COLUMBUS — Entering Saturday’s game, the only thing left to lose was the last bit of pride.
And somehow, the Michigan football team managed to fumble that away, too.
Before going to Ohio Stadium, it hadn’t been completely clear when the 3-9 Wolverines would hit rock bottom. It felt like it after the Illinois blowout. Maybe it was after the Toledo embarrassment, or when Michigan lost to Notre Dame, Michigan State or Purdue.
But it became obvious at the end of Saturday’s misery. As the Buckeyes stomped on the Wolverines’ pride one last time and the Ohio State students rushed the field, junior running back Brandon Minor slowly walked off the field with his helmet in his hand.
In the lowest point of the worst season in Michigan history, was he really trying to soak it all in?
“Yeah, basically,” Minor said, slowly and sadly, right before he was grabbed by the shoulder and pulled away by a member of the Michigan staff.
But now that the season is over, there are a few positives looking forward — well, the main one is probably just that this year is over.
The Wolverines can hope it won’t be as bad next season.
“Ain’t going to happen on my watch as a senior next year,” Minor said in his postgame press conference.
But the Wolverines seemed to believe that at the beginning of this year, too. This time around, they’ll have to understand where they went wrong Saturday — and this season — before they try to fix those problems next spring.
Before it even started, the biggest rivalry game in college football was already irrelevant. The ABC broadcasters estimated just 200 of the 105,564 fans in the stands were Michigan fans, and it was easy to believe that, looking out at the solid red crowd.
Rodriguez had been accused of not seeing the importance of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry before coaching in The Game, and the questions about it had already become annoyingly repetitive by the time Ohio State week rolled around.
It still wasn’t clear he understood on Saturday. Next season, he has to prove he knows. Especially in a transition period where so much of Michigan tradition is being overhauled, the rivalry can’t be overstated enough. Bo Schembechler made his team do drills in sets of 50 the year after Michigan’s 50-14 loss to the Buckeyes. And next year, Rodriguez should make sure two sets of numbers from this season aren’t forgotten: 3-9 and 42-7.
After Saturday’s loss, Rodriguez said, “The quieter I am, the less drama I have to deal with.” But next year, he needs to emphasize the importance of the rivalry so much that Michigan fans are sick of hearing about it before the game happens.
It’s not just any other game. When Jim Tressel came to Ohio State and spoke at his first pep rally, he made sure Buckeyes fans knew success started with a win in Ann Arbor — and he’s now 7-1 against the Wolverines.
On the field
When the going got tough this season, Rodriguez often used the number of months he’s been the Michigan head coach as an excuse.
“Nine months,” he said back in September, answering a question about his team’s progress with a dramatic pause for effect. “Nine months.”
It was the same the next month before the Minnesota game.
“Ten months. Geez,” he told reporters exasperatedly, when asked to evaluate how he’s been as the coach.
But 11 months after he was hired, his team looked shockingly similar to how it did in August.
A meager offense featuring a bad offensive line and an erratic quarterback.
A defense that gave up the big plays.
A return game that couldn’t hold onto the ball.
Rodriguez constantly says that he can see progress in practice Sunday through Friday that doesn’t show up on the field. Saturday showed fans can no longer give him the benefit of the doubt — in terms of the season, there was no improvement to speak of.
Experience will solve some of those in-game problems, and improving the product on the field will obviously be the Wolverines’ top priority. Designating a No. 1 quarterback from day one will help with team attitude and consistency. Rodriguez’s on-the-field problems will be the easiest to fix because this year’s freshmen will be sophomores, and that year of experience could be the difference in next season’s close games.
Losing is unacceptable, but a fragmented team is intolerable.
There had been hints of it all season, but the careful display of team unity the Wolverines tried to preserve all season finally crumbled Saturday.
It had been starting to publicly unravel for a few weeks beforehand, when Rodriguez announced last week that Zion Babb and Jason Kates were no longer on the team. Others will certainly follow, including the still-unannounced but likely departure of sophomore safety Artis Chambers.
Upperclassmen David Moosman and Terrance Taylor have both said more than once in the last few weeks that some of their teammates don’t always understand the importance of playing hard.
“Some people in the shadows that maybe have different agendas, we’re weeding those people out,” Moosman said last Monday.
But it wasn’t until Saturday that the team’s disconnect became glaringly, embarrassingly clear, starting with senior Charles Stewart’s fight with the coaching staff in the first quarter and ending with Brandon Minor stopping just short of calling his teammates out by name after the loss.
“It’s like some people don’t even like leaving theirself when they step on the field,” Minor said. “Can’t really blame Rich Rod because everybody on the team didn’t buy in like they were supposed to.”
Going into next season, Rodriguez’s first priority needs to be getting his team to act like a team again. He has said he wishes he got to know his players better on a personal level, and starting now, he should make sure he does that.
In the end, Rodriguez said he hopes this 2008 season will be remembered as a “blip on the radar.” With all the notoriety it has gained, that’s doubtful.
Tying a program-record, five-game losing streak within a season.
Five more average points per game allowed this season than the previous worst Michigan defense.
Five more losses than the Wolverines had last season.
That just means five months from now, with spring practice done and the start of season two in the transition looming, the Wolverines’ progress needs to be obvious.
— Ratkowiak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.