ANN ARBOR — It was like watching the hero ride into the sunset, then fall off his horse. Say no. This wasn’t really happening. The last home game of the season — the last one before the BIG game at Ohio State — and time was running out and the Michigan defenders were furiously chasing a quarterback with a funny name, and he was getting away — with everything.

Everything. The undefeated season, the possible national championship, the pride, the farewell performance. All that was in Rickey Foggie’s legs, and his legs were moving, fast and free, and he cut past one defender then another and into open field for 10 yards, 20 yards, 30 yards . . .

Michigan was going to . . . lose? “What were you doing on the sideline when Foggie broke loose?” someone would ask quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who had steered Michigan to a tying touchdown with 2:26 left in the game.

“I was talking to my receivers, getting ready to go back in and try and score,” Harbaugh would say. “I was sure we would get the ball back and drive down field.

“Then I looked up and Foggie went running by and . . . I . . . well . . .”

“You stopped talking to your receivers?”

“There wasn’t much else to say.”

No. Not much at all.

Michigan was going to lose. Foggie darted out of bounds at the Michigan 17. The crowd gave a collective moan. Say no. This isn’t happening. Isn’t Michigan 9-0? Undefeated? Isn’t Minnesota 5-4? Didn’t the Gophers get shut out by Ohio State and Oklahoma? This isn’t happening. But it was happening — Minnesota was going for the kill
— and by that point, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone. This was the capper to a game as much in Michigan’s hands as a greased cucumber.

Fumbles? Michigan had fumbles. A dropped punt? Michigan had a dropped punt. Interception. Miscues. A pitch-out that flew past the running back.
“Everything we did seemed to backfire,” Bo Schembechler would say.

Minnesota churned it all into a hardened whole, one that looked as if it would end in a tie, 17-17 — which would have been bad enough for a team such as Michigan, ranked second in the nation. Face it. Minnesota is a team that earlier in the year lost to Pacific, 24-20. Pacific? What is that? They lost to an ocean?

Whatever. Michigan was going to be stuck with the embarrassment of a tie until, with 42 seconds left, Foggie — who, by the way, is playing with a fractured right tibia — looked up, “saw all this green, and decided to go.” He picked up 31 yards.

“Were you looking for a big play?” someone would ask.

“Nah, we just wanted to run out the clock,” he would say. “We would have been satisfied with a tie. Hey. We were 25 1/ 2-point underdogs, remember.”

Remember? Who could forget? But odds are for might-be’s. This is what was: As the crowd screamed hysterically, Chip Lohmiller calmly kicked a 30-yard field goal, the gun fired, and Minnesota had beaten the spread by four touchdowns, and Michigan, 20-17. “A lot of people lost a lot of money today,” Foggie said, laughing.

More than that. Much more. But shake your head all you like, no one can say this was a game Michigan deserved to win. “We were lucky to even be tied,” Schembechler said.

And he was dead right. Here was Minnesota, a team that hadn’t won in Ann Arbor since 1962 — not a single player out there Saturday was even born by 1962 — and it was playing tough, looking loose. And here was Michigan, in its final warm-up before the game that matters most, looking error-prone and vulnerable.

The Wolverines played beneath their ability. They gave the ball away so often, Minnesota half-expected green stamps.

Tony Gant let a punt bounce off his chest. Minnesota recovered, and turned it into a touchdown.

Harbaugh telegraphed a sideline pass. Minnesota intercepted and turned it into a touchdown.

It seemed as if the Wolverines were playing in a dream, as if all the mistakes would disappear when they woke up. Only they never woke up.

Instead, in the last home game seniors such as Harbaugh, Andy Moeller and Paul Jokisch would ever play, the team performed dismally. It’s hard to say goodby. It shouldn’t have been this hard. Why did it happen? Who knows why? Coaches and players denied they were looking too much toward next Saturday. Denied they were not concentrating hard enough. “I’m very disappointed in their performance,” Schembechler said. Did you expect to hear anything different?

It’s embarrassing. Demoralizing. Other than that, what does it all mean? Nothing for Rose Bowl fans. Michigan need only defeat Ohio State next Saturday in Columbus to win the Big Ten and go to Pasadena — scars or no scars. But a national championship is virtually out of the question, and a perfect season
— for a team that might have deserved it — is gone now, too. So perhaps, is Michigan’s reputation as a national powerhouse this year. Neither Miami, Penn State, Oklahoma nor Arizona State, after all, has lost to a team as inferior as Minnesota should have been to Michigan.

Yes, in a strange way, the loss could prick the Wolverines, make them bloodthirsty in practice this week, and leave them even more toughened for the showdown in Columbus. No good can come from bad, the expression goes, but then, they didn’t play football when those expressions were invented.

“Do you think all these turnovers will affect you at all against Ohio State?” someone asked Harbaugh.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” he said, his voice grim, his chin set, leaving little doubt he was already preparing for that game.

Say no. No problem. Say this was just a detour on the road to destiny, hurtful, but survivable. But if they ask if U-M deserved to lose Saturday, did they deserve the fall they’ll suffer in the polls, and are they going to have to earn it twice as much against the Buckeyes next Saturday — there is only one response, sad but true.

Say yes. CUTLINE Linebacker Larry Joyner (right) is greeted by Minnesota fans at the Minneapolis airport after the Gophers’ upset victory over Michigan.

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