Michigan has lost 5 of its last 6, but it has held a 2nd half lead in every game. I think this is both remarkable and telling.
It is not that our players and schemes are not good enough, or even as simple as us lacking consistency (if that was the case we would think we'd sometimes be down 20 at the half and then lose by 7). While our talent has some notable holes and our youth makes us up and down, there is something else going on, perhaps also having to do with youth.
We fade when the momentum swings big quickly. This happened at Penn State; it happened with Michigan State and with Illinois. We came out strong, looked better, gave up some big plays and then slinked away. I don't think that our guys quit or stop playing hard, necessarily, but the discouragement does seem to make them tight. It seems to make them doubt that they were really supposed to win. Minnesota is the standout game, we continued to play well because that huge swing never happened. It looked like it might until the Trent interception, but it never did. We pitched a perfect game. Unfortunately, we may be so fragile right now that that is what it takes.
It would be hard for anyone to like Kirk Herbstreit less than I do, but I think he was right when he predicted that Notre Dame would be defining for this team. That game was a perfect storm of bad luck, bad calls, and bad weather that magnified early mistakes and blunted a valiant response. In that game we did not pack it in even after a rapid three touchdown deficit. We clawed back and made some progress.
But in hindsight the ND game seemed to fatally scar our psyche. When Illinois started landing big-punches on us it was like the bad dreams came back. Long passes, missed tackles; here we go again. And since that Illinois collapse it has become a recurring theme. When we give up the huge plays we wither. This is generally true of college teams, but I have never seen it be more true than with 2008 Michigan. We are too young and unconvinced to weather the discouragement and embarrassment of the big plays. It cues a whole host of already-experienced moments that haunt this team. They keep fighting, but they lose their nerve. We throw to the other team, give up the next big play, etc. It is truly heartbreaking to watch.
But I think this is a reason to be slightly more hopeful regarding the future. This is not a typical 3 win team that is down 1 touchdown after the first quarter, down 17 points at the half, and never really challenges. We're close. Call me crazy, but I think that if the 2008 team had never acquired this wounded psychology it could have won at least 7 games--even with the deficiencies at QB and safety.
We are a team of haunted freshman. But a good start out of the gate next season and we will be watching swaggering sophomores. That is what I am looking to. Not sure what else to ponder...