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Monday, November 05, 2007

11/3/07 - Michigan 28, Michigan State 24 - 8-2, 6-0 Big Ten

I first thought "Chad Henne is a robot" a long time ago.

It was the middle of 2004. A then-freshman Henne strode onto the turf at Michigan Stadium facing a four point deficit against Minnesota. The ball was on the Michigan thirteen; the clock read 3:04.

Five plays and 56 yards later, Henne zeroed in on Z45 Part A Subsequence C Tight End Tyler Ecker, Rabbit-Hunting Mormon, crossing in front of a Minnesota linebacker; various servos and hydraulics kicked in. Henne flung a pass into Z45PASCTETERHM's outstretched arms, declared GOAL COMPLETED, and initiated nailcoeds.exe.

This weekend, now-senior Chad Henne strode onto the turf at Spartan Stadium facing a ten point deficit. He was 6 for 19 for 83 yards at that point, 47 of which came on a single bomb to Mario Manningham. The clock read 7:35.

Henne had been awful. Whether it was the unpredictable wind or his separated shoulder or some combination of the two doesn't really matter. He had been missing open receivers all day, flinging balls into the turf or the sideline or taking sacks he didn't have to. He and Brian Hoyer were locked into a duel to see who could torpedo his team's chances more thoroughly; Henne was winning. In the Michigan section, faith was running low. On the Michigan State sideline Jehuu Caulcrick was exhorting the Spartans to remember this moment, the moment they beat Michigan.


If clutch exists it is not the ability to raise one's game in the most critical situations, but rather an ability to not think about the matter at hand. Clutch, simply, is an immunity to choking.

Malcolm Gladwell has an article on the strange phenomenon of the choke job that presents a convincing diagnosis: sometimes in extremely high pressure situations, people forget how to forget. People have two systems via which they learn: the explicit, conscious level, and the subconscious level. As you continue to improve at something ever more gets snipped out of your consciousness, allowing your mind to focus on ever more arcane and high-level aspects of the task at hand. (At this point, all Tom Brady thinks about is nailing supermodels.) This is why experts so often cannot explain how they do the things they do. They have no idea.

In 1993, Jana Novotna held a commanding lead in the Wimbledon final, then collapsed. Why? How?

When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person--playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner--because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn't used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child.
Novotna started thinking about how to hit and forgot how to hit. The pressure reached up and crushed her trachea. Clutch is the ability to not do this, the ability to keep all that submerged and to robotically execute the things you don't even think about anymore. Clutch is for robots.


Caulcrick forgot one thing: Chad Henne is a robot.

On the last two drives he was 12-14 for 129 yards, flinging wide open outs, finding Mathews on a critical third and long, and looping perfect touchdown passes to Greg Mathews and Mario Manningham. He was ruthless, precise, and busy calculating digits of pi deep into the millions. He has a heart of nails and lungs made from old tires; his hair consists of pipe cleaners cropped short and his bones are discarded pipes. You have to whack him in just the right spot at just the right time to get his late-model Soviet guidance chip to seat itself in his shoddy southeast Asian motherboard.

Stripped of the ability to contribute on-field, Mike Hart summoned his chi and delivered the feather blow as Michigan State drove for the "winning" touchdown. He laughed about it afterward. Sometimes Mike Hart isn't very nice.

It is Henne's great misfortune that so many of his clutch moments have been obliterated by, depending on your point of view, an even clutcher performance by someone else -- most notably Vince Young and Troy Smith -- or the flailing incompetence of various Michigan defenses and, occasionally, special teams units. This is not to say that Henne has always been good or that he has not been a primary culprit in Michigan losses past. Sometimes the guidance chip has been locked on Tacopants. But stainless steel knees don't buckle when you them in situations a squishy hoo-man would find intolerable.

Little about the scene postgame was unfamiliar. Michigan had leapt out to a lead, shut down the offense, and gotten itself in a heap of unnecessary trouble. Michigan State had blown it again with help from a stupid personal foul. Michigan had beaten Michigan State for the sixth straight year. From my vantage point in the upper deck the final Manningham dagger looked like a virtual replay of 2004's Braylonfest. And Henne had once again proven that nothing but oil runs through his metallic veins. As we near the end of the Hart Era and the Henne Era and the Carr Era, there are few things that surprise. This is the program's blessing and its curse.

There was one thing. Henne was unusually alone as he exited the field, his teammates busy holding a moment of silence for Michigan State. He leapt and gamboled off the field, fist pumping as he went. Data would never do that. Solitary, he was a mesmerizing, jarring sight. But just as perceptions threatened to shatter Henne encountered a stadium staffer removing the padding from the goalposts. He sprawled on the ground for a moment, then completed his egress in a manner more befitting a pile of scrap iron with a heart of nails. Goal completed.

  • Two "holy crap" State-fan moments: I'm sitting in my seat -- or, rather, standing on it -- midway through the first quarter when some MSU knob chewing on an unlit cigar demands that I move. I show him the stub, tell him to go to hell, and ask for his. He fails to produce one, saying "it's in the car"; ten minutes later, after one of his knob associates grabs an usher to boot me, he finally yanks it out of his pocket. It says seat 4. I'm standing in seat 3. If you can't get into college...

    Also, some harpy turned around at some point in the second quarter and started chanting something indecipherable. After some parsing and reparsing, we finally realized what it was: she was chanting "Art Fag U." Classy! This prompted the guy next to me to chant "skank" at her whenever she stood up for the rest of the game. Also classy.

    (Everyone else was cordial enough; MSU remains a place where you can expect a verbal barrage from totally wasted meatheads but little else.)
  • I might be a little less harsh on the Debord stuff than many commenters were, since before the last two drives Henne had not exactly covered himself in glory. We'll see in the UFR.
  • Two things that did really bother me: the first down playcalling in the second quarter -- all ineffective runs -- and one particularly dumb play. On it, two Michigan receivers lined up on the LOS; the slot man was covered up. This fairly screams "run run run run this is a run"; Michigan ran; they lost two yards. Any play you design that has Adrian Arrington as an ineligible receiver is a bad play.
  • Zoltan... not so much except for that boomer that flipped the field position.
  • I have no idea what happened to the defense at halftime but will endeavor to find out. I would say a lack of DT depth hurt, but there was a ton of rotation on the line in the second half.
  • At one point in the third quarter I mentioned to a friend that it looked like Michigan was playing itself what with all the running and conservative playcalling; can Dantonio really put together a successful MSU team that relies on out-executing the opponent? His recruiting is basically par for the last 15 years at MSU: one or two highly recruited guys from Michigan or Ohio and then guys they beat out MAC teams for. That seems like a recipe for failure when combined with an M-style offense.
  • When MSU went up 24-14, I thought to myself "this is typical Sparty. I hate Sparty." When they completely blew it in the last seven minutes, complete with requisite personal foul, I thought to myself "this is typical Sparty. I love Sparty." Everything is typical Sparty.
  • Last drive: Oh god throw it to Manningham AAARGH MANNINGHAM WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU I HATE YOU. !!! !!! I LOVE YOU MANNINGHAM.
  • !!!