PASADENA, Calif. — Couldn’t run. Couldn’t pass. Couldn’t call in sick.

Since that covered all their options, the Michigan Wolverines had no choice but to stay on the field for the entire Rose Bowl on Wednesday afternoon, a game that, for U-M fans, was as much fun as an airplane full of terrorists. Bad? This was bad. This made Bo’s Rose Bowls look good, that’s how bad it was. When they weren’t being tackled for losses, the Wolverines were being pushed aside for touchdowns, and when they weren’t being pushed aside for touchdowns, they were being smothered on pass routes. So complete was the dominance of the Washington Huskies, that Michigan appeared to play the entire game inside a paper bag. That wasn’t a gun you heard to end this thing; that was Washington, making a fist and going pop!

“Were they the best team you’ve played this season?” someone asked coach Gary Moeller, after the Wolverine’s worst ever bowl loss, a 34-14 New Year’s stuffing.

“This season?” he said. “That’s one of the best teams I’ve ever seen.”

Give him credit for spotting the obvious. If not for a few bad breaks, the Huskies could have pocketed this game by halftime. They spent more time in the Michigan backfield than most of the Wolverine running backs. And they more than doubled the Wolverines offensive output — both in points and in yardage. I know Washington came into this game ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, while Michigan was No. 4. Sorry. That’s not two digits’ worth of difference. Someone’s getting too much credit, or someone’s not getting enough.

“I’d say they’re the national champions for sure,” said U- M quarterback Elvis Grbac, who got to know the Huskies on a first-name basis when they were lying on top of him. “They’re excellent. They’re 10 times better than Florida State or Notre Dame.”

Of course, Washington doesn’t care about those teams. It only cares about Miami, its rival for the national crown in the polls. All across America this morning, sports nuts will enjoy their first argument of 1992: Who is better, the purple or the orange?

You know what? I’ll show you a Michigan coaching staff and 95 players that couldn’t care less. Not the same team

This is no way to end a season, coming out to California and doing a bad impersonation of yourself. Washington was good, but were the Wolverines really this bad? By halftime Wednesday, fans back home must have been adjusting the color on their TV sets.

“Those can’t be maize-and-blue uniforms,” you could hear them say. “Do we have the right station?”

Good question. After all, since when does Michigan lack a running game
(72 yards total)? Since when did they forget how to punt? Since when does Grbac have trouble completing a simple pass? Since when does Desmond Howard only touch the ball twice on offense — and never for points? Not only was this the first time since his sophomore season that Howard didn’t score a touchdown — a record of 14 games in a row, snapped — but he also suffered the indignity of being impersonated by Washington receiver Mario Bailey, who did a Heisman pose in the end zone after scoring a 38-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

“What did you think of Mario’s pose?” someone asked Howard afterward.

“I think he can come over to my house and see the real trophy anytime he wants,” he said, laughing.

It was the only laugh Michigan had all afternoon.

Not that you could fault Howard. He was busy racing downfield while all the damage was being done at the line of scrimmage. Led by the Outland and Lombardi Trophy winner Steve Emtman, the Washington defensive line swarmed over anything that moved in the U-M backfield. They didn’t just stop the Wolverines; they gulped them.

Want an example? Second quarter: Washington throws an interception, and Michigan takes over on the Huskies’ 29-yard line. At this point, the game is still close — Washington 13, Michigan 7 — and Wolverines fans are screaming “THIS IS IT! THIS IS OUR CHANCE!”

Not exactly. On first down, the Huskies swarmed Grbac the way dogs swarm the first piece of meat. Sack. Minus 12 yards.

On second down, they swarm Grbac again. Sack. Minus three yards.

On third down — and by now, you need binoculars to see the end zone — Tyrone Wheatley takes a handoff and is smothered. No gain.

Congratulations. In three plays, the Wolverines almost made it back to midfield.

“We couldn’t block them, we couldn’t run on them, and we couldn’t establish any kind of rhythm,” Moeller moaned. He’s right. Washington established the rhythm in this game. It went thump-thump-thump-thump . . .

. . . squash. Welcome to the Rose Bowl

And so begins Moeller’s era in the Rose Bowl, a traditional burial ground for Michigan teams in January. This was his first loss at Pasadena, and at one point, he was standing on the sidelines, his mouth in a frown, one hand cupped under his chin, a la Jack Benny. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but I have a clue. Something like: “You know, Bo said there’d be days like this .
. .”

In Moeller’s defense, it wasn’t often that Schembechler’s team faced a No. 1 team as its Pac-10 opponent. Washington would beat most schools in the country, maybe all of them. That’s in Moeller’s defense. On the other hand, I was a little surprised to hear Grbac say afterward: “I don’t know if our preparation was everything it should have been. All these awards took guys out of practice. And we inserted all these new plays that we were trying to learn this week. We never really adjusted to it. . . . You come out here, and there’s all these distractions. . . .”

Now, that could just be his frustration talking. After all, Grbac spent more time under the Huskies defense than he did reading it. And he was playing with a new center, Matt Elliot, whose inexperience at the position led to at least four blown snap counts.

But it certainly plays into that old Schembechler paranoia about too many distractions, etc., etc. You wonder if Howard’s Heisman hype ate into the traditional focus of this team.

Ah well. It’s all behind now. Let Washington and Miami fight it out over this make-believe honor of being the best in the nation. Michigan had a very good season, with some terrific highlights — anyone who forgets Howard’s catch against Notre Dame is suffering from selective memory — and to say it was ruined by this poor showing is to place too great an emphasis on these games that are played six weeks removed from the regular season.

Maybe senior lineman Greg Skrepanek, who has played in three of these Rose Bowls, summed it up best: “We were not the least bit embarrassed,” he said, “but we did play terrible.”

Well put.

Unfortunately.

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