Here we go again. The #2-ranked Buckeyes travel to Ann Arbor at the end of the regular season to play the #5 Wolverines, and everything’s on the line. A slot in the Big Ten championship game, a playoff bid, a crack at the national championship. It’s certainly not the first time that the stakes have been so high, but it’s been a while.
A faceoff between highly-ranked teams
By my calculations, the Buckeyes and Wolverines have faced off 11 previous times when both teams were ranked in the top five nationally. Saturday’s game will be number 12. Ohio State has won seven of those games, while Michigan has won three. There was a 10-10 tie in 1973. In all of those prior games, of course, there was a lot riding on the outcome: always a Big Ten championship and nearly always a chance to win a big bowl game and make a claim for the national title.
The most recent of these high-stakes match ups occurred in 2016, when the #2 Bucks caught the #3 Wolverines at the end of regulation and beat them in the second overtime 30-27, in Columbus. We have to go back a decade for the next one, #1 OSU defeating #2 UM 42-39 in 2006.
The series is a storied one and dates back well over a century. On October 16, 1897, Michigan defeated Ohio State 36-0 in the first edition of “The Game.” It didn’t really mean anything, though, as teams played only a handful of games a season, and OSU was playing the likes of Ohio Wesleyan (and sometimes losing). There wasn’t a Big Ten conference as we know it, and I’m guessing the players didn’t even wear helmets. The Bucks didn’t triumph over their up north rivals until 1919, and, by that time, Michigan had established a 13-0-2 record against Ohio State. It’s a gap that’s never been bridged, as the series record now stands at 58-51-6 in the Wolverines’ favor. Since 2000, though, the Buckeyes have dominated, winning 17 of those 20 games, several by severe blowout.
Woody vs. Bo
College players come and go. But the series continues and so, too, do the coaches (usually). With nearly all games available for fans to watch and with the broad advances in media over the past couple of decades, big-time college football coaches enjoy (I suppose they enjoy) very high profiles. Certainly, Ryan Day and Jim Harbaugh do. A half a century ago the OSU-UM rivalry intensified into what has been labeled “The Ten-Year War.” The war began in 1969, when Bo Schembechler became Michigan’s head football coach. Woody Hayes had been at the Buckeye helm since 1951 and was a living legend. Bo started his own legend that first year as his 7-3 Wolverines beat the #1-ranked Buckeyes 24-12, snapping the Bucks’ 22-game winning streak. When Woody retired at the end of the 1978 season, his record against Bo and Michigan was 4-5-1. Five of the 11 high-stakes games between top five OSU and top five UM took place in the 1970s. Intense!
Harbaugh and Day: a new rivalry?
It’s hard to like Jim Harbaugh, even if you’re not an avid Buckeye fan. He shoots his mouth off. He almost never smiles, and when he does, it looks as though someone has pasted it on his face. He’s discourteous to reporters. And, most importantly, his record indicates that he’s not nearly as good as he thinks he is. He was hired and paid handsomely to win championships, and he hasn’t. (In fact, Michigan’s last Big Ten championship came under coach Lloyd Carr in 2004.) He was hired to beat Ohio State, and he hasn’t (0-5).
And then there was last season. Sitting at 2-4 for the season and looking at a nearly certain loss to undefeated Ohio State in Columbus, Michigan canceled the OSU game, claiming a spike in COVID-19 cases. Not only did Michigan stave off the embarrassment of another loss, they also, no doubt, hoped that the Buckeyes, having played only five games, would be excluded from the Big Ten championship game and the college playoff. Fortunately, the conference changed its rules and permitted OSU to play. But to most of us, Michigan’s move (and we blame Harbaugh) looked, at best, cowardly and petty.
And Ryan Day? Oh, we love him. His 2019 team went to Ann Arbor and clobbered Harbaugh’s boys, 56-27. Day’s teams have never lost to a Big Ten team. He heads back to the mitten state, and he’s joked (is it a joke?) to put up 100 on them. If both of these big-time coaches stick around for a while, we’re likely to have another “war” era.
The 2021 game
After handling (to put it mildly) ranked Purdue and Michigan State in lopsided victories, Ohio State enters this year’s Michigan game with a lot of confidence. The OSU offense is the best in the country and has been overwhelming opponents, building leads that determine the final outcome early in the contest. Quarterback C.J. Stroud and his three fantastic wide receivers – Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba – have created a passing assault that appears to be unstoppable. And don’t forget the offensive line. Their pass protection has been superb, and Stroud has had the time he needs to shred pass defenses. The Buckeye defense has steadily improved and played their best game last week against the Spartans. Knowing full well what all they’re playing for, the Bucks will be ready.
Michigan has been much better than we expected them to be. No doubt, this version is Harbaugh’s most successful team. The defense, long a Wolverine trademark, has been solid and stingy in giving up points. Cade McNamara, at quarterback, has given Michigan a passing game to complement the run that has always been the UM mainstay. The result is a balanced attack that has looked good all season, and especially the past couple of weeks. In fact, Michigan, as a whole, has rebounded well after the loss to their in-state rivals.
So, what will happen when these teams go at each other? Will Ohio State be able to score touchdowns on their first several possessions and put the game away quickly. I sure hope so – but probably they won’t be able to. I expect the Buckeyes, though, to play well on both sides of the ball and to build a lead steadily. Maybe leading by 14 at the half. Michigan might get within a score in the third quarter, but I see the Buckeyes finally prevailing. The keys to winning the big road games are always the same: don’t allow the crowd noise to get to you, don’t give up big plays, avoid mistakes (turnovers and penalties). The Bucks, specifically, need to continue to stuff the opponents’ running game and establish their own. They also need to put pressure on McNamara and to keep Michigan blitzes from pressuring Stroud.