November 30, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Bob Wojnowski

No glory, but Michigan and coach Brady Hoke show plenty of guts

Ann Arbor — It was a momentous gamble few coaches ever make, but on this day, in this setting, it fit. It didn't work and it will be debated for a long time, but it fit.

Right down to the final play, the Wolverines showed guts, and coach Brady Hoke did the same. There was no final glory, but the guts were impressive. If that's all Michigan extracts from another bitter loss to Ohio State, it's more than most expected.

Eventually, obviously, we'll need to see more, especially from that defense. But in an epic 42-41 loss Saturday, the Wolverines did things they hadn't done in a while and showed traits they hadn't shown. And if anyone wondered whether this rivalry was diminished, it erupted with points and no punches pulled.

Quarterback Devin Gardner returned from the abyss and was mostly brilliant, and one of the great upsets in Michigan history was so close, Hoke decided to go for it. He'll be second- and third- guessed, and that's how it works when you take such a risk. He called for a two-point conversion instead of the tying extra point with 32 seconds left, and Ohio State stopped it and escaped, its 12-0 record intact heading into the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State.

I'm fine with Hoke's gamble, and not just because his players pushed for it and fate seemed to demand it. It was the right call, followed by the wrong call. With Michigan's defense getting shredded, Hoke felt he needed to win it there, and he probably did. But the play, with Drew Dileo trying to get inside position for a Gardner pass, was blown up, and Tyvis Powell picked it off.

The right call

This is why it was the right move — because the Buckeyes' Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde were unstoppable with 379 yards rushing, and because Gardner was aching and limping, and because the Wolverines were using their backup kicker, and because at the end of a 7-5 season against an unbeaten rival, it made sense.

This is why some will insist it was the wrong call: It didn't work. Also, there were 32 seconds left, so a successful two-pointer didn't guarantee victory. But if Miller could drive the Buckeyes into field-goal range down by one, he surely could've done it with the score tied. And the Wolverines still would've had to find a way to tackle him in overtime.

"We weren't doing a good job slowing them down," Hoke said, "and we wanted to go win the football game."

By all accounts before the game, it was an impossible task. Ohio State was as high as a 17-point favorite, and the way Michigan's offense had crumbled lately, it seemed accurate. But this is why rivalries are great. The Wolverines played as if they could redeem themselves, and to a certain extent, they did.

Oh, nobody wants a pat on the back for excellent effort in defeat, but Michigan had to show something and it did, including desperately needed blocking and creativity. Gardner showed a ton, completing 32 of 45 passes for 451 yards, making clutch play after gut play. Trailing 35-21 in the fourth quarter, the Wolverines scored on drives of 83, 41 and 84 yards, and when Gardner flipped a 2-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess on third down to make it 42-41, an already-captivating classic pushed the boundaries of drama.

The Wolverines lined up as if going for two, and Urban Meyer called a timeout. Hmm. Was Hoke changing his mind? Nope. He asked his seniors if they wanted to go for it, and he knew the answer.

"Everybody said yes," Gardner said. "We ran the two-point play we practiced and the guy jumped underneath Dileo and intercepted the ball. We felt like we could win the game right there."

Gardner talked so softly, he was barely audible. His left foot was in a boot, an injury suffered in the game, although he brushed off the severity.

We wondered about the toughness and spirit of this Michigan team and its offensive line and its quarterback, but this was a resounding response, even in defeat. Make no mistake, it's a crushing loss for the Wolverines, who have dropped 11 of 13 to the Buckeyes, but players said they had no regrets about the two-point attempt.

Now, with Alabama's miraculous loss to Auburn, Ohio State might be playing for a national-title shot, even though its defense is highly suspect. Meyer has to be concerned about how his team matches up with physical Michigan State and afterward, he sounded like a guy relieved to survive, and understanding of Hoke's call.

"I would have done the same thing, you go win the game right there — no question," Meyer said. "Both offenses were kind of in that unstoppable mode."

Where was this offense before?

The Buckeyes did it on the ground and the Wolverines did it in the air. Michigan finished with a stunning 603-526 edge in total yardage, and this is the spot we ask where all these creative plays — throw-back screens, misdirection runs, flip passes — have been. It's a fair question, and offensive coordinator Al Borges probably will spend key time mulling it.

As badly as the Wolverines had played the past month, Borges finally showed appropriate urgency. There's something about a game like this, against an opponent looking to pad its BCS hopes, that brings out the best (and the guts) in people.

It was apparent quickly, as Michigan scored on its first three possessions for a 21-14 lead. It was especially apparent in the second quarter during a nasty scrum, which resulted in three ejections — Michigan's Royce Jenkins-Stone and Ohio State's Dontre Wilson and Marcus Hall. Wilson threw a punch after Jenkins-Stone yanked his helmet off, and Hall capped the feisty festivities with a double-middle-finger salute to the crowd as he left the field.

It was that kind of day, with all sorts of bizarre signs and twists.

"I don’t care about the fair weather fans, or the media, all I care is about the people in that locker room," tackle Taylor Lewan said. "I could care less if there were 110,000 Ohio State fans in there. This team knew what we were gonna do. We were gonna fight."

They did, as they should. Guts don’t always bring glory, and this loss will sting the Wolverines for a while. But it was a memorable effort we'd been waiting to see, and need to see more often.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner lies on his back after his two-point conversion pass is intercepted in the final minute Saturday against Ohio State at Michigan Stadium. At left, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby raises his arms in celebration. / John T. Greilick / Detroit News