Nine days after Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh on Dec. 30, change brewed at Iowa. It arrived in the form of a depth chart. On that day, Jake Rudock, the Hawkeyes’ No. 1 quarterback for two years, officially became a No. 2 quarterback. Better opportunities awaited him elsewhere.
Eight months later, Rudock’s facial expression resided somewhere between a scowl and a frown for the first hour after his debut as Michigan’s starting quarterback. It was a look of anger, of sadness, of disappointment. It was seared onto Rudock’s face as he left the field when the clock hit zero.
His walk to the locker room was slow, even agonizing. He kept his helmet in place, half-strapped. Rudock stared straight forward, the second-to-last player to enter Michigan’s locker room, followed only by punter Blake O’Neill, who was exchanging pleasantries with fellow Australian punter Tom Hackett. Rudock spoke to no one. He looked at no one.
The look remained with Rudock in his postgame press conference, when he was forced to explain the three interceptions and the overthrows that might very well have cost the Wolverines the first game of the season. It was a look telling of the situation. His eyes were desperate as positives from the game escaped him. He took blame for the mistakes that might have truly been the fault of others.
Even afterward, almost an hour after the game had ended, Rudock maintained the look of a man who had blown an opportunity. Not necessarily the look of someone losing his job — he said he felt comfortable as Michigan’s quarterback going forward — but of someone who had come from so far only to come up short.
Rudock came to Ann Arbor this summer from Iowa, a place where he had started 25 games, only to be unceremoniously left at the altar for a younger quarterback before his final season. Rudock was never known as a stud quarterback, but his play allowed him to climb up the school record book: He ranks eighth in Hawkeyes’ history passing touchdowns, passing yards and total offense. It still wasn’t enough to hold onto his starting job.
Rudock threw just five interceptions last season, making Thursday night’s three interceptions in his new venture all the more perplexing. He had been considered the safe choice in Michigan’s quarterback battle, the wily veteran who would make the key throws and take care of the ball.
But Thursday night was not the start he had envisioned. Rudock had the look of a man who knew he had 12 chances, 12 games to finish his career while sending a message to detractors. It felt like he knew the first of those opportunities was wasted — he had faltered at a core tenet of his position.
“Part of your job as quarterback is to protect the ball, protect the ball and manage the game, however cliché you guys like that,” he said.
Rudock, the person, has proven to be a quick thinker, fast with his tongue and conscious of every word that leaves his mouth when speaking to the media. Before the starting quarterback position was announced, he joked that he knew reporters were trying to bait him into saying something. Rudock did not fall for the trap.
Whether Rudock the quarterback is the same quick thinker remains to be seen. Jake Butt said Monday that Rudock could teach the team’s offense, its “NFL offense,” to anyone, after only one summer. Still, the first start in Rudock’s final season was far from ideal. The man destined to be a one-year stopgap didn’t stop the trend of back-breaking turnovers that have doomed Michigan in recent years.
After Rudock, the future of the quarterback position at Michigan is murky. John O’Korn, Alex Malzone, Wilton Speight, Shane Morris, Zach Gentry and Brandon Peters wait in the wings, potential quarterbacks Harbaugh can mold into stars. Any one of them could conceivably be the team’s starter of the future, the next star that Harbaugh develops.
But for now, Rudock is the guy. Nobody is expecting the Wolverines to win the rest of their games, or even come close. Ohio State and Michigan State will make that task even more difficult than Utah did last week. It could take months before Michigan is on that level, or it could take a couple of years.
But no matter when the winning comes, Michigan fans are still hurting. For all of the Harbaugh hype and the belief that everything will work out, the Wolverines still haven’t strapped on their helmets and beaten a team in front of tens of thousands of people. Over the course of almost a decade, Michigan has turned into a laughingstock of sorts, from the bully on the block to a punching bag. Harbaugh hasn’t fixed that yet — nobody possibly could in eight months.
This season is a stepping stone, a time for the Wolverines to prove that they can hang with the big boys, that they won’t be a team Michigan State can beat into submission. The time for being a punching bag is drawing to a close.
So who better to lead the program that has been eaten, chewed up and spat back out than the guy who already lost everything he had worked for and is now trying to get it back?
The look on Rudock’s face after the opener suggested that he’ll use every last fiber of his being to make sure his Game One mistakes never happen again.
Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MaxACohen.