In a season filled with head-scratching errors accompanied by the dull roar of reality zooming past expectations like an express train, the 110th iteration of The Game made you forget about everything else for a few hours. There wasn't time to think about anything else.
Devin Funchess, plagued by drops of late, came down with the ball in the end zone, just 32 seconds remaining on the clock. Michigan, down one, could kick the extra point and take Ohio State to overtime after going down 35-21 late in the third quarter.
Of course, that's not what happened. Every close game has its turning point, a singular event that emerges in the moment, holding up a big College Gameday-esque sign reading "I'm important!"
This moment was beyond that. Michigan's offense stayed on the field after the touchdown, and I couldn't help but wonder: No way.
Ohio State called a timeout. I thought that the initial offensive look was simply a way to get the Buckeyes to burn their last timeout. In any case, the timeout has a way of making football coaches reconsider their courage. Following that, it seemed like Michigan might just come back out and kick the extra point.
But, as you watched the goings-on near the sideline, that was clearly not going to happen. Before the offense even ran back onto the field but after I realized what was really happening, I couldn't refrain from letting a whisper of a "whoa" slip out.
For all of the criticisms of the offense and the supposition that Brady Hoke wants to return Michigan to its days of ultraconservative talent-wasting, he is, if anything else, unafraid to be aggressive. Going for two against the Buckeyes with the game on the line is a whole different ballgame than any other move he's made to date, but the point is, at the very least, Michigan fans know this decision was not out of character for Hoke.
Michigan lined up and looked to take the lead against an Ohio State team that had seemingly run a marathon's worth of yards on its defense. Gardner, held together by Scotch tape and good intentions, took the snap and dropped back.
In that moment, after the snap and before the end, everything stood still. Gardner dropped, giving everyone in that stadium the chance to understand that the game they'd seen was not what anybody expected. What is college football if not for that lack of convergence, of expectations hanging out in the rafters as the play of reality rages on?
Gardner fired the pass to a well-covered Drew Dileo, and was picked off by Ohio State's Tyvis Powell. Just like that, it was over. Devin Gardner lay on the turf, looking up at the clear Midwestern sky above. More than anything else, defeat draws its power from the notion that the defeated doesn't have a chance, not that he is defeated.
The Buckeyes killed the rest of the clock and left the field with their ninth win in 10 tries against the Wolverines.
Unlike 2008 or 2010, when the Wolverines were absolutely destroyed by the Buckeyes, or 2005, when they gave up a 4th quarter lead to Troy Smith and Co., there's not a whole lot with which to be discouraged if you're a Michigan fan. No, the defense did not play well, but not having James Ross (and Jarrod Wilson not playing, for whatever reason) didn't help, not to mention the obvious fact that the Buckeyes are pretty good.
The talk of "moral victories" is a generally pointless one, doomed to devolve into a discussion of what a given fan deems acceptable or all-caps UNACCEPTABLE. Whenever this is the case, the discussion becomes about something other than the happenings on the field, and is thus not one worth having.
If feeling poorly about Saturday and ignoring any positives, simply because Michigan lost to Ohio State, is what a fan wants to do, he or she can do just that. If feeling unhappy but acknowledging that Michigan was a heavy underdog is the chosen response, that's fine too.
Personally, I lean toward the latter, mostly because context is everything. Michigan fans focus on the fact that the Wolverines have lost nine of their last 10 to the Buckeyes, but most of those losses have nothing to do with Brady Hoke. Hoke's 1-2 record is still just 1-2, but he has proven himself equal to the rivalry, and that's really all you can ask from a coach coming into the situation Hoke came into.
In three games under Hoke, Michigan has battled Ohio State to an aggregate score of 102-102. Again, a 1-2 record is still just a 1-2 record, but gone are the days of Michigan being completely outclassed by Ohio State.
It might not feel like it now, but the future of the rivalry is bright.
This was an action-packed game, so I'll just cover the rest with some bullets:
- The offense's success in this one was a bid of a head-scratcher simply for the fact that I'm not sure what Michigan did differently. The Wolverines ran a lot of screens, especially early, and incorporated a few more wide receiver carries than usual. Otherwise, the offensive line blocked well and Devin Gardner was firing on all cylinders, not to mention avoiding big mistakes (i.e. turnovers/sacks).
- The defense's collapse was unfortunate, but 2014 will be an exciting time for Greg Mattison's side of the ball. Freshman linebacker Ben Gedeon had a great game for the Wolverines, Willie Henry has proven himself throughout the season as a guy ready to become a big time player and guys like Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis have gotten invaluable experience (even if they've taken their lumps in the process). Michigan loses Jibreel Black, Thomas Gordon, Cam Gordon and Quinton Washington; all four of those guys have done some very good things for Michigan, but the Michigan defense will almost certainly be better next season.
