performance of the group. Evans went suddenly and the offense didn’t seem to miss a beat, with Smith grinding down Illinois after first contact while Higdon continued to display the subtle moves and power that portend to even better things in the future. Oh yeah, and he basically weaved across the entire Illini defense for the game’s final score. All four backs are getting the ball and each has had standout performances, and the change of pace clearly adds another element to the offense you might not see if one back garnished the bulk of the carries. MSU will be a challenge simply because they have a competent-ish rush defense and have probably circled this game on their calendar since they lost to Wisconsin, but I don’t see the outcome being demonstrably different.
Best: More Variety Than I Expected
I’m not a huge NFL fan, but I do follow the Lions when I can snag a pirate feed of their game on a site likely operated in the basement of a bath house in Minsk or Sofia, so I remember Lovie Smith as a seemingly nice guy who got to a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman and had the good fortune to have some HOF defenders on his team for long stretches of his career. I thought he was a good hire by Illinois simply because of his name recognition in the state, but he’s definitely going to be the guy who cleans up the mess from the last regime before the next guy comes in to push Illinois forward. But I have to give him credit; I thought their offensive gameplan was far more creative that I expected.
It was probably due in large part to the fact he was down to his last semi-viable QB on the roster, but Illinois broke out some Wildcat, a little option running, some screens and slants, and did their best to move the ball against UM’s defense. And I think that benefitted UM more than people are going to give this game credit, as they had to deal with a good runner keeping the ball out of the backfield and maintaining their assignments on stretch runs. Vaughn’s one big run was largely due to a lineman and LB bumping into each other, and while not a proxy for OSU by any means, it definitely exposed UM to some of the same concerns you’ll have defending the Buckeyes. Obviously Barrett brings more of a passing threat, but unlike Rutgers, which seemingly tried to run their conventional offense in the face of insurmountable odds, Illinois tried to throw some surprises UM’s way defensively, and UM should benefit from them.
Now, UM still dominated this game, don’t get me wrong. The pass defense locked down Illinois save for that one long TD completion, and even that was as much due to Hill not quite timing his jump. Stribling had 2 pass breakups, Illinois had a total of 4 completions all day, and 6 total first downs all day. The rushing game averaged 3.3 ypc, but again that was basically on 43-yard run and not much else. Again, I want to say something other than “UM kicked their ass”, but that’s it.
Best: Oh Man, Hate Week
MSU is bad. Heck, they’re more than bad, they might be the worst team not named Rutgers in the Big 10. They can’t really run the ball, they can’t really pass it either, they can’t cover anyone to save their lives, and all of those years where Dantonio pulled horseshoes out of his ass seem to all be calling in their tabs at the same time. They’ve been blown out of games, they’ve lost on late-game FGs, and they’ve found ways to stub their toes against programs they used to dominate. And they can’t really go with a youth movement because, well, there aren’t a lot of those guys hanging around who could competently perform; the gap between the seniors and the freshmen is rather vast, and isn’t filled with a whole of of competency.
On the one hand, this shouldn’t be a total shocker to people; this was a team that finished 12th in S&P+ for 2015, around the likes of Arkansas and Baylor, not necessarily a playoff team. They won a bunch of close games against Oregon, UM, OSU, Purdue, and Rutgers, and while they did lose on a fluky play to Nebraska this team never felt like world-beaters, and that was with a decent amount of NFL talent. This year, they lack depth at key positions along the line and in the secondary, and it’s submarining what were two strengths of this team in recent years. To his credit, Dantonio has recruited like a top-25 team the past year or two, so in theory better players are on the roster but not ready to see the field, and MSU at their best beat you with age. So this probably isn’t the end of MSU as a top-25 team, barring a total cratering in recruiting and player development.
