Going For The Gap
Ohio State is leaving an opening at the top. Can Michigan hit it? Expect this team to go for it at full speed.
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Have you ever run from the police? It’s a terrifying experience that feels exhilarating if you get away with it.
Due to privilege and pure luck, I’ve done this only in low-stakes situations: booking it away from parties so I wasn’t booked for underage drinking. Success is attained zombie apocalypse-style. It’s not just about pure speed, it’s about guile, luck, and—most importantly—being just a little tougher to catch than the people closest to you.
It’s not necessarily the right move. It’s certainly the one with the most downside. You might get blindsided by a cop you didn’t see coming. (We’ll call this cop “Kinnick Night.”) You could very well end up wishing you’d accepted your fate from the beginning.
Ohio State already lost to Oregon and looked mighty catchable in wins over Minnesota and Tulsa. They effectively demoted defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs after two games. The Wolverines, meanwhile, have run away from their opposition with ease.
My favorite moment of Michigan’s 63-10 thrashing of Northern Illinois came after the game was already well in hand. After Blake Corum scored on a 51-yard run to open the third quarter, the defense forced a three-and-out, and NIU’s Matt Ference booted a 55-yard punt with plenty of hang time.
Sophomore receiver AJ Henning caught the ball with nobody else in the frame on BTN’s broadcast, giving him plenty of room to build up speed. A lot of speed.
After blowing past the first wave of defenders, Henning was at full, Breaston-esque stride when two defenders, one unblocked, began to converge.
Henning had a few options at this point. Two of them involved slowing down: he could then cut to the sideline or back to the middle of the field. He took the third option: going full speed for the gap.
Henning clocked a 10.73-second 100-meter dash as a junior in high school and a 4.46 laser-timed 40-yard dash at an Opening regional the same year. I’m sure he has a great amount of confidence in his speed, as he should.
He didn’t quite make it through. When slowing the video down, though, he came way closer than it first looked. At one point, he was upright and running full speed just in front of the two would-be tacklers.
Henning clutched the ball closer to his chest and braced himself. The unblocked defender’s dive came up with air. Unfortunately, the previously blocked defender was no longer remotely blocked.
That guy got Henning by the shoe. Henning carried enough momentum that he rolled for a solid five yards after the tackle.
If Henning gets a tiny bit more help, he’s going one-on-one for the touchdown against the NIU player just entering the frame.
Would Henning have scored if he took the safer route to the middle of the field? Possibly. Would it have been nearly as cool as if he’d knifed through those two defenders at ludicrous speed?
Henning chose aggression. He chose speed. He chose himself. He committed. That’s going to pay off.
I get the trepidation. I, too, have watched Michigan football before. The last several times I’ve allowed this program to get my hopes up, excitement has turned inevitably to disappointment, and I’ve inevitably felt silly for my emotional investment.
I’m ready to be hurt again. This is a good football team. There are fans in the stands. I want to feel, even if there’s pain. The last 18 months have been too numbing.
I can’t help it. I live here now.
Alright, I don’t quite believe that Michigan is literally the best team in the country.2 I do buy, however, that they’re one of the most improved. They’re playing strong defense, running like a dang service academy, and the passing game came online against NIU.
The top-rated quarterback in the Big Ten so far is Michigan State’s Payton Thorne. Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr., the top candidate for first-team All-Big Ten QB entering the season, is dead last. Beleaguered Northwestern QB Hunter Johnson has a better rating than Iowa’s Spencer Petras and Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz. OSU five-star CJ Stroud has given playmakers a lot of opportunities; unfortunately for the Buckeyes, that’s included a number of opposing defenders.
As Cade McNamara might say, what if they fuckin’ won the rest of their games, huh? Or, at least, what if they won The Game?
Maybe there are cops waiting on the other side. Maybe I don’t even clear the gap. I don’t care. Go for glory.
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A team’s SP+ rating is the equivalent, based on Connelly’s opponent-adjusted algorithm, of how many points a team would beat the average FBS team by; in this week’s rankings, Michigan would beat the average FBS team by 22.6 points.
We don’t want Bama. Nobody wants Bama. You might think you want Bama. You never want Bama.