DAY 2,192

He’s a kid and he’s exciting, he’s a kid and he’s emotional, he’s a kid and maybe he thinks he’s invincible, but he’s a kid and that’s still the final word. On Saturday afternoon, in the last game of the season, Tate Forcier, 19, looked more like a freshman than he did on Labor Day weekend.

Take off the cleats. The Wolverines are done. No bowl. No winning record. A season that began with four victories ended with five straight losses. And the starting QB, who launched like a rocket, ended like a wounded bird that kept flying into a wall. He fumbled in the end zone on Michigan’s first possession. He threw four interceptions, the last two when the Wolverines were hoping for a late rally.

But he’s a freshman, and freshman do that, and he’s a freshman, and he still should know better, and he’s a freshman whom some are saying won’t be back next year and so it comes down to patience, with him, with the program and with the coach, Rich Rodriguez, who didn’t throw a single pick, but faced a verbal dart-toss after the defeat.

Was it humbling?

“I’m tired of being humbled,” he said.

Do you fear losing your job?

“No.”

Do you have a timetable for winning?

“Yeah. Right away.”

But not this year.

Take off the cleats. The best and worst of times

What’s strange about this 21-10 defeat to the Buckeyes was that it was U-M’s sixth straight to its archrival, yet the program has fallen so fast that most fans expected it. Many just wanted a good showing. And for much of the day, U-M provided it. The maligned defense limited Ohio State’s rushing attack. It stopped Terrelle Pryor on numerous third downs. It held the OSU offense to two touchdowns, and you can beat the Buckeyes when you do that.

But you can’t keep giving it back. Forcier threw three interceptions on three straight fourth-quarter possessions, one a bad heave, one a heartbreaker in the end zone and one smack into a defender’s hands.

When the offense moved, it was Forcier, too. He made it go and he made it stop. And equal problem was the fact that U-M can’t run the ball. Yes, Brandon Minor was out. But in the old days, injury, especially at running back, was never an excuse.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: the old days. Ironically (fans might say tragically), this was the 40th anniversary of U-M’s greatest moment against OSU – the 1969 upset in Bo Schembechler’s first season. Legendary names Dan Dierdorf, Jim Mandich and Barry Pierson waved during the first quarter. Sadly, they were standing inches from where Forcier had just fumbled away seven points.

Take off the cleats. Double digits in victories isn’t easy

“It probably hid a bit of the warts we still had,” Rodriguez said when asked about the 4-0 start. Here’s the ugly truth since then: The Wolverines lost all but one Big Ten game. They finished in the conference basement. In the past eight weeks, they have only defeated Delaware State. That’s a lot of warts.

This program then is a lot like its young quarterback: promising flashes, fundamental flaws and in desperate need of maturity. Rich Rod is correct when he says he’s playing lots of young players and young players make mistakes. And fans who clamored for a new style like his, a break from Bo-Mo-Lloyd, must now concede that conversion isn’t fast.

They also should admit how damn hard it is to post 10-2 or 9-3 seasons, the kind of thing they moaned about when Lloyd Carr was in charge.

This is your program now, Michigan. It hung with the conference champs, might have won, but didn’t. Is that a half full or half empty?

Either way, President Mary Sue Coleman, if she plans to keep Rodriguez, should say so this week. If not, she should say that. Otherwise, Saturday’s loss will increasingly shadow this young team.

“Their future is bright,” Rodriguez said.

And his?

Mitch Albom will sign copies of his latest bestseller, “Have a Little Faith,” at 11 a.m. Friday at Borders Express in Twelve Oaks Mall and at 1 p.m. next Sunday at Barnes & Noble in Royal Oak.

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