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Wolverines: Losing stings, but foundation is set for Michigan's future

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Miami Gardens, Fla. — As the Georgia team celebrated and were feted on the Hard Rock Stadium field, red confetti falling on them after earning an opportunity to play for the national championship, most of the Michigan players had moved on, walking dejectedly toward their locker room.

But a handful lingered.

Michigan offensive lineman Andrew Vastardis, right, is consoled by quarterback Cade McNamara late in the fourth quarter.

Running back Blake Corum stood alone on the 7-yard line, helmet in hand and his attention directed toward the Bulldogs enjoying their dominant 34-11 victory over the Wolverines in the Orange Bowl semifinal game Friday night. They will face Alabama in the national championship game.

A cluster, including redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Mike Morris, quarterback J.J. McCarthy, running back Donovan Edwards, receiver Andrel Anthony and defensive back Ja’Den McBurrows, all freshmen, stood together and watched.

Where Georgia is headed is where Michigan had hoped to be. The Wolverines finished 12-2 and after being unranked in the preseason, beat Ohio State, won the Big Ten title and reached the national semifinal. But reaching and winning are two very different things.

“I know Michigan football will be in good hands next year with those guys,” senior co-captain Aidan Hutchinson said. “They’re going to step up. They’ve learned this whole season what leadership is and how it’s supposed to be.”

More: Watch: Highlights from Michigan-Georgia in the Orange Bowl

While the loss was a gut punch, the players said it does not diminish what they accomplished this season.

“This team’s been so great,” Hutchinson said. “We were so bonded from Day 1. Sucks it’s got to end this way. Nothing’s going to take away our accomplishments this year, what we achieved for what we were expected. I’ll forever love this team. We did some amazing things. Some historic stuff.”

Hutchinson and senior safety Brad Hawkins said they feel they’ve helped build a foundation for the future. Michigan’s Big Ten championship this season was the first for the program since 2004 and the Wolverines snapped an eight-game losing streak against Ohio State, which has dominated the last two decades of the rivalry

“Today didn’t go our way. It’s life,” Hawkins said. “We had a great season and got some big wins and did what we were supposed to do. But this one hurts. These guys are gonna continue to grow. They’re going to grow from this. Kind of like Aidan said, we set the foundation. These guys of course are disappointed.

“Starting a new year, it’s a new season. They’re going to continue to grow and continue to get better.”

Tight end Erick All, who led the team with four catches for 63 yards, said the Wolverines will rebound quickly from this loss.

“We’re gonna work harder next year,” All said. “This adds fuel to the tank. We’re gonna come out and work harder next year.”

Senior center Andrew Vastardis was visibly emotional on the sideline as his final game at Michigan neared its end. He started to choke up again in a postgame news conference when he spoke of his career and what he helped build.

“Just coming together and being a family when everybody was jumping off, throwing crap on the pile,” Vastardis said. “Just leaning on each other, trusting each other, playing for the man to your left and to your right. Gosh, I’ve seen a lot of guys grow as young men becoming men, and I’ve had the honor to do that here in the presence of some great coaches and leaders.

“Those lessons I’ll keep with me forever. I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t be more blessed.”

It’s not about SEC vs. Big Ten

Hutchinson was asked if the Southeastern Conference is simply at another level. 

“I don’t really think conferences matter that much,” Hutchinson said. “They were a talented team that happens to be in the south. I don’t think it’s Big Ten vs. SEC. They’re a very good football team that executed more than us today.”

Tough outing for O-line

Michigan recently won the Joe Moore Award as the nation’s top offensive line.

But against Georgia’s vaunted defense, it wilted.

“We didn’t execute the way we had been all season,” Vastardis said. “That’s just top to bottom. I think we had a good plan. We just failed to execute consistently. No one ever quit fighting. No one ever gave up, no one gave in. For that, I’m proud. Great defense. A lot of those guys will be playing on Sundays. Good luck to them moving forward, but gosh I’m really proud of this team.”

Michigan entered the game ranked 10th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 223.8 yards. Michigan was held to 88 rushing yards.

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis