On a day the Ohio State Buckeyes honored the perfect national champions of 2002 and former players carried Jim Tressel on their shoulders in the end zone, the Buckeyes did it again.
For the sixth time in school history, AP No. 4 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten) has finished a season undefeated, but the final game certainly wasn’t pretty. It took three second-half turnovers by the defense, and a heaping dose of junior Carlos Hyde on the last drive, but the Buckeyes held on for a gritty 26-21 victory over their archrivals AP No. 20 Michigan (8-4, 6-2 Big Ten).
The first half was sloppy, high-scoring and filled with big plays. The second half was again sloppy, yet dominated by defenses and missed opportunities by the Buckeyes. In the end, all that matters is a victory and a spotless 2012 for OSU.
This ended Simon’s collegiate playing career, one in which he emerged as the heart and soul of OSU’s defense. Already in store for a difficult matchup against Michigan’s versatile offense, this was certainly set to be a factor.
But then when the game actually kicked off, it was about as a good a start one could possible expect. Three straight solid runs by Hyde opened up the big-play as Braxton Miller found Devin Smith on a 52-yard completion. A short pass and another Hyde run later, the Buckeyes had a quick 7-0 lead with as dominating an offense as we had seen in overtime against the Badgers.
Although the ensuing kick went out of bounds and Denard Robinson broke off a 38-yard run, Ohio State came through on third down. Adolphus Washington picked up the sack and strip, as Zach Boren fell on the football for the recovery.
The Buckeyes then punted back to Michigan and on a third-and-2 play, Devin Gardner found Roy Roundtree down the right sideline for a huge gain. Not only did C.J. Barnett blow the coverage, but he remained out of position as he was blocked all the way down the field for the 75-yard touchdown reception to tie the score at 7.
Penalties marred the next OSU possession, forcing Drew Basil to begin his big day with a 41-yard field goal make just before the end of the first quarter. Michigan punted not long into their next drive because of an offensive pass interference, but then Philly Brown muffed the return while the Buckeyes also ran into the kicker on the play, giving back a huge opportunity for their rials from up north.
Another key penalty — this time a roughing the passer call on third down — helped the Wolverines get close and Gardner snuck it in from the 1 to give the rivals their first lead in Columbus in six years.
Two drives later, when Ohio State got the ball back again, Hyde drove the ball forward for three first downs of his own, then Miller found Philly again, who sneaked into the end zone to bring the Buckeyes back on top at 17-14.
With the clock ticking under two minutes, it first appeared that Michigan would simply play conservatively and run out the second half. That certainly appeared to be the case when Robinson ran on the first play and Michigan slowly moved into formation for their second down play. But then Denard broke off several tackles, including a combined one by two Buckeye defenders, to give the Wolverines their eventual final score of the day on an incredible 67-yard TD run.
That run, that very Denard-like run in that it seemed almost impossible and certainly improbable, appeared to suck the life out of the Buckeyes. Miraculously, after a decent return and a quick 30-yard drive, Basil again came through in the clutch with a 52-yard kick to bring the Buckeyes within one at 21-20 at halftime.
Michigan had run all over the Ohio State D, with big plays and significant doses of Denard, and they were then getting the ball back to start the second half. Urban Meyer and his crew would have to make significant adjustments to stop the dangerous Wolverine attack, and that’s exactly what the Buckeyes were able to do in the final 30 minutes.
First four drives of the second half for both teams? Fourth-down stop at midfield, field goal make, fumble by Denard, field goal miss by Basil. The Buckeyes were back in charge and led 23-21, but after what Michigan did in the first half, it felt at all times like this game was just one play away from being flipped upside down. There was possibly some controversy surrounding Brady Hoke’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-short so early in the game, but it still seemed just like a matter of time before Michigan’s offense got rolling again anyway. It wouldn’t happen.
Ryan Shazier stopped them again on third down on the next drive. The Buckeyes drove quickly to near-midfield because of a 40-yard run by Braxton, leading the game to the pivotal fourth quarter. The pace was slowing down tremendously, so some long, plodding drives would potentially secure a victory for Meyer in his first Michigan game.
That’s not what happened at all, despite a quick timeout in the first minute of the fourth. The Buckeyes looked confused and uncertain, as Braxton was sacked and fumbled, sending the ball back again on a sloppy play. But again: A pivotal third-down stop on a UM running play upended any change in momentum to a team that entered the game converting 52% of third-downs, top-five in the nation.
Ohio State’s offense failed to convert again on the opportunity of a nice start to a drive, as two bad snaps led to a poor third and long incomplete pass. Ben Buchanan, OSU’s punter, pinned the Wolverines deep. They picked up just their third first down of the second half on a Bradley Roby pass interference call, but then the D-line forced a huge fumble yet again, as Johnathan Hankins stepped up to contribute in his likely final game in the scarlet and gray.
Starting at the opposing 10-yard line, this was the opportunity for the Buckeyes to move up by two scores and put the game out of reach. Hyde picked up half of those yards, but again the Buckeyes stalled deep and Basil stepped up to make a 25-yard field goal and provide for the final touch to the 26-21 margin.
Now, with 6:26 remaining, this game was potentially shaping up to be just like any other Cleveland Browns football game. Michigan had one final shot for a potential game-winning drive, and a touchdown would give them the lead. Bryant broke up two early quick plays, but the Wolverines finally managed to pick up a third down. Then, after a holding forced an extra ounce of desperation, CJ Barnett corralled an interception near midfield to start diving the dagger into the heart of Michigan.
Hyde picked up the pivotal ensuing first on a third-and-7, then plowed through for gains of 6 and 5 yards to secure the final necessary first down and the game.
Meyer improved to 1-0 against Michigan in front of the all-time dominator of the Wolverines, Tressel, who went 9-1 in his 10 seasons in Columbus. And although many will point to Tressel’s awkward appearance with the ’02 team and say he was the reason for this team being ineligible for the BCS, it sure was a very emotional sight to see.
And as much as that was a nod to the old vest-wearing Tressel, the Buckeyes defense really did their best John Simon comparison in the second half. Simon had blood and sweat and black eye paint all over his body almost every game, and that was very similar to the gritty style of defense the Buckeyes played in the second half.
In the end, Michigan had 108 yards rushing, but 122 of those yards were by Robinson — yes, the rest of the team had -14 yards — and 97 of those yards were on two big runs. The Wolverines struggled on third downs, couldn’t get anything in the second half and lost for the sixth straight time in Columbus.
Hyde finished with 146 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown — another stellar performance in a row — while Miller was at least efficient through the air in going 14-for-18 for 189 yards and the other TD.
It was a classic bend-not-break performance by the 2012 Buckeyes, who through thick and thin and sanctions, will never have their 12-0 undefeated crown and phenomenal rivalry victory stripped away from them.
Jacob Rosen is a long-time contributor to WaitingForNextYear. He's also a writer online at SportsAnalyticsBlog and Nylon Calculus . An Akron native, Jacob is a current MBA student at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. You can follow him on Twitter @WFNYJacob or e-mail him at udjrosen(at)gmail(dot)com.