When Chad Henne’s fourth-down pass fell to the turf and ended any chance of a comeback, I – like just about everyone else in the student section – stood in silence while Notre Dame’s players, coaches and fans celebrated in the Big House. The game was over for at least two minutes before I finally turned away from the field and made my way up to the exit.

Sharad Mattu

For some inexplicable reason, I never saw Saturday’s loss coming – even though it made it six straight seasons with a September nonconference loss.

But that’s not the trend that bothers me the most. Sure, Michigan – ranked third in the polls just a week ago – now has no real chance at the national title, but the Big Ten title is still there, and the Wolverines have always been able to bounce back from early-season woes. On top of that, the defense put together a good second half for the first time since last year’s Purdue game, and the offense – even with all the injuries – has way too much talent to be that bad again.

But that’s all the optimism you’re going to hear from me. I’ve got to get back to that annoying trend. Since the 2001 season, in its 12 biggest games – four against Notre Dame, four against Ohio State and four New Year’s Day bowl games – Michigan has a putrid 3-9 record. What kind of national power wins its biggest games every leap year? How many times am I going to have to hear from my mom what Regis Philbin had to say about Notre Dame’s win over Michigan?

And don’t think that the only difference between losing to Ohio State and losing to Minnesota is that a loss to the Buckeyes hurts our pride a little more.

It makes recruiting in the Midwest more difficult because Ohio State and Notre Dame are Michigan’s biggest competitors. Imagine if a recruit saw last weekend’s game, then this weekend sees Notre Dame beat Michigan State and the following Saturday watches Ohio State beat Iowa. Sure, there’s probably enough talent for all three schools, but even top programs go through hiccups, and Michigan has been at least very good for a very long time. Anyone who saw Oklahoma lose to TCU or Florida State and Miami play in an all-time ugly game knows how swift the fall from the top can be.

And it’s not as if Michigan is dominating all the other teams on its schedule. While 9-3 seems to be their record of choice in recent years, the Wolverines could have been 7-5 just as easily as 11-1. Last season, Michigan came from behind to beat Minnesota, Purdue and Michigan State, but it fumbled away the Notre Dame game and lost on a last-second field goal to Texas in the Rose Bowl. And even though Ohio State beat Michigan soundly last year, the Wolverines were the better team all season and were playing for the Big Ten title. In 2003, they were ranked 23rd and down 28-7 in the fourth quarter to Minnesota and ended up in the Rose Bowl.

Last year, with the quarterback and running back positions completely open at the start of the season, it was hard to imagine the Wolverines ending up in the Rose Bowl like they did. But even though they made it to Pasadena, put together a memorable comeback against Michigan State and did it all with freshmen at those two positions, the lasting memories of the season are losses in the three big games, particularly to Ohio State and Texas to close the season.

If that doesn’t make clear the importance of rivalry games and bowl games, look at John Cooper, Ohio State’s football coach until 2001. Despite a gaudy 111-43-4 record in 13 seasons, Cooper was just 2-10-1 against Michigan and 3-8 in bowl games. When Jim Tressel was hired to replace him, one of the first things he did was appear at a basketball game and tell the crowd he was looking forward to traveling to Ann Arbor to beat Michigan, even though the game was about nine months away. Needless to say, a mediocre Ohio State team beat a Michigan team playing for the Big Ten title that year. Now, Tressel is 3-1 against the Wolverines, 3-1 in bowl games and has won a national championship. He’s so popular, he could hand a thousand dollars to every one of his players on national television and keep his job.

So now that the chance to buck the trend against Notre Dame has passed, I’m looking ahead toward the Buckeyes. If Michigan is destined for a 9-3 season as usual, let’s save the comebacks for Ohio State and whatever bowl game the Wolverines wind up playing in. Comeback wins over Minnesota and Purdue are great, but that would be something to celebrate.

– Mattu can be reached at smattu@umich.edu.

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