COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Jordan Kovacs grew up midway between the combatants in the annual showdown known as "The Game."
Nothing is more painful for a Michigan player — particularly one who grew up just outside Toledo, Ohio — than losing to archrival Ohio State.
Kovacs and the 20th-ranked Wolverines had the lead at halftime and a head of steam. But then couldn't do much right as the No. 4 Buckeyes finished off a perfect 12-0 season with a 26-21 victory on Saturday.
"It's not just about myself," said Kovacs, a former walk-on who stuck with it to earn a scholarship and become a valued starter. "You don't want to come down here and lose. That's about all I've got to say."
On that long, quiet three-hour bus ride back to Ann Arbor, Mich., the Wolverines (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten) will have a lot of plays to dissect and decisions to analyze.
The most obvious plays are the four turnovers — three in the second half to keep them off the scoreboard — which plagued them. Then there was coach Brady Hoke's curious decision to go for it on fourth and 2 near midfield on the opening series of the second half with his team ahead 21-20 and poised to pin the Buckeyes deep with a precise punt.
Instead, Denard Robinson, who rushed for 122 yards on 10 carries but saw the ball only four times for minus-2 yards in the second half, missed a hole and ended up getting snowed under by linebacker Ryan Shazier for a 2-yard loss.
Michigan's defense limited the Buckeyes (12-0, 8-0) to a field goal, but that was enough to give them the lead for good.
"One play can't change the whole game," said Robinson, who took the blame for not moving the chains. "We've got to keep going, catch our momentum. That's just one speed bump in the road."
Yet it's clear that the Wolverines, who had moved the ball all day, never were able to mount much of an attack again.
"It felt pretty good (against their defense)," Hoke said of the play call. "It felt pretty good about getting two first downs off the kickoff. It felt pretty good about the offense, to be honest with you. We say all the time we've got to have each other's back. We didn't get it and (our) defense went out there and did a nice job."
Michigan's defense limited Ohio State's high-powered offense to just two Drew Basil field goals in the second half. But the offense never found traction.
The Wolverines' next possession ended when Robinson fumbled as Ohio State's Christian Bryant hit the ball with his helmet while making a tackle.
They punted the ball away after running three plays on the next two series, then turned it over on first a fumble and then an interception by quarterback Devin Gardner.
"We know the reason we lost the game," said Robinson, who had scored on a 67-yard run in the first half. "We had three turnovers in the second half. That's not acceptable."
Gardner, the other half of Michigan's quarterback tandem, was 11 of 20 for 171 yards with an interception and a 75-yard touchdown pass to Roy Roundtree.
Roundtree spent several minutes with reporters after the game, but the only words he uttered were, "It hurts."
The Buckeyes had already clinched the Big Ten's Leaders Division, but aren't allowed to play in next Saturday's conference title game because of NCAA sanctions which also ban them from playing in a bowl or being considered for a spot in the Bowl Championship Series rankings.
Michigan needed a win to capture a share of the Legends Division with Nebraska, which will meet Wisconsin for the championship.
Now the Wolverines, saddled with their ninth loss in the last 11 meetings with Ohio State, will regroup and try to get ready for a second-tier bowl game.
Hoke's team beat Ohio State 40-34 a year ago.
Now he has a year to think about what went wrong.
"I like the W better," he said. "You start working on the next year (against Ohio State). You start working on the great game at the end of November. You start thinking about what you can do."
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