We heard the cautioning words before the game. We were told you can throw the records out in this best of all rivalries. Michigan specifically has ended the national title hopes of many Buckeye squads of seasons past. The Buckeyes’ defense has been suspect against lesser conference opponents this season. All of this culminated in a ready-made upset stunner, but the Buckeyes on the legs of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde and the ability to make one key defensive play at the end of the game, Ohio outlasted That Team Up North in a 42-41 instant classic thriller. I’m still sitting in my recliner in my living room trying to lower my blood pressure and slow my breathing.
Our own Rick Grayshock’s favorite thing to talk about is momentum, aka “Uncle Mo”. Well, that crazy uncle was all over the place today. This game had all of the anxiety from the Buckeye perspective of the punch-for-punch 42-39 gold standard from 2006 when the teams were ranked No. 1 and 2. The only difference was that only Ohio State was playing with anything to lose. Needing style points to prevent a 1-loss SEC school from having any chance to jump them in the BCS standings should the Buckeyes get some help above them for it to matter, the Buckeyes got none. Instead, they DID keep their hopes at a title game trip alive at the bare minimum, they DID extend their school-record win streak to 24 games, and they DID earn their 12th win against Michigan in the last 14 tries as Urban Meyer moved to 2-0 in The Game.
Michigan started the game incredibly strong, exploiting Ohio State’s suspect defense from the very first drive. Devin Gardner, who turned arguably his best performance of the season, threw a screen pass to Jeremy Gallon, and he did the heavy lifting, taking it 84 yards down to the 2-yard line. Two plays later, Gardner ran it in to give Michigan the early lead. Doran Grant got absolutely blown up on the play, and it took Bradley Roby chasing Gallon down to prevent the score on that play. On the second drive, the key play was a 37-yard strike to Jake Butt over the middle of the field as C.J. Barnett lost coverage on the tight end. Fitzgerald Toussaint ran it in from 4 yards out for Michigan’s second score. On drive three, Gardner eviscerated the OSU secondary on three passes to Butt (27 yards), Funchess (22), and Gallon (17 and the touchdown). In a little over a quarter, Michigan had amassed more offensive yards than they had in the entirety of three of their losses. The Silver Bullets weren’t getting any pressure up front, and the back seven looked outright horrific, leaving receivers wide open as they missed assignment after assignment and tackle after tackle.
As they have done all season, however, the Buckeye offense matched the opponent point-for-point. Tom Herman’s play-calling was unbelievably aggressive early, having Braxton Miller load up several deep passes in all types of down and distance. Miller missed on a few, but he did connect on a great catch by Devin Smith for a 53-yard TD to tie the game at 7. He followed that up by breaking one up the middle of the defense like only he can, sprinting for another 53-yard touchdown. It was one of those classic Braxton runs where you can see the defense has an angle, yet it doesn’t matter 10 yards past the line of scrimmage as nobody catches Braxton in the open field. The Buckeyes trailed for most of the second quarter 21-14, but with Michigan receiving the second half kickoff, the Bucks were able to march down the field with 2:33 remaining and tie the game at 21 heading into the half. After a 13-yard run by Hyde, Miller found his tight end Jeff Heuerman for a 37-yard gain before throwing to Chris Fields for another first and then running in his second score of the day from 21 yards out. Getting back to even before the break in a half that Michigan had truly won was huge psychologically.
In that first quarter, there was a heated scuffle on an Ohio State kickoff return, far from a rarity through the years. Freshman return speedster Dontre Wilson was tackled on the play and surrounded by five or six Wolverines who baited him into retaliation. A street fight ensued, and after it was all sorted out, Ohio State lost Wilson and starting right guard Marcus Hall while Michigan lost fill-in linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone to ejections. It’s hard to argue that Wilson was baited and rightfully retaliated as his helmet was ripped off, throwing punches wildly. Hall came off of the sidelines, and left with the double middle-finger salute to the Michigan crowd after slamming his helmet down and kicking a bench. Ohio State lost that battle on personnel and by getting baited into it by the underdog, but it may have gotten the adrenaline flowing which was desperately needed.
The OSU defense after those first three touchdown drives buckled it down a bit, allowing no more points in the second quarter, forcing a three-and-out punt on the opening drive of the half, and then forcing their first turnover of the game. Gardner ran with the ball and fell to his knees, just as Armani Reeves was putting his shoulder into the ball. The call was ruled a fumble and then confirmed, though in my opinion, the call should not have been confirmed and rather “stood” as called on the field as it was too close to overturn either way. The short field allowed Ohio State to take their first lead of the game after a crucial 33-yard scamper by Hyde was followed a few plays later by Miller’s third rushing score of the contest. The defensive line, which had been whisper quiet against a suspect Michigan offensive line, started getting pressure from Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, and the linebackers (Shazier and Joshua Perry) made some plays.
