MAIZE & BOO

The sky was a gentle blue, but it was raining all afternoon on the Wolverines, a kind of rain they rarely experience in the Big House. They were getting embarrassed, shown up, outplayed on national television in every way you can get outplayed in football.

And it was raining boos.

Those were Michigan fans making that ugly noise, fans wearing maize-and-blue T-shirts, fans who came out believing last week’s shocking loss to Appalachian State was a fluke. And perhaps it was. Last week was an upset. This was just a butt-kicking.

And it won’t be the last. Not if Michigan keeps playing this way. At the moment, the sweetest invitation you can get in college football may be a Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor. This 39-7 defeat to Oregon, the fourth loss in a row for Michigan going back to last season – its worst stretch since 1967 – wasn’t David shaking down Goliath.

Uh-uh. This was an unranked Pac-10 team flying across the country and stomping on the Wolverines like a 6-year-old having a tantrum. It was target practice for the Oregon quarterback, Dennis Dixon, who hit bomb after bomb, as U-M’s fledgling defense gave new meaning to the word “secondary.” And it was a meltdown by the U-M’s supposedly superior offense, which wasted a lot of yards getting almost no points.

“In the second half,” running back Mike Hart said, “we didn’t come out to play. Period.”

Well, by that point it was 32-7. Can you blame them?

I hate to put it this way, but there have been Lions games less embarrassing than this.

No, coach Lloyd Carr does not need to be fired – come on, calm down – and U-M fans shouldn’t throw themselves off a bridge. But let’s be honest. The Wolverines are not very good right now. Doesn’t matter what they were supposed to be. Doesn’t matter what their preseason ranking was or which seniors were returning.

They have played two games now and the defense is apparently still checking into the dorms.

They have played two games and their senior quarterback, Chad Henne, has unhinged the team with uncharacteristic mistakes in key moments, including an opening-drive interception and several momentum-killing sacks Saturday. (To make matters worse, Henne left the game after the first half with a leg injury and is “highly doubtful” for the Notre Dame game, according to Carr. As Woody Allen once joked: “The food here is terrible.””Yeah, and such small portions!”)

It’s all upside down in Ann Arbor. Right now, this team cannot capitalize on offense. (How’s 365 yards and only seven points?) Right now, this team cannot stop anything on defense. (How’s six first-half possessions for Oregon, 32 points and no punts?)

And right now, even worse, Michigan no longer intimidates. Forget 109,000. You could make it 109 million. There is no scare in the Big House anymore.

That may be the biggest loss of all.

Swagger is missing

“How do you handle this?” someone asked Carr in the postgame interview.

“I think it comes back to who you are.”

Yes. But who are they? There is no swagger in the Maize and Blue. The Ducks were afraid of Michigan the way the Rolling Stones are afraid of a bar band.

In the second quarter, they eschewed a field goal and went for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 2. In the second quarter? There were years in Ann Arbor when that was suicidal. On this Saturday at Michigan Stadium, the Ducks plowed right into the end zone. Wasn’t even close.

Minutes later, the Ducks tried a Statue of Liberty play. The Statue of Liberty? Yep. And a few minutes later, they tried it again!

Hey, why not? The first one got 14 yards. The second got a touchdown.

“We knew they ran that play,” U-M safety Jamar Adams said, glumly. “We just didn’t execute the right way … twice.”

It was that kind of day – and the Wolverines couldn’t hide on the Big Ten Network this time. ABC captured all of it. With 39 points, with 624 yards of offense, with its top two running backs averaging more than seven yards a carry, with its quarterback making his own personal highlight reel, with a rollicking, celebratory attitude on the sidelines, Oregon sent a message to a national football audience:

Come on down. You can beat these guys, too.

That hurts. I usually dismiss sports comments about “respect,” but, man, there was little of it shown by Joey Harrington’s alma matter Saturday. And it was understandable. What passes for a Michigan defense spent most the day chasing Dixon. Actually, “chasing” may be too complimentary. “Watching” is more accurate. The speedy senior – one in a growing collection of college quarterbacks in the Vince Young mold, all of whom seem to play against Michigan – appeared to have a bubble around him all afternoon, running for 76 yards and a touchdown and throwing for 292 yards and three touchdowns. Wolverines defenders were left stumbling and flailing. Dixon went where he wanted to go.

