Tale Of Two Cities XIII: Postscript, Michigan
I've never understood the "no moral victories" people.
Moral victories are real. Some coaches might say they aren't, but they've got ulterior motives. They can't be trusted as sources about the existence of moral victories.
Fans who say moral victories aren't real are either being intellectually dishonest, or they don't understand sports. So long as human, with their different levels of human ability, are competing, one side will be objectively better than the other side. It may not be evident, and sometimes the margins might be razor thin, but there will exist a delta.
The gap between abilities relative to the difference on the scoreboard is where moral victories come in. Let's use the Miracle on Ice, in which the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team defeated the Soviet Union team, as the example.
If the U.S. hadn't scored two goals in the third period -- or if they'd scored one to tie it, but the Soviets had scored the late game-winning goal instead -- nobody would have been in the streets saying, "No moral victories. I only care about real victories." There would have been a sense of pride in the U.S. team, clearly outclassed by the Soviet side -- the Soviets had beaten them 10-3 in an exhibition game about two weeks prior -- hanging tough for 60 minutes.
You think you know where this is going, because I just spent 200 words justifying the existence of moral victories, but you don't. Because while I do believe in moral victories, I'm not declaring one for this past Saturday.
As I noted above, moral victories come into play when one side is clearly and visibly inferior to the other but able to keep it close on the scoreboard. As Illinois fans, we're no strangers to the concept. When real victories are few and far between, moral victories can become all you have to hold onto.
Real victories haven't been scarce this season, though. And at the Big House this past Saturday, there wasn't a clear difference in ability between the two teams on the field.
Every week, college football stats guy Parker Fleming, who goes by @statsowar on Twitter, puts together a graphic that shows the net success rates of each team in a game -- or, put more simply, a "Did We Really Get Beat that Bad?" graphic. For Saturday's game, Illinois actually came out ahead in net success rate, meaning Michigan earned what he terms a "lucky win."
That tracks with what I saw with my own eyes. Michigan did dominate time of possession, but yardage was roughly equal, 326 to 376, and Illinois actually converted more first downs (20) than Michigan (18). Illinois wasn't clearly the better team, but neither was Michigan. This was two fairly equally matched teams playing a close game, one in which Illinois had the lead and the ball with a chance to salt it away late in the fourth quarter.
That's where the moral victory goes out the window for me. Sure, we can talk about the ways in which Illinois was fortunate to even be in the game, or the penalties (or lack thereof) that might have even stolen the game from the Illini. But with 3:14 left to go in the game and Michigan burning their timeouts, a first down would have effectively ended it. With a minute left to go in the game, ESPN's win probability metric had Illinois with a 70.8 percent chance of winning.
No, it was a real loss, to a very good team. It hurt. But it beats a moral victory.
-Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone
They waved Blake goodbye, and put up Hugh Robertson
-Long before the controversy, I was watching the game and said to myself, "They're just gonna swallow their whistles and let the boys play. Alright, then."
If that's what you've decided to do, cool. There were no-calls on both sides that I was surprised by, but fine with under the pretense of those being the rules of engagement.
It's like a strike zone in baseball. If an umpire calls a wide strike with the opposing team's catcher up to bat, the catcher will likely say something to the effect of, "OK, but I'm going to want that wide strike for my guy, too." If the umpire calls a consistent zone, everyone is happy. Just so long as everyone is clear on the rules.
For most of Saturday's game, it seemed like everyone was clear on the rules. Then, on a pivotal third-down play, Zy Crisler was called for a holding penalty. (It was a hold.)
OK, so I guess we're calling penalties in big spots. Fine. We're all on the same page, yeah?
And then Michigan lined up 6-foot-5-inch, 237-pound tight end Colston Loveland out wide and motioned 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pound running back Isaiah Gash behind him, and with Loveland lead blocking (on a pass play), they converted on fourth down to keep the eventual game-winning drive alive.
OK, so I guess we're not calling penalties in big spots. Huh. But alright, they're still only on the 37-yard line, so if we're back to not calling marginal penalties, then that's where we are.
And then on the next play, Devon Witherspoon was flagged for a marginal pass interference penalty. Field-goal range: achieved.
I don't know for sure, but I assume this is what Bret Bielema was talking about in his postgame press conference when he discussed his frustration with the officiating -- not necessarily the actual penalties as much as the inconsistency with which they were called in important spots. One set of rules? Fine. But there can't be different sets of rules for different teams.
-Regardless of the fact that the team I root for was on the other side -- Jim Harbaugh deserved to lose that game for how he handled the last two Michigan possessions.
I actually first-guessed the decision to go for it on fourth-and-four from the Illinois 23-yard line with 4:32 remaining. I thought kicking the field goal, trusting your elite-level defense to get you the ball back and trying to drive into field-goal range for your Lou Groza Award-winning kicker was the correct decision. Michigan did convert that fourth-down play, but the drive stalled, and they kicked it four plays later anyway, wasting 90 seconds in the process.
Even more insane were the three passes Michigan called from the Illinois 22-yard line on the final drive. Moody, as mentioned, is virtually automatic, even with the wind being a factor Saturday. The most likely way Michigan loses the game at that point is a bad turnover, and J.J. McCarthy was on the verge of bad turnovers on two different throws. It ultimately didn't matter, but I'm not sure what was accomplished by any of it. Just bizarre.
-Props to the offensive and defensive lines.
After two games in which both lines appeared shaky, the offensive line was able to keep Tommy DeVito upright and open enough holes for Chase Brown to get 140 yards. They averaged 4.4 yards per carry after averaging 3.1 ypc and 3.3 ypc, respectively, against Purdue and Michigan State the prior two weeks.
On defense, the team didn't have a sack, but they held up well when called upon. The Michigan State and Purdue losses were a bit disheartening after the defense had performed so well for three months, but on Saturday they looked more like the confident, stifling defense we remember. It's perhaps mostly anecdotal evidence, but the defense appears to be back heading into the rivalry game.
-Speaking of that battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy, Illinois opening as 12.5-point favorites is pretty wild for a rivalry game. Not unexpected or unwarranted, but wild still.
It's a good reminder of how far the program has come in a short time, and how thankful we should be that we've gotten to enjoy this ride.
Thankful. If only there was a holiday where we could give our thanks for such a season.