MADISON – After Saturday’s game, I walked down to the area outside the Michigan locker room. To get there, I had to walk against the traffic of the 83,022 people. In actuality, it was probably a lot fewer than that. It seemed like half the stadium stayed in the bowl until the maintenance crew kicked them out by turning out the lights. I walked against the sea of red all the way down to the field and then out into the parking lot where the Michigan buses were parked.
I watched as the players filed out, usually one by one, onto the buses. Some wore headphones; some carried suits; all toted their individual boxes of KFC. I watched the players get on the buses and sit idly. Through the window of the bus I could see fifth-year senior Tim Massaquoi put his head in his hands for a few seconds – probably wondering what happened.
Some of them, like running backs Mike Hart and Max Martin, didn’t want to talk at all, and I didn’t blame them. Others said just a few words.
“When we lose, it’s just quiet,” LaMarr Woodley said. “What’s going through people’s heads is just ‘What went wrong?’ “
No one seemed to have an answer to that question. And when the last of the Michigan players was on the bus, I walked down to the field. At this point – nearly an hour after Wisconsin quarterback John Stocco sealed the game with his five-yard touchdown run – there weren’t really any more fans in the stands or players on the field. Instead, the bleachers were littered with cups and napkins and the field was sprinkled with 8-year-olds playing catch with a miniature rubber football.
I walked out on to the wet, surprisingly slick field and made my way out to the 20-yard line, where Chad Henne slipped and fell to end the game. When I found a paper clip at that exact spot, I joked to my friends that maybe it was the curved metal object that caused his slip-up. When I found an identical paper clip at the other end of the field – where Mario Manningham caught his 50-yard touchdown – I figured it was just a coincidence.
When I stood under the lights of the empty Camp Randall, I wondered – like so many loyal Michigan fans – how many times I could deal with the heartbreak of another devastating loss. More importantly, I wondered: How many times will this happen until the players stop believing in themselves?
When I came to Michigan five years ago, it was as if the team felt they were entitled to win. The attitude was, ‘We’re Michigan, and we’re going to kick your ass.’ The teams were cocky and with a little bit of attitude. Team leaders such as Chris Perry and Braylon Edwards thought that they were the best in nation, and the teams took on a little bit of their personality.
If there was a problem with the Michigan teams, it appeared to be that they thought teams would just roll over for them. So they lost a few road games they shouldn’t have to teams that were clearly inferior. Now though, I think it’s becoming something else.
Yesterday, we found out, not surprisingly, that Michigan dropped out of the top-25. If the Wolverines fail to find a way to stop Michigan State’s offense, then Michigan will have its first losing record since 1998. It makes you wonder: When will the Wolverines stop thinking that they are entitled to winning and start believing they are destined to lose? Or worse, have they already made the switch?
The second half of Saturday’s struggle certainly looked as if they were already there. Michigan (and in some cases linebacker David Harris) was literally holding on to the collar of Wisconsin running back Brian Calhoun by just a finger, desperately trying not to let go. But who knows if maybe, mentally, they were already gone.
Like a drooling dog, losing – and winning for that matter – can be conditioned. For so long, the Michigan program has been drooling over winning. But that could change any time – take a look at Florida (before Urban Meyer), Nebraska or Penn State. Oklahoma has made the switch practically overnight.
If they haven’t started already, teams that once were underdogs might start circling the Michigan game on the schedule as a winnable game. And the more times Michigan loses, the less of a giant it becomes. Every time the Wolverines blow one, another team thinks, “We can beat these guys.” The real worry is if the Wolverines are thinking the same things: We’re beatable. We have to try to hold on.
The players sat in the team bus on Saturday night, presumably thinking about the second-half collapse that left them in the cellar of the Big Ten just one week into the conference season. They were left wondering what happened, and I was left wondering whether they had lost their swagger.
– Ian Herbert can be reached at email@example.com