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January 2, 2007

No excuses: Michigan simply beaten

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PASADENA, Calif. Rivals.com defensive player of the year LaMarr Woodley wrapped up his senior season in a most appropriate manner.

He got defensive.

"Other people are going to assess this as a team that can't finish and a team that can't win bowl games," the Michigan defensive end said Monday after the Wolverines' 32-18 Rose Bowl loss to Southern California. "We didn't finish the last two games like we wanted, but overall this has been a great year for me. They sent me out on a good record."

It was indeed a great year for Michigan.

But it could have been greater.

Michigan won its first 11 games and harbored realistic hopes of a national title. Woodley captured the Lombardi Award that goes to the nation's most outstanding interior lineman, while offensive tackle Jake Long was named the Big Ten's best offensive lineman. The Wolverines had eight Rivals.com All-America selections, more than any other school.

The Wolverines earned plenty of awards, but the most prestigious prize of all slipped through their grasp.

Michigan's dreams of a perfect season ended with a 42-39 loss to Ohio State.

The Wolverines' hopes for a national title disappeared when Florida leapfrogged them in the final Bowl Championship Series standings.

And their intent to prove the pollsters wrong fell through when they lost to USC in the Rose Bowl.

For the third consecutive season, Michigan ended the year by losing the Ohio State showdown and its bowl game.

"It's definitely difficult to swallow and realize that we did finish up 0-2," Michigan quarterback Chad Henne said. "But then there's a lot of positives that came out of the season, and we just have to work even harder in the offseason."

It's tempting to label this game as more evidence that BCS whiners are rarely winners.

Two years ago, California complained when it was passed over in favor of Texas for the remaining at-large BCS berth. The Bears' arguments seemed foolish once they lost 45-31 to 11 point-underdog Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.

Last season, Oregon argued that it belonged in the BCS rather than Notre Dame. The Ducks also went to the Holiday Bowl instead and fell 17-14 to Oklahoma.

Michigan also griped last month after learning it wouldn't play for the national title, but the Wolverines insisted that the disappointment didn't distract them. They never treated the Rose Bowl as a consolation prize and instead saw it as an opportunity to prove themselves.

"I think it mattered a lot to them," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "I think they're tremendously disappointed because they wanted to win. And so anybody that doesn't think this game means a lot doesn't know much about this game."

Woodley echoed his coach's comments.

He blamed the loss on a lack of execution rather than a lack of emotion.

After committing just 10 turnovers all year the fewest of any Division I-A team the Wolverines had two giveaways in the third quarter that led to 10 points.

USC converted that first turnover into a touchdown that broke a 3-3 halftime tie and put the Trojans ahead for good.

"I think we were ready," Woodley said. "We just made too many mistakes. You give up mistakes to a team like this, they capitalize."

It might have been easier for the Wolverines to say they weren't focused enough.

Because they otherwise must admit that they simply weren't good enough.

Although Michigan played championship-caliber football for the majority of the season, it's worth noting that the Wolverines looked dominant in only one of their last five games a 34-3 thrashing of Indiana. Michigan otherwise ended the year with a lackluster 17-3 victory over Northwestern in the rain, a 34-26 escape against Ball State and the two losses to Ohio State and USC.

Ball State's Nate Davis threw for 250 yards against Michigan and showed that the Wolverines' pass defense is vulnerable when they don't put pressure on the quarterback. Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and USC's John David Booty further exposed Michigan's secondary by throwing four touchdown passes each in the Wolverines' final two games.

"I told the underclassmen that you live and learn from these mistakes," Woodley said. "We lost. You can't do anything about it. Next year when you all come back, change that around."

The Wolverines have reason to feel optimistic about next year. Long, Henne and Rivals.com first-team All-America running back Mike Hart announced before the Rose Bowl that they plan to return to school instead of entering the NFL Draft. They should lead a star-studded offense that also will feature wide receiver Mario Manningham.

Michigan's biggest offseason task will involve rebuilding a defense that loses Woodley, leading tackler David Harris and Jim Thorpe Award finalist Leon Hall.

The Wolverines also could lose run-stuffing defensive tackle Alan Branch, who hasn't decided whether to turn pro or come back for his senior year. Frank Coyle of draftinsiders.com rates Branch as the No. 11 overall prospect and top defensive tackle in the upcoming draft class.

If Branch enters the draft, Michigan's only Rose Bowl defensive starters returning next season will be defensive tackle Terrance Taylor, linebackers Shawn Crable and Chris Graham, cornerback Morgan Trent and safety Jamar Adams.

"We have a new team coming back," Hart said. "It's going to be a good team, I guarantee you. It's going to be a good team, but the thing is we got to put it together as a team. We'll be one of the best teams in the country if we can put it together."

And this time, they'll try to make sure it doesn't all come apart at the end.

For more coverage of USC, visit USCFootball.com; for more on Michigan, visit TheWolverine.com.

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