BOWLED OVER

PASADENA, Calif. – Here came a linebacker. Here came a nose tackle. Here came a cornerback. Here came another linebacker.

It’s supposed to be the ocean that smacks up against you in these parts, but on Monday it was the Southern Cal defense that crashed like waves against Michigan quarterback Chad Henne, over and over, chasing him, knocking him down, until you half expected some “Baywatch” lifeguard to come flying out of the stands to save him.

No such luck.

They lost the game. They lost the argument. The Wolverines can no longer claim they were robbed of a national championship bid. Not when they began 2007 looking nothing like the team of 2006. They were outpassed. Outdefensed. Outrun. With a little over five minutes left, the Trojans’ portion of the crowd (you know, the folks who looked happy) began to chant “Over-rated! Over-rated!”

And, sadly, that is the adjective that will haunt the end of U-M’s season. Who were these guys who took the field for this Rose Bowl? Until the fourth quarter, the very things that defined the Wolverines deserted them like a dog with a new bone. Running the ball? Blocking off the line? Pressuring the other quarterback? Fumbling? Throwing a pick? Hey, if Michigan isn’t going to play like Michigan, it can’t expect to win like Michigan.

But it did lose like Michigan, in yet another debacle in the stunning shadow of the San Gabriel mountains. No offense to the joys of Southern California, but when they say sunshine is not good for you, Lloyd Carr must nod his head enthusiastically. This is his fourth straight bowl loss, his third in four years in Pasadena, and his second in three years to a Trojans team coached by Pete Carroll that treated Lloyd’s quarterback like a beanbag chair.

In 2004, John Navarre was sacked nine times and Michigan lost by two touchdowns.

On Monday, Henne was sacked six times and Michigan lost by two touchdowns, 32-18.

“A lot of it had to do with their speed,” Carr said afterward.

Not a lot of it. Almost all of it. You get the feeling Carroll doesn’t lose much sleep over the big and meaty reputation of Michigan’s linemen. Not when he’s got big and fast – on both sides of the ball. By the time Henne finally got his feet underneath him, USC was picking apart Michigan’s pass defense like a kid going through the wrapping paper on his Christmas presents. John David Booty, the USC quarterback who has “Big Dreams” tattooed on his arm, threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns against what was supposed to be – emphasis on “supposed to be”- one of the nation’s best defenses.

Uh-uh. That argument is lost now. Ohio State scored 42. USC scored 32. You combine the bad bowl defeats with the three straight regular-season losses to the Buckeyes, and Michigan football now resembles a lit fuse to a stick of dynamite.

No one wants to be around when it ends.

You gotta block ’em

Of course, watching this game, not many wanted to be around when it started. The first half ended 3-3 and you were surprised there was that much scoring. It was like going to see Metallica and hearing the band play folk music. Like going to see the mighty Mississippi and instead finding Dawson’s Creek. This is what happens when you insert a six-week dead period between football games. Things dry up. Things ripen then rot. How can they not? Michigan’s last game was on Nov. 18. Nobody holds rhythm for a month and a half. It would be like holding your breath until Wednesday. Players get out of sync. Nobody is used to hard tackling. The whole thing is off. It is as strong an indictment as you can make for the lunacy that is the college football postseason. You have a good product and you stick it in the freezer until the New Year. As a result, every bowl – including next week’s national championship matchup – faces the potential to appear unrecognizable. Who are these guys?

USC, it turned out, only suffered amnesia for two quarters. Michigan never came out of it. The Wolverines survived all year with Mike Hart rushing. But Hart never got any traction Monday. He had just 47 yards, and finished the game on the bench, reportedly with a bad shoulder. You don’t run, you don’t win.

Michigan allowed only 18 sacks all year. But Henne went down five times in the first half alone, and three times in five plays. I’m not making that up. He got sacked. Then he completed a pass. Then he got sacked. Then he handed off. Then he got sacked.

You don’t protect, you don’t win.

At halftime, a TV reporter asked Carr what the problem was.

“Well, we gotta block ’em,” he said.

When a Michigan coach is saying that at the end of a season, you know something’s wrong.

Another Unhappy New Year

And no doubt, people back home this morning will be asking what went wrong again – with the team, with the coach, with the finish to what was, until mid-November, an undefeated season.

The simple answer is Michigan ran up against the kind of team that can beat it – twice. Ohio State and USC did many similar things. They spread their receivers to stretch the defense. They came after Henne hard. They made the strength of the Michigan program – the big men on the line – look slow and plodding when it counted.

And they both made adjustments at halftime that outmaneuvered whatever Michigan came up with.

And the Wolverines went down.

It’s depressing. It’s distressing. You can argue that it’s too much time off – and you’d be right. You can argue that Rose Bowls against USC are like playing a road game against a home team – and you’d be right. You can argue that this justifies what happened – and you’d be wrong.

Michigan cannot claim itself an elite, national championship-caliber program and consistently go out with a whimper. On Monday, it did not look like a team worthy of facing Ohio State again. It did not look like a team worthy of facing USC again. It looked like a team going backward, and you can’t keep ending your seasons that way.

Such a shame. What began as a wonderful season, an unlikely team racing to an 11-0 record, ended Monday with its leader, Henne, the quarterback, backpedaling, running away and going down, again and again, under a California wave.

“How disappointed are you?” someone asked Carr.

“How disappointed can you be?” he answered.

Today is Jan. 2, and people are checking their New Year’s resolutions. Michigan’s resolution, once again, will have something to do with Jan. 1.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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