COLUMBUS, Ohio — Michigan lost something larger than a game here Saturday.
Brady Hoke lost a chance to get a leg up on Urban Meyer. Winning two straight in the Ohio State rivalry hasn’t happened for the Wolverines since 1999-2000, but it was there for the taking at Ohio Stadium.
All Michigan needed to win was one second-half touchdown or even two field goals. Instead, it got blanked after halftime in a 26-21 loss.
Hoke could’ve heard the Buckeyes grumble and say, “He’s got our number.” And the Wolverines had the chance to put the Buckeyes’ undefeated season to rest, keeping Meyer from getting giddy about his seniors and calling for the need for “19 bronze statues” to commemorate them.
Now Hoke is 1-1 in the series and Meyer is beginning to look like a steamroller driver. Confidence is so high here that the electric sign on front of the team bus read: “SCARLET AND GREAT.”
Hoke beat them last year, when they were the scarlet and very gray — as in drab and uninspired. The program was reeling from the Jim Tressel improprieties of “Tattoogate,” and Luke Fickell went 6-7 as the interim coach.
Twelve months later, the Buckeyes are 12-0 and headed off to a cold winter’s nap. It would’ve been a bear being 11-1 — had that one loss come to Michigan.
Asked if the Buckeyes should be No. 1 in the Associated Press poll if they are the lone undefeated team remaining after the bowls, Meyer smiled and said: “The quote I’d like put out there is: ‘I think this team could play and compete with any team in the United States of America as of now.’”
Ohio State will not go to a bowl game because of its NCAA probation.
Hoke said he and Meyer didn’t shake hands after the game.
“It’s no big deal,” Hoke said. “Not a big deal — not a story.”
I asked Hoke about the shift in thoughts he experienced in losing this game after winning his first in the rivalry. He forced a smile and said, “I liked the ‘W’ better.” Then he mentioned that his mind turned immediately to beating Ohio State in 2013.
That’s the essence of great rivalries. You live with defeat until you play again, and it gnaws at you.
Hoke clasped his hands over his beet-red forearms as he answered questions seated behind a table and the microphones. It was 33 degrees with 17 mph winds at game time, but the Wolverines coach eschews sleeves. He hates sleeves almost as much as Buckeyes.
There’s a Woody Hayes resistance to bundling up on the sidelines that Hoke, a native Ohioan, shares with the late Buckeyes coaching legend. There is a mind over matter message in that approach.
Coaching is about a thousand subtleties, and the realities brought by both success and defeat.
For the Wolverines, the harshest realities were Hoke’s failed decision to go for it on fourth-and-3 and the inability of his offensive coordinator, Al Borges, to make the necessary adjustments to counter Ohio State’s alignments after the half.
Michigan was on its own 48-yard line and faced that fourth-down decision on the first possession of the second half. Denard Robinson lined up at quarterback and tried to run up the middle. Outside linebacker Ryan Shazier dropped him for a 2-yard loss.
“I felt good about our offense because they had just gotten two first downs in a row, and I had confidence in our defense as well,” Hoke said. “So we went for it.”
Said Robinson said: “That’s me. I made a bad read.” And Hoke allowed that Robinson should have bounced it outside to at least one more running gap.
There was plenty of time to recover from that, but Michigan couldn’t capitalize on Ohio State opting to focus on Robinson, who lined up the majority of the time as a running back in split sets and even an inverted wishbone.
Quarterback Devin Gardner threw just nine times and completed five for 64 yards in the second half. Why not pass more with the Buckeyes stacking up to stop Robinson, who carried four times for minus-2 yards after halftime?
“I just wasn’t called,” said Hoke, who makes it a practice not to meddle in Borges’ play-calling.
Gardner lost two fumbles and threw an interception, and Robinson also lost a fumble. After rushing for 122 yards — including a 67-yard touchdown and a shoeless 38-yard jaunt — on six carries in the first half, Robinson became a non-factor.
When asked what he had to say at the half, Meyer said, “Stop the quarterback run. That’s the input I had.”
Robinson and Hoke both said Robinson was able to throw. He didn’t, so he became quite predictable. Go figure.
Safety Christian Bryant said several Buckeyes couldn’t wait to mock Robinson in the final seconds by imitating his antics from last year, when he pretended to be feeding himself with a spoon after big plays.
“It was from last year,” Bryant said. “They beat us and tried to embarrass us.”
He added that it was “devastating” to lose in 2011. Just one year later, Meyer is talking about the foundation he’s cemented.
“Bunch of recruits in the meeting room again,” Meyer said. “The whole theme this week is, ‘Go where the air is rare.’”