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Stephen J. Nesbitt: Michigan leaves unfinished business in Columbus

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 24, 2012

COLUMBUS — The lyrics floated swiftly, rising through the bay windows of the nondescript white room in the southwest corner of Ohio Stadium. In the front of the room, glancing down at the patterned scarlet and gray carpet, his arms crossed on the table in front of him, was Brady Hoke.

Michigan’s second-year head coach didn’t seem to notice the commotion outside, where as the members of Michigan’s ‘Team 133’ leaked out of the locker room and onto the team bus, the Ohio State faithful bade them a proper adieu.

“We don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan,” the group sang. “The whole state of Michigan, the whole state of Michigan.

“We don’t give a damn for the whole state of Michigan, ‘cause we’re from Ohio.”

It was the last speck of salt flicked into Hoke’s open, festering wound. In a battle of perennial heavyweights, Michigan and its head coach had been outmuscled and outsmarted. The Buckeyes bounced back from a defeat in The Game last fall to edge past the Wolverines, 26-21, in the 109th iteration of the vaunted Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.

It was a game circled in red ink on the Buckeye calendars for two reasons: because, well, it always is, and because when the NCAA levied sanctions on Ohio State a year ago that barred it from post-season play this fall, this became the be all, end all. This was it.

And as the final seconds slowly ticked off the clock, an Ohio State student raised a thick gold wrestling championship belt high above his head. Another chant began to rain down.

UN-DE-FEAT-ED.

***

For a Michigan team that centered itself on the word finish, Saturday left plenty of unfinished business.

If the defeat looked like any of Michigan’s other three losses on the season, it’s because it was. It just happened to be much closer, thanks to a staunch Wolverine defense.

Four losses, all away from home; a negative turnover margin in each; and an offense that time and time again put the defense in a rut where its optimal outcome was to make a stand and force a field-goal attempt.

As was characteristic against Alabama, Notre Dame and Nebraska, the Wolverines just couldn’t run the ball against Ohio State. In eight victories this fall, Michigan averaged 226.8 rushing yards. In four losses? A mere 108.2.

And that ground-game futility kicked in at the most inopportune times against the Buckeyes. A third-and-three at midfield to open the second half, sophomore Thomas Rawls ran into a brick wall. Senior quarterback Denard Robinson trotted out on fourth down and tried the same wall. Nothing.

“One play can’t change the whole game,” Robinson said. “That was just one of the speedbumps in the road.”

That may be true, but three or four of the same play sure can make a difference.

Michigan got just three more third-down opportunities the rest of the game. Two were runs for senior Vincent Smith that went nowhere and backward, respectively.

Rawls couldn’t finish. Neither could Robinson, Smith or even junior quarterback Devin Gardner, whose three turnovers crippled the offense.

Ohio State finished. When the Buckeyes needed an answer, they got it. On defense, they swarmed and effectively forced Michigan into going to the air, though the Wolverine offense didn’t necessarily concede that point.

On offense, tailback Carlos Hyde finished in the way that the Michigan running backs couldn’t, punching holes in the line, shooting gaps for two critical first downs on the final drive of the game to seal the victory.

Game, set, season.

***

Rivalries are played out on the field, like every game. But they extend so, so much beyond the confines of a football stadium.

Legends are built in rivalries, records left in tatters, legacies cemented into college football lore. There’s a bowl game, sure, but November is what Big Ten football is about.

Robinson electrified the nation one final time. Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller proved his mettle, flashed his potential. And two coaches planted the seeds for the second Ten-Year War between Michigan and Ohio State.

A cameraman found Hoke on the Michigan sideline in the final moments of the game. Hoke was greeted with a cascade of boos. He grimaced. A minute later, the student section spilled onto the field to celebrate.

“I kind of lost it on the sideline there,” Meyer admitted. “Gotta keep more composure, I guess. In the coaching manual, I think it’s Chapter 13: ‘Keep cool.’ I lost it for a couple minutes.”

Hoke and Meyer never found each other after the game. One was swarmed by cameras and fans. The other, his raspy voice wearing thin, hustled his players away, up the tunnel.

Deep beneath the stadium, Marvin Boerger, a gray-haired Ohioan manning an elevator on the west side of the stadium, hummed a little tune.

“12-0, no place to go,” he said with a smile. “No place to go.”