Ever since the Wolverines’ embarrassing Citrus Bowl loss to Tennessee last January, “finishing” has been a recurrent mantra in the Michigan locker room.
Several Michigan players have referred to “finishing” as the big picture of the season, referencing the fact the Wolverines lost three of their final five games last year after a 6-1 start.
But before Michigan worries about “finishing the season,” it has to finish each game off – one yard at a time.
This means finishing on short-yardage situations, like the consecutive 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 plays the Wolverines couldn’t convert last Saturday at Purdue. Such poor execution kills drives and momentum, while giving opponents new life.
“It’s real frustrating,” Michigan receiver Tyrece Butler said. “We’re Michigan, we’re supposed to be able to push you one yard.”
Said fellow wideout Ron Bellamy: “One yard – that’s the difference between championships won or lost.”
For Michigan it’s no different. One yard could mean the difference between smelling the roses in Pasadena for the first time in five years and sniffing the familiar scent of “freshly squeezed” orange juice at the now-Capital One Bowl yet another year.
With two of Michigan’s biggest tests of the year coming up – Iowa and Ohio State – the Wolverines must find their “killer instinct” and not let opponents hang on like they have numerous times this year.
Against Utah on Sept. 21, an ugly and sluggish game nearly turned heartbreaking when the Wolverines failed to finish. Up 10-7, Michigan ran the clock down under two minutes, but saw its final drive fall short and culminate in a missed 42-yard field goal attempt.
The Utes had a chance to win, but due to undisciplined play and a lack of weapons, they couldn’t muster a comeback. Don’t expect the same to happen against the Hawkeyes or Buckeyes.
Fast forward to last Saturday at Purdue. The Wolverines once again made a game look much closer than it actually should have been on the field. Besides the ineptitude on short-yardage situations late in the game, Michigan failed to run out the clock on three separate occasions because it couldn’t get that elusive first down.
Purdue threw two interceptions, but after being given a third straight opportunity with great field position inside Michigan territory, the Boilermakers took advantage – scoring a touchdown with eight seconds left to cut the Michigan lead to 23-21.
The Boilers simply ran out of time. But the Michigan offense is running out of excuses.
Whether the Wolverines made “mental mistakes,” the lineman “just couldn’t get the push” or Purdue “threw in a new wrinkle,” something has to change.
Yes, as captain Bennie Joppru said, the defense usually has the advantage late in the game, since it knows a run is most likely coming to take time off the clock. But the offense is the one that knows the play, it knows the snap count, and it knows what it has to do.
“It’s all about leverage, getting under your defender,” said Michigan offensive tackle Tony Pape. “If you can set your guy back a yard then your running back should be able to get that yard. That’s how it works, it comes down to the line.”
Whether Michigan finishes the season as Big Ten champs and Rose Bowl bound may come down to one yard.
And who wants it more.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.