The same could be said for Oregon running backs Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, who sliced through the defense like a hot knife through meringue. The U-M tackling was atrocious.

Yes, I know Michigan’s defense sent five guys to the NFL after last season, and Saturday’s group had 12 guys on the defensive depth chart who had never played a down before opening week.

But here’s a news flash: These are not practice scrimmages. The great football programs must reload on the fly. They can’t rebuild the house starting with wood chips.

Keeping his perspective

In the news conference afterward, Carr was not angry. He broke things down. He said his kids were “hurting … and they should be.” He said big plays killed his team. He said Oregon was outstanding. He said his guys showed great fight “for the first quarter and a half.”

And he wasn’t making a joke.

Both he and his players skirted the obvious: that the loss to Appalachian State was supposed to be a wake-up call, not a snooze button.

But then Carr, before leaving, made a cryptic joke: “Maybe the game’s passed me by”- meant for the critics who have suggested that. He then launched into a poignant speech to a non-present boy named Peter, a friend of his granddaughter’s who had shown concern about his frame of mind this past week.

And, finally, Carr grew emotional:

“Peter … I’m doing great. I’ve got great kids here. And you don’t know me, but those who do … would agree that I’m a tough-minded, competitive guy. … And there is nothing that can keep me down. Not a loss to Appalachian State. Not a loss to Oregon. Not a hundred losses. And not the loss of my job. …

“You’re probably going to lose a lot of games the next few years. … When you lose, don’t make excuses. … Just play every day as hard as you can. And regardless of what the outcome of what those games are, you keep your head high.”

I think that speaks for itself.

And it is reason enough for people who think he should fired to be ashamed of themselves. This is college. That speech can teach more than a dozen trophies.

In the midst of a storm

So OK. Here is the best thing you can say about this defeat. It really doesn’t matter. Not in the Big Picture. The Wolverines already were eliminated from any national championship hopes last Saturday, and if you’re not going to play for the title, does it really matter where you rank in the polls?

At this point, there is only one thing left for the Wolverines and that is the Big Ten title. Bo Schembechler, during his tenure as coach, would have told you that’s all that matters anyhow. These nonconference games to him were nothing more than warm-up, a few scrimmages to get ready for the Iowas, Michigan States and Ohio States of the world.

You can believe that if it makes you feel better. The only problem is, it is a philosophy that goes backward, not forward. And it seems U-M has enough of that in its football program right now.

Clearly the new status quo in this sport is fast, spread offenses with speedy quarterbacks. By contrast, Michigan was playing in black-and-white on Saturday. It is worth noting that Oregon has had its head coach, Mike Bellotti, almost exactly as long as Michigan has had Carr (since 1995). A few years ago, Bellotti was running a more conventional offense, much like Michigan’s, with Harrington as a dropback passer.

But something Bellotti saw in college football changed his mind. He widened things out. And on Saturday with spreads and weird sets and misdirection plays, he looked like a mad scientist compared to Carr’s stiff-lipped approach.

Two games. Two embarrassing defeats. Someone asked Hart what comes next and he said this:

“I guarantee we will win next week.”

Who knows? You get the feeling if Michigan could get a mulligan, take a month, clear the players’ heads, the world might be different. But once a season starts in college football, balancing a rocky ship is like catching a watermelon on a tightrope.

By the final whistle Saturday, the stands were emptying, heads were hanging, and a team some had predicted to win all its games still hadn’t tasted victory since last November. The skies were dry as the players jogged off, but make no mistake: Michigan is in the middle of a terrible storm.

SIDEBAR

THE LAST TIME ….

The Wolverines are 0-2 this season and have lost four straight games. The last time …

Michigan lost its first two games: 1998 (Drew Henson and Tom Brady were Michigan’s QBs, and they finished 10-2)

Michigan lost its first two games at home: 1959 (Alaska and Hawaii became states)

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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