Everything seemed to be going according to plan, for 30 minutes in Columbus. Nobody could plan, or even imagine, a second-half death spiral like this.
Michigan (8-4, 6-2) accounted for 60 total yards in the second half of its mind-numbing 26-21 loss to Ohio State (12-0, 8-0). The Wolverines went backwards four yards on the ground over the final 30 minutes, managing four first downs and turning the ball over three times in that same shattering span.
Just when it seemed like the visitors could survive a shootout they led, 21-20, at the break, they skidded to earth like a hawk strapped to a refrigerator.
"It's hard to win football games when you turn the ball over four times, don't convert on short-yardage situations," offered an obviously disappointed Michigan head coach Brady Hoke. "We didn't do that in the second half. When you don't do those things, you put a little more stress on your team from an offensive and defensive standpoint."
When the Wolverines got shut out over the final 30, the stress turned into inertia-assisted suicide. The Buckeyes controlled the second half, and needed only a pair of Drew Basil field goals (among his four on the afternoon) to crush Michigan's hopes.
The Wolverines lingered one score away throughout the second half, needing a single touchdown drive - following three in the first half, to walk away from Ohio Stadium a winner. Instead, they couldn't run, couldn't pass, and couldn't hang onto the football, forming a toxic trio in the defeat.
"The reason we lost the game is that we had three turnovers in the second half," noted senior quarterback Denard Robinson (10 carries, 122 yards, one touchdown). "That's not acceptable, to win the game."
When junior QB Devin Gardner (11-for-20, 171 yards, one TD) committed the second of his three turnovers - fumbling a ball covered by OSU's Travis Howard at the Michigan 10 with 8:19 remaining - the Wolverines appeared doomed. But like it did all second half, Michigan's defense dug in and held Basil to a 25-yard field goal.
The Buckeyes then led, 26-21, but Michigan enjoyed 6:19 to still make something happen. Instead, Gardner pitched one to midfield that OSU's C.J. Barnett picked off, locking down the Buckeyes' 12-0 season in exile.
Ohio State sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller (14-for-18, 189 yards, one touchdown) proved efficient enough, and running back Carlos Hyde (26 carries, 146 yards, one touchdown) injected some bruising poison into the mix.
The second half started disastrously for the Wolverines, who leaned on their defense to dodge bullet after bullet.
Michigan handed Ohio State three points early in the second half, going for it on fourth-and-two near midfield. The Buckeyes buried Robinson on a run, and six plays later, cashed in on a 28-yard Basil field goal to take the lead, 23-21.
"I felt pretty good about the offense, to be honest," Hoke said of the fourth-down decision. "The kids, we say all the time, we've got to have each other's back. Though we didn't get it, the defense went out there and did a nice job."
Robinson then coughed up the ball on a carry, OSU's Nathan Williams diving on it at the Michigan 37. The Buckeyes drove to the U-M 4, but redshirt junior safety Thomas Gordon buried Miller on a six-yard sack. Miller then mishandled a poor shotgun snap, losing a dozen more yards.
Basil then missed a 39-yard attempt, allow the Wolverines to escape the third quarter trailing by only two, 23-21.
"The defense responded well at times, but at the end of the day we didn't execute," fifth-year senior safety Jordan Kovacs offered.
They were, in fact, executed themselves by a wholly ineffective offense - and after watching the first half, nobody could have seen it coming.
The Buckeyes grabbed a 7-0 lead just 2:19 into the game. Miller unloaded a 52-yard bomb to a wide-open Devin Smith, and two plays later, Hyde blasted in from three yards out, capping a six-play, 75-yard blitz.
The Wolverines answered back with an even bigger gouge moments later. Gardner found fifth-year senior wideout Roy Roundtree on a simple five-yard sideline throw, and he shook off an attempted tackle then sprinted 75 yards for a touchdown.
Junior wideout Drew Dileo provided a pesky blocking presence the final 30 yards against OSU defensive back Christian Bryant, and Roundtree cruised home to cap a three-play, 83-yard bolt.
The Buckeyes kept the ball 11 plays on the following drive, but penalties torpedoed the effort at the end. Basil wound up drilling a 41-yard field goal to put OSU back on top, 10-7, with 37 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
The Wolverines took full advantage of a huge break early in the second quarter. The Buckeyes' Corey Brown muffed a punt, junior Marvin Robinson diving on the ball at the Buckeyes 25.
Aided by a crucial OSU roughing-the-passer penalty on third-and-six, Michigan covered that ground in six plays, working its two-QB offense to perfection. Robinson set up the TD with a 10-yard sweep, then Gardner snuck it in from a yard out. The Wolverines clawed to their first lead, 14-10.
OSU regained the lead on a drive right out of Woody Hayes' playbook. The Buckeyes covered 56 yards on seven snaps, five of them runs up the gut by Hyde. Miller rolled to his right to cap things off, finding an uncovered Brown for 14 yards and a touchdown, making it 17-14.
Only 1:30 remained in the half, and the Wolverines appeared destined for some furious throws downfield. Instead, Robinson took all of two plays to cover 75 yards, including one of the most electrifying runs in No. 16's jaw-dropping career.
Robinson swept right, behind a convoy of blockers. But when he broke into the clear, Bryant and Howard sandwiched him from opposite sides. They simultaneously blasted Robinson, both going for the big hit, sans wrap-up.
That served only to keep Robinson upright, and he took off like a fighter jet pulling away from prop planes. The 67-yard scorcher gave the Wolverines the lead, 21-17, with 40 seconds left in the half.
OSU answered once again, Basil bombing through a 52-yard field goal on the final play of the half. At 21-20 Michigan, the fireworks appeared only nicely underway.
Instead, they fizzled all over the field, leaving the Wolverines empty handed and burned badly, coming home from Columbus with nothing but a bucket of what-ifs.