Saturday, November 10, 2007
Wisconsin unveils Michigan's true identity
By Pat Forde ESPN.com
MADISON, Wis. -- To paraphrase Dennis Green, the Michigan Wolverines are who we thought they were.
They're the same team that gave up 1,011 yards and 73 points while starting 0-2. They're nothing special -- an Outback Bowl kind of team dressed up for a time as a pseudo-contender. Wisconsin, a disappointment in its own right, proved that Big Blue was an empty set of shoulder pads by slapping it 37-21 in Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.
We were tricked into believing Michigan had rehabbed itself during its eight-game winning streak. What actually transpired was this: The schedule got soft.
Notre Dame couldn't win the Mid-American Conference this year, and neither could Eastern Michigan -- those were the Wolves' two nonconference victories. And the fact that Michigan could roll up six straight league wins reinforces the reality that it's a bad year for the Big Ten.
The 8-3 Wolverines have no business playing for a Big Ten title against Ohio State, but they will anyway. Presumably, injured Chad Henne (shoulder) and Mike Hart (ankle) will play against the Buckeyes after Henne went two series and Hart none at all against Wisconsin. Coach Lloyd Carr wasn't going to risk losing them before the all-the-marbles game next Saturday.
But unless those two can play defense, too, the Wolverines don't have a chance.
Lloyd Carr's teams have struggled against mobile quarterbacks.
Not that you have to take my word for it. Ask the Badgers, who lost by 21 to Ohio State last week and now have sliced up Michigan.
"I thought Ohio State was a lot tougher," said offensive tackle Gabe Carimi. "[The Buckeyes] were definitely a beatable team. We should have beaten them. But they're a good defense. The only way to beat them is to be physical with them."
Said wide receiver Paul Hubbard: "They're both kind of disciplined, but Ohio State has got a really tough defense. They're more disciplined. Michigan's got a couple young guys out there that they're trying to develop. Ohio State, they're tremendous."
The Wolverines were gashed for 477 yards by a Badgers team that was largely without its own star running back, P.J. Hill. The Wisconsin Winnebago made a third-quarter cameo, rushing five times for 14 yards. He wasn't missed -- not with freshman Zach Brown running for 108 yards and two touchdowns, Lance Smith-Williams chipping in 52 first-half yards before injuring a shoulder and quarterback Tyler Donovan skittering around for a season-high 49 and a score.
Stop me if you've heard this before, but Michigan has a history of issues with taking on running quarterbacks. Saturday, it also had issues with passing quarterbacks (Donovan threw for 245 yards) and quality receivers (Hubbard had 134 receiving yards and Travis Beckum 106).
Put it all together, and you see why Wisconsin monopolized the ball for 38 minutes and 15 seconds, compared with Michigan's 21:45.
"We weren't able to do anything ourselves offensively until very late in the third quarter, and that's what happens when you can't run the football," Carr said. "It's a problem. And when you can't stop it, it's a problem. But I will say this, our team fought until the very end and made a couple of great plays there to get us back within two with seven minutes to go, and we came up short."
Tyler Donovan put on a career performance in his last game at Camp Randall.
The fact that Michigan was down two with seven minutes to play was partly Carr's fault. Trailing 23-7 early in the fourth, he elected not to try two-point conversions after the next two touchdowns that could have tied the score. Combine that with holding Hart and Henne out, and it almost looked as though Carr was throwing the game.
But the Wolverines still had a chance to pull out a miraculous comeback win in the final half of the fourth quarter. That's when freshman Ryan Mallett, subbing for Henne, threw an interception that set up one Wisconsin short-field touchdown. Michigan turned the ball over on downs its next possession, which facilitated a second short-field score that meant it was celebration time for Bucky.
Now, it's circle-the-wagons time for Michigan once again. The Carr bashing had simmered down during the winning streak, but closing the regular season with a bookend two-game losing streak would bring it back to a full boil.
Beating Ohio State definitely would return some sheen to a season with plenty of tarnish. Certainly, Henne and Hart are desperate to avoid an oh-for-Ohio State college career, and Carr needs to get the Jim Tressel anvil off his head, as well.
But the game took a double-barreled hit Saturday, first with Michigan's convincing loss in Madison, then with Ohio State's shocking comeuppance at home against Illinois. The symbolism for this nonsensical season of college football would have been too perfect: Wolverines start the year by losing to I-AA Appalachian State and end it by taking down the undefeated, top-ranked Buckeyes.
The chance for that symbolic moment is lost now, and some of the sizzle is gone, too. As is Michigan's illusion of dramatic improvement from the beginning of the season.
The Wolverines are the same flawed team we thought they were in September.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.