The Wolverines have won two straight, with Saturday’s rout leaving big reverberations on both sidelines.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The scarlet-and-gray exodus was on, fans herding out of the Horseshoe after one more long and demoralizing Michigan touchdown. But it’s a big place, Ohio Stadium, and quite a few lingered to the extremely bitter end. Many of those who stayed were there to vent, having to raise their voices over the “Let’s Go Blue” chants from the visiting fans.
“You suck, Day!” One shouted from the front row in the general direction of Ohio State coach Ryan Day. “You suck! Bring back Urban!”
A few seats over, another fan yelled, “Twenty-five to three in the second half! Twenty-five to three!”
Actually, it was worse than that. It was 28–3, on the way to a 45–23 romp of historic proportion. This was the most points Michigan has scored on Ohio State since 1946, and it ties the Wolverines’ largest margin of victory in the series since that year as well.
The beatdown in the ‘Bus turns the tables on this great rivalry. Michigan is in charge now. Jim Harbaugh has emphatically taken over after his finest moment yet at his alma mater. His team shrugged off injuries to key players, weathered an early storm, gained confidence and instilled doubt in Ohio State, wore down the opponent and turned a close upset into a second straight rout of the program that once tormented him. The tougher, more resilient, more focused team won.
Now Ryan Day is the one with the losing streak in the series, the one facing hard questions, the one whose shiny overall record (45–5) is tarnished by two ugly blue smudges: a 15-point loss last year followed by this debacle, which might have serious College Football Playoff ramifications. Coach Third Base is still stranded there, and he better keep his eyes peeled for a pickoff throw.
Playing a wounded opponent in The ‘Shoe in mild weather friendly to their high-octane offense and as a touchdown-plus favorite, everything was in the Buckeyes’ favor. But after jumping out to an early lead and appearing capable of scoring at will, they left points on the field early with poor execution and questionable play calls. Then the defense fell apart—the secondary first, and then everyone else—rendering the $1.9 million Ohio State spent on coordinator Jim Knowles money wasted. This was the game they hired him for, and his unit was strafed.
It all unraveled for the Buckeyes. Day became strangely conservative. Composure exited the home sideline. Defeatist body language crept in. Michigan took notice.
“Going into the fourth quarter, we had a quick talk,” Wolverines defensive back Mike Sainristil said. “We looked at their sideline, they were over there hanging their heads. We said, ‘They’re vulnerable right now. Let’s pounce on them.’“
Michigan pounced, with running back Donovan Edwards ending it in the fourth with touchdown runs of 75 and 85 yards—part of a 216-yard day for a backup with a cast on his right hand. Gritty humiliated pretty. A team built for a 60-minute slugfest made the front-running Buckeyes submit. Again. Score of the second half the last two meetings: Michigan 56, Ohio State 17.
“You can feel when their will breaks,” said linebacker Mike Barrett. “You can feel it go out of them.”
The season-long talk about Ohio State getting tougher was sent through the shredder Saturday. Last year’s team never gave up 530 yards in a single game. That’s how much Michigan racked up, and Heisman Trophy candidate running back Blake Corum only produced six of those yards on two early carries before a knee injury suffered last week forced him to the sidelines for the rest of the day.
For Harbaugh, this was his Michigan masterpiece. Bullying Ohio State last year in the snow was cathartic, but this was a case of clearly outcoaching Day while simultaneously validating his year-long plan.
Harbaugh had a difficult quarterback decision on his hands coming into the year, and he managed it delicately by giving incumbent starter Cade McNamara and backup J.J. McCarthy alternating starts in the first two games. Ultimately he chose sophomore McCarthy, based primarily on his greater arm talent and athleticism.
For 11 games, McCarthy was fine—that’s it, not much more. His running was a moderate upgrade over McNamara. The vertical passing game he was supposed to unlock never really happened. The Wolverines came into this game with three passes all season of longer than 50 yards, and one of 60-plus.
Yet both McCarthy and Harbaugh remained relentlessly optimistic, insisting that the big plays would come. There was a lot of talk last week, after scraping to 19 points in a tense victory over Illinois, about all the “meat left on the bone” in the Michigan passing game. “Next week it’s coming off,” McCarthy vowed.
The bone was picked clean Saturday. The Wolverines averaged a massive 8.83 yards per play, a record for the most Ohio State has ever surrendered in a game.
Second quarter: McCarthy hung in against an A-gap blitz and fired an out route to Cornelius Johnson, who made defensive back Cameron Brown miss and then sprinted off for a 69-yard touchdown. On Michigan’s next offensive snap, after an Ohio State field-goal drive, McCarthy unloaded deep to Johnson for a wide-open 75-yard touchdown, as safety Cameron Martinez became bewildered in coverage.
Third quarter: A deft first-down play call freed freshman tight end Colston Loveland on a streak downfield, and he beat the coverage for a third bomb touchdown.
Fourth quarter: McCarthy scored the biggest touchdown of the game himself on a third-and-goal keeper from the Ohio State 3-yard line. He didn’t even bother waiting for tackle Trevor Keegan to clear the way, instead beating his lead blocker to the hole and winning a collision there for the TD. That gave Michigan a two-score lead and the upper hand the rest of the way.
“Just give me the ball when we need some gritty yards,” McCarthy said. “Let me go get them.”
“He’s got it,” Harbaugh said of his quarterback. “He’s got that ‘It Factor’ in every way.”
The run capped a 15-play, 80-yard drive that was Michigan football at its core: McCarthy and Edwards producing tough runs to move the chains and run the clock, then a perfectly timed trick play. Linebacker Kalel Mullings, pressed into service this week as a short-yardage running back, took a handoff on third-and-1 at the Ohio State 38, then stopped and delivered a pop-pass lob to tight end Luke Schoonmaker for 15 yards. A better pass would have been another touchdown on another blown coverage, but you can’t expect artistry from a linebacker/running back. And the surprise kept the drive alive.
“We saved some things,” Harbaugh said. “Emptied the playbook in a lot of ways.”
Meanwhile, Michigan’s defense was snuffing out the Ohio State offense with stops in scoring territory. The Wolverines did some damage to quarterback C.J. Stroud’s Heisman campaign, picking him off twice—his first multi-interception game since last November. And the defense did it without sack leader Mike Morris, who missed his second straight game due to injury.
The victory was total and complete and extremely sweet, but Michigan isn’t stopping now. It doesn’t figure to be a just-happy-to-be-there participant in the Playoff this year. (The Wolverines can probably get in even with a Big Ten championship game loss at this point.)
To emphasize that point, McCarthy removed the Big Ten East Division champions hat from his head during the postgame press conference and dropped it on the table. “This doesn’t matter,” he said. “Job’s not finished.”
We’ll see whether Ohio State is finished as a Playoff contender. The Buckeyes got some help Saturday from South Carolina, which beat Clemson, but left an ugly last impression on the selection committee.
Among those exiting the stadium early was a former Ohio State coach, who was on the elevator down with about four minutes to play. His name is John Cooper, a man who won 71.5% of his games at the school but had a 2-10-1 record against Michigan.
With a 1–2 record against the Wolverines, Ryan Day has to prove that he’s not Cooper on training wheels. But this is a different era, one in which Day is not going to get anywhere near 13 years to turn this rivalry back around. The hot seat awaits Day in 2023, while Jim Harbaugh leaves his days on the rivalry hot seat further and further behind.
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