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November 30, 2013

Wolverines come up one play shy

One play. One well executed rub route from three yards out, and Michigan would have been the talk of the college football world on Thanksgiving weekend.

In the end, No. 3 Ohio State came away thankful, relieved and breathing once more after cornerback Tyvis Powell stepped in front of Michigan's two-point conversion attempt and picked it off in the final minute. That interception, after the Wolverines rallied from two touchdowns behind to claw within an extra point of a tie, preserved a wild classic for the Buckeyes, 42-41.

Devin Gardner (32 of 45, 451 yards passing, four touchdowns) drove the Wolverines 84 yards for a TD with just 32 seconds to play. After he floated a two-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess, overtime looked inevitable.

Instead, U-M head coach Brady Hoke chose to try and win the game on a single snap. Michigan hearts everywhere snapped in half, when a pressured Gardner couldn't connect on the throw.

"We play the game to win," Hoke assured, regarding going for the win sans overtime. "I thought about it and we did it."

Ohio State's overwhelming rushing attack probably had something to do with the decision to avoid overtime as well. Quarterback Braxton Miller connected on just six passes all afternoon (6-for-16, 133 yards, two TDs), but he ran away from the Wolverines for 153 yards and three TDs on 16 carries.

Meanwhile, tailback Carlos Hyde provided the wrecking ball to Miller's Ferrari, carrying 27 times for 226 yards and a touchdown.

That's how the Wolverines - despite a jaw-dropping 603 yards of offense and 41 points on the board - couldn't quite overcome their greatest anger-engendering nemesis.

"It's not very good. It's not," Hoke said of Michigan's gashed run defense. "You've got to give them some credit, give their offensive line some credit. At the same time we've got to do a much better job getting off blocks."

The Wolverines (7-5, 3-5) got out of the blocks and led throughout a wild first half, only to see OSU (11-0, 8-0) score late to tie the game at 21. The Buckeyes then raced to a 35-21 lead, before Michigan rallied to tie it, and rallied again to come within nine feet of an almost unthinkable win after a draining November nosedive.

"We knew we were going to take it to the fourth quarter," fifth-year senior captain Taylor Lewan said. "We were ready to fight. Everyone was fighting for each other."

U-M fought back even after the Buckeyes shredded Michigan's defense on their final 65-yard touchdown drive, never putting the ball in the air. Miller scrambled out for 32 yards to set the table, and Hyde took it from there, crashing in from a yard out.

The Wolverines had 2:20 to score, and did, Gardner connecting on seven throws for 91 yards in the final march. It all fell just one play shy.

"I threw an interception to lose the game," Gardner said, dejectedly. "There's not much more I can say."

There was, of course, plenty more to say about his effort, and that of a resurrected U-M offense.

Michigan started the game by sending a shockwave of life through a home crowd over-infiltrated with OSU fans. Gardner drove U-M 99 yards on U-M's first possession, flipping a screen pass to Jeremy Gallon (nine catches, 175 yards, one TD), who flew through blocks and into a sprint down the western sideline. Some 84 yards later, OSU's Bradley Roby caught Gallon from behind, but not until he'd reached OSU's 2.

Two plays later, Gardner swept around left end from one yard out, putting the Wolverines up 7-0 and throwing the 113,511 on hand into a frenzy.

"I played with a chip my shoulder," Gallon said of his effort. "I left everything on the field. It was emotional for me, just like everyone else."

The Buckeyes struck right back, Miller unloading a perfectly thrown 53-yard TD bomb to Devin Smith behind the U-M defense. Dennis Norfleet appeared to strike back with a 90-yard kickoff return, but a holding call wiped out that highlight moment, bringing the ball back to Michigan's 30. A U-M offense that somehow reanimated for The Game, didn't care.

Gardner led a 70-yard touchdown drive in seven plays, scrambling to find wide-open tight end Jake Butt for 37 of them before shuffling off a five-yard option pitch to tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint for the go-ahead TD.

The Buckeyes just kept answering with one-play explosions. This time, Miller burst free on a quarterback draw up the middle, racing away from Michigan's defense on a 53-yard touchdown run.

He sprinted in with 55 seconds left in the first quarter, and the shootout ensued.

"As a defense, we should have done a better job," linebacker Cam Gordon noted. "We take our hats off to them in the run game. We really do."

But Michigan's offense, which had gone dormant along with the grass in November, awakened. The Wolverines battled back on a 78-yard touchdown drive, as the first quarter rolled into the second.

The four-play, big-play drive featured a 27-yard screen to Butt (five catches, 85 yards, one TD), and a 22-yard toss to Funchess, during which he dropped jaws around The Big House by hurdling an unsuspecting OSU defender. Gardner then lofted a 17-yard TD toss to a high-flying Gallon, and 22 seconds into the second quarter, the Wolverines led again, 21-14.

Tempers ignited on the ensuing kickoff, the Buckeyes and Wolverines throwing themselves into a surging scuffle that pared both rosters. OSU starting offensive lineman Marcus Hall and freshman running back Dontre Wilson were ejected from the game, along with Michigan backup Royce Jenkins-Stone.

The teams then settled into a 13-minute scoreless stretch, until Miller caught fire in the final two minutes. He led a 91-yard OSU touchdown drive, gunning a 37-yard past to tight end Jeff Heuerman, and racing in the final 21 himself, with just 1:03 to play.

Michigan's first turnover of the day opened the door in the second half. Gardner drove the Wolverines into OSU territory, but fumbled on a run up the middle, the Buckeyes diving on the ball at their own 45.

Five runs later, Miller eased into the end zone off the left side of the line, making it 28-21. The Wolverines moved it from their own 17 to the OSU 14 in response, but a Gardner found himself swarmed under, forcing a 4th and-two incompletion that blunted a potential tying touchdown. Meanwhile the Buckeyes kept on rolling.

Hyde runs of 20, 11 and 12 yards, and a 17-yard Miller scramble, put the Wolverines on their heels again, setting up Miller's 22-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Heuerman. At 35-21 heading into the fourth quarter, Michigan's chances seemed to be disappearing like Jim Tressel's post-discovery emails.

But the Wolverines weren't finished. Gardner drove them 83 yards in 11 plays, scrambling out on a key third-and-seven then pulling up to hit a wide-open Drew Dileo on an 11-yard TD toss. Down 35-28 with 11:15 remaining, U-M's upset dream wasn't dead.

Hyde tossed gasoline on that reignited fire, fumbling the ball on a Thomas Gordon hit, linebacker Desmond Morgan diving on the ball at the OSU 41. Gardner covered that space in 13 plays, rolling right and lofting a two-yard pass back to his left, connecting with Butt between a pair of Buckeyes for the game-tying touchdown. With 5:01 to play, a 35-35 tie saw Ohio State's national title hopes and Michigan's pride hanging in the balance.

The teams swapped touchdowns in the closing moments, but not extra points. Michigan sent a chill through the Buckeyes, but not the dagger.

"We wanted to win the game," Gardner reiterated, knowing the Wolverines were just a play away.


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