Ohio State-Michigan. Michigan-Ohio State. No matter how you say it, the words strung together strike college football fans deeply. If you’re a partisan, you understand from deep within. If you’re a B1G hater, you’re still passionately pulling for the underdog in your own inner quest to delegitimize anything that threatens your personal rooting agenda. Inspiring passion from within and without, from unflinching devotees to unapologetic haters, the rivalry is as luscious and filling as the holiday season it has adorned for most of eighty years.
2013 gave us the most perfectly cooked and served edition of them all. Incredibly, Saturday’s 42-41 Ohio State victory in Anna Arbor is only the second one point win by either team—the first (a Michigan win) occurred in the leather hatted era of the Coolidge Administration. Befitting perhaps the greatest game in perhaps the greatest of rivalries, this edition had epic heroic acts, epic lapses in judgment, and combined output and excitement that would have made “point a minute” Fielding Yost proud.
While we (Ohio State fans) may have feigned glee that Michigan had ceased to be a serious rival, we actually feared that might be true. And the silence of most of our Michigan friends leading up to the game deepened our fears because it seemed they also were starting to question their ability to stay relevant. So let’s acknowledge the heroic act of the Michigan Wolverines in emphatically stating that predictions be damned, the rivalry is a living beast of its own not in need of records and previous achievements to validate its brilliance.
Michigan football is born and bred of a university and athletic department of high distinction. The automobile industry that fueled the evolution of this great institution might be waning in southern Michigan but its progeny of higher learning continues to thrive. And as a program, Michigan football has great players, great coaches and great pride. The 2013 results have been discouraging, though frankly, that is often deceiving. Think to last year and how easily one might suggest an undefeated Buckeye team could have lost to Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan and even Indiana. Think how many times an SEC powerhouse has escaped more than a few close calls—indeed it happens almost weekly. True, Michigan could have also lost to Akron and UConn, but with a little more chemistry, with fewer injuries, with a little better coaching, they could have won all their games, with the possible exception of MSU (remember how embarrassing we thought their loss to Penn State was? Wisconsin, true winner of its contest with a PAC 12 championship game contender, begs to differ). But a great program, with great coaches and players, is always a danger—that it can right itself so that all its resources function in sync: and what better instrument for accomplishing this than a rivalry game.
Two of the most maligned of Michigan’s 2013 actors showed up to excel Satruday, quarterback Devin Gardner and offensive coordinator Al Borges. I cannot recall a quarterback performance as gutsy and effective in The Game as the one put on by Gardner. He hit pinpoint passes, made nearly flawless split second judgments, burst out of tackles and, hobbled badly by hits late in the game, for half the game kept the Buckeye defense as helpless witnesses to his mastery. Hurt only by receiver drops and the occasional penalty or sack, Gardner spun his magic on a green canvas under a brilliant sun for the world to see. Recent game experience had not suggested any such performance was likely, but on this day at least, Coach Hoke would have been right to bench Johnny Manziel in favor of Devin Gardner.
And Al Borges? Who kidnapped that man and what have you done with him? And can you hang onto him awhile? From a mistake prone offense which generated a less effective running game than the distance covered by Bo spinning in his grave in horror (someone else’s line, not mine, though I cannot recall who) to what we saw on Saturday is the biggest trick play of all. The game plan presented was nothing Ohio State could have fully prepared for. The Wolverines caught the Buckeyes in over-pursuit all day, using option reads, spreads, misdirections and screens to devastating effectiveness. The early passing strikes kept Ohio State from crowding the box, opening up the running game (of all things!) and allowing the Michigan offense to gash the Ohio State defense for 303 yards and 21 points in the first half alone. Also, one of the most noticeable weapons of the Michigan arsenal was the exploitation of space, often on a delayed basis, by the tight ends. One has a feeling Borges learned a few things from the Ohio State Iowa game.
Unfortunately for Les Blue, they could never shake Ohio State, who on offense could only be stopped by themselves. QB Braxton Miller started slowly, missing open receivers badly. In fact, incredibly he only completed six passes all day. But Michigan simply had no answer for the Ohio State running game, which has exactly eleven parts—four parts Carlos Hyde, three parts Braxton Miller, three parts dominating offensive line and one part receivers who express as much satisfaction with run blocking as with pass catching (just watch some of the power hits chief enforcer Evan Spencer and his boys make on run plays).
