I could stomach a loss. But to Lose. Like. That.
As a Michigander born and raised, one of the joys of Autumn was waking up on Saturday mornings, watching cartoons, and then watching the Michigan football games. Anthony Carter, Desmond Howard, Ricky Powers, Tyrone Wheatley, Tim Biakabutuka, Mercury Hayes, Amani Toomer, Chris Howard, Todd Collins, Elvis Grbac, Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller, Lloyd Carr…all were names I came to know love and revere. Michigan was known for tough defense, consistently having top wide receivers, and always having a stable of touchdown threat running backs and kick returners. We were also always a title contender, and always a betting favorite to win the Big Ten Conference title.
Honestly, just check the history of the program and you’ll quickly understand why 110,000+ fans fill The Big House in Ann Arbor a half dozen times each Fall. Michigan is the winningest program in the history of college football (920), with the 2nd highest win percentage (73%), has the most winning seasons (114), the most undefeated seasons (23), and is the proud owner of 11 National titles.
And believe it or not, though our little brother has flexed their muscles against us in the last decade, we still have a sizable series record against Sparty at 68 wins to 33 losses (and 5 ties).
Despite our storied history, Michigan is also the proud owner of numerous terrible and memorably terrible losses. Though I was a preteen in grade school, I remember very vividly the ’94 Colorado vs Michigan game in which Kordell Stewart threw a deflected, but successful Hail Mary pass to Michael Westbrook to end the game at Michigan Stadium, dropping the Wolverines to 2–1 on the season. Then there was ‘clockgate’ in 2001, a ‘fake’ last-second loss to that school further up north, Michigan State (at least that one was on the road). And of course, the most infamous of all, Appalachian State happened in 2007, again at The Big House. Yes, every year we pray and hold candlelight vigils hoping that another major program ranked in the top 15 will go down to an FCS school. (Note: indeed 2 other ranked FBS teams have lost to FCS schools in the ensuing years since the Appalachian State debacle, but Michigan’s loss is the only one people seem to know about.)
How is it that such a terrific program has some of the most inconceivably ridiculous losses? Losses of so great a magnitude that even when it happens to others, no one knows or cares about it.
“Reverse Highlight Reel” losses I like to call them.
I enrolled at Michigan during the 2 quarterback system year that featured an inaccurate guy named Tom Brady, and a mobile gunslinger named Drew Henson. It was just a couple years after a ferocious defense, led by 2-way athlete Charles Woodson, went undefeated and won a share of the National title. By the time I graduated from Michigan, though we were still a top program, we went from dominating series match-ups versus our top 3 rivals, Notre Dame, MSU, and that school south of our border, to us being on the losing side more often than not.
Enter Coach Jim Harbaugh.
With only a close game 1 loss to a very good Utah team, Harbaugh has quickly turned around a Michigan football program that many, including yours truly, began to believe had a chance to win the Big Ten title at least a season ahead of schedule. But first we had to exorcise that demon that has vexed us since the infamous “little brother” comment spoken by former Michigan running back Mike Hart.
So there I was Saturday, surrounded by hundreds of other Michigan fans at a ‘Michigan Bar’ in Washington DC, begging the clock to read double zero. The undefeated, 7th-ranked Spartans did battle with the 12th-ranked Wolverines for almost a full 4 quarters, but never led. Neither team could get their running games going, neither quarterback could consistently get their teams down the field, and neither team had turned the ball over.
It was a classic.
Facing 4th and 3, with only 10 seconds left, and the score set with us up 23–21, it’s decision time. We can run the ball once more and try to get the 1st down. But this is a risky option because if we don’t get the 1st down, the clock stops and the Spartans can get off at least a good Hail Mary attempt from about the 50 yard line; they might even be able to get 2 plays off with a chance to hit a field goal as time expires. So we go with the smartest, safest option. We choose to bring in our unflappable special teams and excellent punter to put MSU so far down the field that it’d take a miracle for them to win.
Keep that word miracle in mind.
It’s the right call. This season our special teams has been at least as good as our top rated defense. We’ve got a couple of the scariest kick returners in the country, including the heavily recruited Jabrill Peppers. Our field goal kicker, Kenny Allen, is as reliable a strong leg as a team could ask for. And our punter, Blake O’Neill, is one of the best in the country, and the best one I can recall in 25 years of watching Michigan football. He has consistently pinned the opposing teams inside the 10 yard line, including an 80-yard beauty early in the game versus MSU. So the only thing that can cost us this game is a botched punt, or a miraculous MSU play.
