With the Big Ten title and Bowl Championship Series bowl bid at stake, Michigan needed to find a way to beat its biggest rival, Ohio State. And with the team one game away from reaching its goals, the Wolverines played their worst first half in years.
The Wolverines (6-2 Big Ten, 8-3 overall) committed six turnovers four in the first half and dug themselves a 23-0 halftime deficit, from which they never recovered.
In the end, 20 second-half points by the Wolverines were not enough as Ohio State (5-3 Big Ten, 7-4 overall) won 26-20.
“This team was excited to play and had a great week of practice, but any time you turn the ball over and give it to the visiting team at the 3- or 4-yard line, you”ve really hurt yourself and the crowd is out of the game,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “We wanted to get the lead and get the crowd in the game. (But) we started poorly and it just got worse.”
The loss means Illinois (7-1 Big Ten, 10-1 overall) wins the Big Ten championship and will represent the Big Ten in a BCS bowl, likely the Sugar Bowl. Michigan will either play in the Orlando-based Citrus Bowl or the Tampa-based Outback Bowl. Both games are on Jan. 1.
“We came into this game knowing what we had to do and what was at stake,” Michigan senior co-captain Shawn Thompson said. “We didn”t get it done.”
The first-half deficit meant the Wolverines needed to play mistake-free football in the second half, but they couldn”t capitalize on their opportunities.
Michigan opened the second half with a touchdown and drove the ball all the way to the Buckeyes” 10-yard line late in the third quarter, when Michigan quarterback John Navarre spotted Marquise Walker on a slant in the endzone. The ball bounced off Walker”s chest.
“Blame that on me,” Walker said.
Hayden Epstein missed a 27-yard field goal on the next play.
Much as it did all day, the defense responded, forcing the Buckeyes to punt the ball back four plays later.
Following a blocked punt, Michigan scored again, but failed the two-point conversion attempt, leaving it down 10 points, 23-13.
The Wolverines got the ball back with 7:27 to go and the fans still did not give up hope. But Navarre overthrew Walker on a fly and the Buckeyes” Mike Doss returned the ball to Michigan”s 9-yard line, setting up Ohio State”s final three points of the game.
Even after the field goal, the Wolverines still had a chance. Michigan responded this time by driving the ball all the way to the Buckeyes” 7-yard line. Faced with third-and-3, Navarre threw two incomplete passes on the next two plays, turning the ball back over to Ohio State.
Michigan could not recover from the final mistake. Walker caught a touchdown with about two minutes left, cutting the deficit to six, but Michigan would not get any closer.
“Our goal was to win the Big Ten championship,” Carr said. “We had other goals. I”m disappointed, because we were in position to win the Big Ten championship and we didn”t play our best game.”
It was the Buckeyes” best game. While they were not overly impressive, they knew coming into the game that they would need to take advantage of the every opportunity, which they did.
This was especially true because they played without their starting quarterback Steve Bellisari, who was demoted to 4th-string because after being charged with drunken driving Nov. 15.
Without its quarterback, the Buckeyes took advantage of all six turnovers.
When coach Jim Tressell was announced as the new Ohio State coach, he promised that his fans would be proud of the program when it played Michigan.
After the game, he downplayed his statement, claiming he did not guarantee a victory. “We didn”t promise a win,” he said after the game. “We promised you”d be proud of us. We did the things we needed to win. It just happened to be against Michigan.
“The impact on our seniors is amazing. Even if they go on to win Super Bowls, it will never feel like this to them.”
The loss left Michigan feeling like an opportunity slipped by.
“Obviously, we”re extremely disappointed with the outcome and the way we played in the first half,” Carr said. “We have no excuses. Give Ohio State credit. They did what they had to do. We had turnovers in the first half and didn”t make plays in the second half. We had an opportunity to accomplish a lot today, and we didn”t play our best game.”