Just a few years ago, ESPN’s viewers called the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry the best. Not just in college football, or all football. But in all sports. Period.
Everyone knew this year’s game wouldn’t go down as one of the best. Michigan entered the game with a 9-2 record and a No. 17 ranking, but the Buckeyes hobbled into their annual finale dragging a 6-5 record behind them, their worst record since the 1990s.
But that just made the stakes for Michigan that much higher.
The Wolverines hadn’t beaten the Buckeyes since 2003, but the Buckeyes entered last week’s game reeling from just about every problem a major program can have – from an ongoing NCAA investigation, to coach Jim Tressel being fired last spring in disgrace, to their star quarterback Terrelle Pryor departing a year early for the NFL.
This Buckeye team was led by a freshman quarterback, Braxton Miller, and an interim coach named Luke Fickell. Making matters worse for the Buckeyes, just days before the game, reports surfaced that Urban Meyer would be named the permanent head coach after the game – which he was.
All this only put more pressure on the Wolverines. If they couldn’t beat the Buckeyes at their baddest, when could they?
Lose, and critics would wonder if Michigan’s renaissance was just a mirage. How would the Wolverines do any better in 2012, when the schedule gets a whole lot tougher?
But win this game, and the Wolverines would have 10 wins for the first time in five years. They would be going to a big-time bowl game. And they would have the monkey – scratch that, the fully-grown gorilla – off their backs. There would be no do-or-die games for Michigan’s new coaching staff.
The Buckeyes scored on their first possession to go up 7-0. But Michigan fought back, hanging on to a 37-34 lead late in the game.
On second down from the five-yard line, Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint broke through the line and appeared to score, which would have given Michigan a very comfortable 10-point lead.
But no. The modern game is determined not by the players, or even the refs on the field, but by some invisible official in a video replay booth hundreds of feet above. The mystery man made a mysterious call, declaring Toussaint hadn’t scored a touchdown after all.
No big deal, right? Just do it again. But on the next play the refs called the Wolverines not just for holding but also a personal foul. Think those guys weren’t feeling the pressure?
The Wolverines had to settle for a long field goal, something they rarely made the year before. But the Buckeyes still had enough time to score a touchdown – and if they did, the upset would be theirs.
When Ohio State wide receiver DeVier Posey slipped past Michigan’s defender, making himself wide open with nothing between him and the endzone, a hundred thousand Michigan fans held their breath. But the freshman quarterback panicked, threw it too far, and the Wolverines survived.
Well, survived is not quite the right word. They went crazy – fueled by joy and relief and the secure feeling that no one could take this away from them.
The students rushed the field to join the players in a scene now being replayed on thousands of Facebook message boards, a picture of pure salvation. The losing streak was over.
This week, the Big Ten rightly awarded Brady Hoke Coach of the Year honors. If his defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison – who took a 110th-ranked defense and turned it into one of the nation’s best – isn’t voted the nation’s top assistant coach, Michigan should demand a recount.
One thing I discovered from my miniature coaching career: When you beat your arch-rival by a point, all everybody can talk about is what you did right. But when you lose by a point, all they can talk about is what you did wrong.
Winning, I learned, is better.
Just ask the teary-eyed players hugging the students on Saturday.
No, it wasn’t one of the best Michigan-Ohio State games of all time. But for Michigan, it was one of the most important.
About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football,” currently on sale in bookstores. The book was recently No. 6 on the New York Times bestseller list.
The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our publication of columnists like John U. Bacon. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!