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Courtney Ratkowiak: It's OK for the Wolverines to be desperate on Saturday

BY COURTNEY RATKOWIAK
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 5, 2009

Last year at this time, Michigan's bowl eligibility depended on winning out.

This year, all it needs to do is win one game.

But heading into Saturday's game against Purdue, the scene sounds too much like 2008.

That game started like this:

Michigan blows two-touchdown leads two separate times. In the third quarter, facing a critical Purdue third-and-9 at the Michigan 30-yard line, the defense misses multiple tackles to give the Boilermakers the first down. They tie the game four plays later.

And it ended like this:

"Never in my wildest imagination did I think we'd score 48 points," then-Purdue coach Joe Tiller said while examining the box score.

That, of course, was after Michigan gave up the winning touchdown with 26 seconds left in the game, on a hook-and-ladder that left the Wolverines completely baffled.

Post-halftime collapses, massive defensive breakdowns and heartbreaking last-second losses are still issues 12 months later. That's a letdown, considering this team looked like it had all the momentum in the world six weeks ago.

But now, the Boilermakers must be salivating at the opportunity to face a Michigan team that looks similar to last year's on paper. The Wolverines are coming into this game with the exact same number of Big Ten wins as they had before the Purdue matchup in 2008 — one — and with a defense that is equally bad at preventing big plays.

“It’s all about what you got inside of you to make sure you work as hard as you can,” Brandon Graham said Monday. “That’s just how I’m going to bring it. I’m gonna tell them it’s all about your heart now.”

Knowing how vulnerable this year’s defense really is, playing with heart alone won't be enough to beat Wisconsin or Ohio State. Against a 3-6 Purdue team, that might work.

But it needs a different name:

Desperation.

Saturday's game is the Wolverines' last real shot for relevancy in the regular season. Yes, I know it's against Purdue. And some (most?) Michigan fans would argue that a win against Ohio State in two weeks would make up for the rest of the year. But Michigan needs to salvage this season well before Nov. 21.

"What's desperate? Not in football terms, I've never, ever used that," Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said Wednesday. "You want to have a hungry team, I guess, but you want that whether they're winning or losing. I don't want them to have some fatalistic view of this last ballgame or anything. It's in the past. You can't do it over again. Let's worry about this next game."

But that last ballgame — that Illinois meltdown — isn’t really in the past. Those defensive woes have been a recurring problem, including in last year’s Purdue game, and repressing those memories after the team has had what Rodriguez calls "24 hours to think about the loss" obviously hasn't worked. On Saturday, the Wolverines need to have last week's 99-yard Illini touchdown drive in their heads during every single play. That series alone should make them desperate enough to come out Saturday and make Purdue bowl-ineligible, just like the Boilermakers did to Michigan last year.

The Wolverine players are talking more about “playing with heart” now because they have to know they can’t purely rely on technique and talent.

That much was clear when Donovan Warren was asked on Monday about giving offensive players large cushions — a secondary issue that has drawn the ire of fans and the media alike.

"I’m just doing what’s asked of me and playing to the best of my ability," he answered, before being asked if he likes press coverage. "I like playing guys press coverage, man-to-man. At the same time, I have to do what’s best for my team."

It was also clear when Rich Rodriguez was asked Monday if he was surprised success hasn't come sooner, and he dryly responded, “Not after I got here.”

Illinois is a team on the outs, too, and it didn't bother to hide its desperation last week. Juice Williams had lost sole possession of the starting spot. Ron Zook was the most disappointing coach in the conference after running a team of veterans into the ground, and he readily admitted the week before facing the Wolverines that he didn’t know what was wrong with his team.

But that 1-6 squad somehow found a way to win.

Playing desperate isn't shameful. At this point, with the Wolverines badly needing to seal a bowl game this weekend, it's necessary.

— Ratkowiak can be reached at cratkowi@umich.edu.