Welcome back to My Favorite Things.
We're isolated from each other, trying to survive a global pandemic. Each day brings more uncertainty and terrifying news, as we take shelter from an invisible global scourge. A single cough can send your mind to a dark place. Life is paused. Sports are on hold. This sucks.
My Favorite Things is an escape from all of that. The philosophy is simple:
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad
So let's do that. Today we head back to Ann Arbor on November 24, 2001. Ohio State is going for it on 4th & 1 from the Michigan 46-yard line.
EPISODE 3: THE WITCH IS DEAD
Hold on. Back up. This moment is too important. We can't just fast-forward through the devastating context.
A mystical hinge separates Michigan Owning the Rivalry from Ohio State Taking it Over in the illusion that is linear time. If you try to isolate the moment this hinge first appeared, you'll end up right here, on 4th & 1. Today's journey takes us to our Big Bang when the universe we want to live in was first activated.
Brace yourself; this series is called My Favorite Things - spoiler - these always end well. We will get there. But the rugged path to this moment is too important to skip over, so here we go.
Presenting: The John Cooper Michigan Experience™ rendered down to a single play.
Maybe you've never seen this before. Perhaps you blocked it out of your mind. This play took place in 1999, two years prior to the Big Bang and in a season that deserves none of your brain space. Yes, Jonathan Wells ripped off a 76-yard run in Ann Arbor that included a spin move that would make then-6-year old Braxton Miller blush. The only thing missing was the touchdown.
How did he not score, you shout at the sky. Why did he zig toward the middle of the field instead of zagging toward the sideline, you scream. This is what it was like before the world as we know it formed. Ohio State had great players. Ohio State had excellent coaches. What you see in that GIF above isn't a function of bad game day coaching. This is what happens when your program is stuck in a nightmare.
One of the elements of Michigan's 1990s dominance over Ohio State that's been lost to the sands of time is that Coop's worst team of the decade should have beaten that ass in 1999. It should have handed Tom Brady his second straight L in the rivalry. On paper, it's not a huge stretch to suggest the Buckeyes could have been gunning for a sixth straight win against the Wolverines while Wells was galloping toward the endzone.
On paper, it's not a huge stretch to suggest the Buckeyes SHould have been gunning for a *sixth straight win* against the Wolverines in 1999.
But they weren't. Instead, they were aiming to beat their rival for just the third time in a dozen tries. Todd Howard (who wasn't even the second-best Howard Michigan produced that decade) caught Wells zigging the wrong way by his shoestrings just shy of the goal line.
By 1999, Coop's 12th season in Columbus, Ohio State fans knew exactly what was going to happen next. We'll get to it in a second. First, we need to peek back three more years to 1996 when the undefeated Buckeyes had Pasadena already locked up and were heavy favorites at home.
Here we have Charles Woodson erasing a Pepe Pearson touchdown. Like Wells three years later, it's hard to comprehend how he didn't score.
You could watch that GIF 100 times and still not understand if Dimitrious Stanley (3) had a blocking assignment, if he forgot he was involved in a live football play or if he simply chose to be a spectator. His eyes are fixated on the ballcarrier instead of anyone in yellow pants, including the guy covering him who makes the TD-saving tackle.
This is an Ohio State touchdown if Woodson has anything in his way. If Stanley just gets in front of him, the puckered complexion of how that catastrophe unfolded is corrected before disaster can happen. The Buckeyes are probably playing for a national championship in Pasadena instead of spoiling Arizona State's shot.
Now we can jump back to 1999 and the crippling inevitability of what happened next, with gallows humor. Here's 1st and Goal after Wells' 76-yard run.
Steve Bellisari threw it into orbit on purpose, which, well, sometimes it was hard to tell his intent. Here's 2nd and Goal.
Michael Wiley, running 20 yards to gain one. Aaaaaaaand here's 3rd and Goal.
Kevin Houser recovered that fumble, and there's your annual Field Goal Where a Touchdown Should Have Been, a self-inflicted puckered staple of the Cooper experience.
Coop went winless in Ann Arbor, losing all six up there. His 1997 team quite literally handed the home team the decisive points. Michigan was a witch that could not be killed. It either won outright or survived long enough for Ohio State to make the fatal error before self-destructing.
The 2001 team wasn't much better than the 1999 edition, but the Buckeyes had been promised 310 days earlier to be, well, a little different from what we had grown used to.
That speech was fine. Its legacy hung in limbo before aging wonderfully exactly 310 days later.
