Long after the crowd had left, postgame debris still littered the expansive green carpet of Michigan Stadium. Rose petals were scattered across the south end zone, remnants of one of college football’s most timeless celebratory traditions.
This is the place — and this is the rivalry — where Charles Woodson clenched a plump rose in his mouth on his way to the 1997 national championship. And where Desmond Howard posed to cement his winged-helmet legacy. And where Chris Perry bowled over the Buckeyes in the 100th meeting in “The Game” to send his team to Pasadena, a rose held high above his head after the victory.
Only this year, the roses were an afterthought — Ohio State had already sealed the Big Ten’s spot in the Rose Bowl.
Buckeye fans brought vases of roses to their pregame tailgates, rubbing salt in the open wounds of their floundering, once-proud rivals.
During a weekend that invokes so much gridiron history and passion, the heyday of Michigan football has never seemed further away.
Gone are the days of fighting the Buckeyes for a Rose Bowl berth. Now it’s struggling for a bowl berth, period.
Gone are the days of the Big Two, Little Nine. While Ohio State has held up its end of the bargain, Michigan needed a last-minute thriller over lowly Indiana to avoid an 0-8 Big Ten record.
Gone are the days of Michigan glory and well-documented arrogance. Welcome to being humble.
“How much does a man have to get humbled?” Rich Rodriguez said. “We got humbled last year. We’ve been humbled before, and we’ll be humbled again. When you get in this profession, there’s enough humility to go around for everybody.
“I’m tired of being humbled.”
So are Michigan football fans, who have witnessed 13 conference losses in the last two seasons, almost doubling the amount of games the Wolverines dropped to conference foes (14) from 2000-07.
And in the last two years, Michigan has especially tripped up in the game that matters most, getting outscored 63-17 against Ohio State.
It’s simple. Rich Rodriguez says he’s “building a program.” But at this point, it’s taken way too long and the program has taken way too big of a dip.
There are only four other BCS conference teams — Iowa State, Indiana, Washington State and Washington — that have lost 13-plus conference games in the last two years. Baylor will join the list if it loses to Texas Tech next weekend.
Not even perennial bottom-dwellers like Duke, Vanderbilt and Syracuse are on that list.
“It’s hard any time you lose,” secondary coach Tony Gibson said. “I don’t care where you are or what you’re doing, it’s always hard to lose. You know, you work 353 days a year for these 12 moments. And we came up short in seven of them.”
Except a down year for Michigan traditionally involves no more than four losses. This two-year stretch feels more like an apocalyptic meltdown.
Rodriguez deserves at least one more season to right the ship. With hopefully another full recruiting class coming in — including freakishly good quarterback Devin Gardner — the coach will theoretically do what he preached after Saturday’s loss: Recruit the student-athletes that fit his system and develop their talent.
After all, that’s his job, right?
But if the Wolverines find themselves in a similar position next year — heading into another lackluster matchup with the Buckeyes in Columbus while hoping for bowl eligibility — it’s hard to imagine that Rich Rod wouldn’t have worn out his welcome.
— Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.