When Urban Meyer saw his team needed half a yard to keep its chance at scoring a touchdown and thus defeating its archrival alive, his mind flashed to a conversation he had at his old job.
“The last one, it was not very far, and my AD at Florida actually used to always tell me, said: 'If you can't get that far you're not a championship team,'” Meyer said. “We used to talk about that all the time, and I agree with him. So that actually crossed my mind—if you can't get that we're not a championship team anyway.”
Meyer turned to his quarterback, leader and captain J.T. Barrett to move the ball the necessary distance and convert the fourth down for the Buckeyes. Trailing 27-24 in double overtime, Barrett faked a handoff to Curtis Samuel and stepped forward in the box. A Michigan defender hit him, causing him to bounce off tight end A.J. Alexander's backside, landing exactly on the 15-yard line. The referees determined Barrett picked up the first down and after the play was reviewed, the spot stood.
Curtis Samuel raced into the end zone on the very next play to give Ohio State a thrilling 30-27 victory and keep the Buckeyes postseason hopes and dreams alive.
Needless to say, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh saw it differently.
“I’m bitterly disappointed in the officiating today,” Harbaugh said. “That spot, the graphic displays of the interference penalties. One not called on us on Grant Perry, who was clearly being hooked before the pass and the previous penalty, the ball is uncatchable and by the receiver. So I’m bitterly disappointed in the officiating. I cannot make that more clear. My view on the first down, it was that short.”
Harbaugh kept interrupting a reporter trying to ask more questions so he could express his disappointment with the officiating. He continued his rant, one that included the phrase "bitterly disappointed" four more times. The Wolverines were whistled for seven penalties that resulted in 59 yards. Ohio State only got called for two that resulted in six yards.
Harbaugh wouldn't leave the spot on Barrett's fourth down run alone, though. And Barrett could not honestly say he thought he got enough to move the chains after he picked himself up off the turf.
“Honestly, when I got hit, I wasn't 100 percent certain, to be honest with you,” Barrett said. “I looked at it. But when I fell, I fell on top of people. So I didn't know exactly what it was going to be. But I'm glad I got it. The review said it was good.”
“I know it's a very good defense, a rugged defense, but I've got players like our J.T. Barrett,” Meyer said.
Barrett did not play well in the first half on Saturday against the Wolverines, completing only five passes for 40 yards and succumbing to three sacks. He also ran seven times for 17 yards as the Buckeyes managed just eight first downs in 30 minutes. But when it mattered most, Ohio State's players came through—something the coaching staff stresses constantly.
Samuel's Houdini act set up Barrett's fourth down run in double overtime. He caught a screen pass from Barrett, changed directions once, then again, and again before sprinting left, picking up a block and gaining nine yards.
Samuel was at a loss for words when trying to describe the play. Meyer was too.
“I can't even tell you how that happened. I gotta go back and look at that one,” Samuel said. “I had to go back and make a play for my team and it happened.”
“To be honest with you, I don't remember. I think he came back—I can't remember what the play was—just a T swing, if I remember right,” Meyer said. “But I don't—it was not designed for a great athlete to run around that way.
“That's called recruiting.”
“I think that was just a good job on their part,” Barrett added. “It was a screen and No. 5 came over the top. He scraped over the top, I guess he had Curtis in man. I thought we had a good look. That's why we ran the play—or I continued to run the play. Then he did a good job skirting over the top and Curtis did his thing.”
Samuel finished with 32 receiving yards and 54 rushing yards to go with the game-winning touchdown. Those totals gave him 822 rushing yards, 704 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns in 12 regular season games for the 2016 season. None were more important than the final 15 gathered on the sweep to the left that gave Ohio State an emotional win a four-hour marathon of a football game.
“Very emotional. It was an emotional rollercoaster,” Pat Elflein said.
“You gotta keep swinging either way, if you're up or if you're down. You have to keep playing every play like it's a tie ballgame. It happens that every single play of this game mattered. The way our guys stepped up and kept swinging. It's more pressure when it's close and the game is on the line.”
