COLUMBUS — For most of the morning and afternoon here on Saturday, a faint snow fell from a slate-colored sky, an appropriate backdrop for the renewal of the timeless Michigan-Ohio State rivalry.
But after a second half spent looking for answers that ultimately eluded them, the Wolverines could only trudge away solemnly, their mood mirrored by the still-gray heavens above them. Hundreds of Ohio State students and fans rushed past them onto the field once the clock read zeroes, fueled by the kind of euphoria that can only result from a win in this game.
The Buckeyes pulled ahead in the third quarter and stayed ahead, kneeling away a hard-fought, 26-21 victory, with Michigan (6-2 Big Ten, 8-4 overall) powerless to do anything about it.
“It hurt,” said fifth-year senior wide receiver Roy Roundtree. “We have to look at film and look at the mistakes that we made.”
The early action on Saturday seemed to promise a high-scoring affair, which has been something of an aberration over the history of this rivalry.
Ohio State (8-0, 12-0) needed just six plays to score the game’s first touchdown, a four-yard run by bruising running back Carlos Hyde after a rapid drive down the field. But the Wolverines answered on their second possession when junior quarterback Devin Gardner found Roundtree for a 75-yard catch-and-run and the tying score.
It was the type of dynamic play that characterized the Michigan attack before halftime. Like last week against Iowa, the team utilized both of its main quarterbacks — Gardner was the traditional passer, and senior Denard Robinson was a running quarterback. The combination was in sync throughout the first half and a spectacular, 67-yard run by Robinson helped the Wolverines seize a 21-20 lead at halftime.
Michigan wouldn’t score again. The team gained just 60 yards in the second half—the two-quarterback system, run with such efficiency for the previous six quarters, ceased to function.
“Too many turnovers,” Robinson said of the second-half woes. “We had three turnovers in the second half. In order for you to win this game, you gotta control the ball, hold on to the ball.”
Robinson and Gardner both lost fumbles, in the third quarter and fourth quarter, respectively. (Gardner also lost a fumble in the first half.)
But the real back-breaker was Gardner’s interception on what turned out to be the team’s final drive of the game. The junior often found receivers for long completions down the field on Saturday, but this was also Gardner’s most mistake-ridden game when it came to taking sacks and missing receivers.
The Wolverines’ defense was solid for most of the afternoon, often put in tough spots in the second half because of the offense’s sudden ineptitude. Dynamic Buckeye quarterback Braxton Miller found success through the air but was contained on the ground.
Hyde, though, wasn’t contained. The running back torched Michigan’s defense for 146 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, constantly cutting through the middle of the front seven. It was Hyde who clinched the game for Ohio State, bursting forward for a gain of 13 yards on third-and-7 with just several minutes remaining on the drive after Gardner’s interception.
“(Hyde) out-leveraged us a couple times in there because of what we wanted to do, which was a little different,” said Michigan coach Brady Hoke. “It worked in the first half pretty well. Didn’t tackle very well, I didn’t think, from that standpoint. He’s a big back, and I didn’t think we wrapped him up on the first hit a couple times like we needed to.”
“He ran the ball hard,” added fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs. “We didn’t get enough hats to the ball.”
The offense’s woeful second half could be blamed partially on play-calling.
On the Wolverines’ first drive after halftime, Hoke elected to go for it on fourth-and-two from Michigan’s 48-yard line. The Wolverines then faced third-and-short on each of their next three drives.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges called a running play each time, and each time, Michigan failed to convert.
“You gotta look at where you’re at and what you feel you may have an opportunity,” Hoke said of the three calls. “Upstairs you see a lot of different things.”
The Wolverines were in no mood to second-guess or dwell on missed opportunities after the game. Their faces were somber, and they spoke with the low voices one would expect after they let a rival beat them and complete an undefeated season in doing so.
Hoke talked briefly of the future, of the freshmen and other underclassmen that “will remember” this loss and use it as motivation.
But nothing could ease the pain of Saturday.
“You don’t want to come down here and lose,” a weary Kovacs said. “That’s about all I can say about it.”