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The Biggest Loss That Never Mattered

Despite the annoyance I felt after Michigan's loss to Wisconsin on Saturday, the frustration passed within 15 minutes of the final gun. Regardless of Saturday's final score Michigan still plays Ohio State for the right to go to the Rose Bowl (or the Citrus Bowl). Every Michigan fan knew going in to Saturday that these were Michigan's only two options. It wasn't like Michigan was harboring some long shot dream of an independent BCS invitation.

Oh no. No matter how much the fan base, myself included, wanted to believe Michigan might have a claim to an at large bid with a 9-3 record(with a loss to Ohio State), there was never a chance of that coming to fruition. This is the same team that lost to Oregon by 30 points and Division 1-AA Appalachian State. For Michigan to end up in a BSC Bowl not named "The Rose" would be larceny on an even greater level than Notre Dame's inclusion in last year's Sugar Bowl. And I guarantee the result would've been just as bad. So it was and is Rose or Citrus. Despite the loss, Michigan's destiny didn't change one iota.

So why was I pissed at all when the final gun sounded?

Simple. It's a loss, and if you're getting used to losses at Michigan, something's seriously wrong with you. But the loss wasn't the stinger. I'd led myself to believe this was a better team than it is. Over the past eight weeks I'd led myself to believe this team was better than its 0-2 start. And that I was right to do that.

In my defense, they are better now than they were. They beat several good teams along the way. But they're not that much better. The same problems that barbequed Michigan during the Appalachian State and Oregon games were never truly resolved. The linebackers are at best, bad. The defensive line is mediocre. The zone running game doesn't work. Our offensive line is still banged up and trying to find itself. All these things were as apparent on Saturday as they were when the season began.

Usually a loss like this doesn't sting this way. It stings much, much worse. Had Michigan been undefeated or sported a single loss going into Madison, Saturday's result would've been a kick in the jewels. A huge part of the season would've been flushed at the worst possible time (see: Ohio State v. Illinois, 2007), and we'd be going into Ohio State flat as a countertop.

But there is no sting because there was nothing to play for, other than pride, and most of that was left in the garbage bags of September. As the cards fell, Michigan was assured of its goal; to play Ohio State for a trip to the Rose Bowl before kick off on Saturday. At worst, only Illinois could tie Michigan for second place in the conference, and Michigan held the tiebreaker by beating the Illini in Champaign. Regardless of the outcome, Michigan was going to Pasadena or Orlando, and the Ohio State game would determine that. So as Michigan lined up on Saturday they took the field as a who they were, a team with nothing to play for save themselves.

And that wasn't nearly enough against a hungry Badger team with a chip on its shoulder. Michigan's offense was flat and predicable. DeBord's insane insistence on a two back rotation prevented either runner from getting in a rhythm. Well, that's not entire true. The offensive line couldn't have opened up a pickle jar on Saturday, much less a running lane. The normally sure handed Adrian Arrington couldn't catch a cold, and despite catching two touchdown passes Mario Manningham spent most of his day bitching at his quarterback. This was a Terrell Owens level of disfunctionality on the part of the Michigan offense. The play calling was terrible. The execution was totally missing. The effort was lacking. There wasn't a player on the offensive side of the ball that didn't share some of the blame for pissing that game away, and Long said so.

It's easy to point to Hart and Henne's exclusion from Saturday's contest as the reason for Michigan's failure, but even if both had played I still put Michigan's chances of escaping Madison with a win at 40%. While both men would've added an extra dimension to the Wolverine offense, neither of them can play defense. Wisconsin's back up running backs gashed Michigan 232 yards rushing. None of Wisconsin's play calls were fancy. For the most part it was smash mouth, up-the-gut running. And Michigan couldn't answer it. The linebackers spent most of the day out of position or shying away from fullback contact. When Graham wasn't misreading the play he was getting crushed by the fullback. When Crable wasn't overrunning his position he was picking up personal fouls. And so on.

Michigan reverted back to its prior form in defending simple plays. Poor tackling. Inability to think straight when posed with a mobile quarterback. A secondary playing 10 yards off its receivers. An inability to key on the one aspect of Wisconsin's passing game that was relevant (you know, that BECKUM guy!). It was a joint failure of both coaches and players to both properly prepare and execute a defensive game plan that gave Michigan an opportunity to win the game.

In reality Michigan is still the same flawed team we cried over earlier in the year. Horrendous against the run. Incapable of getting pressure on any quarterback not named Clausen. Long on talent and seemingly short on sense. Dead when their Hart is removed.

This team really isn't that good, at least even close to as good as we want it to be, as we thought it would be. It's an 8 or 9 win team that can win 10 games. That's a banner year anywhere else, but never enough when you start the season ranked 4th in the nation. Sure there's a surfeit of talent wearing Maize and Blue, probably more than any other team in the conference not named Ohio State, but where is that talent lacking? Crucial places like linebacker and both sides of the line. It's not a particularly well coached team. It's not a particularly well disciplined team. It is what it is.

And to be honest I think Lloyd Carr knows that. After two losses he expected to win, Lloyd took a look at the schedule and reset the goals for this group. After Appalachian State, Carr knew his team would never be in the national championship discussion. After Oregon he knew the only way Michigan would play in a BCS Bowl was to win the Big Ten. He also knew the only thing he could do to salvage a season seemingly beyond repair was to coach a play toward that singular objective. The Rose Bowl.

So Henne and Hart sat. Whether this is because Hart and Henne weren't healthy is subject to your own cynicism. Personally, I believe the former could go and the latter could not. Realistically, Michigan probably could've won the game with Hart and Henne in. But at what cost? Mallett was sacked four times and picked twice. Henne separated his shoulder three weeks ago, a nasty hit in a meaningless game would've sealed Michigan's fate next week. Hart ran for 110 yards last week on one ankle, would he have done the same on the day where the line leaked like a faulty faucet? Not likely.

I guess it all comes down to a matter of perspective. What is most important? Is a hollow victory for the sake of moving up to 10 in the BCS rankings really that important when a loss to Ohio State seals your fate? If Hart and Henne are healthy it gives Michigan truly its only shot to beat OSU. Wisconsin's back-up tailbacks ran roughshod over Michigan's inept rush defense, and you can bet your maize and blue behind Chris and Mo Wells are licking their chops watching game film. If Michigan is going to beat OSU it's going to be by putting points on the board and limiting its offensive mistakes, something clearly impossible with a freshman at quarterback. We learned against ASU and Oregon (and later against Wisconsin) that a disciplined offense can shred the Michigan defense. So, as Patton once said, the best defense is a good offense.

Hart and Henne will play on Saturday and that is all that really matters from the Wisconsin game. Both had another week to rest and both (hopefully) will be healthy. If you're still pissed out them being held out, ask yourself a simple question: what's more important? Ohio State or Wisconsin? I'm no longer going to tell myself this is a team that was inches away when it hasn't been within a mile of competing for a national championship since day one. I accept this team for what it is, and I will cheer for it with my heart and soul come hell or high water. They are, after all, Michigan. I will accept the reality of this situation and embrace it to the best of my ability.

At least that's what I'm telling myself in an attempt to make sense of a season that doesn't.