Columbus, Ohio – There was one more flash of promise, then one more critical turnover, then one more defensive breakdown, then one more trudge to the sideline. This was Brady Hoke's tenure in capsule form, framed by a rivalry that still can stir the unforeseen.
There's nothing more to see now. The ending didn't match the beginning, which happened way too often under Hoke. The Wolverines battled dutifully but the Buckeyes' 42-28 victory Saturday exposed, one more time, precisely what Michigan is lacking, and why it has to change.
Hoke said afterward he doesn't know his fate and doesn't know when he'll be evaluated. Interim athletic director Jim Hackett has said it would happen after the season, which is now, but hasn't offered a timetable. The fate seems clear and I suspect Hoke will be fired shortly, and Michigan will launch yet another crucial search for a program leader.
There was no defiance from Hoke, and really, not much to debate. It's written in the 5-7 record, in the steady decline over four seasons, in the repeated mishaps by a quarterback and a defense that always seemed capable of better.
As Hoke jogged off the Ohio Stadium field, surrounded by a half dozen cops, his sunglasses were on and his face was grim. Speaking a few minutes later, he didn't get emotional and didn't get testy, and said he was proud of his team. Asked about his job status, he mentioned a couple of times "we'll worry about that Monday," but added he didn't have a meeting planned with Hackett.
"What I know is, I'm gonna be the football coach at Michigan," Hoke said.
You know that for sure?
"Well, it's what I know right now."
No hidden messages
I wouldn't go hunting for hidden messages there. Hoke is a jovial guy who shrugs off controversy, probably to a fault. In the aftermath of a tough loss, he wasn't interested in baring raw emotions, and stuck to his stoicism. He never made this about him, and there's admirable grace in that. His players said they didn't make it about him because that's not what he wanted.
Very soon, this will be about him, and who replaces him. The list begins with the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh but nobody knows if that's where it ends, because nobody knows what the former Michigan quarterback wants to do.
Hoke defended the development of the program, again noting the youth -- 50 of 56 players on the two-deeps return, and there were only three fifth-year seniors. It's a fair point, but this is his fourth season, and one of those fifth-year seniors is the starting quarterback, Devin Gardner, who showed early promise, then inexplicably kept regressing.
Whether it was nagging injuries, poor coaching, or Gardner simply playing the wrong position, it was the overwhelming difference in many of the losses. The Wolverines finished the season a staggering minus-16 in turnovers.
"Everybody faces this point in their lives, where you do everything you're supposed to do, you work hard, and what do you do once it doesn't work out the way you thought it would?" Gardner said. "And the answer to that is to continue to do the things you do – work hard and be a good guy."
Not good enough
That's Gardner and Hoke -- hard-working good guys – and sometimes that combination just doesn't work out. The Buckeyes have won 10 of 11 in the series and Hoke is 1-3 against them. Each game has been relatively close, but that's not enough.
Gardner threw an interception on the second play of the game, putting Michigan in a 7-0 hole, but also directed 80- and 95-yard touchdown drives for a 14-7 lead. He led another 75-yard march in the third quarter and suddenly it was 21-21, and the Buckeyes' playoff hopes were shrinking.
They might be gone anyhow, whether Urban Meyer wants to admit it or not. In the third quarter, star quarterback J.T. Barrett fractured his right ankle and is out for the remainder of the season, which will play a factor in the playoff selection committee's decision. It was a horrible twist, just as Michigan losing rising runner Drake Johnson to an injured knee was a horrible twist.
But the Wolverines still had a shot, right up until a defensive breakdown on fourth-and-1 allowed Ezekiel Elliott to dash 44 yards for a touchdown and a 35-21 lead. A few minutes later, Gardner was sacked – one of five by the Buckeyes – and fumbled, and Darron Lee scooped it up for a 33-yard touchdown.
That was it, a numbingly fitting finish to a numbingly redundant season. No bowl game, nothing left to evaluate.
"It stinks for a lot of reasons," Hoke said. "No. 1 because of your expectations, you haven't met 'em as a team."
The quarterback was broken and never fixed, even with a switch in offensive coordinators. The program is broken and can be fixed, but it will take a strong, fiery leader to develop the untapped potential.
In another entertaining and illuminating clash, the Wolverines showed respect for the rivalry and for their coach, putting a surprising fright in the Buckeyes. Ultimately, it served a dual purpose. It showed Michigan is capable of competing, but must find the right coach to nurture the right quarterback to do it.