On one play, all of Ohio State’s fortunes turned.
No, we’re not discussing The Spot, though it’s all Jim Harbaugh wants to talk about (the spot was good, btw). The Wolverines’ coach didn’t display the grace you’d expect from a prestigious Michigan Man after Ohio State’s 30-27 instant-classic triumph in double overtime. Instead, he singularly whined about officiating, most notably focusing on the referee’s spot on J.T. Barrett’s 4th-and-1 run on the game’s penultimate play.
Michigan fans have responded in kind, flooding the internet with screen grabs and conspiracy theories that would make even Donald Trump and Jill Stein blush. Across the nation the debate of The Spot has raged on, it’s 2016’s version of what color is that dress?
For the first time in 112 meetings Ohio State and Michigan needed overtime to settle The Game, in a battle that will be talked about by both fan bases for decades. Given the controversy and consequence surrounding the moment, Barrett’s fourth down conversion will undoubtedly be remembered as the game’s defining play. Fans will discuss The Spot in the same breath as Woodson’s return in ‘97, or Tyvis Powell’s interception of a two-point conversion in ‘13.
However, it was the play prior to Barrett’s run that truly saved Ohio State’s season, and that’s the play that should be immortalized by Buckeye Nation.
Down three in double overtime, Ohio State faced a third-and-nine from the 24-yard-line. The Buckeyes’ offensive line had proven to be incapable in pass protection for most of the game. There was little faith in the stadium that kicker Tyler Durbin could convert on a long field goal if the offense stalled.
On what seemed to be a conservative call, Barrett tossed a swing pass to Curtis Samuel toward the right boundary, where the speedy H-back was met by Michigan’s all-hyped Jabrill Peppers behind the line of scrimmage in a clash of the teams’ two best athletes. Samuel backtracked to the left to avoid Peppers, retreating as far back as the 32-yard-line, then stuttered back to the right before running into his own blocker, only to cut against the grain one more time to the left side of the field.
As the junior from Brooklyn danced and darted through defenders while flirting with disaster, you could almost feel a hundred thousand scarlet-clad fans pushing him forward while screaming No. No! NO! YES!!!
When Samuel finally returned to the line of scrimmage he was on the opposite end of the field from where he initially caught the ball, with two Ohio State blockers ahead of him attempting to occupy four Michigan defenders. On a play where the Buckeyes could have easily been moved out of field goal range, a modest gain would have felt like an enormous win. Instead, Samuel used a series of quick cuts to wiggle through traffic as he so deftly does, putting Ohio State in position to attempt the now infamous fourth down quarterback run.
Michigan can moan all it wants to about officiating, but the Wolverines had ample opportunities to win that game, and Harbaugh should instead look inward at his team’s inability put the nail in Ohio State’s coffin. Had Peppers tracked Samuel down in the backfield, Ohio State would have been out of field goal range and staring at a fourth-and-17. Barrett’s longest completion of the day was for 16 yards.
All of Michigan’s other ten defenders had an opportunity to minimize Samuel’s gain on the play. It was an easy decision for Urban Meyer to go for it on fourth down when he needed just a yard to gain. Faced with a longer conversation, Meyer would have been tasked with trusting either an anemic offense to gain multiple yards on Michigan’s vaunted defense, or a field goal kicker who inspired little confidence after missing a pair of chip shots earlier in the game.
Durbin’s path to Columbus was about as unconventional as Samuel’s path toward the first down marker. The Virginia native was a standout soccer player at James Madison prior to walking on the Ohio State football team in 2015, for his first season of competitive football at any level.
For much of this year Durbin had been effective, connecting on 15 of his first 16 field goal tries. But in front of the largest crowd ever at Ohio Stadium, while being watch by the largest TV audience for a college game this year, Durbin seemed to wilt under the pressure. On Ohio State’s first drive of the game he missed from 37 yards, rendering the Buckeyes’ only successful possession of the first half void. Then, with just 7 minutes left in regulation, he shanked a 21-yard gimmie with a chance to tie the game.
Sure, the senior kicker did redeem himself on Ohio State’s next possession to send the game into overtime. But did you have confidence that he’d connect again with the game on the line in the second frame of extra time? Imagine how much that kid’s life changes for the worst if he misses yet another field goal, this time sealing Ohio State’s fate in such an emotionally taxing game.
Instead, Samuel kept the kicking unit on the sidelines by zig-zagging his way from one sideline to the other nearly untouched, in a feat of pure athleticism.
“That’s called recruiting,” said an almost delirious Meyer after the game when recalling the play.
Speaking of recruiting, countless blue-chip prospects came to The Shoe to see this battle of top-five teams. Everything that the program does caters to recruiting; from wearing LeBron cleats with The King in attendance, to showing a montage on the video board touting the program’s history of developing NFL cornerbacks while the nation’s top two high school cornerbacks in Jeffrey Okudah and Darnay Holmes watched on.
Recruits don’t pick schools based on the outcome of one game, but if you weren’t moved by how that stadium rocked during overtime, or with how the fans poured onto the field while displaying an out-pour of emotions after the Buckeyes won, then you probably were never coming to Columbus in the first place. Samuel’s heroics changed the mood in Ohio Stadium, and he certainly helped to ensure that more great athletes will follow in his footsteps.
The good vibes felt by recruits extended to Buckeye Nation, which watched most of Saturday’s game with a sense of angst. In truth, Ohio State was outplayed and out coached by Michigan for three quarters. The offensive line continued to struggle, the passing game continued to underwhelm, and the play calling continued to be predictable and conservative. Throwing a swing pass on third-and-nine would have been one of the most criticized play calls of the year, had Samuel not donned Superman’s cape.
A few days before The Game, former Ohio State great Chris “Beanie” Wells penned an article for The Player’s Tribune, with a direct message to this year’s team.
“If you make a play in this game, and we win,” he wrote, “you’ll cement yourself in Ohio State history forever. You’ll be a legend. That’s the magnitude of Ohio State vs. Michigan.”
Regardless of what happens in the looming College Football Playoffs, this year’s team will always be remembered for the way it persevered against Michigan in one of the greatest games in the history of this storied rivalry. Barrett’s narrow conversion, and Samuel’s game-sealing touchdown on the ensuing play, in which he leaped into the end zone as if about to take flight in a most picturesque moment, will forever be lasting images.
But it was Samuel’s heroic evasion of Michigan’s entire defense on third-and-nine that put Ohio State in a position to win the game. It was that play that saved Ohio State’s season. And it should be that play that Buckeye Nation remembers years from now when it reflects on Curtis Samuel’s legend.