BY J. BRADY MCCOLLOUGH: ALL ABOUT THE CAUSE
Published September 21, 2003
EUGENE, Ore. - After one season off, the cast members of the much-ballyhooed drama I like to call "West Toast" decided to take their show on the road one more time Saturday. Viewers saw the same plot and the same characters from the first two productions (2000 and 2001), but with a slightly-altered script.
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As avid fans of the first two seasons, we should have expected this plotline from the start. You know, the trip out West, the loss in nonconference play, the crushed dreams of a national championship just as we actually started to believe this team was different.
Nope, no difference.
I will give the heavens one thing: The setting they picked for this year's production of "West Toast" to unfold was magnificent.
Sitting in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, Oregon's Autzen Stadium is one of college football's hidden jewels. Before kickoff, Autzen is as peaceful as the Willamette River, which runs through Eugene just a few minutes from the stadium. After kickoff, the fans - even the alumni - forget who they are, where they come from and what their degree is in. The audience adopts a new collective identity for the next three-and-a-half hours: the 12th, 13th and 14th man.
Autzen's 59,000 strong make the Big House collectively sound like a pathetic whimper. It's louder than any place I've ever been, and that includes "The Swamp" at Florida, "The Shoe" in Columbus and "Death Valley" at Louisiana State. Autzen Stadium is where great teams go to die.
R.I.P. Michigan 2003.
The protagonist of our drama, as always, was John Navarre. Navarre willed the Wolverines back from a 24-6 second-half deficit. He threw for 360 yards, most of which came after intermission, and three touchdowns.
The fifth-year senior has been through it all. His character develops more and more with each pass he throws. His legacy at Michigan is still up in the air, but he has confirmed one thing with every single game he's played for Michigan: He's no quitter, and he's a leader worth fighting for. If you're anything like me, you wanted Navarre to win that game more than any other Wolverine.
But Navarre is becoming a tragic character in this cruel, repetitive plotline. No matter how hard he tries and how well he plays, it's never good enough.
What about Michigan's Rubbermaid defense? Always bends like underage drinking laws, but never breaks. Out of the Ducks' 31 points, just 17 of them came on offense. The Ducks held the ball for 24 plays before the Wolverines touched the ball on offense, and when they did get the ball, Oregon had a nice '0' on the scoreboard. Amazing. The Oregon offense was efficient for the entire game, but the Michigan 'D' gave our protagonist and his supporting cast a chance.
Crazy things happen when the Wolverines pack up their bags and head out West. Crazy things, mostly, on special teams. Aye, there's the rub. The Wolverines' special teams have haunted them in each production of "West Toast."
At UCLA in 2000, kicker Hayden Epstein missed two chip-shot field goals and an extra point, and No. 3 Michigan fell 23-20. At Washington in 2001, the Wolverines, up 12-6, had a field goal attempt blocked and returned to the house to give the Huskies a 13-12 lead. Instead of going ahead 15-6 and riding a pumped-up defense to victory, Michigan lost 23-18.
Saturday, the Wolverines gave up a punt return and a blocked punt for a touchdown, giving the Ducks 14 points in the kicking game.
The weird thing about the way this drama unfolds each time is that it never feels like the antagonist is Michigan's opponent. Michigan's antagonist is itself, and when it comes to the Wild West, it's the special teams.
Same plot, same characters.
Oh, but what of the script. The heavens gave this one a double-shot of creativity and a triple-shot of Absolut cruelty.
As the drama played out after intermission, a song from my past began to play over and over again in my head: Quit Playing Games With My Heart.
When Oregon took a 24-6 lead in the third quarter and Michigan didn't score on its next two possessions, I'd given up on our protagonist. One 98-yard drive, two touchdowns and a two-point conversion later, I was a believer again.
This went on and on throughout the final act. Jump off. Jump on. And when the heavens finally smiled on Michigan, down 31-27, with a recovered onside kick at its own 44-yard line with 2:12 to play (these things NEVER happen to the Wolverines), I believed there was no way this drama could end up yet another Wolverine tragedy.
Quit playing games.
When receiver Braylon Edwards, who played the character of a man possessed in the final act, couldn't catch a high throw from Navarre on 4th-and-7 from the Oregon 41-yard line, it was done.
Same plot, same characters, slightly-altered script.
If only this were a musical performance; the Wolverines would have the option of an encore.
Something tells me our hearts couldn't take it.
J. Brady McCollough would like to thank Mrs. Skulicz, his high school English teacher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.