Ohio State felt the sting from last season’s loss to Michigan for an entire year. Losing to Michigan is not something that Ohio State is accustomed to, and the feeling didn’t sit well. Buckeye coaches and players have always been open about how they prepare for Michigan year-round, but this year that focus was even more extreme. In addition to devoting practice time to the Michigan game, Ohio State brought in a new defensive coordinator specifically to beat Michigan (not that there’s anything wrong with that, Michigan essentially did the same thing last season when it replaced Don Brown with Mike Macdonald) and tweaked its offense to add more of a power running element to its playbook. The Buckeyes were all in for this this game. All in to exact a measure of revenge from that dreaded team up north.
In the game’s early stages, it looked like Ohio State’s planning and preparation would pay off. On the game’s first possession, quarterback C.J. Stroud led the Buckeyes on 12-play, 81-yard touchdown drive that was as effortless as it was effective. Ohio State jumped to a quick 7-0 lead and the home crowd was in full throat.
Michigan answered with a scoring drive of its own, one that culminated in a 49-yard Jake Moody field goal that cut the Ohio State lead to 7-3. The game’s first two drives were emblematic of the first half. Ohio State setting the pace, gobbling up yards, Michigan fighting to keep the game close.
Through 30 minutes, Ohio State was rolling, finishing the half with 20 points and more than 300 yards of total offense. Yet, thanks to a pair of long touchdown passes from quarterback J.J. McCarthy to Cornelius Johnson (69 and 75 yards) and a defense that played better than the halftime stats would have you believe, the Wolverines stayed within striking distance.
Michigan was able to do so because McCarthy, who’d struggled with the deep ball all season, connected with Johnson on those two long touchdowns. Ohio State was so concerned with stopping Michigan’s running game - even with leading rusher Blake Corum sidelined with a knee injury - that it loaded the box with scarlet and gray. Buckeye safeties spent the day crashing the line, limiting Michigan’s running game, but leaving the back end of its defense exposed, creating one-on-one opportunities for Michigan’s receivers. Opportunities that McCarthy and Johnson exploited.
“We’re a complete offense,” McCarthy said after the game. “That’s what we pride ourselves on. Through the air or on the ground.” Throughout the year, McCarthy has been questioned about Michigan’s passing game - or lack thereof. The questions never fazed, McCarthy, who explained that when needed, the passing game would be there. It was there Saturday. “We love running the rock and we love letting those big boys eat,” McCarthy added. “(But) when the time comes, the other half of us was going to show up, and I was really happy it came on this day.”
But certainly, those plays were just a blip. Or blips. Certainly, the second half would play out differently. After all, Ohio State may have held a small lead on the scoreboard, but was dominating on the stat sheet and in the trenches. Hadn’t a sage writer predicted that the game would go to the more physical team? The team that owned the line of scrimmage? Surely that would decide the game in the second half.
And surely it did. Although not in the way many envisioned.
If there was a surprise in the second half, it wasn’t that Ohio State came out of the locker room and continued to sell out against the run. It wasn’t that McCarthy and Michigan continued to exploit the Ohio State defense with big plays in the passing game. It was that Michigan so completely flipped the script.
Michigan opened the second half with a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, taking its first lead of the day at 24-20. The Wolverines followed that with an eight minute, 15-play, 80-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a third-down touchdown run by McCarthy. A drive that both pushed Michigan’s lead to double-digits and seemed to take the fight out of the Buckeyes and air out the home crowd.
“You can tell when their will breaks,” Michigan linebacker Michael Barrett said after the game. “They haven’t been used to getting hit or getting physical, like we play.”
It didn’t appear so. Michigan controlled the game in the second half. And after two long touchdown runs by Donovan Edwards (75 and 85 yards) put the game on ice, Michigan had defeated the Buckeyes for the second consecutive season.
How dominant was Michigan in the second half? The Wolverines outgained the Buckeyes 316-177, including 242-19 on the ground, and outscored them 28-3. Michigan turned a 20-17 halftime deficit into a 45-23 victory, a victory that was even more convincing than last year’s 42-27 victory in Ann Arbor.
With the victory, Michigan advances to the Big Ten championship game and has all-but-certainly punched its ticket for the College Football playoffs. The victory also continues a tremendous two-year run for Harbaugh and his charges.
Michigan hadn’t beaten Ohio State in ten years. Hadn’t won in Columbus in more than 20 years. Now it’s won two in a row in the series. Until last season, Michigan had never played in the Big Ten championship game, hadn’t won a conference championship in a generation. This weekend it plays for its second consecutive Big Ten title. Michigan had never played in the college football playoff, hadn’t barely sniffed the playoffs, this year they’ll be playing in consecutive playoffs.
It’s been a great run for Michigan. A great season. But the season isn’t over, as McCarthy reminded reporters after Saturday’s triumph in Columbus, “The job’s not finished. We’ve got more to do.”
And that begins in Indianapolis.