Viewed through the prism of the past 11 years, Ohio State’s 40-34 loss at Michigan was surreal in many ways.
It took place at a re-imagined Michigan Stadium at the hands of a re-energized Michigan team with a different feel from anything I have seen since the turn of the century.
The weather was unusually pleasant for late November in the Midwest. I love crisp fall afternoons, but I don’t think I have ever gone to an Ohio State-Michigan game without need of a coat before, and there was certainly a feeling of confidence pervading the building. The home fans came for blood, and for a while it looked like they would get it despite the Buckeyes’ early salvo from Braxton Miller to Philly Brown.
A proud Ohio State defense was ripped to shreds, suffering early lapses of execution and at places a lack of athleticism. It stumbled early, righted itself briefly but could not get a permanent hold on Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson and his improving cast of running backs and wide receivers.
That in itself was a major reversal from the past decade, when we have seen Ohio State generally field one of the most stellar defenses in the country as Michigan’s once-dominant stop unit fell into serious disrepair on the heels of the offense growing seriously stale. They’re trying now to go back to the defense-first mentality and don’t seem to mind being run-of-the-mill on offense in the long run, but Robinson provides a different dimension for the time being.
There was little doubt in examining this matchup that it favored Michigan’s offense. The Buckeyes have not played well on the edges or in space all year, and that is where the Wolverines thrive. And so it was done.
Yet the Ohio State offense showed up with by far its best showing of the year since a season-opening thrashing of a horrible Akron team that decided Saturday its head coach had done such a bad job in two years that he would get no more.
The much-maligned Ohio State offensive coaching staff, which everyone knew to be a lame-duck outfit at this point, reminded us it has a pretty solid general knowledge of offense if not the ability to keep its thoughts organized in a way that often produces a coherent plan of attack. The Buckeyes threw a lot at Michigan with varying success. Their 34 points were a Big Ten season high, and they left at least 10 more on the field because of Miller misfires. The sensational freshman showed why he was the right choice as a starting quarterback all along but also why they were reticent to truly cut him loose as a passer. He has a great arm but is raw from a fundamentals standpoint. He gets out of whack on his drops and footwork and timing, and that leads to passes sailing. A lot of times he looks like a golfer who just can’t quite get the tempo of his swing right. I don’t think he threw a lot of deep balls in high school, so he is still developing the touch on those. Practice reps in the future should iron out a lot of those deficiencies, but one of the questions about this season that will long endure is how much that process could have been sped along with more chances in games.
The players all said consistently they loved playing for Luke Fickell, but I’m not sure he ever showed them the faith they needed to succeed. Ohio State could have won at least four of the six games it lost, lacking a play here or there in every one of them. Sometimes that is just the way the ball bounces, but I don’t think they were put in position to make enough things happen, at least based on the composition of the groups on each side of the ball. Without a doubt, the defensive staff that has been so stellar in previous seasons seemed paralyzed by the limited options provided by its personnel. They didn’t have as many buttons to push as in the past, but those that were there were often ignored in favor of a pretty bland attack. Ditto the offense, but that came as little surprise given the track record of the people in charge.
The game at Michigan on Saturday had a much different feel to it from the field up through the old bowl of seats to the massive new additions on either side of the stadium. The huge brick buildings contain a spacious new press box and a large number of luxury boxes and suites that give the stadium an infinitely more interesting and modern look. Previously,the place was literally not much more than a hole in the ground. Those big brick structures were empty the last time Ohio State visited, and so to a large extent was the football program. There was little energy in the stadium, and the players were not only coming off the worst season in school history but seemed to know there was a good chance they were going to lose again and miss a bowl game again.
This time around the crowd was often rocking, whether it was the contrived “Beat Ohio” chant before the game or a strange mix of pop rock and Detroit rap songs mixed in with the traditional playing of “Go Big Blue”, all piped through an impressive sound system (but not my style). The Michigan team played with the same offensive relentlessness instilled by its previous coach along with a renewed sense of confidence on defense.
The Wolverines’ victory seemed inevitable, a feeling reinforced by the fact Michigan had a preloaded animation for the scoreboard displaying the number of days since the school’s last win against Ohio State dropping to zero. That popped up minutes after the game, not long after a choreographed celebration that saw the players gather at midfield and fall to the turf together after someone pretended to toss a grenade (That rubbed some of the Ohio State players the wrong way, as they later expressed on Twitter).
And yet despite all these factors working in its favor, Michigan probably should have lost the game.
A generally good Ohio State game plan was undermined by a poor trio of plays inside the 10 when they had the chance to regain the lead early in the fourth quarter but had to settle for a field goal.
Perhaps Michigan still would have had time to come back if Miller had connected with Posey on that pass deep down the Ohio State sideline on the Buckeyes’ final drive, but that is no certainty. And there were other chances Miller could have hit big plays if he were more developed as a passer.
I don’t think it’s any kind of a stretch to say Ohio State won the coaching battle. Michigan took advantage of some of Ohio State’s clear deficiencies on defense, but the Buckeyes exposed the fact there is still much work to be done in the rebuilding of the Wolverine defense, too. The latter should come as a much bigger surprise, and it leaves me still wondering about the long-term viability of the staff in place there.
Of course, the last aspect of the day’s feel came with it being the finishing touch on the Jim Tressel era, an epilogue by Luke Fickell and the rest of Tressel’s former assistant coaches along with players he helped convince to come to Columbus during the second half of his tenure at Ohio State.
The knowledge that everything would be changing soon after The Game ended had an effect on everything that happened. It enhanced the “what if?” feeling as they pushed the envelope a little more on offense, and it left everyone unsure of how to act when it was all over.
Michigan won, as it was supposed to do, but what does that mean for the future?
The Wolverines have new leadership, an enhanced playpen and the same old gigantic fan base. Are they back? No, not yet. Only time will tell how many of their 10 wins were a result of a weak schedule (a factor that should not be overlooked in some of Tressel’s success, either, but that is a conversation for another day) or if Hoke can sustain the recruiting momentum he has established in a first year that just so happens to coincide with Ohio State’s stay in NCAA purgatory.
The Buckeyes are set to bring in their own new leader, one who could trump Hoke in terms of coaching ability, recruiting acumen and understanding of the rivalry, but how far will Hoke’s head start take him?
Should be interesting to see.