Sports

Michigan Has Turned the Ohio State Rivalry On Its Head

Three Michigan players in the end zone celebrate
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy celebrates after scoring a late touchdown. Ben Jackson/Getty Images

Since around the turn of the century, Ohio State has dominated Michigan in The Game, college football’s most marketable and arguably most intense rivalry. Somewhere in the course of winning 15 times in 16 years, and denying Michigan any victories in Columbus since 2000, the Buckeyes cultivated not just a competitive advantage, but a psychological one. This manifested time and again on the field, when Michigan looked to have things in hand against Ohio State and then let them slip away inexplicably. (Granted, in many other years, Ohio State just romped.) But it also manifested hundreds of miles away from the field, in the collective psyche of everyone who cares about Michigan. The Wolverines’ inability to beat the Buckeyes in football made all of their fans miserable about college sports on a near-permanent basis. Futility in The Game denied Michigan fans the ability to believe that anything good was possible.

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Saturday confirmed times have changed: Michigan 45, Ohio State 23, in front of about 107,000 mostly infuriated Midwesterners at the Horseshoe in Columbus. In an all-unbeaten clash, Michigan looked out of its element in the first quarter but gradually gained steam. By the closing ticks of the clock, it was the Buckeyes who were melting down.

This one made two wins in a row for Michigan in the only game that matters. It was a different story than in 2021, when Michigan came out with a particular agenda and imposed its will in a uniformed fashion all afternoon. But it seemed possible that was a one-year anomaly, and Ohio State would show up on Saturday having adjusted its plan and gotten itself into a position to nuke the Wolverines out of the College Football Playoff. Instead, Michigan spent the afternoon doing what Ohio State has spent most of the last 20 years doing to Michigan: squeezing the will to live out of its rival, and quite possibly killing its national championship dreams in the process.

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There was a certain picturesqueness to Michigan’s 2021 win. On offense, the Wolverines’ identity centered around running the hell out of the ball. On defense, it revolved around two edge rushers, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, creating chaos in the Ohio State backfield. With snow falling in Ann Arbor, Michigan’s offensive linemen proved that they were better than Ohio State’s defensive front. Hutchinson and Ojabo went berserk, and Ohio State crumbled at the hands of better players at key positions. But Hutchinson and Ojabo were off to the NFL, and Ohio State made major changes to its defense. Among others, it brought on a new defensive coordinator for this year: Jim Knowles, who came highly regarded after his work turning Oklahoma State’s defense into one of the best units in the sport.

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Saturday’s Michigan win promises to be even more demoralizing for the medium-size country otherwise known as “Ohio State fandom.” This Buckeyes loss came about differently because of how out of its depth Ohio State (and its coaching staff in particular) looked when it had a chance to win. Ohio State acted like Michigan used to act, and the Wolverines were happy to take the favors and cruise to victory.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day did not manage the game well. He made a series of decisions that were defensible on their own but added up to a woefully nonaggressive effort to get his team over the top in the second half. The Buckeyes trailed by four with six minutes left in the third quarter when they faced a fourth-and-10 at the Michigan 48-yard line. Rather than trying to get 10 yards with their Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback C.J. Stroud and his elite selection of wide receivers, Day punted—and that punt went for a touchback and a piddly net of 28 yards. Michigan proceeded on a 15-play touchdown drive that covered 80 yards and eight minutes of clock time to take an 11-point lead. Ohio State was in trouble at that point. Day called another punt on a fourth-and-3 at his own 32 a few plays later—a reasonable call, but worse down two possessions with 12 minutes to play and a defense getting pushed around. On Ohio State’s next drive, the Buckeyes had a third-and-4 deep in Michigan territory, threw an incomplete pass, and kicked a field goal, rather than trying to plunge ahead two times to get 4 yards. Day looked like a man waiting for something to fall into place for a team that wasn’t creating any of its own luck.

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Maybe it was understandable that Day was on his back heel. The Buckeyes had been the stronger team out of the gates, putting together a statement touchdown drive to start the game and limiting Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy to three completions on his first 10 passes. But then the Ohio State dam started to break. McCarthy’s 11th pass was a 69-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown to Cornelius Johnson that tied the game at 10. His 12th pass was a 75-yard TD, again to Johnson, who put Ohio State safety Lathan Ransom into a blender with a vicious out-and-in move on his way to the end zone:

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As McCarthy went from deer in the headlights to unstoppable, Ohio State slowly peeled itself apart. Stroud threw a couple of interceptions as things got increasingly desperate. The biggest came as he tried to pull a rabbit out of his hat and flipped a ball directly to a white jersey while he was getting hauled down. The Ohio State defense was in shambles at the end and allowed a couple of nearly identical touchdown runs (from 75 and 85 yards) to Michigan’s No. 2 running back, Donovan Edwards:

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That it was Edwards doing that damage was also telling of the way things have changed in this rivalry. Michigan’s best player is the man ahead of him on the depth chart, Blake Corum, who had been a Heisman contender until he got hurt last week against Illinois. Without Corum—who suited up but was ineffective early—Michigan couldn’t run the ball the way it wanted for much of the afternoon. Through three quarters, the Wolverines had 22 runs for 80 yards, a far cry from the bullying of Ohio State that it pulled off in 2021. Edwards’ two long touchdowns made the Wolverines’ final stats look brilliant (35 carries for 252 yards), but you can see a point here: Michigan’s best weapon was out, and things didn’t go the Wolverines’ way for a while. Instead of wilting, Michigan just figured it out.

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What’s next for Michigan is clear. The Wolverines will play in the Big Ten Championship next week against an overmatched opponent that they will destroy. (The identity of that team was still undetermined at the time of publication.) Even if Michigan doesn’t crush the unfortunate Big Ten West division counterpart, the Wolverines will make the playoff for the second year in a row. Jim Harbaugh, the very weird dude who runs this program, will get to spend another year trading on an Ohio State victory as he sells his vision to recruits, coaches, donors, and everyone else in his ecosystem. In Ann Arbor, times will be good.

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Ohio State’s path is murkier. The Buckeyes could get into the playoff with some help, though the scale of their failure against Michigan makes that a trickier proposition. But losing twice in a row to Michigan renders the Buckeyes’ questions more existential than whether or not they make the field of four. Going by recruiting rankings and NFL draft selections, Ohio State has the most talented roster in the Big Ten every year and is usually only in the company of SEC powers Alabama and Georgia. Ryan Day is 45–5 as the program’s head coach. Knowles, the defensive coordinator who arrived this year, was hailed as exactly the kind of hire who would prevent Ohio State from giving up fortysomething points to Michigan in The Game. Ohio State eternally has all of the pieces it needs to win every prize college football has on offer. But in recent times, that open field ahead has relied on the Wolverines being brought to heel. It is not clear what happens when Michigan is not in Ohio State’s back pocket, but in its head.

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