October 12, 2013

Borton's Blog: Fistfuls of nothing

All losses hurt. They're supposed to inflict pain, tear at the fabric of competitiveness cultivated to the highest level in every NCAA athlete. They rankle and burn.

But this one? What do you do with a victory so close, so within reach, and yet so unable to be grasped it's like trying to catch smoke? Over and over and over again, Michigan reached for a 6-0 record, a road victory over Penn State, and one more week of survival.

This one drifted up and out into the night, with a hint of a laugh. This one will hurt more than the arthritic fingers the Wolverines will point in one day recounting to their grandchildren this quadruple overtime stunner.

That is, if they're inclined to bring it up at all.

"The biggest thing you take from it was we had all kinds of opportunities," head coach Brady Hoke lamented. "Every position. As coaches, we had opportunities. We are all in this together. We have to make sure we are taking advantage and executing and making those opportunities count."

On a night when a mediocre Penn State team lay against the ropes awaiting a knockout punch, Michigan swung and missed, and missed again. Sometimes, the Wolverines didn't swing at all.

Missed opportunities? They came in all shapes and sizes, like a box full of chocolates containing leftover insects from old "Fear Factor" episodes.

The roll call of chance turned to dust seems as endless as the longest game in Michigan football history itself…

  • The Wolverines missed a first-half chance to mentally crush a crew that limped back from Indiana as 20-point losers only a week earlier. The Nittany Lions featured more ledge jumpers among their fan base than Wall Street, circa 1929.

    The players couldn't have been too imbued with swagger, after getting slapped around like one of Bob Knight's former charges by a program without a win (ever) against Penn State. A little early execution by the Wolverines could have turned Happy Valley's whiteout into a black eye and quiet resignation.

    Instead, three first-half turnovers fueled Penn State hopes, just as the giveaway gushers did against Akron and UConn. Only this time, for all its issues, the opponent wasn't Akron and UConn.

  • Despite its agonizing 21-10 halftime deficit, the Wolverines looked like they might lay a Hoosier-like hammering on the home team in the second half. Big defensive plays, quick scores and a reeling feeling of "Here we go again" (at least among the no-longer rollicking crowd of 107,884) set the Wolverines up for a put-away.

    Hoke's crew roared all the way back to a 34-24 lead, making the "We Are Penn State" chants sound like a sorrowful reminder for the present, rather than an ever-prideful boast. But the final moments made the last act of Hamlet look like comedy club material in Michigan eyes.

    It began innocently enough, an apparent phantom pass interference penalty turning what should have been a three-and-out into an extended drive, and ultimately a field goal. But the Wolverines were racing through the Penn State defense, and certainly could choke off the final 6:35.

    Until they couldn't. They drove down the field chewing up clock, but didn't aggressively move the chains when they needed to most. Then they took a jaw-dropping delay-of-game penalty, taking them out of thoughts of a field goal.

  • No matter, because Penn State wasn't going anywhere … until it did. Rookie quarterback Christian Hackenberg unleashed one bomb out of U-M hands and into his receiver's. He hung another tantalizingly centimeters above a leaping defensive back's outstretched digits, and into friendly fingers.

    Then he scored himself - completing 80 yards in 50 seconds. Somewhere, Kordell Stewart grinned wickedly.

    "You've got to make plays," Hoke insisted. "We've got to execute. Would we like to rush the passer better? Yes. At times we did, times we didn't."

  • The overtimes could be what-iffed until the cows come home (swimming, from India to the Jersey shore, and finishing on hoof to State College). Four tries from the 25 produced nary a touchdown, and more field goal misses by fifth-year senior placekicker Brendan Gibbons than he'd accumulated in the first five games combined.

    Misery upon misery, missed chance upon missed chance, and the realization, all too late, that enough is not ever enough.

    "Coach Hoke always reminds us: 'We need more points, we need more points,'" quarterback Devin Gardner acknowledged. "Today was an example of why we do."

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