Just when you thought the rivalry couldn't yield a more painful outcome, it did on Saturday, when No. 2 Ohio State bested No. 3 Michigan, 30-27, in double overtime. It was the first overtime game in the history of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, and thus presented Michigan with a chance to lose in a new way.
When the game ended, I quietly checked my phone for 10 minutes, taking in reactions from around the internet, positive and negative. But, eventually, I wondered if this game was even worth the consternation.
After so many losses of all kinds -- unmitigated blowouts, near-upsets of better Ohio State teams, upsets of better Michigan teams, close-but-not-really-close games, and so on -- is it possible that one more piece of kindling on the losing fire burn makes it burn any more horrifically?
How you deal with the loss is up to you. But one fact remains: In its infinite cruelty, the rivalry game in Columbus sought maximum pain, going to not one but two overtimes.
Sixty minutes was not enough -- the newest iteration of disappointment needed a little more time to cook.
Saturday offered a strange combination of Michigan both looking like the better team yet simultaneously making the errors of a lesser team.
Michigan led 17-7 late in the third quarter, with Ohio State's seven points coming on a Wilton Speight pick six in the second quarter. The defensive line had suffocated the Ohio State offense to that point, putting to bed any notion of a reprisal of last season's dud of an effort, coordinated by now Maryland head coach DJ Durkin. If any individual unit in the country is worthy of a playoff bid, it's this defense (and Alabama's, of course).
While the Wolverines were aided to an extent by JT Barrett's general inaccuracy, they shut down Ohio State's passing game, as Barrett went just 15-for-32 for 124 yards, good for a measly 3.9 YPA. Michigan also shut down the powerful Mike Weber (11 carries, 27 yards).
In essence, Barrett's legs were just about Ohio State's entire offense, as, for whatever reason, Urban Meyer limited Curtis Samuel to just seven carries (he also caught four passes for 32 yards). Barrett made some plays, but the Michigan defense was able to swarm him a majority of the time. Many of those tackles for loss or even simple open-field tackles (Mike McCray's tackle on Barrett late in the game comes to mind) would have yielded big gains in previous years -- in fact, you only need look to 2015 for many examples.
Truth be told, watching Michigan's defense go to work against Ohio State yielded an unfamiliar feeling. It had been quite a while since Michigan's defense kept an Ohio State offense in check like that. Even in years when the Buckeyes were held under 30 (2007, 2009), there was an obvious feeling that they could have scored more if the game was ever truly in doubt.
Of course, the ode to improvement rings hollow. At a certain point, hearing about The Way is tiring. Are we there yet, are we there yet? The answer is no, not yet. They almost scaled the mountain, but had to turn back, low on oxygen and morale.
For Michigan fans familiar with the composition of the roster, most folks said before the season that this was the year to make some noise. It wasn't just bravado -- this team as constructed is loaded, although of course not without weak spots (namely the offensive line and linebacker).
In no uncertain terms, this season was nothing more than a missed chance.
After close losses on the road, you'll usually hear the following: "Make the plays you need to win the game and don't let the referees have a hand in the outcome."
You hear that and by now are conditioned to nod in agreement. Whether it's Big Ten basketball or football, everybody knows the aforementioned -- it's an unspoken contract. Don't put the game away and any officiating malfeasance is fine, because something.
What can be said about a sport in which the home team has a built-in, infrastructural advantage? A sport in which, in the biggest game of the year, one team is called for two penalties totaling six yards? One in which pass interference can be called on one play and not on the exact same kind of play another time? A sport in which a wrong call can't -- rather, won't -- be overturned. "Indisputable video evidence" is a phrase made up of words made up of letters, but I'm thoroughly convinced is devoid of meaning, etymologically and in practice.
Yes, referees are human and make mistakes. With that said, it's also tiring to watch a big game on Saturday and have to pretend that Ohio State committed just two penalties, or that Barrett got that first down, or that Jim Harbaugh should be called for an unsportsmanlike penalty because a referee's feelings were hurt.
