ANN ARBOR — It ended with a Michigan receiver leaping desperately into a sandwich of Ohio State defenders, the ball out of reach, the party over. It was not the finish the Wolverines dreamed about; more like the nightmare they could not escape.
“Turnovers, fumbles, interceptions,” Bo Schembechler would ramble after his team dropped the November war with the Buckeyes, 23-20, ending a dizzying regular season at 7-4. “We missed a field goal, we blew a touchdown on an easy play, we are a young team, we made young mistakes. . . . “
On and on he would go, talking about the future, the necessary changes: the quarterback would have to mature; the team could not go on beating itself.
. . ..
Down the hall, inside the U-M locker room, the senior players were dressing slowly. They had just played their last game at Michigan Stadium. Jamie Morris, the star tailback, twisted his tie and stuffed it under his sweater. John Elliott, the offensive lineman nicknamed “Jumbo,” grabbed his pants off the hook and pulled them on slowly. Allen Bishop, the defensive back, was in the trainers’ room, having his ankle taped.
Sometimes you win and sometimes you graduate. A coach came up to Morris and hugged him. Reporters who covered the team all year shook hands with seniors whom they might not see again. “It’s funny,” Elliott said into a TV camera’s lens “for a while there, I thought we were going to win by a rout . . . .”
The shame at that moment did not seem that the Wolverines fell to the Buckeyes Saturday, or that they probably should have won this game, or that the image that endures is of the ball squeaking away, a fumble, an errant pass. Uh-uh.
The shame at that moment seemed that the senior guys wouldn’t get to try it again.
You know, my best memories have come out of this series,” said Elliott, the massive All-America lineman. “Like last year, when we came back, it was the most satisfying win in my life. And in 1985, when John Kolesar made that catch . . .
“I was just thinking about the symmetry of this game. Last year we were losing what, 14-3, and came back to win it. This year we had them down, 13-7 and they come back . . . “
Symmetry. It was a U-M-OSU game that had to be considered satisfying from an emotional point of view, if not by the final score. Here were the Buckeyes, playing their final game for their coach, Earle Bruce, who had been fired last Monday. He recruited these players. He guided them. Now he was unhappily leaving them. What else could they do for him but win?
So quarterback Tom Tupa sliced the Michigan defense like a razor, 219 yards, 18 of 26 completed, no interceptions. And Everett Ross, the flanker, caught the most important passes, including a go-ahead touchdown. And Matt Frantz — who missed the last-minute field goal that would have won the game in 1986 — kicked the deciding one straight and true this time, sealing the three-point victory.
“There are no sweeter wins that beating Michigan in the last game of the season,” Bruce said in an emotional final post-game press conference.
Isn’t it true? Wouldn’t it be true if the sentence was reversed? Never mind that this game technically meant very little. Never mind that no bowls would be decided. Never mind that no Big Ten championship lay on the line. “I didn’t see anybody loafing out there, did you?” asked Schembechler.
No. Who could loaf in Michigan-Ohio State? The game was like a season, with excellence and weakness and everything in between. There was a fake punt and a missed extra point and a five-yard pass that turned into a 70-yard touchdown. There was a platoon system at quarterback and a long punt return called back on a penalty and brilliant runs and missed receivers. You name it.
And in the end, there was a sea of red sweaters swarming the enemy field, carrying off Bruce, while the Michigan players headed to the locker room slowly.
“What did Bo tell you afterward?” Morris was asked.
“He said we were a young team, and that it was a shame that we played like such a young team and that we’ve got to stop turning the ball over . . . “
“But none of that applies to you anymore.”
“No,” said Morris, “but in terms of the team, it’s the truth.”
You could not help but feel for Morris. Here is a tailback who gave his all in his four years at Michigan, a 5-foot-7 fireball of energy who ran in the first half Saturday like God’s needle through scarlet and gray threads. He would finish with 130 yards, tying the U-M single season rushing mark held by Rob Lytle. Morris’ last play in this stadium would be a four- yard gain that was nullified by a penalty. Had there been no penalty, he would have broken the record cleanly.
“It’s not the scenario I dreamed about, no,” he said, smiling at the understatement. “But hey, the first half was fun.”
So the season ends the way it began, a loss, too many mistakes. College football is as cyclical as college itself. Some years are rebuilding. Schembechler and his team — who are still going to the Hall of Fame Bowl on Jan. 2 — can only hope this is one of them.
And the seniors? It’s over for them. “A lot of us had hoped it would turn out different, sure,” said Elliott. ‘We wanted to go out victors. But we just turned the ball over too much . . . “
“It hasn’t really hit me,” added Morris. “I still have that feeling that we’ll come back next year and get ’em. It hasn’t dawned on me that I won’t be with these guys next year in Columbus . . .
Sometimes you win, sometimes you graduate. Saturday does not take away the three years that preceded it. The small print says the Michigan seniors took home a loss in the last game of their 1987 season. The truth is, when all is said and done, they take home a lot more. An awful lot more. CUTLINE In tribute to their fired coach, the Buckeyes showed up wearing headbands bearing “Earle.”