Title shot is Jake Butt’s most gratifying Michigan moment

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan tight end Jake Butt gets a hug from teammate running back Chris Evans as he sits in the snow after the game.

Ann Arbor – Michigan tight end Jake Butt sat on the snow-covered field at Michigan Stadium after playing in his final home game, and in the old-fashioned way, without a cell phone camera, took thousands of snapshots with his eyes that are now stored for a lifetime in his memories.

Butt scanned the stadium, watched as his teammates celebrated their 8-0 record at home, knowing that what lies ahead is a monumental matchup with the Wolverines’ arch-rival, Ohio State, that has all the national implications for which he returned to Michigan to earn.

“I was tearing up,” Butt said this week. “It kind of hit me then. I held it in, I held it in, then I was looking around the stadium and I was like, ‘Wow, this is the last time I’m ever going to be in here suited up as a player.’ This is a special moment and I kind of tried to take it all in.”

Butt, the Big Ten’s Tight End of the Year last year, is a finalist for the Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end. He has set UM tight end records for career receptions (130) and receiving yards (1,560), and currently is the team’s second-leading receiver with 38 catches for 460 yards and four touchdowns.

Ten years ago, when top-ranked Ohio State played No. 2 Michigan, Butt eagerly watched the game in Pickerington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. He has often shared his love of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry and, in particular, that game and that day as a Michigan fan among a sea of friends pulling for Ohio State.

People often say the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is cyclical with one team dominating a while, then the other, and so on. Butt is more than aware of the current cycle. Michigan has lost four straight to the Buckeyes and 11 of the last 12 games, including last year’s 42-13 loss in Michigan Stadium, Jim Harbaugh’s first rivalry game as Michigan’s coach.

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But for the first time in 10 years, since that monumental 2006 showdown, there are the highest of stakes on the line. The Buckeyes are 10-1 and ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, and the Wolverines are 10-1 and ranked No. 3, as they prepare for Saturday’s game at Ohio Stadium.

If Michigan, which hasn’t won a Big Ten championship since 2004, wins, it will earn the Big Ten East title and a berth in the Big Ten championship and potentially a spot in the four-team national playoff. The Buckeyes need to beat Michigan and need Penn State to lose to Michigan State to clinch the East and play for the Big Ten title.

Jake Butt

“It’s great for college football,” Butt said. “This is going to be an exciting game. It’s an exciting time for our program and theirs.”

Harbaugh played in the series as Michigan’s quarterback who famously guaranteed – and backed up – a victory over OSU in 1986. It was the last time he has stepped foot in Ohio Stadium.

He is more than aware that senior leaders like Butt, who along with fellow Ohio native Chris Wormley, are the captains, are the key to success in a game like this.

“I think (that veteran leadership) showed up a lot this past week in our win over Indiana,” Harbaugh said. “I thought our seniors really took control of the game. This game, those same seniors, those players, those starters, good players, our best players, will have a great challenge ahead of them. I know they’re up for it.”

Way back in the spring, just after the game at Michigan Stadium, Butt was the first to say that Michigan would be in the national championship running this fall. He said it confidently and without hesitation five months before the start of the season.

“I saw hunger, that’s the first thing, because you have to have guys who are hungry to win and want to win and will put some other things aside to win. Sacrifice to win,” Butt said this week. “Obviously, there was talent across the board, there was experience, a lot of older guys, and when you’re older you can solve problems on the fly, and that’s what you need in football. Obviously, our great coaching staff, and then it was just a matter of putting in the work to put it all together, and I knew we had the guys to do that.”

A few months earlier, in December, while picking up his Tight End of the Year Award in Indianapolis, Butt was weighing his options – return to Michigan for his final year of eligibility or head to the NFL. A few days later at Michigan’s weekly news conference, Butt said he was “50-50.” The next day, on Twitter, he revealed his decision to return.

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He came back for this moment, to play Ohio State for, as his teammate Jabrill Peppers said after beating Indiana, “for all the marbles.”

“This week, this whole season, this opportunity we have right now, this is exactly the reason I came back,” Butt said.

As he sat on the Michigan Stadium field after his final home game, Butt heard the “Beat Ohio!” chants. And if he needed any other reason why he came back, that was further confirmation.

“I always trusted it. I always trusted. I never thought we wouldn’t be able to get here,” Butt said. “I knew that if you work hard, if you trust the process -- the big thing is to continue to work – everything seems to work itself out as long as you work as hard as possible and leave nothing to chance.”