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ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Across the last disastrous half of the season, as Michigan losses piled up and even victories were laced with futility, Brady Hoke had been mocked, cussed and even fired (at least by some fans).
So here on a sunny-but-cold last Saturday of November, with Michigan trailing Ohio State by a single point and 32 seconds left, Hoke was faced with a decision that really wasn't – kick an extra point to likely force overtime, or go for two and try to take the lead.
"We play the game to win," Hoke said.
So Hoke tried for the win, setting up one of the most dramatic plays this old and storied rivalry had ever seen. It left 113,211 people – whether clad in maize and blue, or scarlet and gray – holding their breath.
It didn't work. Devin Gardner's two-point conversion pass was picked off and Ohio State rolled out of Ann Arbor with a 42-41 victory and a 12-0 regular season heading into next week's Big Ten championship against Michigan State. "I would've done the same thing," Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said. "You've got to win the game."
Hoke's decision will be called gutsy and to a point it was. It also wasn't that gutsy. His team was a huge underdog. The season was already shot, ending in a 7-5 record. His defense couldn't stop the Buckeyes and Carlos Hyde (226 rushing yards) in particular, so the promise of overtime wasn't bright. His kicker was spotty. Even in failing to convert, he was roundly (and predictably) praised just for attempting it.
Everyone loves a coach who tries to win, rather than simply not lose.
The mistake, if there was one, was apparently the play that was called. Ohio State had it scouted. They called timeout, got everyone a deep breath and the players said they were told Michigan would run one of just two plays. The one the Wolverines attempted – a short pass to Drew Dileo coming out of a three-receiver stack – was one of them.
So they suspected what was coming. Tyvis Powell jumped the route and made the play. It is perhaps the greatest testament to the juggernaut Meyer has built down in Columbus. Even in the most desperate of moments, the Buckeyes are not just prepared, but more than capable of calmly executing it.
And so that was that.
"That's an instant classic," said Meyer, whose team found a way to win its 24th consecutive game since he's become coach and hang in the BCS chase even if the manner of victory wasn't especially impressive.
This was a full-on rivalry game though, where records and rankings don't matter, where every point is earned, where the underdog doesn't quit.
These games aren't supposed to be easy. That's why they rarely are. Ohio State beat Michigan. It shouldn't ever apologize for that. If some BCS poll voters somewhere feel differently, well, whatever.
On this day Ohio State could only celebrate. And at this point of the season, with opinions on strength of schedule, conference might and relative ability mostly formed, it can only just keep winning and hope for something to happen elsewhere that can spring them to the BCS title game.
The time for politicking could wait. The truth was, these weren't the Wolverines of the last month they'd just defeated. This was the Michigan team that looked good on paper in the preseason. After averaging just 216.5 yards per game over the last four games, they racked up 603 on Saturday.
"We're Michigan," said offensive tackle Taylor Lewan. "We're bred to fight."
Where that fight was all year is anyone's guess. Hoke has said he likes the direction the program is headed, but this is still a five-loss team. While most of the postgame comments were positive, apparently the mood in the locker room was as sad as losing a game in this rivalry demands.
"We have a bunch of kids who fought hard for Michigan, played hard to the bitter end," said athletic director Dave Brandon, who has assured his coach will be around for years and years. "As we did so many times this season we were two yards away from a huge victory. But there are a lot of tears in the locker room because they didn't come here to play well. They came here to win."
So is this, even in year three of the Hoke tenure, a sign of what's the come? Will Michigan soon return to the elite of at least the conference, if not the nation? Or was this a sign of the state of this rivalry – the Buckeyes winning for the 11th time in 13 tries and Michigan stuck soothing its pain with close scores, great efforts and gutsy calls?
"I don't know if you can get an identity in one game, but I'll be very excited to see if we play with the same passion [in the next game]," Hoke said.
Ohio State's next game is Saturday in Indianapolis against Michigan State – a Big Ten title on the line, maybe even more. For Michigan – watching its two chief rivals play for a championship – is like having to choose which finger to have chopped off.
For Hoke, there is no sugarcoating what this year is about. He was reminded that his first year when Michigan went 11-2, beat Ohio State and won a BCS bowl game. He deemed it a failure anyway. So how does he describe this campaign?
"It would be the same," he said. "We have goals here. The goal is to win the Big Ten championship. Every year. We have 42 of them. More than anybody else. We want a 43rd."
That'll have to wait. A season of great promise ended with Hoke walking out of his press conference to find two men wearing canary yellow Fiesta Bowl blazers waiting to shake his hand. They were bowl execs, yet they weren't there to invite the Wolverines to a top-line BCS event. It's their secondary offering, the humble Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, where Michigan will likely wind up.
"We're looking to stay in touch," one said.
"Yeah, good to see you," Hoke said.
Not far away, behind Michigan Stadium, five victorious Ohio State buses idled. Unbeaten Buckeyes climbed aboard carrying box lunches from KFC and wearing big satisfied smiles – everything is still possible for them.
There are no moral victories or signs of potential or promises of a better day for Urban Meyer's Buckeyes. There are just victories, one after the next after the next after the next.