Start with extremely high expectations, immediately get put in place, then make everyone believe something great can happen, only to fall short.
I’m not just talking about the pattern over a period of a three-month season. I’m talking about the pattern over a 60-minute game. This game.
The Wolverines have a knack for stringing their fans along, allowing them to believe just long enough.
The preseason hype: I don’t know if everyone remembers, but Michigan was supposed to be one of the nation’s elite this year – up there with Southern Cal and Texas State. It was a team with all the tools. A national title contender with an unstoppable offense. But that was just the hype. A loss to Notre Dame quickly put everyone in their places and lowered the goals of the Michigan faithful to a “reasonable” level – a Big Ten Championship.
The pregame hype: Coming into Saturday’s game, the aura around the Michigan program was pretty much as high as it had been all year. The way Michigan had stormed through big games over the last four games – games against undefeateds Penn State and Michigan State and on the road at Iowa and Northwestern – and the way teams such as Wisconsin so predictably blew it had fans thinking about a Big Ten Championship.
After coming out of the gates fast – I’d call a defensive stop for negative-four yards and an incomplete pass fast – the Wolverines gave up their first big play. It was a 15-yard pass to Santonio Holmes that gave Ohio State a first down on third-and-14. When the Buckeyes scored six minutes later, the 111,000 fans at Michigan Stadium seemed to let out a collective gasp, and they lowered their standards to a more reasonable goal of not getting embarrassed by the Buckeyes.
The game starts to slip away: On Saturday, things only got worse for Michigan after the offense’s first drive. The Wolverines were stopped on fourth-and-one from Ohio State’s 28-yard line after a bullet from Chad Henne zoomed by wideout Jason Avant. Then Ohio State got the ball back. Troy Smith marched his team 42 yards on 11 plays and Josh Huston nailed the 47-yard field goal to go up 9-0. Because of Michigan’s inability to run the ball and helplessness against Troy Smith a win seemed almost impossible.
The season starts to slip away: Things only got worse for Michigan’s season two weeks after Notre Dame, when the Wolverines journeyed to Wisconsin. Another loss – on a final-minute drive by the Badgers – put Michigan behind in the Big Ten race, and a loss to Minnesota two weeks later made it seem almost impossible.
The season’s comeback: It was the string of four wins in the middle of the Big Ten season that really had hopes high heading into “The Game.” It was the come-from-behind wins against Penn State and Iowa and the defense’s new uncanny ability to stop good offenses, combined with missteps from preseason favorites Purdue and Iowa that revived fans’ spirits. Even without Mike Hart, the offense won games on last-second drives against Penn State and Iowa, and it looked as if everything was finally clicking; it looked as if Henne was in a groove; it looked as if, with a little help, Michigan might win the Big Ten after all.
The game’s takeover: It was a string of careless turnovers and stupid penalties by Ohio State that gave Michigan some hope heading into halftime down just 12-7. It was three offensive drives in the second half that gave Michigan the nine-point lead heading into the final seven minutes of the game. Even with Mike Hart stuck on the sideline, the offense moved the ball and found ways to score. More importantly, the defense found ways to stop Ohio State’s mobile quarterback, Troy Smith. Even though Michigan was out-played all day, it looked as if it might pull out a win.
The game’s collapse: Reverting back to a familiar trend, the Michigan defense gave up a game-winning drive in the final minute – it was the fifth time this year the Wolverines collapsed to finish the game. Smith walked all over them, making big play after big play. He ran for 14 yards on third-and-10 and threw two 26-yard passes to break Michigan’s back. The hopes of a third straight Big Ten championship disappeared and the student section stood in disbelief.
The season’s collapse: Back to one more trend: Michigan lost another big game. The team is now 3-9 in the last four years in bowl games and in games against Notre Dame and Ohio State. It broke the hearts of everyone in the Big House, not to mention the millions of fans watching across the country.
I’ve had chest pains all day, but I can’t figure out if it’s just heartburn from the spaghetti I ate for lunch or if my heart is actually breaking. And I don’t know if my heart is breaking because of Saturday’s loss or because of another disappointing Michigan season. I guess the two are really just starting to blend together.
– Ian Herbert can be reached at email@example.com.