|Freshman tight end Jake Butt caught this touchdown pass to tie the game at 35 (image via MLive)|
Devin Gardner played his behind off. Gardner must have had the adrenaline flowing early in the game, because he looked like a different player out there. The guy has looked bruised and battered for the past several weeks, but this week didn't show it until late in the game when he tweaked his ankle. He finished the game 32/45 for 451 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions; he also ran 9 times for 10 yards and 1 touchdown. That's arguably his best career performance, even though it came in a loss. His numbers were a little better in this year's Notre Dame game, but that game also featured an ugly interception thrown in his own endzone. If he can stay healthy, this is the type of player Gardner should be every week.
The two-point conversion, Part I. I was critical of Brady Hoke's decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 against Northwestern, so I'm not being a Hoke slappie when I say that I think going for two was the best decision at the end of the game. Michigan was the underdog. While they were playing better than they have in weeks, the defense wasn't up to par (no James Ross or Jarrod Wilson, Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller ran for a ton of yards, etc.) and Gardner was gimpy. If you extend the game there, you run the risk of having to slug it out for the extent of overtime with your most dynamic performer hobbled or potentially knocked out of the game. Hoke is a fairly aggressive coach when it comes to decision-making, and while it didn't work this time, I think he usually makes the right call.
The two-point conversion, Part II. What I didn't like was the play call. Maybe Ohio State was expecting it, but I was fully ready for Michigan to roll Gardner out to the right, where Drew Dileo had motioned into a trips look. And while that seems like an obvious call, it puts [an admittedly hobbled] Gardner on the edge, where he can make a play with his feet - or it puts him in an easier throwing situation with a rub route, a shovel pass, etc. On a critical play like that, I like to put my players in a situation that makes them comfortable, regardless of what the other team might do. Yes, Ohio State may have been expecting a rollout, but that doesn't mean they could have stopped it.
The brawl. I would love to sit here and say that the Buckeyes started it and they're clearly the enemy, but that was instigated by a crew of Michigan players who were intentionally crowding freshman returner Dontre Wilson after the play. Wilson needs to be smarter and not let stuff like that get to him, but the Michigan guys lit the match. I was glad that more players weren't ejected, but there probably could have been a couple more if the referees wanted to really take control. As it turned out, things worked in Michigan's favor, since all they lost was special teamer Royce Jenkins-Stone; the Buckeyes lost an integral part of their offense and special teams in Wilson and a starting offensive guard, Marcus Hall, who proceeded to give two middle fingers to Michigan's crowd as he went to the tunnel, all the while stomping and throwing things in a childish temper tantrum. Hopefully that will result in a suspension for Hall.
Michigan was in a bad place defensively. I have made no secret of not being a fan of Josh Furman's abilities at safety, and he was the culprit on a couple big plays, including a 53-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith. Starting safety Jarrod Wilson was supposedly in a cast on the sideline, so I guess he wasn't an option, but Furman just isn't up to snuff as a safety. Despite very good speed, he doesn't recognize routes or read plays very well. It looks like he'll be in line to start next to Wilson next year, since both Courtney Avery and Thomas Gordon graduate, so hopefully his extended experience this season helps him improve. Meanwhile, the Wolverines were missing leading tackler James Ross after he got injured against Iowa last week. As far as I know, Ohio State was at full strength on defense, but the Wolverines' loss of two key players defensively - and the absence of placekicker Brendan Gibbons, who might have nailed a field goal instead of forcing Hoke to go for it on an ill-fated fourth down - could have made a difference.
Devin Gardner's fumble wasn't a fumble. His knees were down when the ball came out. Replay should have overturned the fumble. At the very least, the call should have "stood" but the referee said replay "confirmed" the fumble. Of course, that last sentence is pretty inconsequential.
The running backs are good? Freshman De'Veon Smith led the team with 7 carries for 57 yards, including a 38-yarder. His lack of breakaway speed was apparent, so hopefully people will stop saying that he's fast just because he ran away from a bunch of tiny kids at Warren Howland; but he did break a solid tackle attempt on that 38-yarder, so that's something. Senior Fitzgerald Toussaint had 5 carries for 33 yards and 1 touchdown, along wtih 4 receptions for 48 yards. Freshman Derrick Green had 12 carries for 47 yards. Overall, those guys combined for 24 carries, 137 yards, and 1 touchdown, which is a pretty solid day.
The offensive line is good? Hahahaha, just kidding, guys. No, the offensive line isn't good, but it has improved over the past few weeks. Michigan State and Nebraska were the nadir of the line, and now it has progressed to a mediocre level. I've said for a couple years that I think 2014 is where the offensive line starts to get it together, despite the losses of Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield, the latter of whom has never particularly impressed me. However, those running backs mentioned above were tackled for a grand total of zero losses, a clear improvement from weeks past. The line still allowed 6 tackles for loss thanks to 3 sacks of Gardner, a couple Gardner runs, and a Devin Funchess run.
Al Borges and Darrell Funk are saved? Boy, oh boy. If you're an Al Borges hater, this performance might have been the worst thing for you. If Michigan came out and laid an egg offensively, I think Borges would have definitely been out the door after the season. He still might, but this makes it a tougher call. The same goes for Funk, the offensive line coach. Of course, Hoke and athletic director David Brandon are paid to look at things objectively, not just in the aftermath of one of Michigan's best offensive performances this year. The overall product on the field has been subpar for the majority of the year. I like that Borges eventually capitulated to running bubble screens, the bubble screen draw, and various other screens, but it took too long for Michigan to get away from running power and iso this year. The Wolverines had a heyday with screens to Funchess, Gallon, Toussaint, and Butt in this game, and for good reason.
This was a great game. Even without Michigan's final touchdown, this was a great game. Michigan could have pulled off a whopper of an upset, and even though they lost a heartbreaker, they should be proud of the game the played. Stepping back from the "Michigan should be winning these games more often" mindset that a lot of entitled fans have, this particular team was overmatched in every single phase of the game. Ohio State's closest win this season was a 7-point victory against Wisconsin, and their Big Ten wins this year have averaged a score of 47-20. When I did my game preview, I felt that Ohio State was better at running the ball, throwing the ball, stopping the run, and stopping the pass . . . and the statistics backed that up. On top of those categories, the Buckeyes had momentum and a championship-winning head coach on their side. All those advantages added up to a one-point victory. Regardless of what teams 1 through 133 accomplished, team 134 should be proud of its effort and execution yesterday.