- Going for two. Might as well get it out of the way. Although I won't lie, in the moment I reacted with significant skepticism. However, by the time they lined up, I was convinced it was the right call. Gardner was hobbled, Michigan's defense couldn't stop Ohio State at all and, if the Wolverines needed a field goal, they'd have to call on punter Matt Wile (who has attempted field goals in the past, obviously, but isn't Michigan's starting kicker for a reason). As for the play itself, hindsight is 20/20. It seems like Michigan came out in the same formation out of the timeout, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was the same play.
- Despite the benefit of an unstoppable running game, Braxton Miller didn't have a great day through the air, going just 6/15 for 133 yards. Needless to say, Miller will need to be a little more accurate if Ohio State plans on beating Michigan State in Indianapolis.
- For the second time in three games, Michigan's ground game looked vaguely functional, this time against a pretty good Buckeye defense (as opposed to a scuffling Northwestern team). Between De'Veon Smith, Derrick Green and Fitzgerald Toussaint, the Wolverines ran for 137 yards on 24 carries, good for 5.7 YPC. Of course, that seems meager when juxtaposed with Ohio State's rushing output but progress is progress.
- The offensive line. Whatever they did, they did it better this past Saturday. For the first time in a while, the offensive line --with a starting interior of Eric Magnuson, Graham Glasgow and Kyle Kalis-- looked not only competent but fairly good. Was this all just the product of rivalry game voodoo or did Michigan really somehow manage to execute that much better in a game during the same month as its performances against Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa? I'll say it's a little bit of both. Whether the line can continue to look like it did on Saturday next season, sans Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, is another question entirely.
- Devin Gardner. I hate to even include this bullet because it seems so glaringly obvious to me, but anyone who has criticized Gardner's toughness this season is, quite simply, a fool. Gardner has been far from perfect, but his desire to win is unquestionable. If that 14-yard carry on 3rd & 9 in the fourth quarter didn't convince you, I'm not sure what else anybody can tell you. Gardner will heal up and come back a much better, much smarter player next season.
- Jeremy Gallon. Who would've thought that Jeremy Gallon, a 5-foot-8 slot receiver from Florida recruited by Rich Rodriguez, a guy who was once supposedly in the proverbial "doghouse", would turn out to be one of the best receivers in Michigan history? Gallon now has 1,284 yards receiving on the season, just 46 shy of Braylon Edwards's record of 1,330. Sometimes, after he gets caught on long receptions (e.g. his 84-yarder on the first drive) or a Gardner pass flies just over his fingertips, you think "It's too bad he's not a little faster or a little taller." It's a good thing he's not either of those things, because then he wouldn't be Jeremy Gallon.
- 7-5. Obviously, this is not the record anyone wanted. With that said, despite the many comparisons to November 2010, Michigan is currently in a much better position moving forward. The defense will take another step forward, and the offense should be better. Whether that offensive improvement is due to personnel or playcalling (i.e. Al Borges) remains to be seen; needless to say, it's going to be a long offseason. With all of that said, a win in what is, truthfully, a completely meaningless bowl game, will go a long way toward raising the mood as we enter that offseason.
You can debate the playcalling, the decision to go for two, the curiosity of Michigan's offensive success on the heels of a month of complete ineptitude. You can also be upset that Michigan lost; everyone wants to win (minus the "let's hope Michigan loses so Borges gets fired" crowd, who can obviously be ignored on all accounts).
With all of that said, I am proud of Michigan's performance on Saturday. I am proud of the offensive line. I am proud of Hoke's decision to go for two, seemingly upsetting the very same people who squawk about "playing not to lose."
Despite giving up 42 points, I am proud of the Michigan defense for forcing a turnover late at exactly the right time.
I am proud of Jeremy Gallon, who, even as a senior, still makes catches that confound me.
I am proud of (i.e. in awe of) Jake Ryan, who looks like almost the same player he was last year. If any player reminds you of the immense physical gap that exists between you, the fan, and the athlete, it's Jake Ryan, who is apparently Wolverine.
I am proud of Devin Gardner, who, like John Navarre, pens his name in the Michigan record books and remains underappreciated. Devin Gardner is not a wide receiver: he is a quarterback.
Michigan lost on Saturday for the fifth time this season, more times than most people expected. But, as in everything else in life, context and circumstance reign supreme.
The decision to be proud (not to be confused with "happy" or "content") is a personal one. If teeth-gnashing is your thing, you can do just that. Unfortunately, the grinding cacophony of enamel upon enamel drowns out the symphony that makes pride increasingly obvious with each note.