“It must be very difficult to win five
– Jim Tressel after Ohio State’s fourth victory in a row over Michigan
For a fleeting moment during this fractured season, they believed the end might make up for the beginning. But the whistle blew Saturday, the ball was kicked off and of all the dreams the Michigan seniors once had, this mess, this train wreck, this wet, drizzly dud of a performance was not, could not, in any way, be what they had in mind. Balls dropped. Passes overthrown. Blocks missed. Rushes stuffed. A soaking farewell with three points scored?
So much for the mantra that if Chad Henne and Mike Hart played, the Wolverines would end their jinx. So much for the shadow of Lloyd Carr retiring inspiring his kids to victory. Henne and Hart played. Carr may indeed retire. And the team still went poof, as dead as a match in a thunderstorm.
On this cold, soupy afternoon, in a stadium hovered by mist, the only thing that clearly stood out was the scarlet numbers of Ohio State’s jerseys – and that was all you needed to see. OSU’s defense reduced Michigan’s senior-led offense to table-crumb status, a mere 91 total yards, embarrassing third-down percentages, more 1-2-3 kicks than the Peppermint Twist. And this was a home game for Michigan!
Outside of its one field goal, the longest drive U-M had all day was 15 yards. That’s one pass on any other Saturday. But on this Saturday, the Wolverines trying to move on the Buckeyes was like zooming a new sports car into a wall, then backing up the wreck and zooming into the wall again. All that happens is that you get more dented.
“We didn’t get anything done,” said glum senior center Adam Kraus, who, disappointingly, was the only offensive player to bother to appear at the traditional postgame news conference after the 14-3 defeat. “The defense played great, and we hung them out to dry.”
Dud. Big Three struggled mightily
Of course, “dry” would have been nice. The wet ball and soggy field led to more drops and bad passes than Michigan commits in its worst practice. Sore limbs or bad timing did the rest:
Henne, in his last game in Michigan Stadium, couldn’t overcome his shoulder problems and only completed 11 of his 34 passes.
Hart, in his last game in Michigan Stadium, couldn’t overcome his injury slowdowns and was a nonfactor, 44 yards rushing, outshone by a Buckeyes sophomore nicknamed Beanie – who made the only big offensive plays on either side.
Jake Long, in his last game in Michigan Stadium, saw his proud string of no-sacks-allowed broken, while his string of losing to Ohio State remained intact.
“We didn’t think we were going to be this bad off,” Hart told a postgame radio show.
But you don’t win by thinking. And in the end, there was Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes’ coach, checking off another victory over Michigan the way a foreman checks off a shipment of boxes. No biggie. Part of the inventory.
“I wish we would’ve scored a little more,” he said. “ We did what we needed to do and 14 points was enough to win the Big Ten.”
Now, as much as that may gall maize-and-blue fans, it should be pointed out, this was not an upset. Michigan, on paper, is a very average team, middle of the pack in most categories. Ohio State, by contrast, came in as the No. 1 scoring defense and the No. 2 overall defense in the nation.
So it’s no surprise that the seventh-ranked Buckeyes shut down the 23rd-ranked Wolverines. Except it was a surprise. Because these games are not played on paper. They are played from the inside out, with passion, anger, boiling blood. It’s the reason the series contains some amazing upsets – like the 1969 game. A few Wolverines on Saturday had that wild, impassioned look. But more appeared to act as if playing hard was good enough, but playing your heart out wasn’t going to happen.
“We didn’t play physical enough,” senior safety Jamar Adams said. “ I can’t speak to the what-ifs. I can only speak to we didn’t play good enough.” Carr doesn’t get last laugh
And if this not-good-enough was indeed Carr’s last regular-season game – and with a news conference called for 10 a.m. Monday, you might suspect it was – then it was an ignoble end to a coaching era, as gray and lifeless as it was for his players. Carr was forced to spend much of the day gauging Hart’s and Henne’s health – as he has done the past two months – which meant he played doctor as well as coach.
“We have no excuses here,” Carr said, “but I think it’s fair to acknowledge that Chad was not throwing the football like he has. And Mike Hart was not at full speed.”
Carr stuck with both of them as long as he could and as often as they wanted. He will do that for seniors like them, and he is right to do so. When someone asked why he put Henne back in after freshman Ryan Mallett had spelled him, Carr rolled his eyes and sarcastically shot back, “Chad Henne has led a few comebacks around here.”
Sadly, this wasn’t one of them. It was a downer finish to a rocky season that had a terrible start and a joyous middle. But it’s how you end that counts. And Michigan will end at some bowl that only the team, the alumni and vacationers will care about.
Still something must be stated. Some people insist that Hart, Henne and Long shouldn’t have come back if they didn’t win the national title, or the Big Ten title, or at least beat Ohio State. Baloney. You can come back for your senior year because you like playing college football, you like being a student, you revel in being young and full of laughter and being able to finish your studies and live in the world of friends and pizza one more blessed year before the real world snatches you. Hart, Henne and Long did that. So it was still worth it to return. They still made memories – on and off the field.
Let’s put that debate to rest.
As for Carr? When asked about his job status, he said: “There will be a day to discuss that, and this isn’t it.” When Bill Martin, the athletic director, was asked the same thing, he said he didn’t know of any timetable, but added, “What I’d love to be able to do is clone him.”
Is that legal?
Well, that question will resolve itself soon, possibly this week. Whatever Carr decides, I doubt losing to Ohio State will influence it. If he’s staying, he’s staying anyhow. And if he has decided to go, it’s because he wants other things in life, he has put the game into perspective, and a defeat to Tressel will be viewed the same way. Know this: Lloyd Carr is too good and too smart a human being to believe beating a rival coach is what defines him.
But for fans, it is how they’ll remember this season. And when they got home from the stadium Saturday and toweled off from the cold rain, they no doubt wished they could wipe away what they saw out there, too. This was no classic. It was as gray and shapeless as a dream that has died, and for the seniors, that’s exactly what it was.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).