SAN ANTONIO – I had heard the motto a half dozen times before. After each of Michigan’s five losses this season, one (or usually more) of the key players have talked about why Michigan finished – or didn’t finish – yet another game a few points short of a victory.
Tight end Tyler Ecker after a 23-20 loss to Wisconsin: “Obviously, we’re having a hard time finishing right now, and that is something we need to fix.”
Linebacker David Harris following a 23-20 loss to Minnesota: “We just didn’t finish.”
Quarterback Chad Henne on a 25-21 loss to Ohio State: “This year, we didn’t finish some of the games we should have.”
So it didn’t surprise me to hear running back Mike Hart – surprisingly jovial for one of the first guys to come out of what must have been an almost deadly silent locker room – say the team lost because it couldn’t finish the game.
“That’s been our motto all year, and we just didn’t do it,” Hart said. “That’s all I can say, we didn’t do it.”
He laughed as he said it, probably because he realized how ridiculous it sounded.
“We worked on it. We worked on it every day.”
He pleaded with us to believe him.
And I did. For a little while.
I thought back to the Minnesota game – the Gophers turned out a 60-yard run in the final minute when all they wanted to do was run out the clock and play for overtime.
I reminisced about the final seven minutes of the Ohio State game, when Troy Smith led the Buckeyes on two full-field drives to steal a victory.
Even in games that it won, Michigan found ways to gag a little bit at the end – Iowa drove 74 yards in 2:42 to kick a game-tying field goal and send the game into overtime; Michigan State similarly returned a fumble 74 yards to tie the game with seven minutes to go. Finishing is the obvious answer.
But this is not about obvious. Football – with its 22 players, dozens of defensive schemes and hundreds of offensive plays – is not about obvious. And even though finishing off teams in close games is important, starting strong has as much of an impact.
“Like always, it always comes down to the last ending of the game,” junior LaMarr Woodley said after the latest poor finish – the 32-28 loss at the hands of Nebraska in this year’s Alamo Bowl – and one that fittingly ended Michigan’s worst season since I was a two-year-old toddler. “And you hate for it to come down to that, because it can go both ways.”
Woodley drilled it. While everyone else was talking about the last 11 minutes, Michigan’s star defensive end realized that it was the whole game that mattered.
“You have to know how to finish a team early,” Woodley said. “You don’t want it to go down to the fourth quarter. You don’t want it to go down to the last minutes. You want to have the game won before the fourth quarter even begins. You want to take the other team’s heart before it comes down to that.”
Wow. What a realization. You mean Michigan should have been winning by more than zero points at halftime? Maybe it wasn’t just the last two Huskers’ drives that put them up 32-28 with four and a half minutes left. Maybe it was also the drive that tied the game at 14 with two minutes left in the first half. The truth is that the Cornhuskers – 11-point underdogs – shouldn’t have been in this game from the beginning.
Great teams finish off weaker opponents.
At home against Minnesota, another weaker team, Michigan started the game without any kind of inspiration. The Wolverines’ first drive was a 70-yard effort, but it failed in the red zone and Michigan settled for a 23-yard field goal. After ending the first quarter with a huge three-point lead, the Wolverines gave it right back to the Gophers in the second quarter. So 20 minutes into that game, Michigan was tied with an inferior team. It might have been the 61-yard run at the end of the game that broke the Wolverines’ backs, but they were paralyzed right from the start.
Great teams take advantage of opportunities.
Against Ohio State, in maybe the biggest game of the year, Michigan was given all the opportunities it could ask for. Former Heisman contender Ted Ginn Jr. got spooked, fumbling two punts in the third quarter and basically handing the ball and the game to the Wolverines. But Michigan couldn’t take advantage. The team trailed 9-0 halfway through the second quarter and 12-10 midway through the third – after Ginn’s fumbles.
Sure, the Wolverines couldn’t finish the game – they gave up two touchdowns in the last seven minutes. But they couldn’t start it either. After getting the Buckeyes into a third-and-13 situation on the opening series, Michigan gave up a 15-yard pass and went on to surrender an 80-yard drive and a touchdown. Ohio State started the game up six.
Great teams start and finish games.
In the game against Notre Dame – the first of five losses this season – the Wolverines actually put together a pretty strong ending. Maybe, if they hadn’t started the game down 14-3, they would have had a chance. In the first half, Michigan had five first downs compared to Notre Dame’s 14. Fifty-one first-half rushing yards (coupled with three points) might have sealed Michigan’s fate early.
Great teams start and finish seasons.
In each of the five seasons that I’ve been at Michigan (and even for one before I got here), the Wolverines have lost their first road game of the year. This year, they even lost a home game to Notre Dame before traveling, and losing, to Wisconsin. They haven’t had much luck finishing seasons either. Michigan has won just one of the last five bowl games it’s played in and one of the last five games against Ohio State – the last regular season game every year.
But maybe LaMarr Woodley’s logic applies here too. Maybe if the Wolverines started the season on a strong note, the rest of the games would take care of themselves. A little bit of momentum goes a long way.
“You have to have a whole different attitude next year,” Woodley said.
And maybe Michigan needs a new motto
– Ian Herbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org