Ohio State’s players heard what critics had to say about them in the week leading up to Saturday’s game against Michigan.
They didn’t like it very much.
Asked what he thought was the spark that led to Ohio State playing what was by far its most impressive game of the season in its 62-39 win over the Wolverines, fifth-year senior wide receiver Johnnie Dixon acknowledged that the Buckeyes used what they heard from outside the program as fuel this week.
“It might be the comments that were made that had some guys on edge this week,” Dixon said after the game. “Made them play with a bigger chip on their shoulder. And they displayed it this week. The defense, they played really hard. The offense, they played really hard as well.”
Asked whether he was referring to comments from Michigan or from the media, Dixon just shrugged and smiled.
Ohio State entered Saturday’s game as an underdog, the first time Ohio State wasn’t the betting favorite for a game since it won the national championship in 2014. With the Buckeyes coming off barely escaping with a 52-51 overtime win at Maryland, and Michigan having won 10 straight games, many people thought this would be the year that Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines would turn the tables.
Michigan came into the game full of confidence, too. Most notably, senior running back and team captain Karan Higdon responded affirmatively when asked this week if he would “guarantee” a win over the Buckeyes.
There was reason coming in to believe that Saturday would be Michigan’s day. The Buckeyes hadn’t truly dominated an opponent since their fourth game of the season against Tulane, and they had a string of underwhelming performances against mediocre teams such as Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Maryland to go along with a 49-20 loss at Purdue.
In a season that started with an off-field scandal, and had continued to be surrounded by questions about Urban Meyer’s health and the future of the program, there was a belief among many that Ohio State had taken a step back, and that the Buckeyes simply weren’t poised to compete with college football’s elite this season.
Over the course of four hours on Saturday afternoon, however, Ohio State turned that narrative completely on its head.
“The team we beat today was very good. That was a very, very good team with excellent players all over the field,” Meyer said after Saturday’s game. “The team we beat, that's a heck of a team we beat.”
Against a defense that came into Saturday’s game ranked first in the nation with only 234.8 yards allowed per game, Ohio State’s offense put up 567 yards and 62 points, the most points the Buckeyes have ever scored in "The Game" and the second-most ever scored against Michigan in a single game (Illinois scored 65 in a 67-65 loss to Michigan in 2010), dating back to 1879.
Defensively, the Buckeyes stepped up, too. While Michigan did score 39 points on 401 yards, 20 of those points and 179 of those yards came in the fourth quarter, after the Buckeyes had already built a commanding lead. Ohio State’s defense made the plays it needed to make all game to keep the Buckeyes ahead on the scoreboard, including a pair of interceptions by Jordan Fuller and Brendon White that set up Ohio State touchdowns. And of the only two touchdowns that Michigan scored in the first three quarters, one of them came after a Demario McCall fumble on a kickoff return that gave the Wolverines the ball at the 9-yard line.
Saturday’s game was the kind of complete performance that people had been waiting to see from Ohio State all season, and as a result, the Buckeyes rolled to their seventh straight win over Michigan, clinching the Big Ten East title and a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game and improving their chances of making the College Football Playoff in the process.
“I think today we really showed our tails off, and we played to the potential we’ve been saying we can,” said Ohio State defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones.
Ohio State right tackle Isaiah Prince, whose unit did not give up a single sack to the Wolverines, said he believed the Buckeyes’ preparation and togetherness this season came together for their best performance of the season on Saturday.
“I think it’s just the preparation and all the adversity we’ve been through,” Prince said. “I think this team has been through so much adversity this year, I don’t think there’s anything anybody can do to stop us. I think we’ve done been through everything a team can go through in one season, so I think we took that personal, the adversity we went through, and just put it all out today.”
“I think today we really showed our tails off, and we played to the potential we’ve been saying we can.”– Ohio State defensive tackle Dre'Mont Jones
While Higdon and others had plenty to say about Ohio State this week, the Buckeyes stayed away from making boastful statements, instead deciding to wait until Saturday to let their play do the talking – and Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell believed that played a part in their success, too.
“Team Up North this, Team Up North that, we heard it all week, but we kind of just laid low in the woods, worked our tails off at practice, had a great game plan and executed today,” Campbell said.
Now, Ohio State will look to keep the train rolling next Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis, where the Buckeyes will face Northwestern with a conference title on the line.
Considering that the Buckeyes played their best football on the season on Saturday, there could be some risk of a letdown next week – in a game in which Ohio State needs to play at its best again to make its case that it belongs in the College Football Playoff. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, however, expressed confidence that his team will do what it needs to do in the next seven days to rise to the occasion once again.
“We understand that elite warriors, which I consider our players, they get a mission assignment and a directive and if they accomplish it, they celebrate,” Meyer said. “They celebrate the right way with their families. Do the right things. And then they come back tomorrow and they accept their next mission assignment directive. And that's a big one.”