Wide receivers Darryl Stonum and Greg Mathews were sitting on the bench during the final minute of Saturday’s game when offensive linemen David Moosman and David Molk walked over and urged them to get up.
Get up to watch Northwestern take a knee and secure its 21-14 victory over the Michigan football team.
Get up as the Wolverines were down, losing their program-record eighth game of the season.
And most importantly, with the loss sealed, get up for Michigan’s biggest game of the season.
For the first time since 2002, the Wolverines will enter the season finale against Ohio State without a chance to win at least a share of the Big Ten title. But they were eliminated from the conference championship race weeks before their loss to the Wildcats on a cold and wet Senior Day.
Saturday’s defeat ensured Michigan (2-5 Big Ten, 3-8 overall) will not win back-to-back games in a season for the first time since 1962. But this season has done more than set several marks for futility in the record books. It’s taken an emotional toll on everyone in the program.
“That’s it,” senior nose tackle Terrance Taylor said. “My last time ever playing in this stadium. I don’t know how to explain it.”
The Wolverines led 14-7 at halftime, but Northwestern (4-3, 8-3) held Michigan scoreless in the second half. The Wildcats have shut out opponents seven times in the fourth quarter and four times for the whole second half.
“This is the kind of game we win,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Meanwhile, the Wolverines have struggled to win games of any type this year. But that gives them one slight advantage in their attempt to avoid a fifth straight defeat to the Buckeyes, which would be their longest losing streak in the history of the rivalry.
“(Motivation is) going to be easy because I’m sure (we’ll) hear all week, our guys have no chance,” Rodriguez said.
No. 10 Ohio State opened as 24-point favorites, and Michigan is 0-5 in Columbus when entering the matchup with a losing record.
Besides Rodriguez’s confidence, almost everything else is uncertain for the Michigan entering The Game after its loss to Northwestern.
Who’s the quarterback?
Redshirt sophomore Nick Sheridan started against Northwestern after his career game at Minnesota the previous week. But Threet replaced him in the second half Saturday, when Sheridan struggled.
Then, Threet, who missed the game against the Golden Gophers with a concussion, took another hit to the head, forcing Sheridan back into the game.
Sheridan finished 8-of-29 for 61 yards. Threet was 4-of-7 for 22 yards with an interception in the end zone as the Wolverines attempted to tie the game in the fourth quarter.
“I thought we ran the ball good,” redshirt junior left tackle Mark Ortmann said. “But when the defense knows we are only going to be able to do one thing, it’s hard.”
So who’s the running back?
Junior Carlos Brown played well against Northwestern, running 23 times for 115 yards. But entering the game, he had just four yards on three carries and hadn’t even dressed in several games this season.
Junior Brandon Minor, Michigan’s No. 1 running back for its previous four games, didn’t play because of an assortment of injuries.
Freshman Michael Shaw, the Wolverines’ top rusher last week, missed a portion of Saturday’s game with an injury.
And freshman Sam McGuffie, the team’s leading rusher on the season, practiced all week but surprised running backs coach Fred Jackson by making himself unavailable.
“Then you deal with people like Sam, coming right before the game, decide that he’s too banged up to go,” Jackson said.
What direction is this team going?
Many thought Michigan’s dominant win at Minnesota last week was a turning point for the team, but Saturday’s loss was a return to the form the Wolverines have shown for most of the season.
After allowing 48 points at Purdue, Michigan has allowed just 27 points in its last two games. The Wolverines’ switch to a 4-2-5 base has a lot to do with the improvement, and defensive coordinator Scott Shafer praised their improvement at shedding blocks and tackling.
But with the Wildcats’ first touchdown, Michigan clinched its worst scoring defense in program history. Even if the Wolverines shut out the Buckeyes, Michigan will have given up 25.4 points per game. The previous high was 23.8, set in 1962.
And after the offense moved the ball a season-high 435 yards against the Gophers, the Wolverines scored just one offensive touchdown Saturday, a short run by Sheridan in the first quarter. The other score came when redshirt sophomore Ricky Reyes returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Now, in a season filled with questions, could a solution lie in Columbus?
“There’s no question if you play well and win that one, it won’t salvage the season but it will certainly make you feel a lot better because of the rivalry and all that and the frustration we’ve had this year,” Rodriguez said. “You’ll be able to get some of that out if you can play well and have success in that game.”