But 309 days later, this was a 6-4 team that had looked clunky all rebuilding-season long. Meanwhile, Michigan was 8-2 and owned the tiebreaker with Illinois, which had just squashed Senior Day in Columbus the previous weekend. Tressel's big, bold January promise - that you would be proud - demanded a win.
Curing a six-game losing streak in Ann Arbor knew no other type of pride. A moral victory would have been a disaster. We entered that Saturday - with a winless, backup quarterback - bracing for The Usual.
The game was barely underway when Mike Doss picked off John Navarre. He returned it back to around the same spot opposite of where Howard had caught Wells two years earlier.
...and then he fumbled.
During the Cooper era, a Michigan player would have recovered it. Jonathan Goodwin (78) might have scooped the ball up and given the Wolverines a fresh possession, and in a pre-replay era his ass being out of bounds might have been overlooked (actually, even in the replay booth era...yeah, too soon).
But instead of that heartache, Courtland Bullard - paying full attention and staying relevant for the balance of the play - pounced on the ball and saved the turnover. It put the Buckeyes in that familiar position of missing out on six and settling for thr--
This should have been a three-yard loss.
Wells was dead-to-rights in his own backfield, and the play should have ended right there. During the Cooper Era, this would have weaponized the largest stadium in America for a 3rd down that would have invariably produced a 4th down field goal attempt.
Michigan's DL shifted pre-snap and attacked the play to perfection, hitting Wells before he even took a third step with the ball. But instead of crumpling to the ground, he shed the tackler and skipped into the endzone for six. Not a field goal. A touchdown.
This had to be a glitch. A beautiful, impossible outlier. We'll take it.
IN 2001, Michigan was significantly better than Ohio State - and yet Ohio State was absolutely kicking its ass all over ITS OWN field.
Ohio State now had an early lead over Michigan, but we've been here before - several times. Ohio State was up in every GIF you've seen to this point! The Buckeyes also had the chance to dramatically extend those leads, and failed. When presented with opportunities to shape the tone of a game and take it over, they threw up all over themselves.
They self-destructed, which is how a nightmare can last for over a decade. This was their culture; it was who they were whenever Michigan showed up on the schedule. The Usual.
We can now return to the beginning. We've earned that right.
Today we head back to Ann Arbor on November 24, 2001. Ohio State is going for it on 4th & 1 from the Michigan 46-yard line.
Normally, a Tressel team would play field possession between the 40s. The punt is the most important play in football is the man's coaching epitaph. But this is the Michigan game, which is more important than football. This is generational. It's cultural.
That moment was bigger than the most important play in football, and Tressel knew it. This was easily the most important decision of 2001. I would argue 4th & 1 from the Michigan 46 is the most important play the rivalry has seen this century, because it became the hinge.
Once this happened, it was evident Doss' fumble, Bullard's recovery and Wells' first touchdown were not glitches after all. The decision, the play call, the execution, the result. The Big Bang.
This is the moment everything changed.
Wells ran toward the same endzone he had run to two years earlier. Howard was on the field but this time - he was nowhere to be found. 14-0 Buckeyes. They missed a field goal on their next drive, but refused to crumble - they picked off Navarre again on the next possession and Wells scored his third TD to make it 21-0 Buckeyes.
At halftime it was 23-0 Buckeyes. Oh my God. The hinge roared.
Throughout the 1990s, Ohio State entered The Game at least as talented as Michigan in down years, and better during most. That did not matter, as the Wolverines owned the decade. In 2001, Michigan was significantly better than Ohio State was, and yet 30 minutes into the game - in Ann Arbor, with Michigan playing for another Big Ten title - Ohio State was absolutely kicking its ass all over the field.
A tenuous 2nd half produced a classic Tresselball Hang on Sloopy situation, but the Buckeyes never self-destructed and the outcome wasn't affected as they were victorious in Ann Arbor for the first time since Earle Bruce's final ride.
The Cooper Era would have been extended into a new regime if Tressel's first team lost to Michigan 310 days after pride was promised. Ohio State had brought a glass jaw into The Game for nearly a decade and a half. They came out roaring, they took some hits, they got knocked out.
In 2001 Ohio State blew Michigan's doors off and then survived the fight, refusing to allow adversity to impact the outcome. The Buckeyes were in command of that afternoon, and would go on to flex that command in the series for at least the next two decades.
This all began on 4th & 1 from the Michigan 46 back in 2001.
Ohio State finally woke up from its nightmare. And Michigan's was only just beginning.