Saturday’s game between Michigan and Ohio State had all the makings of a classic. Two undefeated teams. Both ranked in the top five. The nation’s top two scoring defenses. A grudge match between college football’s greatest rivals with both the Big Ten championship and a berth in the College Football Playoffs on the line.
Even against this backdrop, the game lived up to the hype. A tense, closely contested affair that wasn’t decided until the game’s final minute. In the end, in front of Michigan’s most energetic home crowd since … well, since the last time these teams met, the Wolverines prevailed with a hard fought, 30-24 victory over Ryan Day the Buckeyes.
It was a game that felt like a heavyweight title fight. Each team landing its share of blows. Each team winning its share of rounds. But with the game on the line – or when the fight went into the championship rounds, if you prefer – it was Michigan that stood tall.
Those championship rounds began, as you might expect, in the fourth quarter. Trailing by ten points early in the final stanza, Ohio State put together an eight-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to cut Michigan’s lead to 27-24. With just over eight minutes to play and the momentum threatening to shift to the visitors, Michigan got the ball back with a chance to put the game to bed. One drive to decide not only the game, but each team’s season.
It was a moment not for the weak of heart. It was, however, a moment that Michigan embraced.
“We’re built for this. Built for moments like this,” interim head coach Sheronne Moore said after the game. And on this day, Moore was right. With the stakes at their highest, Michigan responded with a 13-play, 56-yard drive that chewed a full seven minutes off the clock.
In the game’s pivotal moment, Moore and Michigan turned to senior running back Blake Corum. And much like he has throughout his career at Michigan, Corum delivered. Corum carried the ball six times for 36 yards on the drive (part of a 69-yard second half for Corum), helping Michigan move the chains and burn the clock.
“This is why I came back,” a smiling Corum said after the game. “For games like this.” When asked why he turned down the NFL for another season in Ann Arbor, Corum responded, “I returned because we have unfinished business as a team. I also didn’t want to go out like I did last year (suffering a season ending injury in late November). I wanted to leave a legacy that will be remembered.”
On a day where yards didn’t come easy, Corum led all rushers with 88 yards on the ground and found the end zone twice – establishing Michigan’s single-season record for rushing touchdowns with 22 and giving him 53 for his career (two off the Michigan record).
The Wolverines were a first down short of running out the clock on that final drive, but cashed in with a 37-yard field goal by James Turner, his third field goal of the game without a miss. The field goal increased Michigan’s lead to six and left Ohio State just 1:05 to try to orchestrate a final drive of its own. The Buckeyes crossed midfield quickly, but with 25 seconds left to play, Michigan safety and Ohio native Rod Moore intercepted Kyle McCord (McCord’s second interception of the day) to seal the victory.
Moore’s play didn’t surprise his teammates. “I knew the defense was going to come through for us,” Corum said. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy took it further. “I’m not lying to you,” McCarthy said, “I really felt like Rod was going to make the play. I just had this deep feeling in my gut that my twin (McCarthy and Moore sport the same uniform number) was going to show up when it mattered.” And show up, Moore and the defense did.
Offensively, Michigan did much of its damage on the ground, rushing for 169 yards and possessing the ball for more than 33 minutes, but that doesn’t mean that Moore and the Wolverines had a conservative gameplan. In fact, quite the opposite.
McCarthy, who completed 16 of 20 passes for 148 yards and a touchdown – including a beautiful 22-yard scoring strike to Roman Wilson – said that before the game Moore told him that he was going to call an aggressive game. Moore was true to his word, dialing up halfback passes, runs designed for reserve quarterback Alex Orji and going for it on fourth down three times (converting all three).
“It would be a disservice to these guys not to (call an aggressive game).” Moore said. “I wasn’t going to call the game scared.”
The same could not be said of Ohio State’s Day, who erred on the side of caution most of the day, opting to punt on fourth-and-one at mid-field early, falling in love with the run late and never really opening things up offensively.
Day and Ohio State were also unable to fully exploit the advantage they had in All-World receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. Harrison was targeted nine times, but the Wolverine defense held the junior All-American to five receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown. Harrison made some plays, but fell short of taking over the game.
For Ohio State, it was another bitter season-ending loss to its hated rival to the north. One that will make for another long offseason in Columbus.
For Michigan, it was more than just a victory over its biggest rival. More than just its third consecutive victory over its biggest rival. Saturday’s victory provided a measure of vindication in a season that threatened to be derailed by a torrent of off-the-field distractions. A season in which the Wolverines were forced to be without their head coach for their two most important games. A season that ultimately continues.
“It’s a great win, but our work isn’t done,” McCarthy said after the game. That work begins this weekend in Indianapolis, where the Wolverines face Iowa in the Big Ten championship game – and will do so with a familiar face back on the sidelines.