MADISON – He sat on the bench alone.
His helmet was cocked high on his head, and he stared into space.
No coach came by to tell him not to despair.
No teammate stopped by to make sure he kept his head up.
As the final seconds ticked off Michigan’s 37-21 loss to Wisconsin, freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett sat still, perhaps not wanting to believe this game might put the final, fitting stamp on a disappointing freshman campaign.
After the clock ran out, Mallett rose from his solitary seat and walked to the locker room, his chin glued to his chest. Approached by reporters for comment, he didn’t even bother to glance in their direction.
Nobody could blame him. After all, an 11-for-36 performance that included two interceptions, general inaccuracy and numerous poor decisions doesn’t make for pleasant post-game chatter.
Coupled with Ohio State’s late-afternoon loss to Illinois, a win over Wisconsin would have guaranteed Michigan a share of the Big Ten title. Now, the Wolverines must beat the Buckeyes to win the Big Ten Championship, and the missed opportunity surely didn’t help their afternoon mood.
Running back Mike Hart didn’t play a snap, and Henne played just two series before leaving because of his shoulder injury.
But the Michigan coaches disputed the notion that the stars sat because of the insignificance of the game.
“You play every game to win,” offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said.
If that’s the case, the Wolverines might have done better to leave Mallett in Ann Arbor.
A Michigan opponent owned the founding pillars of Michigan football – running the ball and stopping the run – for a second consecutive week. Wisconsin rushed for 232 yards and held Michigan to just 47 rushing yards. But the Badgers stacked the box, daring Mallett to beat them, and with the quarterback unable to lead Michigan on extended drives, the Wolverine defense wore down quickly.
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr limited his criticism of his quarterback to “he made some bad plays,” but it’s fair to say the coach was understating it. Mallett barely completed 30 percent of his passes, repeatedly overthrowing wide open receivers on simple out routes. He clashed with the offensive line and also with star receiver Mario Manningham – ESPN cameras even caught one heated exchange between the two on the sideline.
And on a day when Mallett and Manningham connected on the longest play from scrimmage in Michigan history – a 97-yard touchdown early in the third quarter – Mallett handicapped the Wolverine offense with two interceptions that might have been three except for a great play by receiver Greg Mathews.
“He’s a young guy, and there’s a lot to learn in terms of progressions, where you’re going with the ball,” Carr said. “He made some mistakes, but (playing from behind) is not an easy situation to be in there today.”
The freshman’s first half was ugly, and the beginning of the second half didn’t show much improvement.
Mallett and Michigan opened the third quarter with consecutive three-and-outs, and after a 16-play, 79-yard Badger drive that took more than eight minutes off the clock and ended with a field goal, the 23-7 Wisconsin lead looked insurmountable.
Manningham’s record-breaking score and a defensive stop offered a chance for a Michigan comeback, but Mallett immediately killed those hopes. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Mallett saw pressure, looked downfield and lofted the ball high in the air off his back foot, nowhere near a Michigan receiver. Badger defensive back Shane Carter settled under the ball for the easy interception, taking momentum back for Wisconsin.
“Ryan is young and learning, and he missed some throws there where he had guys and
I’m sure he wishes he could get them back,” DeBord said. “He’ll learn from this and he’ll continue to get better.”
Trailing by just two points after another defensive stop, Mallett took a 20-yard sack on 2nd-and-9 instead of throwing the ball away. The Texarkana, Ark., native’s next pass was intercepted by cornerback Jack Ikegwuono deep in Michigan territory, and Wisconsin’s ensuing four-play touchdown drive effectively ended the game.
Defensive tackle Terrance Taylor said he’s not worried about a lingering depression from this loss carrying over to Saturday’s game against Ohio State.
But it was based on two qualifications.
“We’ll bounce back,” Taylor said. “Hopefully Chad and, uh, Mike Hart are back next week. That’ll make it a little easier.”