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Niyo: Latest defeat makes UM's position perfectly clear

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Another week and there won't be anything left to parse.

And barring a stunning upset, there won't be anything left to play for, either, as Brady Hoke and his Wolverines likely sealed their already-bitter fate Saturday with another dreary loss on their home turf.

This time it was Maryland in the rain-soaked regular-season finale at Michigan Stadium, a 23-16 loss that made the Wolverines' bid for a bowl game nearly as futile as their coach's bid to avoid a buyout at season's end.

It also might have rendered moot the pregame press conference held by Michigan's interim athletic director, Jim Hackett, who repeatedly dodged questions about when he'll weigh in with a final judgment on Michigan's coaching staff.

Does the end of the season mean the end of the regular season? Or does it mean after a bowl game?

"When I get there," Hackett said coyly, "I'll know I'm ready to talk about it."

Ready or not, here it comes, though, as Michigan guaranteed its fifth six-loss season in seven years, completing a dubious double that not even the most pessimistic U-M fans would've contemplated. Losing to both the Big Ten's widely-mocked newcomers — Rutgers and Maryland — in the same season? Only Michigan and Indiana can claim that honor this fall.

And with the winner of next weekend's Illinois-Northwestern game guaranteed a sixth win, the Big Ten will have 10 teams that are bowl-eligible. Michigan has to beat seventh-ranked Ohio State in Columbus to join that crowd.

"Obviously, we're really, really disappointed," Hoke said.

Indeed, while Senior Day in East Lansing was all fun and games — trick plays, two-way players and a 45-3 rout for Michigan State — the one in Ann Arbor was full of grim faces as the Wolverines blew a fourth-quarter lead before an announced crowd of 101,717.

"You learn a lot more from a loss than a win," insisted linebacker Jake Ryan, one of 12 seniors honored on the field with their families before the game.

But what we keep learning about this Michigan team is how woefully unprepared they seem to be to win games.

Clinging to faint hopes

Michigan's best play Saturday probably was a fake punt in the first quarter. Their worst? Gosh, where do you begin? There were too many, as usual, from the dropped passes, including a killer in the end zone by freshman Freddy Canteen, to the burned timeouts — a staple of Hoke's coaching tenure — to the marching band destroying Ohio State's dinosaur (it's a long story) with a meteor at halftime.

It may take a similar act of Armageddon for Michigan to win next week at Ohio State. But faint hopes are all the Wolverines have left, facing an arch-rival that has won nine of the last 10 meetings in this series, and 11 of the last 13. And while no one likes to play the spoiler's role, they'd best embrace it if they want to avoid the kind of embarrassment Michigan endured in 2010 at the end of the Rich Rodriguez era.

The Buckeyes already are guaranteed a spot in the Big Ten championship game, but they still have everything to play for this week, with their playoff hopes alive, if not thriving. And after last year's scare in Ann Arbor, I'd imagine Urban Meyer has their full attention this week.

"They are playing for a lot, and we're not — that's no secret," said Jack Miller, Michigan's junior center. "Would it ruin their season? Yeah. But that's not the goal, to ruin their season. The goal is to go out on the right note."

Bottom line

Hackett, for his part, tried to strike the right note in his first media session before the game. He isn't about to tell anyone publicly what he'll do. Or even when he'll do it, necessarily, though it'd be a surprise if Michigan did either of two things.

One would be appeasing the angry fan base by dismissing Hoke this week, a la Earle Bruce. The other would be letting this coach twist in the wind through the month of December the way it did the last one, assuming the Wolverines managed to pull off a monumental upset Saturday in Columbus.

Hackett, a former CEO who is no stranger to layoffs, went out of his way Saturday to praise Hoke's "extraordinary" efforts in "very difficult times." But he also made it clear he understands the bottom line in this business of college football.

"You have to have a really healthy sense of, 'What does it take to compete?' " said Hackett, who was introduced as the interim AD on Oct. 31. "And you can't rationalize that in any way. If you're not where you need to be, you need to address it."

Later, he added, "We're not where we need to be. The bigger issue is, not only do I know it, but does the coaching staff know it? They know it."

And when the season's over, likely sooner rather than later now, everyone will know it.

"It won't be vague or unclear where we stand," Hackett said.

No, Saturday's result should've made that painfully clear — again.