Michigan steals the Big Ten narrative from Ohio State, fair and square
Michigan didn’t steal any signs Saturday. Instead, it stole Ohio State’s pride, its confidence, its heart, its soul.
The Wolverines have changed The Game in the Big Ten, taking the league back to its roots.
Jim Harbaugh has brought back Bo Schembechler ball, in just a slightly more sophisticated form.
In boxing parlance, Michigan is a tough-as-nails, technically sound counterpuncher who never drops his guard. Stand toe-to-toe for 15 rounds, without blinking or making a mistake, and you might stand a chance. Even then, you might still lose. And very few opponents even get that far.
Ohio State got that far on Saturday, reaching Michigan’s 37-yard line with 34 seconds remaining, in striking distance down 30-24.
Short on time and flailing, the Buckeyes couldn’t land a miracle knockout blow. Under pressure, Kyle McCord threw up a duck that Rod Moore cradled before it could hit the ground. In the first quarter, Michigan’s first interception staggered Ohio State and its first-year starter at quarterback. This one ended the fight.
Michigan went without a turnover. That was the difference. With the 2 giveaways, Ohio State closes the regular season with a turnover margin of -1. Michigan is now at +14.
Hang a hundred?
Was it just 3 years ago that Ryan Day was threatening to “hang a hundred” on Michigan in The Game?
It wasn’t a crazy notion back then, prior to the abbreviated 2020 season. At the time, Ohio State had won 8 straight and 15 of 16 in the series, posting point totals of 62 in Urban Meyer’s final season and 56 in 2019 with Day moving up from offensive coordinator to replace his mentor. Those are OSU’s 2 highest point totals in 118 renditions of The Game.
With that type of offensive firepower, overcoming a few turnovers wasn’t much of a problem. Michigan, in Harbaugh’s early days, couldn’t keep up. The Wolverines weren’t even No. 2 in the B1G then, losing 3 of 4 to Penn State and its high-octane offense from 2017-20.
Times have changed
Day isn’t speaking so boldly these days. He’d have loved to just hang 31 on Michigan this time around, rather than lose the rivalry game for a third time in a row.
Michigan ended the pandemic-shortened 2020 season at 2-4 after a loss to Penn State, cancelling its final 3 games. Yes, denying Day of any chance to hang 100.
Under massive pressure, Harbaugh regrouped. The administration cut his pay and put him on a short leash. But the former Michigan quarterback found his footing, putting all his previous college and NFL experience to work remolding his alma mater. He brought in better players and staff, and took the program back to its hardnosed roots. Players who train at Schembechler Hall would play to the toughness standard of the legendary coach.
Bring together the best defense in the nation, a 2-time Joe Moore Award winning offensive line and a 5-star quarterback willing to subvert his ego. Boom. Winning formula.
You can’t explain away Michigan’s success — 31 straight regular-season/B1G title game victories — with accusations of recruiting, coaching and sign-stealing violations. None of that factored into Saturday’s result at the Big House, where 110,615 watched one team play to a standard the other couldn’t match.
JJ McCarthy went 16-of-20, and couldn’t give a rip that his 148 passing yards were 123 fewer than McCord. The 6-3, 202-pound junior will be secure with his 1 TD pass, no picks and timely 15-yard run. RB Blake Corum, who returned from last season’s injury specifically to chase a national title, improved his FBS-leading touchdown total to 22 — all on the ground — with 2 scores. It was a workmanlike effort — 88 yards on 22 carries — and the 5-8 “Little Big Man,” as FOX’s Gus Johnson calls him, still hasn’t reach 1,000 yards on the season. A year ago at this time, Corum was already over 1,400 rushing yards, a serious Heisman candidate before missing most of Michigan’s final 3 1/2 games with a knee injury that required surgery.
Key OL Zak Zinter was carted off the field Saturday with a leg injury. Veteran Trente Jones subbed in and Michigan didn’t miss a beat, scoring on the next play.
Michigan’s leading tackler, Junior Colson, made 11 stops Saturday, most of them of the non-spectacular variety. He now has 71 tackles on the season, with no sacks and only 2 TFL. He just makes the basic plays, again and again.
Harbaugh thinks he has 20+ players who should get selected in the 2024 NFL Draft. He may be right. The Wolverines certainly conduct themselves like professionals.
The new B1G
The Big Ten is bending to Michigan’s will.
Ohio State entered the game with the No. 2 scoring defense in the country. It tried to establish TreVeyon Henderson and its running game. It ran 8 straight times for 46 yards to cap the drive that tied the game at 17-17. But in the end, Henderson was held to 60 yards and the Buckeyes to 107 on 3.8 per carry. Michigan was not going to be beaten at its own game; it ran for 156 yards on 39 carries. That led to a 33:28-26:32 time of possession advantage.
The team with more rushing yards has won The Game 22 straight times.
Penn State has taken the Michigan approach to heart. After this weekend, the Nittany Lions have passed Michigan as the No. 1 total defense in the country. James Franklin’s program is working on dominating the line of scrimmage and boosting its run game. (It’s not there yet.) It has a 5-star QB with a TD:INT ratio of 23:1 this season.
While the rest of the Power 5 leagues play high-scoring games featuring Heisman-hopeful quarterbacks, the Big Ten has the top 4 scoring defenses in the country.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Pac-12 teams Washington, Oregon, USC and UCLA join the Big Ten next season. Don’t be surprised if defense and toughness win out, though.
It’s not about hanging 100 in this league. It’s first one to 20.
Michigan has perfected that game.