Seniors finally experience beating OSU

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Ryan Van Bergen ran though the crowd of his peers past the kid wearing a full Gumby suit and toward the base of the tunnel just off the 50-yard line of Michigan Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

He held his helmet high as he jogged through the throng of fans, appearing to fight tears the entire way. The scoreboard read "Michigan 40, Ohio State 34," and this -- this is what he wanted, what he had worked for and why he had come to Michigan, what he dreamed of as a child.

Denard Robinson lifted cheerleaders. Taylor Lewan searched for a friend to hug, and when he found him, he screamed, "We did it, bro!"

Michigan beat Ohio State. First time since 2003.

The oldest of these players -- Van Bergen, receiver Junior Hemingway, center David Molk, lineman Mark Huyge -- had been through three coaches, three systems and three of the worst seasons in modern Michigan football history. They had been the remnants of a different time at Michigan, where a field rush for beating Ohio State might not have happened.

But this was different. This was seven seasons in the making.

This game between these schools is how seasons are judged, how legacies are determined and careers are resurrected.

It's why Robinson, who contemplated leaving Michigan after former coach Rich Rodriguez was fired, said Saturday, "I'm glad I stayed." And why Van Bergen explained at length what Michigan has meant to him, how proud he was of his school. His team. This team.

"Michigan probably needed this win to solidify what we had done this season as a program," Van Bergen said. "I didn't want to say it before the game, didn't want to put pressure on the team, but this solidified what we did this year.

"This game is more than a win in the win column. It's bigger than that. It carries way more. Our team feels like we finished the season. The whole team, all the teammates, said we finished the season. We went out how we wanted to go out."

They ended the regular season with the first 10-win season since 2006, the first chance at a Bowl Championship Series game since 2006 and the most confidence a Michigan program has had since before then.

It's stunning to consider how far this program has come in less than a year. In 2010, Michigan was blown out in Columbus 37-7, annihilated by Ohio State's coach, Jim Tressel, its quarterback, Terrelle Pryor and a defense that crushed Robinson and a lot of the Wolverines' hopes as they tumbled toward a coaching change.

When Brady Hoke replaced Rodriguez in January, no one knew what to expect on the field other than that one of Hoke's main emphases would be this day, this game. So much has changed since his opening news conference. When Hoke arrived, the Wolverines' defense was in shambles, and Tressel and Pryor were still at Ohio State.

Over the past seven years, Michigan players had felt like Ohio State players did Saturday -- receiver DeVier Posey said his stomach "is almost queasy" at the feeling of losing to Michigan.

Not anymore. Tressel is gone. So is Pryor. And now the Buckeyes appear to be heading toward a coaching change of their own. Michigan, for the first time in a long time, appears to be the aggressor in this rivalry.

When Hemingway looked at his cellphone Saturday morning, he had text messages from Greg Mathews, a former Michigan receiver, and Sam Buckman, a former Michigan kicker, wishing him luck.

He thought about them Saturday -- how they had never beaten Ohio State. Kevin Koger, who caught what ended up being the winning touchdown pass from Robinson, had mental images of Martell Webb and John Ferrara, two of his teammates who never beat Ohio State.

In some ways, they said, this was for them as much as themselves.

"The Martell Webbs of the world and John Ferraras of the world, the guys who didn't get a chance to beat Ohio State," Koger said. "Hopefully they can do it through us, because we definitely did for them and the team."

All season, Hoke has pushed home the thought of playing every game -- especially this game -- for the team's seniors. But it went further than that. To play for every player who ever played for Michigan. And Hoke ended every practice, every meeting, with "Beat Ohio," his personal shortening of Ohio State.

Now, Hoke's first group accomplished something Michael Hart never did. Chad Henne never did. Brandon Graham never did.

Van Bergen was teammates with Hart and Henne and Graham. He saw their pain as they ended their careers without a win against Ohio State.

So as he gathered at the base of the stadium before running up the tunnel one final time in one final home game, he and defensive lineman Mike Martin watched the scene unfold. They hugged fans. They cheered.

And yes, they celebrated. Seven years of frustration lifted in Ann Arbor on Saturday -- a mass of maize and youth celebrating the end of a season and the start of a new era.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.