MINNEAPOLIS — It’s a foregone conclusion.
Michigan throttled Minnesota, 35-13, at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday behind a banner day at quarterback for Devin Gardner to hoist the Little Brown Jug once more.
The victory was the Wolverines’ sixth of the season, the magic number to become bowl-eligible. But hardly anyone even noticed. The days of the almighty sixth win are gone.
It’s a foregone conclusion now, and that’s a beautiful thing. The focus is higher now, set on winning the Big Ten championship. Brady Hoke brought that laser-focus when he arrived before the 2011 season.
Michigan is back to a place where not just any bowl, but the Rose Bowl is the standard.
There’s a reason Hoke took the seniors on a leadership trip to the California coast in late May. He took them to train with Navy SEALs, but he also took them to the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif.
“It was my first time and I was dying to see it,” said fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs. “That’s a special place. I understand now why they call it the Granddaddy of ‘Em All. It was unreal.
“I left that place thinking, ‘I’ve gotta be back here in six more months, because I can’t go too long away from this place.’ ”
But the reality of that Rose Bowl goal is that roadmap back to Pasadena cuts through Indianapolis, and Michigan’s window of opportunity to get to Indy is closing week by week.
The Wolverines are 6-3 through the bulk of its schedule this fall. They are 4-1 in the Big Ten, good for a slice of first place with Nebraska. But there’s no split first-place ribbon here. Michigan lost to the Huskers two weeks ago and, in so doing, relinquished the driver’s seat in the Legends Division.
To pardon the well-worn cliché, the Wolverines aren’t in control of their own destiny. And that’s the last thing Hoke wanted.
If the Huskers win out, they’re on to the Big Ten title game and one step away from a Rose Bowl berth. If Michigan wins out, goes 7-1 in conference play, but Nebraska doesn’t lose, it would have to settle for a warm, sunny bowl game in Florida.
That’s why all eyes were on the Michigan State-Nebraska game on Saturday night.
The Michigan football team’s plane had just landed, and the players were undoubtedly watching. The Spartans were leading slightly, then comfortably. Then it was all erased.
Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense, aided by a few questionable flags and ‘Sparty, no!’ moments, engineered a pair of touchdown drives to steal victory from the grasps of defeat.
Michigan, fully poised to scoot back into the driver’s seat, got whiplashed. Back behind the Huskers.
The finish in East Lansing nearly shrouded the victory — that crucial sixth victory — in Minneapolis. And that it all happened on Hoke’s 54th birthday seems like a script written wrong.
Still, Hoke says November is when championships are won. So Michigan waits. If Nebraska falters, the Wolverines must be ready. Through the training, the SEALs and this agony of battling from behind the eight-ball, Hoke built the Wolverines for this chase.
He never thought about that sixth win.
That was a foregone conclusion.