This one hurts.
It hurts because this was the year. Sure, the game was in Columbus, and Urban Meyer and JT Barrett don't often lose in Columbus (or away from Columbus, for that matter), but Michigan brought a team that was loaded with seniors and laden with NFL talent to play one of the youngest teams in the country. A team that, for its part, was loaded with first-year starters. If not this year, when?
It hurts because Michigan brought a defense that was ranked as the nation's best. Defense travels, the saying goes, and Michigan's defense did just that. Michigan's defense didn't just play well, it was dominant for much of the game, constantly harassing Barrett and sacking him eight times (after Ohio State had allowed just 17 sacks through the season's first 11 games). "One of the best defenses we've ever gone against," Meyer said after the game. How dominant was the Michigan defense? Meyer was frustrated enough to attempt a fake punt from inside his 20-yard line in an effort to get something going offensively.
But in the end, the Buckeyes did just enough and manufactured just enough big plays to ultimately win the game. Football games are not given, but taken, and Ohio State made plays when it counted. But from the other side, it wasn't as much what Ohio State did as much as what Michigan did that will haunt the Wolverines.
Ohio State didn't play a perfect game by any stretch. Barrett missed multiple receivers, usually reliable kicker Tyler Durbin missed two field goals and the ill-fated fake punt was tantamount to a turnover. But in the battle of self-inflicted wounds, Michigan came out on top.
Michigan played extremely hard, and did so in a difficult environment. As loud as the Horseshoe has ever been, many would say. After the game, Harbaugh said of his team, "I thought our guys have worked incredibly hard. They have done everything that they could, and they've done it so very well." And he's right. But as hard as they played, the Wolverines simply made too many mistakes. There were costly drops and costlier penalties, but what the game came down to, what proved too much to overcome in a game of evenly matched teams, were three back-breaking turnovers by quarterback Wilton Speight, who played gallantly (coming back from injury), but sometimes carelessly.
A week earlier, Harbaugh praised John O'Korn's rather pedestrian performance against Indiana, pointing out that O'Korn took care of the ball, emphasizing that, "ball security was good all day." Speight's inability to do the same against Ohio State ultimately cost the Wolverines. In a double-overtime game on the road, 21 points are hard to make-up.
Much of the talk after the game focused on conference championship games and playoff berths. But such talk is inconsequential after a game like this. It doesn't matter that Michigan beat both of the participants in next week's Big Ten Championship game (along with the Pac-12 South champion, for that matter). This was about beating Ohio State.
Despite being a touchdown underdog, Michigan came into this game with as good of a chance to beat Ohio State as it's had in three coaching regimes (not counting the Luke Fickell interim season). And in the backyard brawl of a game that many predicted, Michigan played well enough to win. The defensive line, in particular, played valiantly, and other than two ill-advised passes, Speight was efficient, if not overwhelming, in leading the Wolverines. Yet despite all of this, despite looking like the better team for the better part of three quarters, the Wolverines came up short. Again.
There's another old adage, this one the Pollyannic promise that, "hope springs eternal." It's a sentiment that has served Cubs fans well for over a century, and in only the second year of new coaching era, should provide comfort to Wolverine fans, as well. But if you woke up in Ann Arbor Sunday, in the aftermath of a losing a heartbreaker for the ages, such promise provided little solace.