At some point I am going to have to learn that rivalry games are called that for a reason. No amount of critical analysis or film deconstruction or objective observation can really prepare anyone for what might happen in Ohio State/Michigan.
I had watched almost every Michigan game this season from start to finish, and nothing, NOTHING, prepared me for what happened last Saturday. A team that had no offensive identity, a lackluster defense in many areas, and a seemingly clueless head coach and offensive coordinator somehow turned in an incredible gameplan and execution of said gameplan. The Wolverines nearly turned the entire Ohio State season on its head, and it was only by going way off the script that they were able to do that.
This is how Ohio State/Michigan should be. I obviously wouldn't be writing this if it had turned out badly for the Buckeyes, but this might've been the best game between the two teams in the last 25 plus years, and yes that includes 2006. That year I never had any doubt that Ohio State was eventually going to pull off the victory. That was not the case a few days ago.
The obvious story of this quarter was Michigan taking the lead twice on frankly dominant looking touchdown drives. Jeremy Gallon got 84 of his receiving yards on one play; he might've been run down by Bradley Roby but the feeling of dread creeping over me felt real. On the other hand, it was becoming readily apparent that the Ohio State rushing game was never going to be stopped, which would end up being the difference kind of. 14-14.
Johnny: Is there any explanation whatsoever for the complete 180 that occurred in terms of both scheme in execution for the Michigan offense in this thing? Because I wrote like 4 thousandish words about the Michigan game last week and I more or less immediately looked like a dumbass.
Ace: Johnny, you certainly weren't alone there—and I'll put forth that nobody felt more like dumbasses than the legions of Michigan ticket-holders who sold their seat at The Game on Stubhub, but that's neither here nor there. I didn't see that coming, either.
As for an explanation, it appeared that Al Borges saved all of his constraint plays for one game, and that game happened to be the last one of the season, so Michigan's offense limped along like a wounded deer for months before becoming a SECONDARY-TORCHING DRAGON for, well, one game. This doesn't seem like a good season-long strategy, but I'm no offensive coordinator, as many people have told me over the last several weeks.
FIIGGHHTTT! People might forget that in the rigmarole that was going on that Michigan had just scored a TD to put them up seven. For me, this was the low point of the game, especially as Braxton tossed an interception and Ohio State punted on their next possession. But a brilliant two minute drill by the Buckeyes tied the game near the end of the half, and I spent halftime staring into space and frowning. 21-21.
Johnny: So, the fight. What was your take on how it played out, and was that not one of the best double birds you've ever seen in your lifetime?
Ace: I just finished an hour on Twitter of defending the decision not to suspend Marcus Hall from a legion of idiots who watch FOOTBALL and are somehow deeply offended by the raising of two fingers, so you can guess my take on this: It was great. I haven't gone back and watched the fight like I'm looking at the Zapruder film, so this was just my initial impression—the refs appeared to catch the players who threw punches (or helmets) and did what they had to do, and otherwise they rightfully allowed a rivalry-fueled scrum to play itself out and move on. And yes, the double birds were magnificent. Mr. Hall, you're on my list of Buckeyes I Can Tolerate, and it isn't exactly the longest list out there.
I thought this was game over. Michigan got absolutely nothing done in the third quarter, Ohio State put up two touchdowns, and I assumed that Michigan was going to fold like a house of cheap cards. I assumed incorrectly. 35-21 Buckeyes.
Johnny: I would be remiss if I didn't ask about your impression of how Devin played. That dude turned in one of the toughest performances I've ever seen from a QB, and I think he kind of deserves all the props in the world for tearing apart a horrible secondary in just a sort of incredible way. (I'm conflicted about this praise you see)
Ace: It wasn't just a tough performance, it was flat-out one of the best performances I've seen a quarterback have in this rivalry from either side, win or lose—and that's before taking into account the fact that his ribs have been pounded into a fine dust for the last month and he showed up to the postgame presser in a walking boot. As it turns out, when Gardner is given time to throw he's actually pretty good at it—not flawless, but definitely good—and even when he's banged up and barely able to move around he somehow finds a way to make his legs a real factor. We saw this in multiple games last year and a few this season—especially Notre Dame and Indiana, though the Hoosier defense probably shouldn't count—and it's been a major reason why there's been so much discontent directed at Borges as opposed to Gardner; when the right plays are being dialed up, Gardner looks like one of the best quarterbacks in college football, period. He can elude one stray pass-rusher and still make plays, sometimes even two; it's when the cavalry arrives that things go wrong.
