January 1, 2013

Present misery, future dreams

In the end, it was a bloomin' failure. Bottom-line folks know it doesn't matter how gutsy Michigan played on the seniors' final day in uniform.

It doesn't matter that the Wolverines' offense was handicapped in ways it won't be in the future. It makes no difference that neither starting cornerback in Michigan's season opener against Alabama appeared on the field when South Carolina's big-play throwing game gutted a previously staunch secondary.

It doesn't even matter that the Wolverines led the 10-2, 10th-ranked Gamecocks with 12 seconds remaining on the clock. All that matters, in the end, involves South Carolina grabbing a 33-28 lead with 11 seconds left, on one final, DBs-dusting bomb, and keeping it until the clock reached 00:00.

That's the end-game skewer that swept all the shrimp off the barbie, leaving Michigan's Outback Bowl dreams out in the back alley, bloody, with a black eye.

Fairy tales often exist only in kids' books, and that's the case here. The most prolific rushing quarterback in NCAA history, and one of the best individuals in University of Michigan football history, deserved a better ending.

So did his teammates, players who floundered in an un-Michigan-like morass of losing for the early part of their careers. This season was to be their comeback capper, the culmination of all the massaged misdeeds of the past, rolled into a Big Ten championship season.

It could have happened, and the Wolverines wouldn't have been anywhere near Tampa on New Year's Day. But they were, and against the Gamecocks - like in losses versus Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State - a winnable game simply slipped away.

The Gamecocks are plenty good, one touchdown drive away from playing in the Southeastern Conference championship contest and quite possibly the national championship showdown. And here were the Wolverines, gutting out a game with an injured and displaced starting quarterback, no established tailback, a sub-par offensive line, a remade defensive line and a switched-up secondary, fighting to the final shattering seconds.

That's what Denard Robinson will remember. That's what he'll pack in his bag for the future - the knowledge that he gave extreme effort and went down doing all he could, in concert with a battling brotherhood.

"It's a bittersweet feeling," Robinson said. "Those are my brothers. That's my family. I've been with them for four years. It's come to an end. I'd do whatever for those boys. I'd do whatever for them, and still care about them."

Hoke cares about them all, and he knows it could have been different on New Year's Day … and in South Bend, Lincoln and Columbus. He's building towards making it different, and turning close losses into resounding wins.

Hoke saw what happened to the Wolverines in the end. On a day when junior quarterback Devin Gardner threw for 214 yards and three touchdowns, and Robinson put one final 100-yard rushing game in the books, when U-M held the football for 37:59 and scored 28 points against an SEC squad giving up 17 a game, big plays injected huge heartache.

Three touchdown bombs of 30 yards or more, combined with a 63-yard punt-return bolt by a trump card named Ace Sanders, left the Wolverines all out.

That, fifth-year senior captain Jordan Kovacs insisted, just can't happen.

"It's lack of execution," Kovacs insisted. "I think that there weren't any communication errors or anything like that. We just didn't execute."

That lack, ultimately, executed Michigan.

The Wolverines will be better, Hoke quietly assures. He's building lines on both sides of the ball that will be more dominant in the future. He's convinced close, misery-laden losses of the present will unfold differently down the road, and he knows why.

"Multiple things - being able to run the ball, line of scrimmage play on both sides of the ball," Hoke offered. "Taking care of the football better. Playing good defense when you need to, at the end of the game.

"And don't take that wrong. I'm proud of the kids. I'm real proud. They worked their tails off. We're going to miss the group of seniors, their attitude and the things they've done for Michigan. They all know what the expectations are when you play at Michigan."

Even some of those seniors know they were part of a building project. In the heavy moments following a final loss, they promised a heavyweight fighter to come.

"Honestly, I can't wait," senior defensive tackle Will Campbell said. "I can't wait to watch these guys come on and grow up. The talent that they have, they came in strong, fast and athletic. I can't wait to see them in two or three years, playing football. They're going to be monsters up front."

And Robinson? Don't cry for him, the star-crossed senior cautioned. He's not looking back.

"Oh, no," he said. "That's one thing about me. I try to have no regrets. I'm going to go 100 percent, and do what I have to do. No regrets."

It's okay to have a couple for him, given the injury that robbed Robinson of a dream finish. But he's looking toward the future, and guaranteed, every man remaining on the Michigan roster is as well - with good reason.

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