Niyo: Speight shoulders the pain in Michigan loss

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Columbus, Ohio — Wilton Speight walked slowly up the ramp from the visitors’ locker room at Ohio Stadium. Like many of his teammates, he seemed oblivious to the frigid late-November air, dressed only in sweatpants and a T-shirt, along with the harness still protecting his injured left shoulder.

Michigan’s starting quarterback stopped to greet his family, sharing handshakes and hugs and some words of consolation. And then it was off to the bus along with the rest of the Wolverines, their faces mostly expressionless.

The shock of this loss — 30-27 in double-overtime to their archrivals from Ohio State — won’t wear off anytime soon. And even when it does, the mix of anger and disappointment, won’t be easy to process.

That was obvious even before head coach Jim Harbaugh entered the press room late Saturday afternoon, still fuming and venting about what called the “outrageous” decisions the officiating crew made.

Moments earlier, it’d been Speight’s turn to face the cameras, and as he sat in a folding chair, fiddling with his wristband and answering questions in a croaky voice, it was impossible not to feel his pain.

That he’d played at all Saturday was a bit of a surprise to some, perhaps. But the way that he had — committing three turnovers, including a pair of interceptions that led directly to Ohio State touchdowns — was not lost on the redshirt sophomore.

“Yeah, it’s a bummer,” Speight said, when asked if it felt like the Wolverines gave this game away, especially after taking a 10-point lead midway through the third quarter. “I felt like I let the defense down, with the game that they played. It stings. We had opportunities throughout the rest of the game.”

Jim Harbaugh furious, ‘bitterly disappointed’ with refs

They did, and after Michigan’s defense gave them another reprieve at the end of regulation, holding the Buckeyes to a tying field goal, the Wolverines did come through in the first overtime, Speight finally matching Ohio State’s touchdown with a fourth-down pass to Amara Darboh in the back of the end zone.

After that score, it was clear that Speight and the rest of the offense on the field wanted to try for the 2-point conversion — and the win.

“I flashed the two up — you guys probably saw that,” said Speight, who’d motioned to the sideline but was quickly overruled by Harbaugh.

And after that?

“The second overtime,” Speight said, pausing as his voice trailed off. “I’m not gonna get into the calls that the refs were making.”

And what is there for him to say, really? The pass interference the Wolverines wanted didn’t get called on Ohio State’s Gareon Conley as he broke up a third-down pass to Grant Perry. (“A gift,” Harbaugh called it.)

“I’m sure a lot of people saw that,” Speight said. “But … yeah … I saw that.”

Speight’s fate

But what he saw not long after that is all that really mattered in the end. The Buckeyes celebrating another win in this rivalry — their fifth in a row and 12th in the last 13 meetings — and their fans storming the field again. Just as they had a decade ago, the last time these two teams met with this much at stake.

Ohio State came in ranked No. 2 in the country, and Michigan at No. 3, with a berth in the Big Ten championship game — not to mention a possible playoff bid — hanging in the balance.

Yet now it’s all but gone, even though Speight, who finished the day 23-of-36 for 229 yards and two touchdowns, insisted the Wolverines “absolutely” are one of the four best teams in the country after the loss.

“You see two heavyweight teams go into double overtime,” he said, “and I think that speaks volumes for a chance at the playoffs.”

But so does this.

“I don’t know how it’s all gonna shake out with the committee and all that,” Speight added. “I’m sure our chances are slim to none now.”

Speight faced the same odds of even playing in this game a couple weeks ago, at least according to some reports. And his status remained in doubt — publicly, at least — right up until pregame warm-ups here at Ohio Stadium.

He’d been in uniform last week in the home finale against Indiana, even warming up for the game. But he didn’t play, even as backup John O’Korn struggled to make plays in the passing game on a windy, snowy afternoon at Michigan Stadium.

This week, Speight returned to practice, a welcome sign for fans who felt he’d have to play for the Wolverines to pull off the upset in Columbus. Harbaugh played coy all week, but acknowledged after the game what many had suspected about Speight’s status.

“He was chomping at the bit to go,” the coach said. “He showed that he was functional right up to the level he’s been playing at all year. I would say after he practiced on Tuesday, Wednesday, I made the decision he would start.”

So he started, and he looked plenty functional early on. The protection from his offensive line was excellent for most of the first half, and Speight was efficient with his throws, though he wasn’t taking many, if any, shots downfield. By halftime, he was 15-of-20 for 141 yards.

But it was one big mistake that bit him late in the second quarter, an interception he threw that Ohio State safety Malik Hooker returned 16 yards for a touchdown with 4:03 left in the half. A missed blitz pickup by De’Veon Smith allowed linebacker Raekwon McMillan a free path to Speight standing in his own end zone on first-and-10 from the 6-yard line. McMillan’s hit forced the floater that Hooker easily corralled.

“Unfortunate to get my hand hit when I was throwing it out of my end zone, which resulted in a pick-6,” Speight said.

‘Incredible game, but ...’

Fortunately for the Wolverines, though, they responded in kind, marching 55 yards on the ensuing drive for the go-ahead touchdown just before the half. Michigan, which mustered only 91 net rushing yards on 43 carries, converted all three of their third downs on that possession, and seemed to have regained control.

That continued in the third quarter. A handful of plays after Jabrill Peppers’ interception near midfield halted Ohio State’s initial drive, Michigan had the ball with second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. But in the closed end of the Horseshoe, packed with a record crowd of 110,045, Speight fumbled the snap exchange from center Mason Cole and the Buckeyes recovered.

“Yeah, I think there was a little miscommunication with the crowd noise,” Speight said. “I should’ve stayed in there longer knowing that there might be problems with how loud it was. So, yeah, that’s on me.”

Not for long, though, as Michigan’s defense held again and the Buckeyes made a baffling decision to run a fake punt, handing the ball to Speight & Co. at the Ohio State 22.

Speight’s 8-yard pass to fullback Khalid Hill with 6:37 to play in the third made it 17-7. And at that point, it felt like it might be enough. The Buckeyes had managed just 33 total yards on a half-dozen possessions since their opening score.

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But then came another critical mistake by Speight, in a game in which every one of them — by the players, by the coaches, and by the refs — would be magnified. Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker made a leaping interception of Speight’s pass intended for Amara Darboh over the middle — “Trying to force another ball into too tight of a window,” Speight said — and returned it 22 yards to the Michigan 13.

Two plays and two penalties later — one an unsportsmanlike conduct on Harbaugh, apparently for tossing his play sheet on the sideline — the Buckeyes were within a field goal.

And from there, it was just one gut-wrenching moment after another for the Wolverines.

“That’s pretty disappointing,” Speight said afterward, trying in vain to sum it all up. “A game of this magnitude and the amount of fight that we’ve put in together since January, after the bowl game. It all came down to this game, The Game. And then the way it played out — incredible game – but …”

He leaned back in his chair, dropping both arms to his side in frustration, as he finished his thought, “We came up short.”