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27 Sep 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Anatomy of a Road Trip

By Russell Levine

There was a time not so many years ago when I made it to at least three Michigan games a season despite living in New Jersey. I went to home games mostly, but also made road trips to places like Boulder, Seattle, State College, Pasadena, and even Honolulu to catch the Wolverines in action.

These days, as a married father of two, it's all I can do to get away for a single football weekend each season. Not that I'm complaining. One weekend each year to hang out with my buddies, get over-served at the campus bars, and take in a Michigan game is appropriate and sufficient.

The Iowa game looked like the best option on this year's home schedule before early season non-conference losses knocked both teams down in the rankings. But even so, it was the Big 10 opener for both teams and Iowa had beaten Michigan the last two years, so there was plenty on the line.

Taking in a big college football weekend is something every sports fan should experience. I say "weekend" for a reason -- there's so much more to these trips than just the three hours in the stadium on Saturday. There's an energy and an excitement in a college town the night before a big game that is tough to match. Fans and alumni of both schools roam the streets, decked out in school colors, hitting campus hot spots and reliving their glory years.

Now as I said, I'm a father of two young children and, as such, am severely out of practice when it comes to consumption. So for me, the key to these weekends is pacing. Overdo things on Friday night, and you're bound to be in for a long Saturday afternoon. Of course, that's the plan going in, but as the old boxing expression goes "everyone has a plan until they get hit." The road trip adaptation of that is "everyone has a plan until the beer starts flowing." Next thing you know, it's two in the morning and you're debating whether or not to order pizza.

The last stop of Friday evening for our group was Ann Arbor's Brown Jug restaurant/bar. I'm not sure whether it predates the trophy of the same name that Michigan and Minnesota play for every year, but I can guess that the beer stuck to the floor is at least as old. In other words, it's a dive bar, but one with a classic college-town atmosphere. For years, every square inch of wall space was covered with haphazardly arranged photographs of people, places, sports teams, and the like associated with Michigan. As a senior in college it was one of my biggest goals to leave Ann Arbor with my picture on one of those walls.

Well it took more than a year after graduation, but persistence paid off as my 1994 Intramural champion teammates and I were hung in a place of honor on the Jug's walls, right next to a picture of former President Gerald Ford back when he played football at Michigan. For years, every trip to Ann Arbor has included a stop at the Jug to make sure the picture was still there. It had survived at least one ownership change and remodeling, but apparently not a second, for the photo was nowhere to be found this time around.

Bitterly disappointed, we pondered our fate and debated how to get the photo replaced. Resolved to fight for its rightful return, I returned to the more immediate task: pretending that my liver and I were still 22. It was about that point when another patron, clearly not up to the challenge, deposited some of the watered-down beer he'd just consumed on the floor right near our group. You pretty much know you're in a college bar when someone pukes on the floor and it fazes exactly nobody. In any other establishment, such an event would send patrons running for cover, but in this environment, the two women sitting at the nearest table just shrugged their shoulders, dropped some napkins on it, and resumed working on their pitchers. Yay, college.

The missing Jug photo brought the evening to a close on a down note, but it was clearly time for us to make our retreat and try to save some strength for Saturday and the game. For several years post-college, arranging accommodations in Ann Arbor proved to be a challenge as friends came and went from the area. Usually, somebody's apartment would become available, but I occasionally had to resort to staying in a hotel. I'm not ready to be "hotel road trip guy" just yet. Even 10 years out of school, I can still get by on a spare bed or coach for a night or two. Granted, it's getting more and more difficult to recover from the nights out that way and I can even see the day on the horizon when a hotel stay will become necessary, but for now, a simple crash pad is more than sufficient.

Luckily for me, one of my college buddies has settled in Ann Arbor and purchased a house that more than suits the needs of the large groups that roll into town for big games. But the convenience of his place always presents a dilemma: Do we stay there and fire up the grill, or do we head to the lots surrounding the stadium for some more traditional tailgating?

With Iowa-Michigan set for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff, we had time to shake off the cobwebs from Friday night and get some recovery in before gearing back up for the game. I opted to remain at my friend's house, forgoing the parking lot scene in favor of things like indoor plumbing and digital cable (all the better to keep an eye on the early games).

But for those that have never experienced it, tailgating at a college football hotspot is a site to behold. RVs start arriving from all over the country by Friday morning, and people set up more elaborate spreads than you find at a lot of restaurants. Generators provide power for music (generally the school's fight song, repeated over and over) and TV (sometimes even off a satellite dish). People will spend several hours out in the lots eating, drinking, and tossing the football before heading into the game, only to return sometimes for several more hours postgame.

Ann Arbor is not the most raucous football town, but it's right up there as far as pageantry, tailgating, and tradition are concerned. Some of the students are more likely to get fired up over politics than football. It's probably the only campus of a football power where you could find a UN flag flying on a student porch, as we did on Friday.

Still, come kickoff time, there's one thing that we Michigan fans do better than anyone: show up. Michigan Stadium has been packed with crowds in excess of 100,000 for every home game going back to the early 1970s. The stadium is designed with only one thing in mind: packing in as many humans as possible. It's a gigantic bowl, which does little to contain what noise the crowd does generate. There is no concourse inside the stadium that would allow people to move from section to section, only stairs covering the 90-plus rows of benches. You get there early to claim your 18 inches of bench, then get steadily compacted closer and closer to your neighbors until you sometimes find yourself standing sideways, watching the game over one shoulder.

