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Niyo: There’s no covering for Michigan’s inadequacies

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh questions a call in the third quarter.

Madison, Wis. — Brandon Peters left the field in a wheelchair and then left the stadium in an ambulance.

And if that’s not Michigan’s season in summary, it felt painfully close to it on a wintry day in Wisconsin, where the fifth-ranked Badgers remained undefeated and the Wolverines remained their own worst enemy, far more so than any referee or replay official or raucous road environment.

Offensively, Michigan is still a woefully incomplete team, and whatever the excuses, Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines are almost out of time to make a statement to the contrary after Wisconsin stopped them cold in the second half of Saturday’s 24-10 loss at Camp Randall Stadium.

All that’s left of the regular season now is the rivalry clash with Ohio State, and as he looked ahead to next Saturday’s finale in Ann Arbor, Michigan’s defensive star, Maurice Hurst, said it flatly, “It’s a one-game season for us.”

But Saturday’s slugfest was a game we’ve seen over and over from Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines, so the frustration was audible as they lamented another one that got away.

“I feel like we beat ourselves today,” Hurst said, “and that’s basically it.”

And, yes, he admitted a bit later, that feeling is getting old.

At this point, how could it not? Michigan hasn’t beaten a team that finished its season with a winning record since Oct. 1 of last year when they beat the Badgers in Ann Arbor. That’s also Harbaugh’s only win in seven tries against a top-10 opponent as Michigan’s head coach. And the Wolverines are still winless on the road against ranked teams dating to 2006, an 0-for-16 streak that’ll last until next season’s opener at Notre Dame, at least.

So what’s left to say that hasn't already been said, really?

More: Wolverines left with what-ifs in wake of Wisconsin loss

Harbaugh had a few understandable gripes about the officiating Saturday, most notably the call and replay review that negated an apparent touchdown catch by freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones midway through the second quarter. But in the end, this wasn’t the “bitterly disappointed” Harbaugh from last November in Columbus. It was a humbled head coach who knew his team simply hadn’t done enough — again.

“They made more plays,” Harbaugh said. “Give Wisconsin credit. They made the plays and won the game.”

Send for the ambulance

And yet this was a game the Wolverines certainly appeared capable of winning. Even amid all the first-half bumbling — from the fruitless Wildcat plays to the frantic timeouts to a goal-line fumble — there were some big plays from redshirt freshman Brandon Peters, who was making his third career start and his first in a truly hostile setting. He finally connected on a deep ball to Peoples-Jones for 48 yards late in the first half, then converted on third-and-8 as Michigan drove 84 yards to tie the score at 7.

The defense was doing its part, too, pitching a shutout — thanks to some impressive play up front, including a breakout game by freshman Aubrey Solomon — and then handing Michigan’s offense terrific field position early in the second half.

But despite starting three successive drives at their own 38 and Wisconsin’s 41 and 29, the Wolverines came away with only a field goal to show for it as the run game went nowhere and pass protection — a season-long issue — broke down.

Then after Wisconsin’s Alex Hornibrook came up with a pair huge third-down throws to spark a go-ahead touchdown drive for the Badgers — the kind of clutch throws, and catches, that Michigan can’t seem to make in these big games — that’s when the wheels really came off.

Peters got drilled by Wisconsin linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel as the left side of Michigan’s line got beat on another three-man stunt, and as his third-down throw fell incomplete, it was obvious there were much bigger concerns. Van Ginkel and others quickly waved for medical help as Peters lay motionless after his shoulder and head hit the turf, and after being tended to for several minutes the quarterback was carted off the field and later transported by ambulance to the hospital for further tests. Harbaugh said Peters was expected to meet the team at the airport to return home, but his status for next week’s game obviously is in doubt.

“Couldn’t get the job done’

What’s not in doubt, however, is that Michigan’s offense remains a sore spot.

Those ground gains they’d made the last few weeks against Minnesota and Rutgers and Maryland simply aren’t there against better defenses. Chris Evans’ 10-yarder on the first play from scrimmage Saturday was the longest run of the game for a Michigan back, and Wisconsin’s top-ranked defense held the Wolverines to a season-low 58 rushing yards.

Meanwhile, the offensive line’s struggles continue to put Michigan’s quarterbacks in harm’s way. Wilton Speight hasn’t played since suffering three fractured back vertebrae on a sack in a game at Purdue. And with two more sacks allowed Saturday — Peters deftly avoided at least a couple more — Michigan’s season total (29) ranks among the worst in the nation.

The protection was a bit better against the Badgers than it was earlier this season in losses to Michigan State and Penn State. But that’s not saying much. Peters looks markedly better at handling the pressure than John O’Korn, too. But that’s not saying much, either. O’Korn replaced Peters on Saturday and, after completing his first pass for an 11-yard gain, finished the game just 2-of-8 for 19 yards. Expecting him to fare much better against the Buckeyes seems like wishful thinking.

So is that all that’s left for the Wolverines this season? Wistful feelings, and wondering what might have been without some of the injuries?

Michigan fans can’t be blamed for wanting more than that near the end of Harbaugh’s third season, especially when they see other teams — their in-state rivals among them — winning in spite of their collective youth. Yet the blame game won’t do the Wolverines any good right now, and they know it.

“We had some opportunities,” Harbaugh said, “but we couldn’t get it done today.”

And now they’ve got just one opportunity left, against an Ohio State team that already has clinched a spot in the Big Ten championship game and still has viable playoff aspirations. An Ohio State team that also has won five in a row in the series and 12 of the last 13 and will be a heavy favorite to continue that trend.

“It’s a must,” Solomon said when asked about this Michigan team finding a way to make one final stand. “We’ve got to. No ifs, ands or buts about it.”

The Wolverines — and their fans — have had enough of those, I’m sure. But they might have to endure another before they're done.