Michigan and Ohio State, and the beautiful brutality of winner-takes-all
For the last time, the best college rivalry will provide clear resolution.
The worst thing about a 12-team College Football Playoff, which is headed our way next year like an antagonistic drone, is that it will create something that is unimaginable today: An irrelevant Michigan-Ohio State game.
Most of the time, the Wolverines and Buckeyes will have already proven they are among the Dilated Dozen. They will play in the final regular-season game with their playoff hopes assured. Beyond that, the Big Ten will abandon its divisional setup next year and include only the two best teams in its conference championship game. That will often be Michigan and Ohio State as well.
Put those circumstances in this year’s game, and Michigan might think about benching quarterback J.J. McCarthy. Why risk injury in such a dress rehearsal? Ohio State might let Marvin Harrison II chill out, too. It would be a jarring shame to let Michigan-Ohio State mean anything less than what it means today. Which is, of course, everything.
Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor has at least as much urgency as any in this game’s history. It’s No. 2 vs. No. 3, and the winner will be the overwhelming favorite to crunch the West Division champ next week and then proceed to the playoff. The loser has no assurances, not with the winner and Georgia and Washington and Florida State possibly going undefeated.
A loss by any or all of those would bring the Michigan-Ohio State loser into the mix, of course, along with Alabama, Texas, Oregon and even Louisville. That is why we will miss the 4-team playoff more than we know. Instead of a tightrope, the teams will be walking a sidewalk, with a luxurious net awaiting the fallen.
Add Jim Harbaugh’s suspension and the sign-stealing affair that has turned Michigan into the Grifters Valiant, and add Ohio State’s 2021 and 2022 losses to Michigan and the absurd pressures that greet coach Ryan Day, and there’s enough hypertension to make the Big House itself suffer a stroke.
But that’s why Michigan-Ohio State is the greatest show in college sports, and maybe you can delete “college” from that sentence. No other rivalry game showcases this much football talent at the end of the regular season, combined with as much history, grudge-holding and just plain folklore.
Michigan has won 11 national championships, of various sorts, and Ohio State eight, including the first CFP title in 2015. Ohio State is 9-for-16 in Rose Bowls, Michigan 8-for-20. Michigan has won the Big Ten 44 times, Ohio State 39.
Ohio State has seven Heisman winners, Michigan three. Michigan has won 1,001 games, Ohio State 963. Ohio State’s winning percentage is .734, Michigan’s is .733. Ohio State has a record 90 first-round NFL draft choices, Michigan 59.
In other words, bragging rights for everyone, and those who ridiculed Ohio State’s tattoo scandal that eventually capsized Jim Tressel can bear the slings and arrows of the spying misadventure, and the “Jail To The Victors” T-shirts.
It’s impossible to rank the best games in this series because they had so many different implications. In 1950, a fearsome blizzard struck Ohio Stadium and covered the yard lines, the end zone, everything. Michigan reverted to the advice of Fielding Yost, its first great coach: “Punt and pray.” It punted 24 times, Ohio State 21 times, sometimes on first down, merely hoping that someone would fumble and maybe a kicker would squeeze a field goal through uprights he could not see.
“You and I wouldn’t have gone outside to get the newspaper on a day like that,” said Chuck Ortmann during a 2006 interview. He was the quarterback who didn’t complete a pass, but who handled all those punts, including one which began the game.
‘It was so boring that I have the film of that game and I’ve never watched it, which should tell you something,” Ortmann said.
With 20 seconds left in the first half, Heisman Trophy winner Vic Janowicz lined up for another Ohio State punt. Tony Momsen blocked it and somehow gathered it in for the only touchdown.
Michigan won, 9-3, without benefit of a first down, and Buckeyes’ coach Wes Fesler was fired for not merely running out the clock, among other failings. That ushered in the reign of Wayne Woodrow Hayes, which brought four national championships and turned up the volume to “A Day In The Life” levels.
