John O’Korn sat at the podium in the postgame press conference and broke down in tears.
The fifth-year senior quarterback tried to compose himself, but his voice cracked as the words came out.
“The hardest part for me is that you come here to win this game,” he said. “And our senior class wasn’t able to do it.”
Saturday, the Michigan football team lost to Ohio State for the sixth consecutive time. Even in five years as a Wolverine, he was unable to come away with arguably the most important victory.
He isn’t alone in that regard. Linebacker Mike McCray, defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, center Patrick Kugler and fullback Khalid Hill have also spent five years on the sidelines of Michigan Stadium and Ohio Stadium, yet they have never come away with the elusive win.
There was the five-point loss in 2012, and then the one-point loss in 2013. There was the double-digit loss in 2014, and then the blowout in 2015. There was the overtime loss in 2016, and now, another game that will be written in rivalry lore.
Michigan — unranked and with an 8-3 overall record — once had a 14-point lead over the ninth-ranked, Big Ten championship game-bound Buckeyes. And yet, when all was said and done, the Wolverines lost by 11.
“I wish we could have won, wish we could have sent the seniors out with a victory,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “They gave it everything they had and played extremely hard. ... Great bunch of guys to coach, great character guys, so it’s disappointing.”
It started with the defense, which forced three straight three-and-outs in the first quarter to yield negative yardage from Ohio State’s prolific offense. McCray dropped quarterback J.T. Barrett for a loss on the Buckeyes’ first play of the game, and then combined with Hurst to stop running back J.K. Dobbins for a short gain.
The offense took it from there. On Michigan’s opening scoring drive, Hill converted a crucial first down and then punched it into the end zone. On its second, the Wolverines were gifted field possession by freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who returned a punt all the way to Ohio State’s 11-yard line. O’Korn finished it off, finding sophomore tight end Sean McKeon over the middle.
At that point, Michigan had the Buckeyes where it wanted them. The Wolverines held the ball for 10 minutes, while the Buckeyes did for just four.
They could have kept the momentum swinging firmly in their favor. They could have run away with the game.
McCray said the Buckeyes were doing everything they expected them to, but, according to O’Korn, Michigan took its foot off the gas. It cost the Wolverines dearly.
In the second quarter, Ohio State won the possession battle, nine to six, and found the end zone twice in just four minutes. Suddenly, the game was tied.
“It’s kind of hard to stay hot as an offense when you’re not on the field as much,” Hill said. “Ohio State did a great job of keeping us off the field. We were hot, we would have scored lots of points I feel like.”
But Michigan scored just six points the rest of the way. After letting the Buckeyes back into the game, the Wolverines couldn’t keep up with them and suffered yet another rivalry loss.
Michigan had one more chance to change its fate late in the game. Already inside their 30-yard line, the Wolverines’ defense held Ohio State to a field goal, and the Buckeyes’ kicker subsequently missed wide left.
Down just four points with 2:47 left to play, Michigan needed a touchdown.
But on the very first play of the drive, O’Korn threw an interception to seal the Wolverines’ fate: another loss to Ohio State.
“I hold myself responsible for a lot of that, and it sucks,” O’Korn continued. “I can’t imagine a worse feeling right now.”
Then he stood up slowly with his head hung low and walked out of the room.
It was his last game at Michigan Stadium and his final game against Ohio State, as it was for McCray, Hill and the rest.
The Wolverines lost ‘The Game,’ and there was nothing else to say.