A crowd that large really is something to behold, even if it is the quietest six-figure gathering in sports. For whatever reason, other schools' home crowds, be it at Tennessee, Florida, Ohio State, or even Oregon, seem to be able to sustain a noise and energy throughout the game that is missing from Michigan Stadium. Michigan crowds can get loud during big moments in the game -- as they did against Iowa, helping to force the Hawkeyes into several false starts. Of course, the crowd might have been at its loudest Saturday during the marching band's halftime tribute to 1980s hair metal. Who knew Poison's "Talk Dirty to Me" could be arranged for the Sousaphone?

Michigan gave the crowd little to cheer about early against Iowa, surrendering an opening-drive touchdown and starting sluggishly on offense before forcing an avalanche of Iowa turnovers. Most of those were converted to points, leading to a 30-17 win.

I have written before in this space that Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz appears to be one of the most NFL-ready of college coaches, but he was not at his best in this game. Trailing, 16-7, midway through the third quarter, Iowa put together its first sustained drive since the opening possession, leading to a 4th-and-inches at the Michigan 8. There was a lengthy delay for a measurement, yet Ferentz still had not made up his mind whether to go for it or kick. With the play clock running down, Iowa called timeout.

Initially, I thought the proper play was to go for it. As I have written before, a QB sneak on an inches-to-go situation should be unstoppable if properly executed. In fact, the QB should be able to walk up to the line of scrimmage, tell the defense exactly where he intends to go, receive the snap and simply drive into the crease between the center and guard for an automatic conversion. Proper execution is the key. If the QB attempts to jump over the line of scrimmage, he's likely to be repelled. A sneak in that situation should always be the play call. Handoffs can take too much time and allow defensive penetration by a line that is exploding off the ball at the snap.

In Iowa's case, kicking the field goal was a reasonable option, as it would have brought it within a touchdown and extra point of taking the lead. But once the Hawkeyes called timeout, they were compelled to go for it. Why else would they waste a precious second half timeout in a game they trailed if not to go for it? If they were going to send the kicker on the field, they could have just taken a delay of game penalty, making the field goal a still very easy 30 yards instead of 25. Instead, they stopped the clock, leaving them with only one timeout the rest of the way, something that would have come in handy later in the fourth quarter when Michigan was attempting to ice the game.

For his indecision, Ferentz earns this week's Mike Martz Award for the shakiest coaching decision, though there were numerous other candidates even in the limited number of games I was able to see.

Minnesota coach Glen Mason should have a new award named after him after the classless maneuver he pulled against Northwestern. Leading 36-17 with less than three minutes to play, Mason called for a halfback option pass, which went for a 21-yard touchdown from star tailback Laurence Maroney to Jared Ellerson.

There is no excuse for that play-call in that situation, but Mason made no apologies after the game. "I've been looking all day to run that sucker, I gotta be honest with ya," Mason said. News flash, coach: Up three touchdowns with three minutes to go is not the time to dust off the trick plays. Save them for next week.

Following the sportsmanship of their leader, it should come as no surprise that Mason's players also supported the call. QB Bryan Cupito said "it seemed like a good situation to run it."

Really? Minnesota has been at the wrong end of enough blowouts over the years to know better. In that situation, you keep the ball on the ground or throw short passes to keep the chains moving. You don't try to embarrass your opponent. Methinks the Football Gods may have a thing or two to say about that play call down the road.

Who would you name a poor sportsmanship award after? Buddy Ryan, who as Eagles coach once called for a fake kneel-down play (it went for a touchdown against Dallas) comes to mind. Have a better idea? Post it in the comments or email it to russell@footballoutsiders.com.

Another candidate for the Martz award is Green Bay's Mike Sherman, for Sunday's entire defensive gameplan against Indianapolis. Even his players were confused about the defensive calls which continued to blitz Peyton Manning even as he was shredding the Packers for five first-half touchdown passes.

Two final candidates are Detroit's Steve Mariucci and Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden, both of whom mangled the two-point decision. It didn't come back to haunt either team, but I continue to be confounded by coaches who can't do the simple arithmetic to decide when to go for two.

Mariucci's Lions trailed Philadelphia, 30-7, when they scored a touchdown with 8:42 remaining. Trailing by 17, Mariucci went for two. Why? A single extra point would get the Lions within two scores and keep their slim hopes alive. Yes, they would need two touchdowns and two two-pointers, but they'd still be within two scores. Instead, they missed the two-pointer, and trailed by three scores, game over.

Gruden's Buccaneers correctly attempted (and missed) a two-point conversion attempt early in the fourth quarter that would have pulled them within 16 points of Oakland. When Tampa Bay scored again to trail 30-18, they attempted another two-pointer. Why? A single extra point would have brought them within two scores -- a touchdown, a two-pointer and a field goal -- of the tie. That Tampa Bay converted still doesn't make it the correct choice.

I am aware that my stance on the two-pointer differs with some of the statistical analysis work that's been done on this site and others, but I feel this is one area where the statistical trends don't tell the full story. When teams are attempting to mount huge comebacks, the goal is to extend the game by keeping hope alive as long as possible. By going for two-pointers when they shouldn't have, Mariucci and Gruden risked destroying what little hope of coming back their teams had left. That's why I always advocate that teams should never go for two until it becomes absolutely necessary.

Speaking of which, it's absolutely necessary that I get some rest after the road trip weekend and a late arrival home last night, plus a couple hours of watching Gruden and the Tampa Bay traveling geriatric ward get trampled in Oakland.

My Seventh Day Adventure partner Vin will be happy to know that last night was one time when I was NOT happy to have TiVo. Without it, I could have walked in, taken one look at the score, and promptly gone to bed. With it, I suffered through the entire game, which was only slightly more painful than the Michigan halftime show on Saturday. Now it's the Bucs who are Living on a Prayer.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 27 Sep 2004