The first half had about as beautiful a rhythm as a college football game has ever produced. After Braxton misfired on the opening series, Gardner and receiver Jeremy Gallon swiftly drove 99 yards for the opening score. OSU receiver Devin Smith responded with an incredible stretch and catch for a touchdown on a vertical Braxton bomb. Employing misdirections and options, and shrugging off a kickoff return touchdown by lightly recruited Dennis Norfleet which was called back by penalty, Michigan marched right back down the field to reclaim a 14-7 lead. In turn, Braxton promptly responded with a juking sprint of a 53-yard run in which he propelled himself the last ten yards off a stiff arm to the face of the pursuing would be tackler.
In a drive that started in the first quarter and ended early in the second and that featured long run gains, a big reverse direction screen, a touchdown pass to Gallon and the punctuation of a leaping Devin Funchess, the Maize and Blue harvested yet another bountiful go ahead score. The ensuing kickoff set off some of the ugliest moments in the 110 years of the rivalry (much more on that below), though from a game standpoint, the only noticeable result was that Ohio State rode behind Carlos Hyde (and two very nice throws up the middle to Jeff Heuerman, one going for a touchdown) to score twenty-one unanswered points to seemingly take control of the game into the fourth period—that is correct—despite Michigan’s new found offensive proficiency, the Ohio State defense, powered mostly by Ryan Shazier, actually held Michigan at bay for almost half the game—something that in retrospect just does not seem to have been possible. At the same time, the Ohio State offense was simply unstoppable–OSU coach Tom Herman was certainly still the equal of the rejuvenated Borges–or whoever that was in his place. Miller and Hyde ran for almost 400 yards between them and Michigan had no answer—a fact that would play heavily in the final decisive moments. Miller also accounted for a startling five touchdowns, adding another spectacular run aided by a collision between two lumbering Michigan defenders.
Finally, starting with a minute to go in the third quarter, the Michigan offense put the jo back into its new found mojo. Aided by a defensive hold on a poorly thrown ball, Gardner limped and willed his team down the field with the able assistance of Ohioan Fitz Toussant. On a third down at the Ohio State twenty-two and knowing that without their field goal kicker able to suit up it was two down territory, Gardner fired a bullet to Pickerington’s Jake Butt, which led to a later cat-like scramble by Gardner who pulled up at the last moment to lob a touchdown pass to a wide open and healthy Drew Dileo. The Wolverines had burrowed to within a touchdown.
Only a touchdown lead? No problem Buckeye fans. When Wisconsin reeled its game with Ohio State back into contention, when Northwestern led deep into the second half, when Iowa had bloodied Ohio State’s face at home in the first half, it was always, like, OK, well, time to release the Kracken, er Carlos Hyde. The Ohio State win is inevitable. And on command, the formula has worked to perfection. So it would this time, right? To beat Ohio State, you must stop Hyde. They did, sort of. At the end of a long would be first down run, Big C turned his back to the turf and churned his legs to push past the chains as the ball escaped his grasp and tantalizingly floated in the direction of OSU receiver Evan Spencer who was helpless in his attempt to get in position to snare it before it ended up safely deep within the belly of a Wolverine.
Game on for real now. Funchess dropped a certain touchdown at the goal line on a long second down throw at the start the series. Then Gardner, faking a pass and limping escaped for a long third down conversion. A subsequent third and twelve conversion on a bullet to Gallon preceded first a near goal line interception by redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell, and then a third down touchdown pass to a towering Jake Butt. Tie game.
Inevitability does seem so real sometimes, doesn’t it? OK, The Carlos answer didn’t work as planned the last time, but that can be chalked up to, you know, sometimes things happen. After yet another patented long juking long run by Miller got the ball to the Wolverine 33 (with a little Philly Brown run mixed in for spice), Hyde took over, scoring on a confused looking run up the middle. Inevitable.
But Ohio State was too efficient. Their strike was so compelling and so direct, that rather than even thinking of slowing it down to chew up the rest of the clock before taking the lead, the Buckeyes drove right through leaving two minutes twenty on the clock for Michigan, which did not disappoint. Absorbing big hits on nearly every play, Gardner took what the defense gave him and methodically passed his team down the field. Undeterred by a sack in Buckeye territory, Gardner hit a Borges called misdirection screen that preceded a Funchess two yard touchdown grab. Overtime, right?