Apparently the two need not be mutually exclusive.
So the miraculous happened, and by now, we’ve all seen the play. No truer statement has ever been posted than one that a friend of mine posted as his facebook status:
”The amount of things that had to go wrong in a very specific manner for that to happen.”
So let’s dissect those wrong things. 1st, there was a bad snap. It wasn’t the worst snap, but it was low and off-centered. 2nd, O’Neill doesn’t catch it, and a live ball is now on the turf. But, at this point, we are still ok, as long as he just falls on the ball. But nope, for some reason unbeknownst to every Wolverine fan watching, with the Spartans past the line of scrimmage in full pursuit, he still tries to punt the ball away.
Let’s take a moment to talk about O’Neill. When I said he’s an excellent punter, that was not hyperbole. Rarely can you specifically point to the punter as a major factor in your success. But this year Michigan can. His punting has meant that the opposing teams often have poor field position. As a result, very few plays have been run against Michigan in the red zone this season. Unfortunately his success as a punter probably played into his split second decision to still attempt punting in a situation in which EVERYBODY knows the wise thing to do is to just fall on the ball. When you’re that good, you probably haven’t failed enough times to even think ‘it’s a bad snap, there’s less than 10 seconds, just fall on it.’ I’m sure he knows what to do now.
Even with that, the game isn’t lost yet. The 3rd thing that worked against us is that we didn’t recover the ball. I mean, where were all our guys? Did they give up on the play celebrating prematurely? Were they not ready for MSU to go hard at the punter? I mean, there was an avalanche of white jerseys mauling the punter immediately.
So MSU recovers the ball, and the miraculous play they needed is in full effect. Now the game is still not lost, because if we can just tackle the MSU ball carrier, the clock will expire and we still win. The lack of said tackle being the 4th wrong thing.
So nope! We don’t get him, and an epic fail is in the books. We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
I could deal with a loss. MSU is a very good team, undefeated, and ranked above us. Plus we could always say that though he’s a proven commodity, Harbaugh is in the 1st year of a rebuilding process. Even if we’d lost on a game-winning field goal, so be it. But to lose LIKE THAT. To give MSU their only lead of the game at the final whistle. To lose disgracefully at home before hundreds of thousands of fans. To once again become the laughing stock of football fans as well as the non-sports watching public. To be the lead story on major non-sports news outlets. To be the reason Monday morning that ESPN’s “Mike & Mike” are asking all their athlete guests about their “worst loss ever.” To give everyone another major Michigan fail to be discussed for decades to come. WHY???!!!
So there I was, with hundreds of other rabid Wolverine fans, when the clock read double zero. But alas, instead of jubilation at the ticking down to double zero, there was silence and disbelief. We’d done it again; we’d become the top trending story again for all the wrong reasons…just like in 2007. But now with an even more pronounced social media presence to loud-speaker our embarrassment to the masses.
This play will be discussed frequently for the next year, often for the next decade, and will be a key flashback highlight discussed periodically for the next few decades.
I thought about scenarios in which the sting of this loss could be lessened. I’ve come up with 2 options: 1. Another top program (especially if it’s MSU) has an equally epic fail this season, or 2. Michigan runs the table, somehow gets a spot in the playoff, and wins the national title, effectively finding success following heartbreak and turning a negative into a positive.
Yes, I know, I’m dreaming.
When you lose that way, it’s easy to forget that we’re still 5–2 with a legit shot to contend for the Big Ten title just one season after winning a total of 5 games and completely missing out on a bowl game. It’s easy to forget that our only 2 losses have come by an average of 5.5 ppg to 2 top 10, undefeated teams. It’s easy to forget how great Blake O’Neill has been, sans 1 play, all season. It’s easy to be angry, sad, and to despair.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy for anyone to forget…and I mean ANYONE!
All-in-all, Blake O’Neill is still an excellent punter, Harbaugh is still a great coach, and we’re definitely ahead of that rebuilding schedule…I just wish we hadn’t lost. like. that.
I suppose the only saving grace I can fall back on is that though we are the most recent victims of ‘epic failuredom,’ we aren’t the only ones. There was that Alabama “Kick Six” fail of 2013.
That said, it’s still great-to-be-a-Mich-i-gan-Wolv-er-ine!!!