Hayes would only refer to the “school up North” and once pushed his car over the state line, back into Ohio, before he would refuel it. In 1968 his loaded Buckeyes called time out late in the game, reinserted fullback Jim Otis, and scored to make the final score 50-14. Hayes also went for a 2-point conversion, which failed, and said that his center had banged up his hand too badly for a long snap. Legend has it that Woody, asked again why he went for two, said, “Because they wouldn’t let me go for three.”
Michigan responded by hiring the most authentic Hayes facsimile it could find. Bo Schembechler had played and coached for Hayes at Miami of Ohio. He was nearly as bombastic, although he didn’t lose his career by punching a Clemson linebacker as Hayes did, and just as demanding. Going into the 1969 game, Schembechler put a piece of tape on every scout team member’s helmet and wrote “50” on it, just as a gentle reminder. The Buckeyes were No. 1 again and just as powerful as ever, but Michigan beat them, 24-12.
Even today the name “Barry Pierson” will bring a smile to a Big House ticketholder. He intercepted three passes and returned a punt to the Buckeyes’ three-yard-line, setting up the score that made it 21-12.
“Not to take anything away from Ohio State,” Pierson said, “but we were going to play tougher than them, and that was developed in us all year.”
Pierson then became a 2-time state championship coach at Whitmore Lake, in his home town of St. Ignace, Mich. And that’s another reminder of how deep this game goes.
Michigan and Ohio have a mutual distaste that goes back to Andrew Jackson, the 7th President, who had to dispatch troops to stop what could have been a border war. When the boundaries of Michigan Territory were drawn, they included a narrow slice of the state of Ohio that now includes the industrial city of Toledo.
Toledo was important because, at that time, it was the westernmost point of the Erie Canal, and both Ohio and Michigan wanted control of the port. A 23-year-old territorial governor named Stevens Mason passed legislation that made the strip of land Michigan’s own. Ohio’s governor Robert Lucas, for whom Toledo’s county was eventually named, extended Ohio’s border into the area, and he sent surveyors to make it official.
Militias gathered, and its members delivered warning shots, and a Michigan sheriff named Joseph Wood was stabbed in a tavern, with a penknife, by an Ohioan named Two Stickney.
Eventually the Congress reminded the Michiganders that it would be determining their bid for statehood. Ohio got Toledo and the disputed land. Michigan had to settle for the Upper Peninsula, an undeveloped and forbidding 7,000 square-mile frontier on the other side of the Mackinac Strait.
But the U.P. had copper and iron ore, and Michigan prospered because of it. And it also had St. Ignace. Without the deal, who knows where Barry Pierson would be?
Just because the two states began acting like adults doesn’t mean they’re friendly, and the end of November is where that emotion acts out. Generally speaking, U. of Michigan folks are perceived as arrogant, or too caught up in their academic rankings, and folks who went to The Ohio State University are looked upon as northern Kentuckians. That’s why the Harbaugh affair has become such a litmus test. In its wake, Blue fans are descending into the same whataboutism and paranoia that you’d expect from the mobs below Toledo.
Schembechler won five of his 10 meetings with Hayes, and Hayes won four. When they tied, the Big 10 athletic directors voted to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl. Schembechler might not have ever gotten over that. Fighting heart problems, Schembechler resigned after the 1989 season and died in 2006, the day before Ohio State would beat Michigan, 42-39.
This made most people sad and others uncomfortable, mainly the members of a Columbus punk-rock band called The Dead Schembechlers. For years they had entertained Buckeye fans with anti-Michigan standards such as “I Wipe My Ass With Wolverine Fur.” Their descendants came up with “Harbaugh To Hell.” The Dead Schembechlers were scheduled for a concert the day after Bo died, and in tribute they promised to donate the proceeds to a charity that the family preferred. They changed the marquee of the theater to “Beat Michigan Rally, God Bless Bo.” The offer cost them $10,000 and, in retrospect, was Bo’s last laugh.
In fact, Detroit News beat writer (and Ohio native) Angelique Chengelis, known to some as The Angel Of The Big House, asked Bo about the band a few years before. Schembechler was curious enough to look up the Deads on the internet and ask his sons if they knew about them. Then he turned to Chengelis and said, with deep satisfaction, “This means I still matter in Columbus.”
Thankfully, it’s all that matters on Saturday.