Future generations of Buckeye fans will continue to be overjoyed by what happened next. Future generations of Wolverine fans are unlikely to feel the same way. Seeing only the loss and not realizing the confirming and rejuvenating effect the current generation of Wolverine fans must feel, they will turn the pages on this game much like Buckeye fans do of the 1950 Snow Bowl—which inspired the all-white Ohio State uniforms worn on Saturday.
Starting that sequence, however it may be enjoyed by any generation past or present, but which will forever garner the love/respect of Michigan/OSU fans, Coach Hoke stuck out two stubby fingers. With 32 seconds left, Brady was going for the win, not a mere tie. The choice was inevitable really. Hoke had no reliable field goal kicker and in overtime such a handicap is a severe blow (he had earlier in the game called a timeout a split second before the backup up field goal kicker sailed a thirty yard kick wide right—Michigan then went for it in an unsuccessful fourth and two attempt when they came out of the timeout). And what is more, Michigan could not stop the Ohio State running game no matter what the circumstance. The call was thus made inevitable by the inevitability of the alternative, but kudos to a coach with the sense of the moment and skin thick enough to do what is required even knowing erstwhile critics would crucify him in hindsight if he failed.
From the Ohio State point of view, with only one timeout, and possibly needing that timeout to march 70 yards or so for a winning field goal, there was no hesitation spending it after Michigan had lined up—for those wondering, Michigan ran a three stack of receivers from the right side, the third being Dileo who came in motion from the left. Perhaps Michigan can be faulted for a lapse of creativity here—they actually ran the same formation out of the timeout as they showed before—but not looking a gift horse in the mouth, Ohio State was ready. Tyvis Powell, who nearly ended the game the series before, was pulled aside in the timeout by defensive back coach Kerry Coombs to be told exactly what Michigan would be doing. As the play unfolded and as Gardner drilled the pass to a waiting Dileo, Powell stepped in front for the winning interception thinking all the while “Coach Coombs is a genius.” A Bradley Roby onside kick recovery set off a relief and celebration still beating in the heart of every Buckeye. For the players, that joy kept on giving as they watched (on the bus ride to Columbus) Auburn pull a victory from the jaws of defeat that now has the Buckeyes sitting in position to play for a national championship if they complete the mission this following Saturday with a win over Michigan State in the B1G title game.
The Saturday that was, is indeed a Saturday of epic heroics and epic lapses in judgment. Ohio State, heroic in victory, will probably also bear the stain of the most significant of the unfortunate lapses thanks to the image of Marcus Hall with two middle fingers defiantly extended to the Michigan faithful as he left the stadium after his ejection for his part in the second quarter brawl (but we can all laugh at the joke being passed around—again, the original speaker is unknown to me—why did Marcus flip two fingers? Because he couldn’t flip three). But in reality, the stain is all on Michigan—I am sad to say. Marring what was an inspiring and rejuvenating performance by our most respected adversaries up north were a few acts of ugly bad faith.
The brawl that sent Marcus to the showers took place in the aftermath of Dontre Wilson’s kickoff return following Michigan’s score to go up 21-14 (fyi Todd Blackledge, it is Dontre Wilson, not Dontrelle Willis). Kickoff returns are not for polite society and this one was no different. Dontre was pulled down in a legal but jarring pull on his pads. It was awkward, but there was nothing to suggest Dontre was troubled by it. But before he could even bounce up, a rather clear and tight pack of Wolverine defenders had encircled Wilson—NINE OF THEM. That is right, nine Michigan players not only quickly converged to encircle Wilson, they tightened the circle as unsuspecting Noah Spence and Jeff Heuerman went about their business outside the circle. Wilson was tripped as he tried to get up—either by the Wolverine in front of him or by the one right behind him. Still there is nothing to suggest Wilson was upset, but the circle tightened even more. There was no menacing reaction from Wilson at all until Michigan freshman safety Jeremy Clark blasted his palm into Wilson’s face. At that point Wilson resisted while the pack tightened and Heuerman and Spence tried to intervene. Soon enough a Michigan player forcefully removed Wilson’s helmet and all hell was breaking loose.
