Zach Helfand: As time ticks away, another ending without answers

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By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published December 29, 2013

TEMPE, Ariz. — Exactly 20 minutes after the end of one of the more frustrating seasons in recent Michigan football history, offensive coordinator Al Borges walked out of Michigan’s locker room and up the tunnel. It was 11:39 p.m. here. He took a bite of an Uncrustable.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke had just addressed the team in the locker room for the final time. Junior defensive end Frank Clark remembered a simple message.

“ ‘Get dressed,’ ” he recalled Hoke saying. Clark added: “It’s not really much to say.”

Plenty of questions festered after a 31-14 ass kicking by Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, much of the same questions from September. But now the time for answers had run out.

Afterward, in the tunnel, Borges dismissed those questions with a wave of the hand as he walked on. If there were answers, he didn’t have them. No one did.

“This year we had our goals set, we wanted to make it to the Rose Bowl,” Clark would say in the locker room. “We didn’t make it. We had our goals set, we wanted to be a 10-win team, and we didn’t achieve that. We had our goals set, we wanted to be able to finish the season, and we didn’t achieve that.”

In college football, time grinds relentlessly onward. One week without answers is too long. An entire wasted season feels like an immeasurable loss. At 11:40, as Borges walked out of the tunnel, the first of the seniors began to disappear. Their ending was painfully dull.

They showered and changed. Some hugged. No one cried or yelled. The bus was leaving shortly after midnight, and most walked unceremoniously out of the locker room, into the cool desert night.

At 11:45, Jon Falk performed his final post-game duties as Michigan’s equipment manager. He wordlessly picked up towels and dropped them in the bin for a final time. Falk yelled something when a container was ready to be moved out. Earlier, the ESPN broadcast had mistakenly referred to him as “Ron.” His time had run out before Michigan could figure out an answer to this year.

It had for Drew Dileo too. At 11:56, as Falk picked up the last of the towels, the receiver dressed slowly. Four years without a Rose Bowl berth had left him with this wisdom:

“As much as I hate to say this, it’s not necessarily all about the offseason workouts and spring ball,” Dileo said. “It’s about making plays on Saturday, and we failed to make enough plays to put ourselves in a good position this year.”

Shane Morris, the freshman quarterback, played brilliantly in his first start. His career is now 25 percent over. He grunted as he took off his shirt by his locker. Next to him, Dennis Norfleet, who has now spent 50 percent of his career without as much as a shot at a Big Ten title, hobbled away on crutches, the result of a toe injury. Desmond Morgan — 75 percent done — answered reporters’ questions thoughtfully.

No one had answers.

Few endings fit so neatly with the story of a season as this one. The year’s familiar themes reemerged, and they destroyed Michigan from the start.

Kansas State, which started the year 2-4, including a loss to FCS member North Dakota State, made second-half adjustments, and the Wolverines did not. Michigan didn’t score in the second half until a late touchdown well after the game was out of hand.

The interior run game was nonexistent again, and Borges had to resort to gimmicks. In the first half alone, the Wolverines ran six screens and five reverses — 40 percent of their offensive plays. They ran downhill just five times for a net loss of a yard. Borges called just two more downhill runs in the second half.

The defense failed again and again on third down, and the secondary looked feeble and lost. When the secondary was sufficiently gashed, Kansas State found space to run on the inside, or quarterback Jake Waters would fool Michigan on the scramble.

These were the themes all year. But the answers still didn’t come. Michigan has lost five of six now, lost its claim to the nation’s best all-time winning percentage with a Notre Dame win earlier in the day.

“I think just a lot of guys lost the will to play as a family,” Clark said at 11:57. “Honestly.”

In the locker to Clark’s left, Jibreel Black put on his windbreaker and watch and then turned the music up in his headphones as he walked away. He is a senior. He has never played in Pasadena.

At 11:58, he walked out, past the small room where Hoke put on a blue dress shirt. Time is now ticking for him too, before he must show results.

By 11:59, only a few players remained. One of them, Taylor Lewan, couldn’t help himself. Even after this, his last game, he couldn’t resist a joke. He never could. A bowl official addressed a group of reporters as “gentlemen.”

“And lady!” Lewan chirped. Then he cracked wise — something about courtesy.

His loud voice echoed in the locker room, but not many people were around to laugh. Fitzgerald Toussaint, the fifth-year senior running back, had left. So had fifth-year senior right tackle Michael Schofield. Devin Gardner had left already, and Dileo had gone too, and Black, and Morgan, and Borges had walked up the tunnel 20 minutes ago.

They disappeared quickly and without fanfare. During the season, there was Senior Day. Some, like Falk and broadcaster Frank Beckman, got ceremonies.

But the real end is boring. That’s just how it works. The real end is silence and Uncrustables alone and being called Ron when your name is Jon.

For Michigan, it has been that way far too often.