Ann Arbor — This is where it ended, if not officially. This is how it ended, with Brady Hoke still trying to pick a quarterback, still trying to pick an offensive line, still trying to pick up scattered pieces.
It has fallen apart — the season and Hoke's regime, capped by the image of quarterback Shane Morris wobbling after a hit, nearly falling, then inexplicably staying in the game. Where there's Hoke, there's fire, and at the end of the season, Michigan almost certainly will have to dismiss Hoke. Some fans want him fired today, this moment, after the latest embarrassment in a 30-14 loss to Minnesota on Saturday.
College coaches rarely get fired in the middle of a season, and there's a reason for that. Most programs don't have a decent candidate to take over as interim, and Michigan's assistants bear blame, too. The Wolverines are 2-3 after another 16-point thumping at home, and in the second half, sections of the dwindling crowd could be heard chanting "Fire Brady" and "Fire Brandon."
This mess also is squarely on athletic director Dave Brandon, and if he doesn't want to make the necessary changes, he should go, too. A forceful leader is needed and the clamor for a Harbaugh (Jim or John) will grow, with a chance one could be available if Michigan is willing to aggressively pursue.
Guts, but no glory
This was the biggest disaster in a stretch of many — Michigan is 4-9 in its past 13 games — with nothing close to a guaranteed win on the Big Ten schedule. Hoke made the quarterback switch many people craved, and it could not have gone worse. Devin Gardner sat and Morris started, and the sophomore looked completely ill-prepared. Of course, it doesn't help when the offensive line repeatedly collapses, rattling the quarterback. Morris was 7-for-19 with one interception and lost a fumble when he dropped the ball moving in the pocket.
For parts of the game, Morris was limping with an injured ankle. He played on, but is this really what Michigan is reduced to — embracing guts over performance? After Morris took a late hit under the chin with 11:24 left in the game, he needed help from offensive tackle Ben Braden to stay upright. And yet somehow, Gardner wasn't sent in until after Morris threw another incompletion.
Hoke said he didn't think he left Morris in too long, didn't see him wobble on the field and didn't know if there was any suggestion of a concussion. After the hit, Morris motioned he was OK, but beyond any injury, he should have been pulled for ineffectiveness.
"Shane's a pretty competitive, tough kid," Hoke said. "Shane wanted to be the quarterback. Believe me, if he didn't want to be, he would've come to the sideline, or stayed down."
I asked Hoke if he or anyone on his staff saw Morris stumble as he tried to walk off the hit.
"I didn't see it," Hoke said. "I can only answer for me."
Gardner proves his worth
Gardner finally entered with 11:17 left and immediately drove the Wolverines 65 yards for a touchdown, scoring on a 3-yard run. I understand why Hoke gave Morris a shot over the fifth-year senior, but it has to be back to Gardner now. While the Gophers celebrated with the Little Brown Jug after the game, Morris was the last Wolverine to leave the field, driven off on the back of a cart.
In a strange way, maybe by watching from the sideline as the backup got beaten up, Gardner could gain a confidence tweak, knowing he wasn't the only problem. The real problem is, how could Hoke and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier gamble on a quarterback switch, then look clueless in the execution?
Nussmeier's play-calling was horrendously conservative, with few attempts to use Morris' strong arm to throw deep, and few attempts to roll him out to escape the pressure. It was as if the coaches were so intent on avoiding turnovers, they were willing to sacrifice all risk and unpredictability.
The Morris interception that was returned for a touchdown was tipped, as the Gophers kept crowding the line of scrimmage. Then with the game lost, Gardner showed some of the elusiveness that still makes him the best option.
"We got two guys we got a lot of faith in at quarterback," Hoke said. "Sometimes we want to point the finger at one guy because he's the quarterback and I don't think that's fair. Obviously we gotta do a better job in some protection things."
Coaching comes up short
Hoke wasn't ready to commit to anything for next week, but it's inexcusable he can be in his fourth season here and still not have a comfortable quarterback, or a stable offensive line, or a go-to running back. De'Veon Smith took over for Derrick Green and ran well at times, but outside of receiver Devin Funchess, where are Michigan's playmakers? Where are the dynamic athletes?
We know Michigan recruits them, but it's troubling more haven't developed, and that's poor coaching. When Hoke says he sees good things in practice and believes in his team, I don't think he's lying. I just don't think he sees the scope of it all, or pushes them hard enough.
It's sad to say, truly. Hoke is a solid coach who believes in the right things, and figures hard work will be rewarded. But at this level, it takes more than grinders to win conference titles, and more than catchphrases to inspire players. It takes an unyielding edge, either in scheme or in ruthless leadership, and Hoke is a very nice man in a very tough spot.
By the end, it was difficult to distinguish whom the lingering crowd was angrier with, Hoke or Brandon. It doesn't really matter because they're inextricably linked, and they have to know it.
"Hey, this is a big boy business," Hoke said when asked about the chants and the boos and his job security. He offered no excuses, and once again, no clear answers.