“The overtime periods, you kind of get a sense where they’re at stamina-wise,” Billy Price said. “And how they’re feeling. Just try to continue to push and emphasize asserting your dominance. It’s just who trained all offseason put forward.”
“I'm just really thankful, honestly. Grateful that God blessed me with all these blessings, and happy for our fans,” Barrett said. “I think Buckeye Nation, to have that game played at home, just happy that we was able to go out there and win for the season and win for Buckeye Nation.”
Buckeye Nation made up the majority of the 110,045 people at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, a record for attendance to watch a football game at The Horseshoe. Their honor was tested with Ohio State's anemic effort offensively in the first half, normally reliable kicker Tyler Durbin missing a pair of easy field goals and the offensive line struggling to protect the quarterback.
But Ohio State rewarded the crowd's faith with a pick-six by Malik Hooker, another interception by Jerome Baker and Wilton Speight's fumble at the 1-yard line that Davon Hamilton recovered. Turnovers, Harbaugh's sideline meltdown that resulted in an unsportsmanlike penalty and Ohio State's stiff rush defense kept the Buckeyes in the game even when Michigan dominated before the fourth quarter.
“J.T. didn't start out very good. We had some misfires. We weren't playing very well. The first drive was great. I think we hit a field goal or something,” Meyer said. “We had some protection issues. And the pass game is a constant. It's either protection issues or a misfiring, and I thought the receivers played decent. I know Parris [Campbell] had a drop. They just keep swinging. It's a very, very good defense we faced.”
“First half we had good things called. We just weren't executing it, whether it myself, O-line, receivers, it was everybody played their part in that,” Barrett said. “The second half, defense was doing their job. We've gotta do ours. So let's go out there and do our part. We were doing everything we prepared for. So it was just really going out and executing that.”
The execution finally came to pass and Ohio State earned a share of the Big Ten East Division crown. Its loss to Penn State last month will keep it from playing for the conference championship next weekend. But on Saturday, none of that mattered.
A stomach-turning, pulse-throbbing edition of The Game is going to have to be good enough proof that the Buckeyes are one of the top-4 teams in the country. They have no other choice and believe they belong.
“Right now, been a part of some crazy football games here. That one's No 1,” Barrett said. “But I mean it's really out of our hands. At this time I think we are one of the top four teams in the country, personally, but I think that, like I said, it's up to the committee to do their thing. Hopefully everything works out in our favor.”
“I don't know. I think we're one of the top teams in the country,” Meyer said. “Once again, I don't really know that. I go week to week, and I love my players.”
Harbaugh loves his players too, giving them credit and saying "they worked incredibly hard" before getting back on his blame the officials saddle. His players knew the opportunity they missed.
“Along with Alabama, we are arguably one of the best teams in the country,” Speight said. “I think the chance at the playoff is slim to none now. It stinks that that will be our last shot to play these guys.
“I feel like I let the defense down with the mistakes I made. It stings. But we had opportunities down the stretch and got into the second overtime but I am not going to comment on the ref’s calls at the end of the game.”
“We wanted to get the win as a team but we fell short as a team,” Michigan fullback Khalid Hill said. “We have to keep our heads up and keep moving.”
Ohio State will too as it awaits its postseason fate. All it took was a miraculous play by Samuel, a gutsy call by Meyer and enough of a push from the offensive line to get a double overtime victory in one of the best installments of the greatest rivalry in college football.
“The line, the receivers, everybody understood what is at stake,” Samuel said. “Everybody trusted me with the ball in my hands and knew I could make a play. Flat down the line, got two guys pulling around, great blockers, great guys and they fed up and they made it easy for it.”
“I just looked around and, man, that just happened. We just played the team up north football in double overtime and we just won,” Barrett said.
“So, I don't know, I think that's why you play the game of football for moments like this because all the training we go through, all the workouts and yelling and screaming, I mean, this is why we play the game for moments like this against your rivals and a great atmosphere for college football and for your teammates. And I think that was just something that we shared right there, that let our seniors go out with a bang. Those guys got five gold pants. Five. Some people don't even get one. But the fact that they got five, that's truly a blessing. And I was just very thankful that I could be a part of this.”