Jake Lourim: A fitting scare, and a deserved victory
It appeared Dymonte Thomas was first, followed shortly by Khalid Hill. Before long, everyone joined: Ben Braden, Delano Hill, AJ Pearson.
One by one, those seniors took turns diving headfirst into the snow that by then had covered the field at Michigan Stadium, like they had all finished a game of snow football in the backyard and wanted to take a few moments to revel in the atmosphere.
Anyone did it. Thomas, who made eight tackles Saturday. Hill, who has scored a team-high 10 touchdowns. Pearson, who has hardly played in his entire career.
It did not seem to matter. They all stayed, all waited out the worst times of their careers and, on Saturday, all survived.
Until this weekend’s 20-10 win against Indiana, the Wolverines had cruised past opponents, held off opponents and did whatever it was they did to Rutgers. They had not yet done merely the minimum it took to escape, as other teams have so far this season.
Saturday, that was enough, especially for these seniors. They know they could have squandered their College Football Playoff hopes. They know they could have fumbled chances to put away an inferior team on their home field. They know they could have lost their fourth straight Senior Day game. They’ve done it all before.
They played better, but did not manage to survive, in last year’s heartbreaker against Michigan State. They did the same in their home finale in 2013 against a much better Ohio State team. In between, they suffered losses of every form.
The Minnesota game in 2014 brought the Shane Morris concussion incident, to say nothing of the fact that the Golden Gophers came into the Big House, dominated the Wolverines and stole the Little Brown Jug off their sideline. Utah stomped Michigan until a downpour halted play, then stayed in the stadium and finished it off with only Utes fans in the building. Maryland spoiled the Wolverines’ Senior Day, all but extinguishing their bowl hopes with a trip to Ohio State coming the following week.
This year’s seniors remember all of that. Perhaps that was part of the emotion of this year’s Senior Day. Defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow finished the live portion of warmups to see his parents standing on the sideline, holding a frame with his jersey in it. Thomas, Hill and cornerback Jourdan Lewis shared a moment before they ran out of the tunnel for the final time.
“Before the game, we were all like, ‘I can’t believe we’re touching the banner one last time,’ ” Thomas said. “We all came in together, we all grinded together and now we’re all leaving together, except for a few guys who transferred.
“When they started playing that video, when they started playing that sad music, Khalid comes to me, he’s like, ‘I might start crying.’ I’m like, ‘If you cry, I’m gonna cry.’ And (Lewis) is like, ‘No, what’s wrong with y’all? Y’all got a game! Let’s go win!’ And then (Lewis) is like, ‘You know, I might cry too, y’all.’ I was like, ‘We’re gonna be all right. Let’s just go win, and let’s make the best of this last year we got together.’ ”
Almost four hours later, their final home win safely in tow, they celebrated. Morris, Jake Butt, Henry Poggi, Patrick Kugler and Ben Gedeon — all seniors who have gone through various forms of adversity in their own individual careers — took a picture together. Offensive lineman Kyle Kalis, in his own inimitable style, waved his arms frantically to pump up the crowd. Glasgow, for the first time in his career, ran to the student section and jumped on the wall — before he realized he was jumping in the wrong section.
It was one of Michigan’s least impressive victories of the season, yet it may have been the one most worth celebrating. The Wolverines are 10-1 and are heading down to Columbus next week for a showdown against Ohio State because they did what it took to win Saturday.
They managed just 59 passing yards, their lowest total of the season. They had the same number of first downs as Indiana, 15. They outgained the Hoosiers by just 29. Only a pair of De’Veon Smith touchdown runs late in the third quarter secured the win.
But they did secure the win. These seniors don’t take that for granted — and neither does their head coach. In 1986, quarterbacking a then-undefeated Michigan team, Jim Harbaugh lost the last game he ever played at Michigan Stadium, 20-17 against Minnesota.
“It’s not a good feeling,” Harbaugh said Saturday of losing his home finale. “At all. I’m glad our guys played eight home games and won ’em all.
“The constant, being a Michigan football player through the ages, is that you play in the Michigan Stadium. You play in that venue, that Big House. Always has been that way, is and always will be. That’s the one constant — all the time, the facilities, the changes, society and everything else — is that you play in that stadium.”
It hasn’t always gone smoothly here, and it didn’t Saturday, perhaps a fitting end to the seniors’ careers. Michigan trailed at halftime for the first time all season, and with starting quarterback Wilton Speight injured on the sideline, uneasiness spread among the announced crowd of 110,288. About a third of the student section emptied out at halftime.
Those who remained at the end had the opportunity to savor the feeling. By then, the snow had blown around the stadium and coated the turf. The cheerleaders made snow angels in the end zones, and the students threw snowballs on the field. “Let It Snow” played over the speakers.
With an eighth straight home win this year, the Wolverines added another lasting memory to erase all of the sour ones. Afterward, Harbaugh, who has won 78 games as a college head coach and reached the Super Bowl, called it “one of the best wins I’ve ever been involved with.”
Because, as the Wolverines found out Saturday, that’s how it feels to survive.