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Ben Estes: Not quite there

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published January 1, 2013

TAMPA, Fla. — Minutes after Dylan Thompson threw what proved to be the game-winning touchdown, once counterpart Devin Gardner’s last-ditch miracle shot fluttered hopelessly to the ground and South Carolina’s Outback Bowl victory was complete, the Gamecock quarterback paced slowly down the field, arms extended toward the sky.

He was pointing to God, who he would later credit for his last-minute score and his good play in general, helping to beat Michigan.

Maybe it’s that simple for the Wolverines — maybe whatever’s up there just isn’t on their side.

It would explain why coach Brady Hoke and his players yet again found themselves on the wrong end of fortune and the wrong side of the scoreboard on Tuesday, yet again by the slimmest of margins. They stand as proof of the immense fickleness of football.

A year after the glory of an 11-win, Sugar Bowl championship-2011, the team finishes the 2012 season at 8-5 — solid, sure, but not the type of record Michigan fans desire and even demand. And in four of those losses, the story has been the same as it was on New Year’s Day: this close.

Each game was against an excellent opponent — two of the top three teams in the AP Poll, another top-10 team in South Carolina and the Legends Division champion in Nebraska — and each time, the Wolverines were in it until the very end.

But each time, Michigan made just enough losing plays to take itself out of it. If one side of the ball played well, the other side didn’t, or at least didn’t when it mattered the most. Against the Gamecocks, an offense that was inconsistent all day came through for the go-ahead score with minutes left, but a defense that had mostly played well promptly let the opponent march right down the field to seize the lead for good.

That’s the story of Michigan this season: good enough to compete with the best teams, but not good enough to beat them.

“We can play on a big stage,” said Gardner, who will enter next season looking to build off a promising 2012 finish. “We didn’t win, but we certainly fought until the end. Just want to take it to the offseason and practice really hard and work hard so we never feel like this again.”

But it’d be a cop out to blame randomness or heavenly forces. The real issue is easy to grasp: the state of the roster.

This game marked the end of an era in a way. The exit of the 2009 class symbolizes the end of the transition from Rich Rodriguez to Hoke.

There will still be players the next season or two that were recruited by Rodriguez and played for him, but by the conclusion of their careers, they’ll have played more for Hoke than their old coach. The ‘09ers — Denard Robinson, Craig Roh, Will Campbell, et al — are the last senior class to have played a major role in the worst three-year stretch in Michigan history.

At the conclusion of their time for the Wolverines, they’ve proven that the program is past that dark period, largely thanks to them and last year’s seniors. The 2011 season announced that loudly, and even though 8-5 is a let down, this team never approached the type of mediocrity that reigned under Rodriguez.

But the perfect storm of solid, Lloyd Carr-recruited vets and just enough other Rodriguez-recruited talent that resulted in last season’s feel-good year is gone.

This is the season when Rodriguez’s recruiting deficiencies finally caught up to Michigan, and next year will likely be more of the same. Hoke has openly admitted that he doesn’t have the type of depth he needs, especially on the lines. Reinforcements are coming, but the Wolverines will continue to be a somewhat makeshift bunch — albeit a talented one — until Hoke finally gets his ideal roster.

That fact means Michigan will continue to teeter on the edge of being a good team and being a championship one.

“This team, if we have seniors on Team 134 who will push guys regardless of how they feel, if they’re not afraid of, ‘Oh, is this gonna feel bad, is he not gonna like me,’ no, screw that,” said redshirt junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, already speaking like he’s out the door to the NFL. “If guys are willing to step up and push guys, this team will win a Big Ten championship next year, if the seniors are willing to step up.”

By all accounts, the current team is full of hard workers, diligent leaders and high-character guys. But off-the-field attributes only go so far — they couldn’t prevent the comedown that has been this season, when the Wolverines failed their biggest tests. That’s why Lewan is probably wrong.

It wasn’t a lost year, but it wasn’t an especially memorable one either. This is life on the cusp in college football.

For the moment, Michigan is stuck in an unenviable position: greatness is just out of reach, lest fortune decide to smile on the Wolverines.

This season it didn’t, and thus they could go no further than their talent could take them. Tuesday’s loss showed one final time that it’s just out of reach of where they want to be.


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