This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
Eight points wasn’t supposed to be the margin of victory, not with the spread set at 33.
Part of the second-string defense was expected to play late in the fourth quarter, but in mop-up duty, not on the game-defining drive.
And after 665 consecutive carries without a fumble, running back Mike Hart wasn’t supposed to cough it up in the end zone for a safety.
That fact was clearly etched on LaMarr Woodley’s face as he walked off the field following Michigan’s goal-line stand.
Mouth guard hanging from his mouth, eyes turned heavenward, all he could do was shake his head in disbelief with a look that simply said, “How could we let this happen?”
While Saturday scared Wolverine nation, every championship team has to be tested. You never know when it will come, but you can be sure it will happen. An unheralded team will sneak up and spark public criticism. The 1997 Michigan squad had Iowa push it to the brink. The 2005 Texas unit barely fended off a pesky Texas A&M team. The 2001 Miami National Champions narrowly defeated Boston College.
These Wolverines, by their own admittance, desperately needed a wake-up call. Since the Notre Dame game, they’ve slowly toned down their level of play from their complete domination in South Bend.
True, Michigan definitely missed Mario Manningham’s ability to stretch the field, and the weather in Ann Arbor last weekend limited the offense’s continuity. Michigan coach Lloyd Carr thought his players looked tired in the unimpressive 17-3 victory against Northwestern.
After adopting the 12-game schedule, the Wolverines don’t have a bye week this season, but someone forgot to tell them. Because Saturday, it sure looked like Michigan was in the first stretch of a two-week bye.
No matter how many times they spew the overused mantra, “We’re taking it one game at a time,” it’s clear that the Wolverines had already glanced past Ball State and Indiana.
Just ask quarterback Chad Henne.
“You could tell that guys were just like, ‘Aw, this is going to be a blowover,’ ” Henne said. “Ball State played a heck of a game.”
The Cardinals might have played their best game of the season, but Ball State doesn’t really deserve the credit for the final margin of victory. Michigan should never have let Saturday’s game get as close as it did.
Carr and the players have shrugged it off as nothing more than an isolated phenomenon. Even after the game, some of the players still maintained their focus on each week’s game.
But the play on the field doesn’t reflect the talk.
Dropped balls, false starts and holding penalties are all keys to killing drives, and the Wolverines did their best to employ them all, especially in the second half. Carr pointed to the benefit of playing the second-string defense late in the game, but the score forced Henne to take every snap from center.
Left tackle Jake Long denied the Wolverines lack of focus and then, in the same breath, went on to talk about why they struggled to put the Cardinals away.
“I don’t think we lost focus,” Long said. “We just did things in the game that we usually don’t do that could cause us to lose, and we came very close to that today.”
Usually when you make mistakes that you normally don’t, it stems from a lack of concentration. Henne echoed the contradiction.
“I thought our guys were focused,” Henne said. “At times, (practice) was an easy going, everyone was having too much fun instead of going down to the hardnose and getting out there and practice.”
“Having too much fun” and “being focused” tend not to go together. It’s hard to focus when you’re not paying attention to the opposing team across the field, but instead on the national hype and the showdown in Columbus. ESPN already started the countdown, and apparently, Michigan did too.
Mental miscues are a direct product of a distracted team, a truth Henne hinted at after the game.
“We just hurt ourselves,” Henne said. “We couldn’t put the ball in the end zone and get first downs. It all came down to just execution like I said before, and coach Carr was pretty disappointed in that.”
Pretty disappointing doesn’t begin to describe the Michigan effort. Sure, it showed flashes of that dominant team that handed it to Notre Dame (like rushing for more than 200 yards in the first half), but not enough to justify its No. 2 ranking. Ball State is a middle-of-the-pack Mid-American Conference team at best and beating the Cardinals by eight points isn’t convincing or reassuring.
For all the faults critics can now find with the Wolverines, nothing much has changed. Michigan remained perfect. The first-team defense, when playing together, surrendered just three points. And Manningham’s return sparked a recently anemic offense.
Still, the players learned more from eking out a win than they would have from a blowout.
“It’s definitely a reality check for us,” Henne said with a chuckle. “If they don’t come out next week fired up, then we’re not the team that everybody thinks we are.”
Can the Wolverines rediscover the fire from earlier this season?
Sure. But for me, the jury’s still out.
– Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org