November 16, 2013

Borton's Blog: The inner circle

There are no ugly miracles. The Wolverines cared little about how it happened, and it happened in the craziest fashion possible. They only knew they'd been winless in November, and now they weren't.

That felt like relief, saturated with joy, stacked onto a giant pedestal of pride that assured they weren't going to quit, no matter who came along for the ride.

"Obviously that locker room was pretty excited, because they really care about each other," U-M head coach Brady Hoke said, following Michigan's 27-19, triple-overtime win against Northwestern. "They complemented each other really well. They did. They were really happy."

They should be. This isn't a great Michigan team. This isn't a dominant band of Wolverines. This is a team that could be 9-1 right now, but could also be 4-6 with losses to Akron and UConn.

They're not, in either direction. They're 7-3, with an offensive line trying grow up, a quarterback trying not to get beaten up (further) and the mental pressure of trying to win in November when their most cherished goal - winning the Big Ten - has already washed away.

There's also the matter of countless fair-weather fans having jumped ship prior to the foul weather in Evanston. No matter, according to those who remain.

"I have a Twitter [account]," fifth-year senior Taylor Lewan acknowledged. "I hear all about it. They're fans, fair weather fans. It doesn't matter. All we have at the end of the day is Team 134 and that's all I worry about, whether they love me or not. I don't care if anybody else loves me."

On this night, they loved celebrating in the sanctity of their own locker room, away from the elements, away from the press, away from everything.

They'd spent the night amid a November mini-hurricane in Evanston, the wind and rain sweeping in from the south like wails and weeping for a pair of Big Ten also-rans. For most of the late afternoon into evening, the Wolverines' offense-challenged crew looked destined to lose a classic 1970s Michigan-Ohio State game.

When Brady Hoke decided to go for it on fourth-and-two at the Wildcats' 5, trailing 9-6, midway through the fourth quarter, it appeared gutsy. When quarterback Devin Gardner got dumped for a loss, it appeared suicidal.

Hoke, whose team managed one touchdown over the previous three games, saw it situation simply: "The kids deserved to go win a football game."

Most spent the final five minutes of regulation thinking they'd lost it. That's was before a final desperation drive, an unthinkable sack to take them out of field goal range, and a clutch completion from Gardner to Jeremy Gallon to put them right back into it.

One problem … roughly 10 seconds remained, and with no timeouts, Michigan needed to perfectly execute a syncopated scramble version of a football flash mob to even get the kick away. Holder Drew Dileo had raced downfield on the previous pass. He needed to jet back into place, sliding to his position just in time to take the snap.

Those who had to race off the field did, replaced by 11 special teamers, any one of whom could have blown the chance to tie. They didn't, and without any routine practice steps, placekicker Brendan Gibbons belted through the 44-yard game-knotter with the clock on 00:00.

"Drew slid in there, Jareth [Glanda] did a great job with a wet ball, Drew did a great job putting it down, and it's my job to make the kick," Gibbons observed. "That's what happened."

What happened afterward seemed a whirlwind. Three overtimes. Chances blown, and chances recovered. In the end, survival, and soggy mix of relief, resilience, togetherness and delight, by a team that desperately needed to share it.

No fans allowed in the locker room. No press. No one but players, coaches, and staff, the true believers in a moment of weary wonderment that those who haven't been there will never know.

There will be time to consider the disappointments of this season. There will be time to ponder the patches needed to make the Wolverines what everyone wants them to be.

But in this moment, none of that mattered.

"We take a lot of pride," noted senior defensive tackle Jibreel black, whose fingernails are still imbedded in Wildcat quarterback Trevor Siemian's jersey, a souvenir of a crucial third-overtime sack.

"We put a lot of work in, in the offseason - in winter conditioning, in spring ball. We put in too much work to quit. That's why we won't quit."

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