November 30, 2013

Borton's Blog: Some fight remaining

Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon grabbed headlines during Ohio State week, forcefully backing his hand-picked head coach. Brady Hoke, Brandon assured, will be Michigan's head coach next year.

And the year after that. And the year after that.

Days later, Hoke and his crew made a far bigger statement. They came within one three-yard completion of knocking off the No. 3 team in the land, the rumored invincible squad of 24 straight victories under Urban Meyer. They rolled up 603 yards and 41 points against a team with a shot at playing in the national championship game.

They weren't stunned in the process. They were the only ones.

Given the game's buildup, you'd have thought the Wolverines were a Pop Warner crew, getting ready to take on the '85 Chicago Bears. The U-M plan, in the minds of the many, was simple: get this over, with a minimum of embarrassment and as few debilitating injuries as possible.

The oddsmakers thought the Wolverines were deader than Woody Hayes. They made U-M two-touchdown underdogs, at home, given the Buckeyes' ongoing roll and the Wolverines' offense-optional November freefall.

Michigan season ticket-holders felt the crush coming. They stayed away in droves, selling off close to a third of the stadium to Buckeye fans eager to watch the carnage.

Ohio State fans bought in, and bought up The Big House. They turned the place into Ohio Stadium North, out-numbering U-M rooters inside the building until the final hour prior to kickoff.

The media did its part, digging up tidbits on Ohio State's biggest margin of victory ever in Ann Arbor, certain they were going to see that number obliterated. The Wolverines came off looking like muddied up kittens peering from a cage in an ASPCA commercial.

But a funny thing happened on the way to OSU's evisceration of their most hated rival. Michigan came to play.

Devin Gardner shook off the misery of a lost November, gunning 32 completions worth 451 yards passing, with four TD tosses. A trio of tailbacks, two of them freshmen, mustered 137 rushing yards behind a line that flexed a little muscle at the end of a long season.

Fifth-year senior Jeremy Gallon made his farewell to The Big House one to remember, with nine catches for 175 yards and a touchdown. And the Wolverines, to a man, refused to back down, in the face of punches both literal and figurative.

When the clock showed 32 ticks remaining, the Wolverines needed just three yards to pull off the shocker of the year in college football. They didn't quite get there - symbolic of a season including four losses by a combined 11 points - but they scared the scarlet sauce out of the Orcs from Ohio.

It's not good enough. They know that, better than anyone. They'll head into the winter replaying the final snap of a 42-41 loss 1,000 times.

They'll hurt worse than anyone. At the same time, they'll know they invested more than anyone, and believed when few were along for the ride.

That's something to build on, a bloodied fifth-year senior captain insisted. Some questioned Taylor Lewan when he passed up the NFL's millions for another autumn in Ann Arbor. Some will say he wasted his time on a frustration-filled 7-5 season.

They'd just better not say it within earshot of Lewan.

"I would never take it back, coming back," Lewan insisted. "I love every single one of these guys … this is the best program to be in. This is the most exciting program to be in. If you want to come to a place where there is family, you feel comfortable around everybody, and you can bond with your best friends, there is no better place."

It wasn't all hearts and flowers in Lewan's last home stand, for certain. He carried a defiant edge into the post-game palaver.

He believed the game would come down to the wire, despite all odds.

"Because we're Michigan," Lewan insisted. "It doesn't matter what our record is. It doesn't matter what happened the past few years. We're the winningest program in college football. That's how it is. As long as Coach Hoke is around, that's how it's going to be.

"I don't care about fair-weather fans, or the media, or anything like that. All I care about are the people in that room. I could care less if there were 110,000 Ohio State fans in there. This team knew what we were going to do today. We knew we were going to fight."

They fought to the end. Lewan's successors learned a little something along the way. When they begin making their own statements, he'll be the first to salute.

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