Every college football coaching hire is supposed to have an animating idea behind it: This coach is an offensive maestro, or he majors in stout defense, or he’s an ace recruiter, or he’s a perfect fit for the university’s “culture,” whatever that means. When Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh after the 2014 season, there were two animating ideas. First, he was a Michigan Man to his core, a former Wolverines quarterback who had maize and blue in his blood and was coming home to make good after an eventful but doomed stint with the San Francisco 49ers. Second, he knew how to coach a physical, ground-based brand of football that the school had won with in the 1980s. When Harbaugh took the job, he didn’t sell a vision of beating Ohio State with a high-flying spread passing game.
For six years, the Harbaugh plan didn’t work. He lost his first five games to Ohio State, and the Wolverines sputtered in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season that didn’t even include The Game, which got canceled due to a COVID outbreak inside the Michigan team. Harbaugh never won the Big Ten East, let alone the whole conference, and his biggest moments were painful losses to a rival that was now more like a big brother.
This year, the plan worked, both leading up to the Ohio State game and for four quarters on Saturday. There were hints from the first drive, when Michigan drove 75 yards in 10 plays, most of them on the ground, to score the game’s first points. There were moments en route to Michigan’s 42-27 dragon-slaying of the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor when Ohio State seemed on the verge of doing what it always does against the Wolverines. But if you watched on Saturday, you probably had your own moment when you realized this time would be different. For me, it came on Michigan’s first drive of the second half, when they were clinging to a one-point lead. The first play was a 13-yard Blake Corum run. The second was a 55-yard Corum run. The third was a 13-yard Hassan Haskins run, which ended with a guard, an H-back, and a wide receiver escorting him into the end zone against a helpless defense to cap a three-play, 81-yard, all-run touchdown drive. Ohio State simply got bullied.
Ohio State’s wheels fell off a little bit later. Michigan’s defense got a stop, and then the Wolverines force-fed the Buckeyes even more Haskins on another touchdown drive. OSU’s Cameron Brown took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty the play before that Michigan score, which didn’t much affect the outcome (given the field position, it was a one-yard penalty), but his frustration was illustrative on its own. Michigan receiver Roman Wilson, meanwhile, simply waved the Buckeyes DB off the field. (The entire Michigan team did essentially the same thing when the teams almost fought in the bowels of Michigan Stadium at halftime.) A past iteration of Michigan would’ve taken a 15-yard penalty and then thrown an interception. This team just stayed chill and plunged in for a routine touchdown, while Ohio State looked disheveled all afternoon. The Buckeyes took five false-start penalties and had a range of exchange problems on both snaps and handoffs.
More than anything else, the game was a tour de force by Michigan’s offensive linemen. Ohio State’s recruiting dominance means it will always have the most talent on the field, but Michigan’s big hosses up front won the game. Left tackle Ryan Hayes, left guard Trevor Keegan, center Andrew Vastardis, right guard Zak Zinter, and right tackle Andrew Steuber were magnificent in paving the way for six rushing touchdowns (five by Haskins) and 297 yards on 41 carries (a 7.2-yard average) while allowing no sacks.
As Ohio State won every game in this series but one since 2004, either the Buckeyes or circumstance always threw something at Michigan that the Wolverines couldn’t handle. Perhaps the best example was a razor-thin fourth-down call in the Buckeyes’ favor in 2016, leading immediately to Michigan allowing a game-losing touchdown run. There were plenty of moments on Saturday that could have unraveled Harbaugh’s team in a similar fashion: an ugly, early interception from the right hand of Cade McNamara, several absurd catches by Ohio State receivers Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and Michigan’s defense giving up three of three fourth-down conversion attempts in the second half to let the Buckeyes hang around, before finally getting a stop to end the game. But every time Ohio State punched, Michigan punched back harder.
The Wolverines did it the way Harbaugh always envisioned: by pounding the crap out of an increasingly exhausted Ohio State defense. A lasting image of The Game in 2021 should be Ohio State’s star safety, Ronnie Hickman, standing with his hands on his hips while Michigan kicked an extra point after Haskins’ fourth of five TDs. Michigan’s linemen and backs had grinded Ohio State’s four- and five-star defense into dust. And the Wolverines never relented, closing the game out with a five-play, 63-yard touchdown drive that consisted of five Haskins carries. On the last one, Ohio State just let him into the end zone to save time.
The Michigan defense hung on by a thread for most of the day. But holding Ohio State to 27 points and 5.8 yards per play was its own herculean job. Wolverine defensive end/outside linebacker Aidan Hutchinson had his 11th, 12th, and 13th sacks of the year, breaking LaMarr Woodley’s record for the most in the history of a school that’s had a lot of prolific pass-rushers. Harbaugh hyped Hutchinson for the Heisman Trophy after the game, and he wasn’t off base. If that award weren’t de-facto reserved for offensive stars, Hutchinson would have a hell of a case. So might his pass-rushing teammate David Ojabo, who was a force on his own.
Hutchinson can add to his body of work, because Michigan plays in the Big Ten Championship next week. The 2021 Wolverines may or may not keep growing their legend from here––winning national titles is hard––but they’re a game away from a certain College Football Playoff berth and are at worst ticketed for a New Year’s Six bowl. If Michigan fans want to dream big, it feels reasonable to imagine that line play of this caliber would give the Wolverines as good a chance as anyone against No. 1 Georgia. And if they’d rather just live in this moment for a day, a week, or a year, there’s nothing to prevent that either. College football’s real beauty sometimes comes in killing demons, and Michigan just buried the scariest one of all.