To understand Michigan’s 42-27 victory over Ohio State, you have to understand the history behind the game. This is a game in which Michigan has time and time again come up short. A game that has bedeviled Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. Despite winning at least ten games in four of his six non-COVID seasons at Michigan, Harbaugh’s career has been defined by some more for never having beaten Ohio State than for his .750 winning percentage in those same seasons.
Ohio State’s dominance in this game has been so thorough, that even though Michigan came into Saturday’s contest with a 10-1 record and a top five ranking, few gave the Wolverines a chance. But as Harbaugh said after the game, those inside the locker room believed. And they believed they could win not through smoke and mirrors, but by taking it to the Buckeyes.
And that’s exactly what Michigan did.
Michigan defeated Ohio State Saturday by being the more physical team. By winning the battle in the trenches and dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ohio State could neither stop Michigan’s ground game nor contain Michigan’s pass rush. After the game, Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson said the Wolverines played complementary football, and he was right. So balanced was Michigan’s attack, it was difficult to say which unit performed better: Its offense or its defense.
Michigan’s offense set the tone early. The Wolverines took the opening kickoff and methodically ran off a ten play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped by a nifty touchdown run by AJ Henning. The drive, which included 55 yards on the ground, proved to be a sign of things to come. Michigan would spend the day pounding the ball into the teeth of the Ohio State defense and the Buckeyes would spend the day searching for answers. Michigan finished with nearly 300 yards on the ground on a gaudy 7.2 yards per carry - the most rushing yards that Ohio State has surrendered all season.
With Blake Corum still limited by injury, the majority of the workload fell on senior Hassan Haskins. Haskins responded by rushing for 169 yards and a career-high five touchdowns, running through - and occasionally hurdling over - would-be-tacklers all afternoon.
With Haskins and Michigan’s offensive line setting the tone, quarterback Cade McNamara played perhaps his best game as a Wolverine. While his statistics were far from overwhelming, McNamara kept the offense moving and was as accurate and decisive as he’s been all season.
But as well as Michigan’s offense played, its defense might have played even better. It was thought that for Michigan to have a chance in this game, its defensive line would have to come up big. It did just that, pressuring Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud on nearly half of his pass attempts (according to Pro Football Focus) and holding the Buckeyes to just 64 yards rushing. Hutchinson, David Ojabo and company were a thorn in the side of Stroud and his offensive line all day, recording four quarterback sacks and tacking on another four tackles-for-loss.
That’s not to say that Michigan completely shut down the Buckeyes, however. Pressured or not, Stroud passed for nearly 400 yards and the Buckeyes’ all-NFL receiving corps of Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba made plays all afternoon. Sometimes finding openings in the Wolverine defense, sometimes making highlight reel-worthy catches.
But Michigan didn’t expect to shut down the Buckeyes. Ohio State leads the nation in total yards, touchdowns, points … and just about every other offensive category you can think of. Michigan knew Ohio State would have its moments. Knew it would have its share of explosive plays. “We told our players,” Harbaugh said, “not to get discouraged when they (the Buckeyes) make plays. When they score. Because they will.”
And they did. Through a combination of quick-strike passes and clutch conversions, Stroud and the Buckeyes kept the pressure on Michigan. Twice in the fourth quarter, Ohio State got within a single score of Michigan. But each time it did, Michigan responded. Responded by putting the ball - and the game - into the hands of Haskins.
Over the summer, Haskins talked about sharing the ball with his “Thunder and Lightning” partner Corum. It was a strategy the Wolverines said would be their gameplan in 2021. “It doesn’t matter to me how many touches I get,” Haskins said, “Whatever’s best for the team.” Haskins then paused, smiled and added, “But I’ll take all the touches they want to give me.”
With Corum dealing with an injury the past month, Haskins has gotten his touches - and has thrived with the increased workload. Over the past four games, Haskins has averaged more than 26 carries and 143 yards per game. And the 28 carries Haskins got against Ohio State? He seemed to grow stronger - and the Ohio State defenders looked less interested in trying to tackle him - with each carry.
Haskins’ final carry, his fifth touchdown of the day, pushed Michigan’s lead to 42-27 with just over two minutes to play, effectively putting the game on ice. When Michigan stopped Buckeyes on downs six plays later, the Wolverines - along with the 111,000-plus fans in attendance - could finally celebrate.
And speaking of the fans, Saturday’s crowd was as loud and as energetic as any that’s watched a game at the Big House. A more emotion-infused atmosphere is hard to imagine. “The best environment I’ve ever seen in college football,” former USC quarterback and current Fox Sports analyst Matt Leinart would say. The home crowd was at a fever pitch the entire game and remained in the stadium - and to a large part on the field - long after the game ended.
After the game, Harbaugh mostly kept his emotions in check. Stoically saying that he was proud of his coaches for the gameplan they drew up and proud of his players for executing it. Praising his team’s work effort, but stressing that Michigan’s job was not finished. “There’s still work to do,” Harbaugh said, alluding to this weekend’s Big Ten championship game against Iowa. But when asked where this win ranked, Harbaugh finally allowed himself a little smile. “It kinda feels like the best one,” Harbaugh replied. “It really does.”
No doubt Michigan’s players felt the same way. Just about every Michigan player that spoke to the media after the game admitted to having trouble finding the words to describe their feelings. Senior Brad Hawkins took it a step further, conceding that after such an emotional game, he had trouble holding back the tears. He wasn’t alone.