MADISON — A month ago in Happy Valley, redshirt junior defensive end Chase Winovich watched his team from the sideline. It was late in the fourth quarter, and Michigan was trailing — by a lot.
The offense was out for a meaningless drive and going for it on fourth down. They needed nine yards to convert. A first down wouldn’t be much consolation for the team, but it’d be a small victory nonetheless.
The offense couldn’t snap the ball in time, though, and was flagged for a delay of game. Five yards back. Fourth down and 14.
Winovich looked over to his defensive teammates in frustration. He shaped his hand like a gun, pointed it toward his toes and ‘pulled the trigger.’
That’s exactly what Michigan’s offense was doing — shooting itself in the foot with mistakes it can’t afford.
Saturday against Wisconsin, the Wolverines’ offense did the same thing, and the reality of an underwhelming, 8-4 season really began to set in.
All the problems Michigan faced earlier this year — a struggling offense and poor pass protection — returned this weekend. The problems, though, were never really gone in the first place.
It only seemed that they were, because in the weeks since Penn State, all we had seen were talented Wolverines pounding points on the Big Ten’s bottom feeders.
When running backs Karan Higdon and Chris Evans combined for eight touchdowns in three games, it seemed like Michigan’s offense had found its stride.
When the Wolverines’ offensive line didn’t let Brandon Peters get sacked against Maryland, it felt the same.
While the Wolverines were manhandling Rutgers and Minnesota, they almost convinced the college football world that the Penn State embarrassment was just an abnormality. They led us to believe they had a shot at beating Wisconsin because they swept the easiest three-game stretch of their season.
But did Michigan ever really have a chance to upset the undefeated, fifth-ranked Badgers?
Not if its run game disappeared. Not if its offensive line vanished. And definitely not if it gave up points on special teams and fumbled in the red zone.
Of course, all of those things happened, and the Wolverines lost, 24-10.
Against Wisconsin, Higdon and Evans combined for just 45 yards, the team as a whole ran for 58 and the offensive line left Peters with a trip to the hospital near the end of the third quarter.
The offense had success on one second-quarter touchdown drive, but beyond that, Michigan was relying on its defense to keep it in the game.
The defense did its part in the first half, but by the third quarter, Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor got into rhythm and quarterback Alex Hornibrook was beating Michigan’s secondary with his arm.
The defense let up big plays like the 52-yard run from Taylor and a 51-yard catch by receiver A.J. Taylor.
“We just really beat ourselves,” said freshman defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon.
If Solomon, a freshman, can admit it, it’s no wonder that fifth-year senior Maurice Hurst knew it too. The team couldn’t execute, and it cost them another game.
And as Hurst also admitted, this has become a “one-game season” for the Wolverines.
They don’t have to think about the Big Ten Championship, the College Football Playoff or even a New Year’s Six bowl. They don’t have to worry about all the Playoff scenarios they aren’t in this year, because they never earned the right to be in that discussion anyway.
They have nothing to lose against Ohio State, because over the last three months, Michigan never built up anything worth losing.
And though it may not be so nice for fans to think, that’s probably the way we’ll remember this season when it’s all over.
Janes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.