As the Michigan football team walked out of the Big House for the final time this season, it was clear its rollercoaster 5-7 season was left behind those gates.
Even senior defensive end Brandon Graham, the vocal leader of the Wolverines, was surprisingly upbeat, sharing hugs and laughs with his family.
“We left it on the field,” Graham said about his mood.
The realization of defeat pervaded the entire team. Ohio State beat Michigan for the sixth straight time, 21-10, due in part to freshman quarterback Tate Forcier’s five turnovers.
With eight Buckeye victories in the 2000s, the series is now the most lopsided since Fielding Yost’s Michigan teams beat Ohio State nine times in the 1900s.
“(It’s) not embarrassing, just humbling,” Graham said on the field after the game.
Michigan’s defense played arguably its best game of the year, surrendering just 14 points to the 10th-ranked Buckeyes (7-1 Big Ten, 10-2 overall). It was the fewest points the Wolverines (1-7, 5-7) have given up to a Big Ten opponent all season. More impressively, the unit didn’t give up any back-breaking plays that seemed commonplace in the Wolverines’ last four losses.
Led by Graham, who moved into second place all-time with four tackles for loss, the defense’s solid execution kept Michigan fans’ bowl-game hopes alive late into the game.
But once the fourth quarter began, the Wolverines simply could not overcome their mistakes. Forcier threw three interceptions in the final 15 minutes, cutting Michigan’s first three drives of the quarter short. The freshman finished with 226 yards on 22-for-38 passing.
“He’s a freshman, and sometimes he’ll make freshman mistakes,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said. “He’ll learn from it. He’s upset, and he’ll learn from it. There’s never one reason you lose a game, there’s always a multitude of them. Turnovers and beating yourself certainly doesn’t help, but there’s a multitude of reasons.”
The signs of a strong defensive outing were present from the first Buckeye drive of the game, when Michigan stopped Ohio State just as it crossed the 50-yard line.
But Michigan was unable to take advantage of its first opening-drive stop since facing Delaware State over a month ago.
The Wolverines started at the seven-yard line, and on third-and-long, Forcier struggled under pressure. The freshman scrambled through the middle of the end zone, fumbling the ball as he crossed the goal line. The Buckeyes recovered in the end zone to take an early seven-point lead.
The offense found its groove a few series later. Forcier and freshman quarterback Robinson shared snaps on a nice 11-play, 53-yard drive, which was extended twice on third down on good plays by Robinson (a third-down scramble) and redshirt freshman wide receiver Roy Roundtree (a 21-yard reception).
Once the Wolverines reached the red zone, though, they stalled out, and fifth-year senior Jason Olesnavage pushed a 24-yard field-goal attempt wide right.
“The missed field goal, I’m sure, affected their confidence,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. “But they didn’t stop. Michigan’s never going to stop. I’ve watched Rich’s teams forever — Rich’s teams don’t stop playing.”
Olesnavage managed to split the uprights midway through the second quarter, but Michigan’s three halftime points would stay in the shadow of Ohio State’s two touchdowns the rest of the way.
Senior linebacker Stevie Brown’s big third-down stops were one of the main reasons Michigan surrendered just 83 yards on all but one scoring drive in the first half.
After the break, the two teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, a period that has haunted the Michigan defense the past month.
On third down from the Ohio State 18-yard line, Forcier scrambled wide left before he found his best option on the opposite side of the field — freshman running back Vincent Smith. With room to run and a blocker, Smith scored the Wolverines’ second touchdown in three years against the Buckeyes. He ripped off his helmet straps, pumping his fists in ecstasy.
Smith was Michigan’s leading rusher with 32 yards on the ground.
But that was as close as Michigan would get. The Wolverines had just one more drive go for over nine yards, and Forcier’s interceptions quelled any comeback talk in the Big House.
Robinson took over the game’s final drive, but Michigan ran out of downs.
“Ohio State’s not that good of a team, and we beat ourselves today,” fifth-year senior Zoltan Mesko said. “It’s the team that made the fewer mistakes that won. And we came up with some big mistakes.”
For full coverage from Saturday’s loss, read SportsMonday and check michigandaily.com on Monday, Nov. 23.