Michigan entered Saturday afternoon knowing it was going to need all it had and more.
Down to its third-string quarterback against the No. 8-ranked team in the country — and a rival who has had the Wolverines' number — Michigan found itself inches away from seizing opportunity and putting a stop to a painful trend.
Those inches were never found, though, and the Wolverines left Michigan Stadium with more rivalry agony against Ohio State.
"We were inches (away), you could reach out and almost just grab it," Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich said Saturday evening before letting out a sigh. "But ... it's just tough."
Michigan lost a two-touchdown first-quarter lead and a six-point third quarter advantage Saturday, as Ohio State — sparked by backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins — notched a 31-20 comeback victory over the Wolverines at Michigan Stadium.
John O'Korn is emotional after the 31-20 loss to Ohio State on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017 at Michigan Stadium. George Sipple, Detroit Free Press
It was Ohio State's sixth straight win in the series and 13th in the past 14 years. Michigan dropped to 8-4 on the year and finished 5-4 in Big Ten play. The Wolverines will now await their bowl assignment.
That bowl will give Michigan once more chance to play together in 2017. But on Saturday, it provided zero consolation. Asked what coach Jim Harbaugh, who fell to 0-3 against Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, told the team after the game, fifth-year senior captain Mike McCray summed up the afternoon with one answer.
"I'm not even going to lie, I was crying," said McCray, whose class will leave without a win over the Buckeyes. "So I don't (remember)."
The afternoon didn't start with tears for Michigan, though, as the Wolverines stunned the favored Buckeyes with a 13-play, 77-yard touchdown march on their second possession of the game. Khalid Hill found the end zone from two yards out to make it 7-0 midway through the first.
Michigan made it 14-0 on the first play of the second quarter after quarterback John O'Korn, who started over injured passers Brandon Peters (concussion) and Wilton Speight (neck/back), hit tight end Sean McKeon for a 3-yard touchdown pass.
The parade of missed opportunities would begin minutes later, though, when sophomore safety Josh Metellus had a sure interception bounce off his hands near Ohio State's goal line. One play later, J.T. Barrett rumbled into the end zone from 21 yards out to stop Michigan's momentum and get the Buckeyes back in it.
"We made a few mistakes offensively, made a few mistakes defensively," Harbaugh said. "We made a few more than they did."
Four minutes later, everything was even after Barrett hit Marcus Baugh on a 25-yard run-pass option play to tie the game.
The Wolverines did have an answer, though, as a 43-yard screen pass to Kekoa Crawford set up a 2-yard touchdown plunge by Karan Higdon at the 7:07 mark of the third quarter to give the Wolverines the lead again.
Missed opportunities appeared again, though, as Quinn Nordin's extra point attempt was blocked.
Ohio State appeared to be headed for a disaster on the following play when Barrett left the game with a knee injury, but Haskins — a redshirt freshman from Maryland — answered the bell. Haskins hit Austin Mack for 27 yards on a third-and-long, then scrambled for 22 yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run from J.K. Dobbins. Ohio State's point after was good, giving the Buckeyes a 21-20 lead with 1:34 to go in the third.
Free Press sports writers Nick Baumgardner, George Sipple and Shawn Windsor discuss Michigan's 31-20 loss to Ohio State on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, in Ann Arbor.
Michigan's offense, plagued by missed throws and incorrect reads all game, would not score again. Haskins, meanwhile, converted six of the first eight third-down attempts he saw. Sean Nuernberger put the Buckeyes up four with a 44-yard field goal early in the fourth, but left the door open after a missed 43-yarder with 2:47 left to play.
The Wolverines' last chance never got started, as O'Korn made the wrong read on a vertical route and threw an interception right into the arms of Jordan Fuller on Michigan's first snap of the drive. Mike Weber finished the scoring with a 25-yard run with 52 seconds left in the game.
"The hardest part for me is just — you come here to win this game and our senior class wasn’t able to do it" said an emotional O'Korn, who went 17-for-32 for 195 yards, one touchdown and one interception. "I hold myself responsible for a lot of that. (It) sucks. I can’t imagine a worse feeling right now."
For Michigan, the loss is the latest sting in a season that seemed to sting too much. The Wolverines have notched their first four-loss season under Harbaugh and continue to struggle against rivals, as Harbaugh is now 1-5 against Michigan State and Ohio State.
The Wolverines faced serious injury situations offensively this season and started 13 players who were sophomores or younger Saturday against the Buckeyes. Still, losses are losses.
And Harbaugh knows things have to improve.
"They're fighters. They work, they don't complain, they don't whine," Harbaugh said. "I love coaching them. That's going to continue. We're going to keep going on the same demanding, punishing path. (We have to) keep improving.
"Keep getting stronger."