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SportsMonday Column: This revamped Michigan team leaves more questions than answers

Terra Molengraff/Daily
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By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 1, 2013

They played like they had nothing to lose because there wasn’t anything else to lose. This was already the worst season of Brady Hoke’s Michigan coaching career. Athletic Director Dave Brandon was forced to release a statement emphasizing the job safety of his head coach. Before the game, the job of at least one coordinator, offensive coordinator Al Borges, was most likely in jeopardy.

Ohio State was a 14-point favorite. People were expecting a blowout. At a tailgate before the game, Michigan fans were more concerned with Ohio State coach Urban Meyer potentially running up the score than they were about actually winning the game.

So on a Saturday with nothing to lose, the Wolverines played the way they should have all along. Instead of mindlessly handing the ball off-tackle for a one-yard loss, Michigan had reverses to tight ends and a double pass from a wide receiver to a wide receiver-turned-quarterback.

Michigan’s running backs carried the ball just 24 times, and you could count the number of off-tackle runs on one hand. There was no forcing the ball into the middle of the defense behind a raw offensive line, because the Wolverines employed end-arounds and reverses toward the sidelines to spread the field.

And most importantly, instead of taking sacks left and right, Gardner took advantage of receivers running shorter routes. He finished with 32 completions for 451 yards and four touchdowns while running for another score, his best game in more than a month and a half despite suffering an undisclosed injury during the game that required a boot on his left foot.

This new offense — this new team — should be a positive, but it’s not. More than anything, it’s maddening. Frustrating. Downright unacceptable for a program that’s supposed to hold itself to a high standard.

This ingenuity on offense should have happened two months ago. The last game of the season isn’t when we should be seeing potential. It’s when we should be seeing the finished product, with a few added wrinkles here and there.

It’s not when the entire offense should be revamped.

After the game, fifth-year senior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan said, “We played our hearts out. Every single one of us. That’s what this team is going to do from now on.”

From now on? It’s December. There’s one game — a mediocre, bowl-everyone-forgets-in-five-years type of game — left in the season.

It was initially encouraging to see this Michigan team. Having the ball with a chance to win the game with less than a minute left is more than most anyone was expecting.

But where has this sense of urgency been for the last two months? This offense combined for 501 total yards in three losses to Michigan State, Nebraska and Iowa. On Saturday, the Wolverines had 603.

“We got ready to play,” Hoke said after the game. “Had a good plan. We executed better, we blocked better. There’s a lot of things we did better.”

A reporter followed up and asked if it was really just that simple. Hoke said, “At the end of the day, yeah,” which is just not true. He knows it, I know it and so does anyone who has watched a Michigan football game this season.

This wasn’t the same offense. It wasn’t like the players executed the same game plan they’ve been struggling with since being demolished in East Lansing.

They executed better, yes, but they executed a better offense, one that had wrinkles that weren’t entirely predictable and plays that Michigan hasn’t run at all this season. Borges called for a throwback screen to a freshman tight end, Jake Butt. We didn’t see anything remotely like that before Ohio State.

That doesn’t make any sense. There’s no point of saving your best for the last game of the season when every foreseeable goal is out of reach. There was no more Big Ten to win, nor a 10-win plateau to reach. Why not go balls to the wall and take some risks before this game?

That’s why it’s hard to feel good about a game like Saturday, to pull out some sliver of redemption on this lost season, when so many what-ifs come of it. That’s why Borges’s job shouldn’t be saved — it should be more in question.

What if Michigan had this playbook for the last two months? What if this offense pulls off some close wins instead of losing in the last minute to Nebraska and Penn State?

What if this was the team Michigan could have been all along, but we didn’t see it until the last game of the year?