Michigan followed that OSU drive up with an extended drive of their own, getting all the way down to the 14-yard line. On 4th & 2, Michigan went for it and turned it over on downs. OSU took the ball, punched in a touchdown, and looked to be getting a handle on the game at 35-21 as the game entered the fourth quarter. Runs from Hyde, Miller, and Hall set up a 22-yard pass down the middle of the defense for Heuerman, who scored and grabbed his second big catch in the game.
Give Michigan credit, though, because they didn’t go away quietly. Gardner led them right back down the field despite being hobbled by an apparently ankle injury. It culminated with finding Drew Dileo for a 11-yard strike with 11 minutes to play. It was okay, though, because all Ohio State had to do was keep moving the ball, chew a few minutes off the clock, and just put even three points on the board to all but seal it. Except that’s not what happened. Carlos Hyde on the second play of the drive fought for extra yards, putting him over 200 yards rushing for the game. But, the ball squirted out and Michigan recovered in Ohio State territory. You could feel the tide turn, and 13 plays and about 5:30 later, Michigan tied the game on a 2-yard toss to Butt in the end zone.
Carlos Hyde, set to put his name next to Beanie Wells in the hall of great Michigan performances of this era, did get his redemption. With five minutes remaining, the Buckeyes moved the ball down the field against Michigan’s D with relative ease as Braxton broke off a huge run along the left side for 32 yards, Philly Brown ran a 12-yard sweep, and Hyde added four runs for 21 yards that included a challenged play that ended up at the 1-yard line on his stretch for the goal line. Hyde followed it up with a 1-yard punch-in to give OSU the lead with 2:20 to play. I immediately thought “there’s too much time left”. I was right.
The clock kept ticking, but the ball kept advancing for the Wolverines. The Bucks were giving it up in small chunks, but a sack of Gardner back at the Ohio State 40 with 50 seconds left looked to stop the bleeding for a moment, forcing Michigan to call their second timeout. After a 9-yard completion on 2nd & 17, the Buckeyes brought the house on third down, and they got burned. Screen passes have plagued the Bucks all season long, and in this scenario, I have no idea why the defensive coordinators chose to bring it all. The screen pass to Toussaint got UM down to the 2 yard line. After a spike, Gardner threw it to Devin Funchess for the touchdown.
Without his number one kicker and with the presumed inability to stop the Buckeye offense in an overtime scenario, Brady Hoke had a choice to make. With 32 seconds on the clock, Hoke chose to go for two and the win instead of facing another overtime game (Michigan had 2 games with a total of 7 overtimes this season). Postgame, linebacker Tyvis Powell said that the Buckeyes and secondary coach Kerry Coombs had the Michigan two-point play sniffed out. Powell cut in front of the pass intended for Drew Dileo and picked it off just outside of the goal line to secure the win. I give Hoke credit as the heavy underdog for making that call in that situation. Michigan had kicking woes with their number one kicker in overtimes, and having that unique situation where you can determine your own fate that close to overtime is a tough decision. Luckily, the Buckeyes were better on that one play, and it was enough to avoid a colossal upset and awake ghosts of national title runs extinguished past.
Gardner threw for an unbelievable 451 yards and 4 touchdowns, running for a fifth. The Buckeyes struggled to cover the smaller Gallon all day long as he amassed 9 catches for 175 yards and one touchdown. Michigan had five receivers with 40+ yards receiving (Dileo, Funchess, Toussaint, and Butt). They were also able to run the ball for 152, after only gaining 130 yards on their last 138 rushes. For the Buckeyes, Hyde ran for more yards than any other back against Michigan with 225 on the ground and 1 touchdown. Miller matched Gardner by accounting for 5 total touchdowns, but 3 of his 5 were on the ground. Miller connected on just 6-of-15 passes (throwing only TWO passes in the 2nd half) for 133 yards and 1 interception with a couple of drops mixed in. But, Miller ran for 153 yards on 16 carries as he made things happen after dropping back as he almost always does. Defense being a mere rumor throughout, this game had a combined 1129 total yards, 54 first downs, and 83 points.
Take out the 23-point loss to Michigan State and the Wolverines have lost their other four games by a combined 11 points. This was not your average 4-loss Michigan team today. They played so far and above their average output, but that’s what you can get in rivalry games with good coaching. Gardner largely avoided mistakes, they ran the ball, and they won the turnover battle (the failed two-point try though caught by Powell doesn’t count as a true interception or turnover).
So, Ohio State survives another week with their hopes of Pasadena’s second game in tact. They’ll face the Spartans in Indianapolis next Saturday night. In between now and then, they’ll need help from either Auburn, Missouri or South Carolina, or Duke in order to get in the title game even with a win. For now, I’ll take comfort in the fact that I’ve only had to see the Buckeyes lose to Michigan once since I became a Buckeye in 2006. 24 wins, two straight regular seasons undefeated, is nothing to diminish no matter what the conference’s alleged strength is.
(Photo: Eamon Queeney/Columbus Dispatch)