Looking at the footage over and over again, it is very hard to conclude anything other than that the Michigan players were the determined and probably purposeful aggressors. Given the incredibly exposed position Wilson was in and the clear abuse he was taking, I cannot imagine teammates would not rush to his defense. Most Ohio State players were acting as peace makers but one can certainly understand the reflexive instinct to come defend a guy who was so clearly being mugged. Few red-blooded men would do otherwise (no sexism intended–not a woman alive who would put up with that either). And nine people around Wilson closed in quickly and purposefully. Now I realize this was not a knife fight and that Wilson had protective gear on—the most important part of which was forcibly removed—but this was clearly over the top and unacceptable aggression. It is also hard to conclude this was anything but a pre-meditated set-up. I don’t want to believe that. There was so much of what Michigan did that day that I embrace and truly do admire and congratulate them for. But nine guys, in that close, that quickly, seemingly moving to their respective siege posts with purpose, and clearly provoking the fight and initiating the worst kind of contact. It was all that they intended. Ohio State may bear the visible brunt because of two extended fingers, but the University of Michigan should be forever ashamed of the footage that suggests a different and cowardly allocation of the shame.
If the act was intentional, it is hard to say what effect it had. As mentioned, Ohio State went on to score the next 21 points, but Michigan still could have won the game with the kind of luck that seems to regularly evade them. Perhaps their intent was to get Ohio State players disqualified under the theory that referees never really punish the instigators because they don’t know what has occurred until well after a melee starts. Well Ohio State certainly did suffer a 2-1 ejection disadvantage, including to the explosive Wilson, and of course starting guard Hall. But the OSU offense never missed a beat, so from that perspective, nice try Blue but your defense would have to do what it clearly could not, all on its own. One could cynically say a defensive ejection would not have mattered given how effective the Michigan offense often was, but as also mentioned above, OSU did hold the Michigan offense scoreless for a complete half of football. Alas, Tyvis Powell was not on the kick return—unfortunately for Michigan their one attempt at dastardliness (if indeed that is what it was) could not have yielded the result that could have ultimately helped them unless Powell, like Hall, would have ventured from the bench to get himself tossed. But, Powell was still standing at the end to intercept a Michigan toss of another kind, and with it their hopes of an upset.
The other embarrassing episode for Michigan was Taylor Lewan trying to accomplish with his mouth after the game what he could not during—i.e., deny Ohio State a shot at the national title (by the way Taylor, you’re right and the nation agrees—Ohio State is not the number three team—it is the number two team, so smoke on that). Lewan played by all appearances a solid game. Joey Bosa did not enjoy the unfettered romp he usually does, though Bosa, as a freshman certainly held his own against a fifth year senior All American, leaving Lewan incredibly embarrassed and goofy looking on several occasions and participating in some sack action. But Lewan continues to demonstrate why many of the most ardent of Michigan fans themselves have tired of his boorish behavior. They must cringe at the thought of this guy claiming to be a Michigan Man. Things get devalued. Confederate currency, disco, the Macarena, even Facebook. And if Taylor Levan is anyone’s image of a Michigan Man, then what cache the self bestowed appellation might have once had amongst the faithful is now how others feel about MySpace. Michigan fans would be do well to point out that Lewan is more @FloridaMan (twitter) than he is Michigan Man.
The suggestion was that Michigan is oh so close to greatness. That with little more than luck, a 7-5 Michigan season is not all that different from a 12-0 Ohio State season. But of course the gulf is as wide as it appears tantalizingly close. Those who win and do it consistently say luck has little to do with consistent winning. That luck, in fact is for losers. Winning is a skill which is in substantial part art, and in substantial part state of mind. Michigan proved in breathtakingly beautiful style that they have certain of the key ingredients to cross the divide to greatness. Until they actually do so however, and win games within their grasp, they will remain in that agonizing void of unfulfilled potential. Few thought this Michigan team could even think such thoughts. They didn’t win, but on this Saturday they showed how close they just might be. The question is, can they completely develop the particular set of skills that winners have. As for the Buckeyes, life projects their command of their unique art. This team shows a smartness, a uniqueness, a confidence that it can adjust its game and deal with adversity in whatever form it is served. They may or may not end up as the best team or even have a chance to prove they are. They do not court the edge of disaster like so many Tressel teams did, but with a bullseye on their back every week, they absorb the best shot, even one from their talented rival, refuse to be taken down and to the happiness of fans and almost disgust of non-fans, exercise their particular set of skills. Yes, Brady made the right decision going for two and hoping for the win. You get the sense Urban was content to see the game come down to one play as well–the difference being he just might have had the greater confidence his Buckeyes would find the way to win.