The result of The Game last year came as a shock to just about everyone watching it.
A 62-39 final score just didn’t even seem within the realm of possibility given the potency of the Wolverine defense and the maddening inconsistency of the Buckeyes on both sides of the ball. Yes, Dwayne Haskins was slinging it all season; however, the running attack had stunted its own effectiveness by splitting into a timeshare, and Greg Schiano’s defense was liable to give up a 50 point game to anybody at a moment’s notice.
No game in Columbus figures to be an easy victory, but Jim Harbaugh was finally in an advantageous position to win one over on Urban Meyer and the arch enemy. Instead, the Wolverines finished their regular season with one of the most embarrassing face-plants in program history, and an uncomfortable truth began to bubble to the surface as it applies to the latest era of Michigan football:
Harbaugh can’t win the big ones.
Michigan under Jim Harbaugh:— Kyle Rowland (@KyleRowland) September 21, 2019
~0-4 against Ohio State
~1-9 vs. top-10 opponents
~0-7 as an underdog
~1-6 on the road against ranked opponents
~Five losses by at least 21 points, including three of their last five games
The latest installment of The Game still feels like it was just yesterday, as the memory lives on fondly in the heads of Ohio State fans around the world, while conversely remaining repressed in the dormant annals of the Michigan psyche. Yet, it’s easy to forget that every season in college football begins with a reset. Thankfully for Michigan and unfortunately for Ohio State, nothing that happened in last year’s blindsiding outcome of The Game matters this season.
What matters this season is what just happened on September 21st, 2019.
The day began with far more at stake for the hopes and dreams of Michigan football than it ever did for Ohio State. The Buckeyes hadn’t lost to an in-state school in nearly a century, while as detailed the the tweet above, Michigan entered the day having lost two of their last four games by at least three touchdowns. The Wolverines were coming off a near gaffe against Army at home two weeks ago, and had a BYE week before their bout with Wisconsin to patch the holes in their defense and refine their new offensive system. For a team that fancied itself a national championship contender, this was an absolute must-win scenario, and one that would serve as a litmus test for all watching about whether or not Michigan could be taken seriously this season.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the current states of these two teams, given they played opponents that stand in stark contrast to each other with respect to talent and long-term aspirations. Wisconsin is one of the few college football teams blessed with a full understanding of their offensive identity early on in the schedule, and they couple that with a stingy defense that failed to surrender a single point for the first full ten quarters of their season. Miami (OH) is a MAC team that starts Blaine Gabbert’s younger brother at quarterback.
But Shea Patterson himself said, “we’re looking to go out there and make a statement,” and make a statement they certainly did. If there’s one similarity between the performances of Michigan and Ohio State from last Saturday, it’s that both teams let moments of adversity wrestle the momentum of the game away from them. But the way both teams handled their respective scary moments spoke volumes about where each program is at on the eve of full-scale conference play.
Michigan fell behind early and responded with a 68-yard pass play to land deep in Wisconsin territory on their first offensive play of the game. Three plays later, their linebacker-turned-fullback-turned-defensive-tackle-turned-back-to-fullback fumbled the football and allowed the Badgers to continue a 35-0 run that would last well into the third quarter, long after the game had been decided.
With two weeks to prepare for the biggest game in their young season, Michigan’s offense delivered 40 team rushing yards across eight players and failed to register its first points of the game until there were roughly two minutes remaining in the third quarter. Worse yet, Wisconsin appeared to figure out the Wolverine defense relatively early on in the game, and used this knowledge to manipulate Michigan’s alignments against the run and set up Jonathan Taylor and others for massive runs throughout the game. Wisconsin backup running back Bradrick Shaw had a 42 yard gain in the fourth quarter that featured a Michigan DB running fifteen yards downfield into coverage with his back turned to the line of scrimmage before Shaw had even taken the hand-off.
Michigan appeared to be playing without a brain for the first 40 minutes of the contest, but the team clearly did not play with any heart even after they finally got on the scoreboard. Everyone watching took notice, including the program legends. While Braylon Edwards has been critical of Harbuagh and company for over a year now, Michigan’s hilarious incompetence on a national stage had finally broken the calm and collected pride of even Charles Woodson:
Picture Eddie George — or any other Buckeye football legend — having to profess embarrassment for their alma mater on national television like this in wake of a conference loss. It’s thankfully an impossible image for an Ohio State fan to conjure up in their heads.
But for the first eight minutes of their game against Miami (OH), that similar strain of embarrassment didn’t seem so far removed from Columbus. Ohio State let an RPO-heavy offense with a heaping dose of window dressing and a shiftier-than-expected quarterback gash them up in the opening quarter. The first points of the game for either team came on a RedHawk strip-fumble safety that mercifully rolled out of the back of the end zone. Down more than a field goal halfway through the first quarter to a team that came in as near 40 point underdogs, it was one of the most embarrassing and frightening starts to a football game that a team can have. The Buckeyes were facing their first adversity of the season from a school that had no business delivering it to them, and the stench of last year’s tendency to play down to competition came wafting back into the noses of fans.
But this was — is — a new season, and Ryan Day’s new regime would have none of that.
J.K. Dobbins rumbled into pay dirt on the Buckeyes’ very next possession, and Justin Fields followed that up with six touchdowns in an absolute offensive symphony of a second quarter. All of the starters were pulled from the game following halftime, and Ohio State still managed to pour on 27 points with their reserves in what became a definitive showcase of the program’s future stars. When the dust finally settled, the Buckeyes had successfully ripped off a 71-0 run and sent the RedHawks back to Oxford with their tails between their legs.
We won’t know just how big the chasm has become between the Big Ten’s two most-storied programs until they dance at the end of November, and there’s a lot of football to be played before then that could upend the Buckeyes’ own ultimate aspirations. But right now, it’s clear that Ryan Day’s Ohio State program is not going to limp through games they should win, nor are they going to retreat in games where they should be competing. The Jim Harbaugh era at Michigan now has five running years of evidence that says they cannot live up to that same standard.
Of course, in this rivalry, wacky outcomes aren’t far from the norm. Most didn’t expect Ohio State to win last season’s game — let alone turn it into a romp. The Wolverines have over two months before they host the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor, and they’ll certainly have every opportunity to improve in the areas where they may be lacking at the moment.
But regardless of what the result may be ten weeks from now, one thing is absolutely certain after the events of September 21st: Ohio State has the competitive spirit advantage. Even if they get hit in the mouth to start the game, the Buckeyes aren’t going to let an initial wave of adversity impact their desire to turn momentum in their favor. By contrast, if the Wolverines go down early, we could be in for one of the most lopsided home losses Michigan football has ever seen.