The 2013 season ended, not with a spectacular crash, but with the dull scratching noise of a spinning top falling on its edge, making that sort of low and quiet hissing sound that could be nothing if foreboding, the last thing you hear before you've failed.
Given the situation at quarterback, the result itself was not surprising. The loss itself can be shrugged off with relative ease: Michigan losing a bowl game sponsored by Buffalo Wild Wings, played in Tempe and kicking off at 10:15 p.m. ranks relatively low in the annals of Michigan football heartbreak.
What is not so easy to shrug off is the pervading sense of decay. No one needs to be told one more time what Michigan's record has been in each of Brady Hoke's seasons, or the fact that this team finished with the same record as the 2010 team. While things look dire, Michigan is in a better place now than it was in 2010. However, the question that will loom all offseason is a discomfiting one: How much better off are they?
Even after a somewhat disappointing 2012 season, the answer seemed to be so obvious that it didn't even merit expression. The 2011 season was not far behind, recruiting was good and Devin Gardner's five starts to close the 2012 season seemed an exciting prologue to the novel of his career.
But the winds of change are swift. One season you're the endearingly old school coach who roams the sidelines with ears unencumbered and the next you're a buffoon. One season you're the guy who was deemed the coach of the year in three different conferences, and the next you're the guy who came into Michigan with a sub-.500 record.
One year you've got time. The next year you're almost out of it. Just like that: poof. The seeds of discord fell into the ground around the time of the Akron and UConn games, eventually leading to the blooming of one stinky corpse flower after another as the losses piled up. By the end of Saturday night's game in Tempe, the smell was no longer a subconscious odor, the sort that you will sometimes sniff in the air, thinking it's there, when it isn't. Now, that smell is very, very real.
But, maybe Michigan wins 10 games next year and Brady Hoke is once again The Man For The Job. Maybe that stench is an ephemeral thing, passing through the interstitial space between the subconscious and conscious worlds. Maybe, not so shockingly, progress isn't linear and unbroken by all manner of pitfalls and doubts and unseen setbacks. As such, maybe Michigan will bounce back and be just fine next year and beyond.
But, maybe that last bit is wishful thinking.
There's been no mention of the game itself in this post so far, mostly because the primary concern right now is the state of the program as opposed to Team 134's performance in one ultimately meaningless game. However, we might as well just talk about it and get it over with.
Once the news that Devin Gardner would not play came down, the pressure shifted to the defense, the running game and, of course, freshman quarterback Shane Morris. If I told you that Shane Morris would come out of this game looking the best out of those three components, you'd likely be either very excited or very disturbed.
That is exactly what happened, as Morris completed 24 of 38 passes for 196 yards in his first start. Unfortunately, this was good for just 5.2 yards per attempt. As expected, Al Borges dialed up a gameplan replete with screens and quick, short throws in order to give his freshman quarterback some confidence.
For Michigan's first couple of drives, it worked, as they went 58 yards in nine plays on their opening drive and 68 yards in 15 plays on the second drive. Of course, both ended in field goals, which was basically a death knell since Tyler Lockett would run by Michigan's secondary like it wasn't even there to the tune of three touchdowns in the first half alone.
At minimum, you'd like to see a first-time starter --let alone a true freshman who played very little-- not look completely overwhelmed and capable of completing the routine passes. He did just that; really, Michigan probably got about as much out of Morris as they could have.
One thing that didn't really happen, however, is an attempt to establish the ground game. I'm not saying Michigan would have been successful running the ball with Derrick Green, De'Veon Smith and Fitzgerald Toussaint, but my expectation was that when Morris wasn't throwing screen passes, Borges would try to get the ground game going.
When all was said and done, the aforementioned trio combined for seven carries for 14 yards. Again, I'm not saying that running the ball 30 times would have been effective, but Green getting just one carry seemed a bit odd.
No matter what your opinion of Al Borges is, this was a rare instance in which Greg Mattison will--or should, rather--get a larger share of the criticism. Kansas State scored on all three of its first half drives, all capped by Lockett touchdown receptions. We all knew Lockett is a great player with the ability to beat a defense over the top, but Michigan's secondary was exposed, not unlike in the South Carolina game. With Raymon Taylor and Blake Countess returning, not to mention Jarrod Wilson and youngsters like Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling, Michigan's secondary should be quite good (especially if the pass rush takes another incremental step forward). Nonetheless, this was not this position group's finest hour.
After a season in which most Michigan fans consistently dubbed the defense with some variation of "good but not great," it looked downright awful against Ohio State and Kansas State. Was the performance in the final two games just the result of general mental and physical weariness/malaise on the defense's part? Was it due to the fact that Michigan didn't face very many potent offenses all season (that is, until Ohio State)? Or, did Greg Mattison just have a bad game?
It's very difficult to tell, but Michigan looked painfully slow in the first half, like they were running with cement blocks tied to their cleats while KSU's skill players were wearing rocket boosters (Tyler Lockett very well might have been, which I suppose would explain a lot of his success). This has been an issue for a while, and I suppose this applies to most teams, but Michigan badly needs an athleticism upgrade on the defensive side of the ball.
Three of Michigan's top four tacklers on Saturday were defensive backs (Thomas Gordon, Jarrod Wilson and Raymon Taylor), which is never a good thing. Jake Ryan and James Ross combined for eight tackles (four apiece) and one tackle for loss between them.
Of course, the linebackers would be greatly helped out by stronger play up front. Ondre Pipkins's ability to be an effective player post-injury next season and Willie Henry's development will go a long way toward determining how many blocks Ryan et al will have to shed en route to the ball carrier.
The defense was slightly better in the second half, with "better" being broadly defined as "not giving up three touchdowns in a half to Tyler Lockett." KSU opened with a 7-minute trek of a drive that ended in a missed 40-yard field goal. On KSU's second drive of the third quarter, they reached the Michigan 32, where QB Daniel Sams coughed up a fumble.
To start the fourth, KSU went 60 yards in 12 plays and over six minutes; Michigan held the 'Cats to a field goal attempt, which they converted this time around.
KSU would later tack on one final touchdown, but they didn't have very far to go to reach the end zone this time, as Morris's lone interception of the game was returned to Michigan's 7-yard line.
Overall, the defense was still not good in the second half, but they did get a pair of third down stops to force field goal attempts, as well as a forced turnover. Otherwise, it was a forgettable performance for a defense that I'm realizing, as I write this very sentence, was probably slightly overvalued after being juxtaposed with the absolute disarray of the offense in games against Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa.
Sadly, I do feel a sense of relief that the season is over (and I'm sure I'm not alone). Saturday night's outcome was not exactly unexpected, but bracing for a loss never truly prepares you for the disappointment it yields when it happens.
This will be a long offseason. The same things will be discussed over and over and over again. Should Shane Morris start? Should Gardner move back to wide receiver? What is an "acceptable" win-loss total in 2014 for Hoke to keep his job? What will Dave Brandon do if Team 135 disappoints?
All of these topics will yield incredibly annoying and repetitive discussions; oh, to have a mind-numbingly boring offseason.
There's a lot more to say about this team, this season and this program, and there is a long offseason during which to say all of it. A proper salute will have to come later, but for now I think I speak for everyone when I say that I will miss this departing class of seniors, especially Jeremy Gallon, who attained the Michigan single-season receiving record after racking up 89 yards on Saturday.
Enjoy the basketball team and whatever it is able to accomplish this Big Ten season sans Mitch McGary, for a restless spring and summer await, filled with introspection, retrospection, and, perhaps most uncomfortably of all, thoughts of the future.