I hope that fans from both sides remember this as one of the great performances we've seen in this rivalry; if it's Shane Morris in there, we're talking about how this game played out exactly to expectations, and that's not a knock on Morris—he is, after all, a true freshman at the most difficult position to play as a true freshman.
Michigan scored touchdowns on all three drives in the 4th quarter. ALL OF THEM. I dunno. As an Ohio State fan watching this, the phrase "tearing your hair out" became literal as Gallon and Funchess and Dileo tore up the Ohio State secondary repeatedly. The Buckeyes added a touchdown to keep pace, but man. Thank you Tyvis Powell. 42-41 Ohio State. Thank you God.
Johnny: He has to go for two, right? El Guapo was about to turn into Manimal and literally eat every single defensive player for Michigan alive, OT was almost an assured loss. Can't imagine Hoke kicking there.
Ace: Absolutely. For one, OSU's offense is much better-suited to churning out touchdowns on short fields than Michigan's, and it was clear at the end of the game that the defense was completely worn out. Then there's the fact that Brendan Gibbons was injured during practice last week and couldn't play, so kicking meant hoping nothing goes wrong with the backup kicker out there. Also, it meant Michigan could win or lose the game on their terms, and just being in that position was so far ahead of anyone's reasonable expectation that it would've felt downright cowardly not to try—what did they have to lose except a game everyone expected them to lose?
I loved the call to go for it, and while many have questioned the playcall, Borges has certainly done worse—at least he didn't call a play-action waggle or that quarterback sweep he calls far too often in just that type of situation. They tried a rub route, OSU sniffed it out, and it didn't work. So it goes.
Johnny: During the last, oh, ten minutes of this game, I sat on my couch holding my head in my hands and tearing at my hair, occasionally punctuating successful Michigan third down conversions with a guttural groan.
That was not the emotional response that I expected to have. I had been hoping that by the third quarter I could shift my focus to making increasingly elaborate puns on Twitter about Carlos Hyde, but instead I was watching the Ohio State defense choose the absolute worst time to turn in their most pathetic performance of the season while the Michigan offense was choosing the best time to turn in their most inspired.
Like all really awesome games, it was incredibly painful and awful to watch until the very last second, whereupon it became fun as hell. Hoke and Borges and especially Devin Gardner pulled one hell of a rabbit out of their hats on Saturday, and yeah, who knows why they didn't try some of that stuff in the previous weeks, but they did on Saturday and gave Ohio State all they could handle.
I respect that. It was wild, stupid, and ultimately maybe the best Ohio State/Michigan game in a very, very long time. We've got a week to fret about Ohio State looking like twice baked ass defensively, but for now I just want to bask in the glow of something pretty dang cool.
Ace, maybe you don't believe in moral victories, but for you guys I think this is about as close as they come.
Ace: I sat in the press box with my insides tied in knots, hoping that nobody noticed how often I needed to dab the sweat off my forehead, and it was wonderful. I went to the Big House expecting a massacre and witnessed a classic; anybody who discounts how enjoyable that was because Michigan came up one point short should reevaluate why they watch sports.
Am I happy that Michigan lost? No. Am I happy that the program is in such a state that we're taking solace in just being competitive in The Game? No. Am I happy that I got to witness that game? Abso-[double-bird]-lutely.
On that note, I'd like to thank you, Johnny, for allowing me this forum to analyze or attempt to explain or just plain vent about this completely bizarre Michigan team, and also to those of you who've read along—I've really enjoyed interacting with the good people here and hope I get to do so even more in the future. A hearty "Go Blue!" to you all! (Sorry, I had to.)
And obviously a huge thanks to Ace for doing this all season with us. It was a big help and a lot of fun, and hopefully we'll see him again once the bowl season rolls around.