MADISON — All right — thank goodness that’s over.

Now it’s Michigan-Ohio State week.

The Wolverines’ second-to-last game of the season has always felt a little less important than the others, knowing the greatest week of the college football season is right around the corner.

It’s not hard to sum up Saturday’s debacle in Madison, so I’ll do that quickly. After all, it sounds quite similar to the other 14 losses I’ve covered over the past two years.

The back seven is so bad that it doesn’t give the offense a chance. Tate Forcier maintained after the game that he can’t blame the loss on the defense, since it forced turnovers and the offense couldn’t capitalize. Sorry, Tate, but you know two defensive turnovers don’t make up for 45 points allowed.

But oh well — on to The Game.

Last year, Buckeye Nation was laughing at the 3-8 Wolverines by the third quarter of the 42-7 blowout in Columbus. This year, even with much more at stake — bowl eligibility and credibility — the thought of Michigan lining up against the Buckeyes on Saturday is still just as cringeworthy as it was last November. That’s because at this point, with (likely) just five days left in the 2009 season, issues like the talent level of the back seven are unfixable.

But I still firmly believe Saturday will prove to be Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez’s ultimate test.

That’s because in a game where team chemistry means so much, his ability to control the controllable things this week — off-the-field nonsense and rivalry education — could very well determine if the Wolverines can keep it close on Saturday.

“You know, you want to ask one thing I’ve learned? I’ve learned that, probably being quieter is being better. Coach Tressel and I talked about that before the game. I said, ‘Tress, the quieter I am, the less drama I have to deal with.’ ”
— Rodriguez, talking about off-the-field issues after last year’s Ohio State game

But it seems like he hasn’t learned that — or, at least, he can’t make his players do the same. For the second straight year, the Wolverines are finding themselves addressing off-the-field garbage this week. There’s not room for that in Ann Arbor, especially not now.

Former coach Lloyd Carr largely refused to address those controversies — he would just say the matter was being handled internally. Carr’s intimidating staredowns with reporters and his refusal to answer off-the-field questions may have been frustrating for the media, but it sure kept the focus on the field.

Last year, during Ohio State week, Rodriguez announced Zion Babb and Jason Kates had left the team. Artis Chambers broke the news via Facebook that he was “no longer a Wolverine,” and it was heavily rumored Sam McGuffie was close behind. That kind of distraction during the biggest week of the season is ridiculous.

Even more disturbingly, it seems like Rodriguez still hasn’t learned to control that.

This season, in addition to having a coach who still laments about all the “drama” instead of simply refusing to address it, Michigan also has a publicity-happy quarterback who is great at sending Wolverine Nation into a frenzy. There’s no reason for Forcier to text ESPN.com’s Pat Forde on Friday night to say, “NO!”, he’s not transferring. It’s also not appropriate for him to tell the world after Saturday’s game about the details of a disagreement with his coaches.

It’s supposed to be about “the team, the team, the team,” right? Well, the Wolverines’ freshman quarterback definitely didn’t subscribe to that this week, and that adds up to nothing but trouble for a Michigan team that desperately needs to focus. If Forcier really wants to lead his seniors to a bowl game, Rodriguez needs to manage the Tate Forcier sideshow much better than he has.

“I’ve been here for one of them. So that’s the only one I can really comment on. They’ve got one in a row on us, from what I’ve seen.”
– Rodriguez, talking about Michigan’s five-game losing streak after last year’s Ohio State game

Rodriguez may continue to ignore history, but he’ll continue to look ignorant. It doesn’t matter if he wasn’t here for the first four losses — he needs to stop discounting the fact that the Wolverines haven’t won against the Buckeyes since 2003. Taking the approach that he has only “been there for one of them” is the wrong way to show his team how much this game really matters.

After all, educating the team on the importance of series history has proven to be a difference-maker — at the expense of the Wolverines. First-year Purdue coach Danny Hope was seven years old in 1966, the last time the Boilermakers had won in the Big House. Even in a game that isn’t a rivalry, he forced his players to look at the past.

“We came here today to make history as a football team,” Hope said after his team’s comeback win. “What a great motivating factor for a football team, to know we were coming up here to Ann Arbor, to the Big House, to make history.”

Caring about games he didn’t coach in worked pretty well for him, huh?

This is Rodriguez’s chance to prove he really gets the emotion of the rivalry, something he couldn’t have possibly understood before last year’s game. Saturday will be about re-invigorating a matchup that has fallen flat in recent years. It’s about making sure the seniors aren’t the third straight class to leave without a win against Ohio State. And, yes, it’s about showing that Rodriguez’s Wolverines can add a valuable chapter to the biggest rivalry in sports.

“I think everybody understands the importance of this game,” quarterbacks coach Rod Smith said. “We’re not idiots. We know exactly what’s at stake and who we’re playing. We understand.”

For the sake of the team, I hope that’s truer than last year.

— Ratkowiak can be reached at cratkowi@umich.edu.

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