Ann Arbor — With a minute left in Michigan’s loss to Ohio State, senior captain Mike McCray gathered the defensive players and immediately encouraged them to look ahead to the bowl game.
Michigan held a 14-point lead early in the second quarter but fell, 31-20, to Ohio State on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines finished the regular season 8-4 overall and 5-4, fourth in the Big Ten East.
“There was a minute left and we had the ball on offense, (and) he basically said, ‘Let’s win the bowl game,’” defensive end Chase Winovich said. “Our mentality was shifting from dwelling on this loss, the game was a minute left, our offense had the ball, it was virtually over, but we were already forming that mindset — ‘We’ve got to win this game. We’ve got to find a way to win the bowl game at the end of the day.’ Our mind has already shifted toward that.”
Bowl destinations will officially be announced next Sunday, but there have been strong indications Michigan will play in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28 against, possibly, Stanford. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh began his college coaching career at the University of San Diego and then took over at Stanford. The Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 27 also is a possible bowl destination.
Michigan has now lost six straight to Ohio State, so the seniors will leave never having beaten their arch rival.
“You want to go out as a senior, especially (the) last home game in your stadium, you want to get a win,” fifth-year senior fullback Khalid Hill said. “All the seniors left everything we had on the field. I know I have no regrets in this game. I did everything in my power to help us win. We just came up short.”
While it’s now about looking forward to the bowl game, the focus is also beyond that and looking ahead to next season.
Among the fifth-year seniors who have exhausted their eligibility are defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, linebacker Mike McCray, center Patrick Kugler, all starters, and Hill and fellow fullback Henry Poggi. Left tackle Mason Cole, who on Saturday made his 50th career start, is a fourth-year senior who also has used his eligibility.
Defensive end Chase Winovich said he will weigh his options once the season is over but he does have a year of eligibility remaining. He leads the team in tackles for loss with 17, including a team-best eight sacks and is third in tackles with 73. He also had two forced fumbles this season.
“It gets old after a while just saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to get better,’” Winovich said after the OSU game. “But at the end of the day, you have two options – you can get worse or you can get better. Part of that is a mentality. So that’s kind of our mentality (that) we’re going to get better. When we say we worked too hard not to be good, you could ask anybody on this team, that holds true that we outwork most teams in terms of practice time logged and the tempo of our practices and the physicality.”
With the abundance of youth on the team and the amount of playing time many of them had this season, Hill said he sees the future for Michigan football and it is bright.
“This team, two, three years down the line, it will be one of the best teams in college football in my eyes,” Hill said. “You’ve gotta understand that these young guys getting their first year of experience, some guys second year.
“Imagine these guys with three, four years of experience. It’s going to be dangerous, it’s going to be a dangerous team. So I’m looking forward to what these guys do next year and the years following.”
Hill rattled off some of the names of younger players like sophomores Khaleke Hudson, Devin Bush, and Rashan Gary, who all were regular starters on defense this season, and freshman receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who made six starts.
“Every young guy on this team has played a lot of minutes and also helped us be the team we are today even though we came up short and had some losses,” Hill said. “They helped us a lot. Without them we wouldn’t be here, so I applaud them.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, completing his third season with the Wolverines, has said on multiple occasions how much he likes this team. He was asked after the game Saturday when he has learned about his players.
“They work, they don’t complain, they don’t whine,” Harbaugh said. “I love coaching them. We’re going to keep going on the same demanding punishing path. And keep improving, keep getting stronger. We’ve been emphasizing it, we need to do what we need to get stronger. Need to get better. That’s our mission.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters, who got valuable starts late in the season before suffering a concussion at Wisconsin last week, returns, as does freshman Dylan McCaffrey. It is unclear whether Wilton Speight, the starting quarterback last season and the first four games this season before fracturing three vertebrae, will do next season with his final year.
Winovich spoke of giving everything he had in the game and then said he had a chance to speak to recruits after the game and pointed out why they should want to be at Michigan.
“I told some of the recruits in the locker room, if anything you should be more motivated than ever to come here, win this game,” Winovich said. “They see our faces in the locker room and how much hurt and know how close we are in my opinion. We could taste it. We’re right there. The whole game we’re battling. We’re a few pieces or inches away in my mind.”