ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Time and time again this season, Brady Hoke and his players have said “this is Michigan.”
They said that this team had the skill and potential to compete in the Big Ten.
They said the fans and media didn’t see what they did, that they didn’t see the “Michigan” in this group because they weren’t in the practices and meeting rooms.
But the problem was, that was essentially where that mythical trait was kept -- behind closed doors.
That “Michigan” they spoke of was never on full display in games.
When it was, it was muddled in between the negative rushes and turnovers.
And it wasn’t seen or talked about then because there isn’t a consolation prize for coming within two downs of a win. The line is thick and clear. And when you play a game with a winner or a loser, you’re signing up for that kind of scrutiny. You’re signing up for the sounds of disappointment in a loss drowning out any sounds of positivity coming out of a team’s camp.
But on Saturday, in a 42-41 loss to No. 3 Ohio State -- for the first time this season -- Michigan football showed up. Michigan, in all its sayings and short-sleeved coaches and history, was on the field.
Michigan was actually a down away from a win, a two-point conversion away from taking down its biggest rival. But what makes this team a Michigan team in this game wasn’t that single fact.
It was everything around it. It was the 60 minutes of football. It was the players playing together. It was the fact that people will talk about this game and point to a freshman tight end picking up a clutch touchdown or another freshman from that kid’s rival high school sacking Braxton Miller. It was Taylor Lewan sitting in the postgame press conference and saying that he doesn’t regret passing up millions for the NFL, because he wanted to come back and play Michigan football.
“We’re Michigan, this is Michigan,” Lewan said. “Everyone wants to talk about how bad of a season we had. This is Michigan. There is really no other way to put it.”
The Michigan defense played solidly. Yes, it gave up nearly 400 rushing yards to Ohio State, but it did what it needed to do and came up with crucial stops and turnovers against a team that usually does whatever it wants.
This Michigan offense created a run game. An offensive line, just in its second start as a unit, produced 152 rushing yards -- 104 of which were from true freshmen who played like Michigan running backs should.
And Devin Gardner played like a Michigan quarterback. Yes he threw an interception on a gutsy call, but he led a Michigan team into a position in which Brady Hoke -- with the backing of his senior class -- could make a gutsy call.
Gardner has been battered and bruised, sacked from here to California and back this season, and yet the most hurt he has looked all year was sitting in the postgame press conference after this loss.
Forget the walking boot on his left foot. Forget the fact that there are ailments that will be kept behind closed doors. Forget the knee brace and whether or not he wears it.
His pain on Saturday was for his teammates and his seniors. The tears he choked back were not because he was hurt, they were because his team was.
That is a Michigan leader, leading a Michigan team.
And the Wolverines will have to live with the fact that they showed up too late to the party. They know that if they had put that product on the field from Day 1, things would be very different right now.
They’ve got one game left. And it’s not the game they want. Next Saturday, when Michigan State and Ohio State take the field for the Big Ten title game, Michigan will be in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines will watch that Ohio State game tape and wonder where that “Michigan” was in games against Akron. And Connecticut. And Iowa. And Michigan State. And know that if it had been at those game maybe Michigan would be playing Ohio State again for a chance to make another gutsy call or run away with a win.
And they’ll respond. Or they won’t.
One thing is certain. “Michigan” would respond.
So, we’ll see if this team is such a thing.