November 10, 2012

Ending is yet to be written

Brady Hoke opened his post-Northwestern press conference not with an answer, but with a question. In the glow of Michigan's unlikely overtime survival against the Wildcats, Hoke could afford to get a little playful.

Who started writing the article before the game was over? he prodded.

One brave soul slipped his hand into the air. But a roomful could have, at least in terms of writing off the Wolverines.

With 18 seconds remaining and U-M down three, sitting on its own 38, Hoke's team looked deader than an arthritic 14-point buck come Nov. 15. Its 10,000-yard quarterback on ice, and its usually hot defense suffering frostbite, Michigan stared down one chance, really - heave and hope.

Junior quarterback Devin Gardner did just that. He sent one into the late afternoon sky, 53 yards worth of prayerful pitch. It glistened in the November sunshine bathing The Big House, spinning high and tumbling down to a fifth-year senior who never stopped believing.

Roy Roundtree went up with Northwestern cornerback Daniel Jones, the two tipping the ball into an altered flight of fate. Jones continued to rise, while Roundtree crashed to the turf, landing on both knees and desperately keeping his eyes on both the ball and Michigan's Big Ten title hopes.

It fluttered down into his hands, like a falcon back to its trainer. One clutch field goal, an overtime touchdown, and a better-late-than-never defensive stand later, Michigan penned another chapter in The Big House Believe It Or Not book.

Laura Hoke even wondered if her husband believed it, before it actually happened. She asked him, in the heady moments following Michigan's 38-31 win.

"My wife just asked me that on the way in: 'Did you know you were going to win?'" Hoke shared. "I said yes."

The Wolverines found a way, despite playing themselves into a bomb-or-bust scenario in terms of their still-breathing Big Ten title hopes.

They may not reach the Promised Land in Indianapolis. Nebraska keeps on building then overcoming sizable deficits, toying with the frayed nerves of Michigan fans. If the Cornhuskers merely hold serve at home against Minnesota and on the road against Iowa - two of the Big Ten's have-not crews this season - they book passage to Indianapolis.

The Wolverines need Nebraska to finish what it starts in terms of hole-digging in one of the last two games, while pulling off a two-game sweep of its own, including at Ohio State. In others words, it doesn't look good.

Then again, it didn't look good with 18 seconds remaining, either.

Gardner, noting he drew poise points by watching Tom Brady and former Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson operate, knows there isn't any room for error. With time running out against Northwestern, there existed no allowance for falling short.

"There's no option but to score," Gardner insisted. "We have worked too hard to get to this point. We have time on the clock and the defense gave us a place to stand. J.T. Floyd told me, 'We gave you a chance, so go get a touchdown.' We didn't get a touchdown, but we got a field goal and took it to overtime to win the game."

Gardner heaved hope, and Roundtree gathered in change. The five-year Wolverine, playing in his penultimate game at Michigan Stadium, came away with a catch big enough to displace last year's game-winner in the first-ever contest under the lights in Ann Arbor.

"It's probably No. 1," Roundtree assessed. "Notre Dame last year was last year. To see our team finish strong, and the seniors sticking together - that play was for Michigan."

That play, along with the kicking and overtime heroics, flipped a script that saw Northwestern outplay the Wolverines most of the afternoon. For a good portion of the day, the storyline broke out in two prongs, both stabbing the home team.

Northwestern, its dual quarterbacks, and its cheetah-quick running back, simply made more clutch, driving-extending plays. And when Gardner heaved an interception with just 3:37 remaining in regulation, the message seemed cemented: this team can't stay in the race at the direction of a backup quarterback.

Michigan started 3-0 in the Big Ten behind senior Denard Robinson, and was about to go 1-2 in his absence. But Gardner and those who had his back harbored very different ideas.

"Emphasize finish," Roundtree stressed, echoing Michigan's November mantra. "Finish strong. Finish every play. Finish each quarter. Finish 60 minutes."

Redshirt junior offensive tackle Taylor Lewan added: "People are always asking, 'Who are you focused on? Who do you want to lose?' It doesn't matter. We're focused on Michigan, going 1-0 each week. That's our goal, and that will always be our goal."

For one more week, they made it happen, despite all odds. They may not get where they want to go, but they'll fight to the final second in the attempt.

Hoke's right. Why pen the story too soon?


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