At the same time, it’s hard to imagine MSU being able to keep pace with UM and OSU in their own division, and PSU, Maryland, and Indiana all have identities, national recognition, and/or dynamite recruiting on their side. And it definitely seems like MSU’s non-traditional (I hate the word “gimmicky”) 4-quarters defense has been figured out a bit, or at least isn’t going to work without a bunch of 1st-rounder corners and all-conference safeties to give it teeth. Narduzzi’s defenses at Pitt have given up an average of 32 points per game this year; they’re winning because they average almost 40 a game offensively. MSU couldn’t necessarily compete against every team on talent, so they figured out a system that highlighted their strengths and hid their weaknesses defensively and rode it to great success. But the opposition always figures you out at some point, and the jury is still out if MSU will/can add more wrinkles and adjustments to keep pace. Right now, early returns say no, and if that’s the case, it’s hard to see the Spartans being better than the 3rd or 4th-best team in this division.
So what does that mean about Saturday? Honestly, you’ll hear people talk about throwing out the record books in rivalry games, but that’s mostly BS. MSU beat UM 7 of the last 8 times because they were typically the better team or, at the very least, close enough that either team could win. But that’s not the case anymore; UM is significantly better than MSU at most facets of the game, and while I’m sure MSU will play with passion and abandon and might even keep it close, it’s hard to see a world where this game looks demonstrably different than the other non-Wisconsin games this year. Their offensive line is a mess, they defensive backfield is turrible, they’ve tried 3 QBs and the most memorable performance thus far was this:
That's MSU football in 2016: slapping the floor as the other team drains a 3 in your face.
So I’ll close this column with the man who started it off, Bill Goldberg, on how UM will treat the Spartans this week.
I have been looking for some cheap-ish or face value tickets for Illinois with not much luck. Stub hubhas been the best as far as price but really only selling in pairs and with fees it comes to $100/ticket which is too much for me (poor grad student).
I'd be driving in from Grand Rapids so i'm nervous about buying at the gate before the game (i'm an ex-band member so i want to see pregame if possible) especially since there's gonna be a lot of alums coming for homecoming. Any advice, even snarky as long as its constructive?
Looking for 5 total tickets. Preferably 3 together
and 2 together (got 2 together)
Stemming from a Domestic Violence arrest that he had. Basketball-wise, it is a pretty substantial loss to them (he averaged about 15.5 points and 5 rebounds last year, torched us for 23). They suspended him immediately after it happened months ago, and waited on the results of the case (he plead guilty to misdemeanor domestic battery) to make a final decision. Illini basketball just got a lot less dangerous.
I haven't seen it on the board yet so here it is:
There was a column in the Chicago Tribune on the game between Michigan and Illinois yesterday. The article really is more about Illinois' failings and failures than about Michigan. But it gave a lot of credit to Michigan and to Beilein. Here are a few snippets (it is paywalled, I believe.)
The Wolverines moved the ball beautifully, the way Beilein teams typically do. While Illinois too often resembled a team in an AAU tournament, Michigan meshed as all five players worked as one.
Unfortunately, it took most of the season, but Beilein really has the team playing well together.
To Groce, the game got away from Illinois during one five-point Michigan possession with 3 minutes, 2 seconds left in the first half, created by freshman Leron Black's loss of composure.
Black made his biggest impact by drawing a technical protesting a foul with the Wolverines leading 29-21. After Michigan guard Spike Albrecht made both free throws, he hit a deep 3-pointer nearly from his hometown of Crown Point, Ind. Illinois never recovered.
"My assistant says, 'That's a hard shot,' and I say, 'No, that's karma,' " Groce said. "Don't get the technical foul. We've got to be more poised than that. They had more energy than we had, which was disappointing."
That speaks to Spike, and to how the team is coached. I don't think I've seen a single Michigan player with that kind of lack of discipline.
Michigan, missing two key players, used an eight-man rotation. But Wolverines coach John Beilein didn't win his eighth straight Big Ten tournament opener because he lacks the ability to adjust.
We all know this, but I consider this year an incredible coaching job by John Beilein.
I'm hoping that one or two potential recruits see what is happening, and choose to commit to Michigan as a result.