One touchdown drive. One big throw. One breakaway run. That's all the Wolverines required over the final 30 minutes of football to drive out of Columbus hailing themselves.
Instead, they couldn't drive anywhere, and wound up in a roadside ditch. After three first-half touchdowns, the thought of a second-half shutout in the 'Shoe ranked with a disgraced former coach who cheated the Buckeyes onto probation and out of bowl consideration getting a hero's ride in front of the home fans.
Both happened on Saturday.
Former Buckeyes hoisted Jim Tressel skyward, drawing thunderous applause from 105,000 in Ohio Stadium. That moment alone reinforced everything anyone ever suspected about the cultural divide between Columbus and Ann Arbor.
Just win, baby.
Just win, and all the cheating, dishonesty, and deviousness doesn't matter. You're hailed as a hero, one the mouth-breathers of the south would embrace again in an instant.
Brady Hoke intends to win, prepares to win, and is determined to win more than his share in this series. He found himself one sliver of offensive effectiveness away from going 2-0 in his first two years against the Buckeyes.
It never materialized.
Redshirt junior wide receiver Jeremy Gallon very nearly provided it, snaring a bomb down the middle by junior quarterback Devin Gardner for 30 second-half yards. Gallon almost broke away on a touchdown gallop, but got caught and barely tripped up from behind.
One play later, senior quarterback Denard Robinson fumbled, and that chance churned in the other direction. What's worse, Gallon's near miss represented half of Michigan's total yardage for the entire second half.
The Wolverines simply produced a big barrel full of ugly, after a first half that saw them out-dueling the Buckeyes in an offensive shootout. The game appeared headed for an outcome along the lines of last year's 40-34 Michigan win in Ann Arbor.
Instead, the Wolverines treated the football like it was superheated, turning it over three times in the second half. They rushed for negative-four yards in the second half, garnering 14 total rushing yards in the game from backs not named Robinson.
"It's always difficult," Hoke said. "When you play away, running the football is always something you always want to try and do. We obviously didn't do that, besides running with Denard, with any success."
Asked if the Buckeyes were taking away what Michigan had been successful with in the first half, Hoke responded: "I don't know if they were taking them away. At times we took ourselves out of it a little bit with execution."
In the second half, that little bit of execution felt more like the electric chair than an electric attack.
Robinson blamed himself for a missed cut on the fourth-down stuff that began Michigan's second-half succession of offensive empty-handedness. But in reality, Michigan found itself playing with two half-quarterbacks.
Ohio State figured it out, and turned off the spigot.
Robinson couldn't throw the football, and the Buckeyes knew it. When he stepped onto the field in the second half, they were sending everyone but Tressel and his web of deceit close to the line to snare the senior.
The Wolverines kept trying, and going nowhere.
"We made adjustments in the locker room," OSU junior safety Christian Bryant said. "The defensive coaches told us that we needed to stop No. 16 because we knew he wasn't going to throw the ball because of his wrist."
Meanwhile, junior quarterback Devin Gardner could throw it, but not to the right people at the right time. He represented half a quarterback in terms of experience, and when the Wolverines needed that one drive, two attempts ended with a fumble and interception from his hands.
"I don't think it was the stage," Hoke said. "You've got to give other people credit too, in my opinion. Until you look at what was the protection like - a couple times not very good."
Michigan's offensive line, executing run blocking - not very good. Running backs minus the injured redshirt junior Fitzgerald Toussaint - not very good. Quarterbacks regarding second-half ball security - not very good. Running into stacked defenses - not very good.
In the end, the Wolverines wound up giving credit to a team they could have beaten, a team that several others could have beaten. But they didn't, throwing the door open for Urban Meyer to strut around talking about how the Buckeyes could take on anyone right now.
Memo to Meyer: that's not possible, because the program you inherited ran renegade for a decade, and finally got busted. Allowing the Buckeyes to go nowhere now is the least the NCAA could have done.
But the bottom line is this: the Tressel worshipers enjoy 365 more days of strutting, spewing about the next OSU dynasty under Meyer.
Michigan's job is to meet that challenge - not at any cost, but without excuse. Hoke knows that better than anyone, and gets to chew on a vinegar sponge regarding the series bigger than all others, until he gets another crack.
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