Editor’s note: It’s a pleasure to welcome back Louis Bien, who predates many of our current staff members on B5Q. He now writes for SB Nation proper, and we encourage you to read his work and follow him on Twitter.
We spent the day before anticipating a downpour. Instead, the rain stayed back and the weather reflected the gray game played at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. Wisconsin threatened to be the cloudburst on Michigan’s season, but wasn’t and maybe wasn’t even all that close. The Badgers lost by seven but were outgained by nearly 200 yards.
This is hard for me. I grew up in Ann Arbor as someone whose happiness was very much contingent on whether Michigan football succeeded. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt worse about anything than I did the 2000 shootout loss to Northwestern. Then I went to college in Madison and became a Wisconsin fan, and learned how to root for teams with tempered expectations. The approach to facing, say, a top-10 opponent went from, “I don’t know if I can breathe if we lose,” to, “I’m going to be so damn happy if we win,” which is big.
Michigan fans are nice like it’s their duty. As we walked to the stadium, a man on the street corner of Stadium and Main looked us in the eyes, gave us firm handshakes and told us each, “Welcome to Ann Arbor,” in a matter-of-fact way that was good form but not good nature. There was an apocalyptic feeling in the stadium. Michigan took a 7-0 lead that should have been bigger into halftime, and form was forgotten. Michigan fans were snarly and glum at the precise moment when Wisconsin fans were most glad they came.
The man who sat next to my brother-in-law glared at us after every play Michigan made, reciprocating trash talk we never gave. No one was nice again until Amara Darboh caught a game-winning, 46-yard fade midway through the fourth quarter to break a 7-7 tie. The way Wisconsin was moving the ball, it was impossible for anyone to conceivably think the game wasn’t over at that point. The crowd roared in agreement, it knew. When the game was over, the man who had stared us down hugged my brother with one big arm and told him that Wisconsin played really well.
The result was what most people assumed it would be before the game began. In practice, there was nothing inevitable about the outcome. Wisconsin should have lost, and yet easily could have won. Wide receiver Jazz Peavy dropped what would have been a long gain in the first half. Freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook overthrew a wide-open Peavy on what would have have been a 77-yard touchdown in the second. Wisconsin’s defensive backs dropped several would-be interceptions. The defense put Wisconsin in position to win with one more play or two, but the opportunities quickly evaporated.
So the story after the game was that Michigan is still a national title contender, and perhaps a stronger one because it survived the scare from a plucky team that every national champion seems to face. Wisconsin was a foil, the opponent Michigan needed to scare it straight and show it the spirit and grit needed to Win It All. It has been likened to the time the 1997 Charles Woodson-led national championship team overcame a 21-7 halftime deficit to beat Iowa and remain undefeated. Maybe it was that memory that made Michigan fans so happy after a game in which their offense looked so constipated.
Michigan fans can be gloomy as hell. When every game is supposed to be won, when every undefeated start feels like prophesied greatness, when your head coach is so great because he’s so deluded, when a team has already shown what it is, then each week can only be a setback. Michigan has an identity. On Saturday, 112,000 people who were convinced their team was special spent three hours legitimately worried that Wisconsin would make them liars.
That’s very different from the experience of rooting for Wisconsin, which is only trying to find out what it is. I’ve never felt the death that I did as a Michigan fan when Wisconsin loses. It’s more like disillusionment. Wisconsin could belong to one of several college football castes at any time, from the bleh to very good, and each season feels like a constant winnowing to determine where exactly it belongs. By the end, the answer often isn’t all that clear.
Mostly, everyone agrees Wisconsin is good and formidable. And when the Badgers play a team like Michigan, they get talked about like a competent toddler who everyone is pleasantly surprised can go four feet without dragging their face on the floor. It’s the type of team that Michigan fans don’t have to work up any effort to tell you is a Heck Of A Team with a Fine Defense and not to worry about that Young Quarterback because it’s hard to play on the road against anybody.
The most grating thing about these conciliatory gestures is not how perfunctory they feel, but the fact that they’re not wrong. It was a good game. Wisconsin’s defense is excellent, and Hornibrook should be a good player in time and will play much better when he’s not taking on a front four of hulked-up marauders. But it’s like all these concessions consign Wisconsin, and teams like it, to only ever be happy with itself and never full-throat celebrated.
That feels so wrong, given that Wisconsin won 11 games two years ago in the same season Michigan won five and missed a bowl game, given that Wisconsin won at least nine games in six of its last seven seasons while Michigan has done it just twice, given that only Ohio State has won more games than Wisconsin among Big Ten teams this century. The difference is, Wisconsin doesn’t have Michigan’s potential at any moment, and that doing the best you can seems to be very boring to the rest of the world.
Michigan fans live in a constant fantasy, where the team either comes to encompass their dreams or shatter them. Wisconsin fans live in a constant reality, a gray-blue state of being content with what you have because it’s pretty good, could be worse and always on the verge of disappearing. The former leads to wild emotional spikes and nadirs. The latter is finding new ways of being accepting and telling yourself everything is OK, and never being sure if that’s true.
It was a great weekend, before and after the game—and during it, except for the period from Darboh’s touchdown to Jourdan Lewis’ superfluous and superb one-handed interception that only over-emphasized how much Wisconsin is not Michigan. It was a good win for Michigan. It was not a devastating loss for Wisconsin. It doesn’t have the history to obtain the talent to set the expectations that make Michigan fans’ lives revolve around football. It gets to say that at least the rain never came. And if the sun had come out, it would have been a beautiful day.