by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

PASADENA, Calif. — Suddenly the magic was gone, dried up in the California wind and blown out to sea. Jim Harbaugh took his first snap of the third quarter — and how many of those had signaled fireworks for Michigan this season? — and, look out, he overthrew Greg McMurtry by a mile. Second snap. Harbaugh was sacked. Third snap. Harbaugh scrambled, dumped the simplest of lobs to Jamie Morris.

Morris dropped it.

Michigan punted away.

Roses are dead. They began dying with the coin toss of this New Year’s Day showdown and they didn’t stop until the final minute of this 22-15 defeat — when Harbaugh’s last pass as a Wolverine was intercepted on fourth down, killing the last U-M drive and the spirit and hope of every maize-and-blue supporter in this half-mad sellout crowd.

Roses are dead. But just which team was which here? Doesn’t Michigan have the hot senior quarterback? But it was Arizona State’s passer who won the most valuable player award. Isn’t Michigan the shut-’em-down second-half team? But it was ASU that allowed no points after halftime.

Isn’t it Michigan that traditionally likes to kick off first — so its offense can open the second half, rested and recharged? But here was Arizona State winning the coin flip, taking the kickoff option, stealing the second-half heroics, and finally claiming the crown.

“Did they do anything you didn’t expect?” someone would ask Bo Schembechler in the crowded hallway after the game.

“Yes,” he said, his bitterness apparent. “We didn’t expect them to be so successful.”

Roses are dead.

Michigan led this game at halftime, 15-13. But something happened in that midway break. The afternoon sun disappeared and it became night, West Coast night, and this neutral site was suddenly Arizona State territory, with ASU fans screaming thunder and the ASU players attacking like destiny.

How many times has Michigan sprung from the halftime locker room to march downfield? But here was ASU moving to start that third quarter, using nearly six minutes, and scoring a touchdown to go ahead, 19-15.

“The problem,” Schembechler would say, “was when their offense was against our defense they had the advantage.” Yes. Exactly. And the image that will endure from this Rose Bowl is the Michigan defensive line slamming into the Arizona State offensive line and getting nowhere, while Jeff Van Raaphorst, the ASU quarterback, stood cool as breeze, picking a receiver and hitting him in the hands.

How many times did the Wolverines try to get to Van Raaphorst — and just miss? How many times did he find a receiver just underneath the Michigan coverage? His numbers (16-30, 193 yards, two touchdowns) are not indicative of his impact. For while Harbaugh was the more celebrated passer coming in to this game, Van Raaphorst was the name on people’s lips coming out.

“He’s the quarterback of the Pac-10 champions!” ASU coach John Cooper would holler after the game. “And now . . . the Rose Bowl champions!”

Rose Bowl champions. Yes. It was the one thing left for Harbaugh, Andy Moeller, Garland Rivers and the other seniors on this Michigan squad. But the only thing certain in college sports is that your time is marked. And their time is up.

“There’s no coming back here next week,” said a tight-lipped Harbaugh after the game. “That’s what hurts so much about this.”

Perhaps no U-M player bleeds today more than Harbaugh, partly because, on paper anyway, he made the most mistakes (three interceptions) and partly because this was to be the culmination of his years with Schembechler, a coach he adores. “I feel like I let him down,” Harbaugh said. “Now he’s going to be maligned again for not being able to win a Rose Bowl.”

Well. Know this. Whatever will be said of Bo and his bowl record (and most of it is just garbage anyhow), Harbaugh is not solely to blame for this one.
“Anybody who knows football knows a quarterback can’t do anything when defenders are in his face all day,” Schembechler said. “You want to blame somebody, blame the offensive line. They were lousy.”

And as a result, the fluid Wolverines offense, which had carried the team most of the season, was suddenly clanking. U- M’s second-half drives ended, in order, in a punt, an interception, a punt, a punt and an interception. Jamie Morris, the break-away tailback, was not breaking away at all. On a fourth-quarter drive he took the ball and actually had to go backward to avoid the ASU defenders. He lost 11 yards.

But enough. The play-by-play will only reveal this: Arizona State was quicker, better defensively, and better at protecting its quarterback. That should be enough to win by seven points, no?

The highlight films will be of Van Raaphorst — not Harbaugh — and plays like third-and-seven for ASU late in the fourth quarter, when Van Raaphorst backpedaled, with a Michigan defender in his face, and still unloaded a pass to tight end Jeff Gallimore for the critical first down.

It was his excellence, and his team’s lack of mistakes — no fumbles, no interceptions, few penalties — that enabled the Sun Devils to go home with a Rose Bowl title in their first try.

And for Michigan? It is simply another bowl defeat, the hidden wire that seems to trip Schembechler at the end of most of his successful U-M seasons. There is no jinx, no voodoo, just some excellent teams waiting on Jan. 1.

Arizona State was excellent.

One should remember that a Rose Bowl loss does not in any way diminish the fine regular season the Wolverines enjoyed, does not erase the Ohio State come-from-behind victory, the rack-up yardage of Harbaugh and Morris. All that stuff is already hardened in concrete memory.

But no one in a Michigan uniform wants to hear that today. “I hurt,” said Harbaugh afterward, as honest as he could be. “I hurt for the seniors, I hurt for Bo. I hurt for myself. . . . “

He swallowed, and looked away briefly from the cameras and microphones.
“And I’m probably gonna hurt for a while.”

Roses are dead, Wolverines are blue. Somewhere in the California wind blows the could-haves and should-haves and the might-have-beens of this Rose Bowl.

They don’t matter now.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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