So, you can say Michigan should have won this game, in spite of the officiating -- and you'd be right. Michigan really should have won this game. They were up 17-7 late in the third quarter until a questionable Speight throw from Michigan's end zone essentially gifted the struggling Buckeye offense a touchdown.
Still, the fact that officiating has to have any sort of impact at all is puzzling.
In the end, though, Michigan's weaknesses prevented it from winning. Good teams salt games away with their offensive lines; Michigan's is decidedly just OK.
While the decision to have Speight passing from his own end zone late in the third was questionable, it was a calculated risk, one that Harbaugh and Co. probably felt okay rolling with given that the running game wasn't doing much at all. On the play prior to the interception, De'Veon Smith was dropped for a loss of four.
Rushing totals for the day:
- Smith: 21 carries, 65 yards (2.9 YPC)
- Chris Evans: 6 carries, 18 yards
- Karan Higdon: 3 carries, 5 yards
- Jabrill Peppers: 4 carries, 9 yards
Michigan's longest carry of the day was a 17-yarder by Smith early in the third quarter (on the drive after Peppers' interception, a drive capped by Speight's mishandled snap at the OSU 1).
Meanwhile, when Speight wasn't tossing those two interceptions, he was otherwise very good, fitting passes into tight windows and generally looking poised in a raucous Ohio Stadium. The performance is all the more impressive given the fact that it is unlikely he was 100 percent.
Michigan couldn't close things out with its line, and that did it in. And, late, Michigan's linebackers, including Peppers, didn't make the plays they needed to keep the Buckeyes from driving down the field for the game-tying field goal.
In overtime and needing to hold OSU to a field goal, Michigan had every opportunity to bring Samuel down for a loss on third-and-9. Instead, Samuel nearly picked up the first down, setting up Barrett's conversion attempt on the following play.
In the end, Michigan's weaknesses were exposed. Unfortunately, its strengths weren't enough to paper over those holes in the drywall.
Maybe it's fatigue, maybe it's resignation, maybe it's age and perspective, but I've found myself thinking less about this loss than previous losses. Even last year's 42-13 drubbing in Ann Arbor left me more frustrated, simply for the sheer ineptitude of the performance.
Ohio State won, Michigan didn't. These are facts, even if you dispute the events that led to those conclusions.
Other facts: Michigan has not won a conference title since 2004. Michigan has not won a division title since the Big Ten started its conference championship game in 2011. Michigan has not beaten Ohio State in Columbus since 2000, in the final months of the Clinton administration. Urban Meyer is the first Ohio State coach to start 5-0 against the Wolverines.
On the other hand, there are positives. Michigan hasn't had more than three players selected in the NFL draft since 2008, when seven Wolverines were drafted, a year after seven were taken in the 2007 draft. In this coming spring's NFL draft, Michigan is sure to see at least seven players drafted, many from its stalwart defense.
While this is bad for the Wolverines in the short-term, it's great for recruiting and overall profile. For almost a decade, Michigan was a program where players seemingly only made it to the next level via their own inherent talent and determination to improve individually. Now, potential draftees are being developed into slam-dunk selections, and probable picks are developed into first-rounders.
In addition, Michigan has recorded 10 wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2002-2003. While this feels like faint consolation, it is something. Pending the bowl game, Michigan has a chance to grab 11 wins for the first time since Brady Hoke's first season in 2011.
On top of all that, Michigan returns the most important player on the field next season: its starting quarterback. Speight, with a year of starting experience under his belt -- including trips to Spartan Stadium, Kinnick Stadium and Ohio Stadium -- will be back to lead an offense that will have some fresh faces next year on the line and at the skill positions.
In any case, the future is bright. Michigan might not have a playoff-caliber team next season, but there will be time to worry about that when it comes.
However, talk of the future is empty; promises can be broken, prophecies can be wrong. The present is the only certainty.
This time, many Michigan fans were hoping to set aside the future for talk of the now: a win against the Buckeyes, a shot at a conference title, a playoff berth.
None of those materialized. So, in defeat, all eyes fix upon the future, and what might be on another day.