Ohio State outlasts Michigan in surprise rivalry shootout
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The letters "BCS" or the words "national championship" barely entered the air during Ohio State's postgame press conference on Saturday. The Iron Bowl might as well have been taking place on another planet. All that mattered was that the Buckeyes had just defeated Michigan 42-41 in one of the most thrilling contests in the 110-year history of their rivalry. Even the fact that Urban Meyer's team just earned its 24th consecutive victory took a back seat to The Game itself.
Three hours later, Ohio State coaches and players were on buses about 10 miles north of Delaware, Ohio, when Auburn's Chris Davis returned a missed Alabama field goal 109 yards for a touchdown as time expired to knock off the top-ranked Crimson Tide. The Tigers' 34-28 victory likely lifted the Buckeyes to the No. 2 spot in Sunday's BCS standings. Now is it time to talk about the BCS?
"Nothing to say at this time," Meyer texted SI.com from the bus.
Ohio State needed its own last-second drama on Saturday to even remain in the national championship conversation, as an anticipated blowout turned into a high-scoring thriller. Buckeyes redshirt freshman nickelback Tyvis Powell sealed the victory when he intercepted Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner's potential game-winning two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds remaining.
"We were in there taking a shower ... that's when it really hit me," Powell said. "That was our season on the line -- 12-0, gold pants, chance at the national championship. Wow, I really kind of just saved our season."
Most assumed this game would be an uneventful prelude to the third-ranked Buckeyes' meeting with Michigan State in next Saturday's Big Ten title game. After all, it seemed a mismatch given how inept Michigan (7-5) had been on offense for much of the last month. But rivalry games have a way of producing wholly unexpected events -- be it the second-quarter brawl that resulted in three players' ejections (Ohio State running back/kick returner Dontre Wilson and offensive lineman Marcus Hall; Wolverines linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone) or Michigan's unexpected offensive outburst.
"We could have easily rolled over and died against the number three team in the country," said Wolverines tackle Taylor Lewan "We kept going, kept fighting, kept moving every time."
In a transcendent performance unlike any he'd recently delivered, Gardner thoroughly flummoxed the Buckeyes' defense. He completed 32-of-45 passes for 451 yards and four touchdowns. Michigan needed every bit of it to keep pace with Ohio State's powerful rushing attack, led by running back Carlos Hyde (27 carries, 226 yards, one touchdown) and quarterback Braxton Miller (16 carries, 153 yards, three touchdowns). The turnover-prone Gardner even managed to avoid an interception -- until his final throw.
After Hyde's one-yard touchdown run put the Buckeyes up 42-35 with 2:20 remaining, Gardner marched the Wolverines toward the end zone and threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess with 32 seconds left. Michigan coach Brady Hoke, facing the prospect of overtime without his regular kicker (Brendan Gibbons was injured in practice this week), and with an opportunity to ruin his rival's perfect season, sent his offense back on the field.
"We weren't doing a good job slowing them down," said Hoke. "We wanted to go win the football game."
When he saw that the Wolverines were going for two, Meyer called timeout. "We were blown out on defense," he said. "I wanted to give them a breath." According to Powell, sometime during the break Buckeyes cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs predicted the exact play Michigan would run -- a curl route by receiver Drew Dileo from the back of a triple-stack formation on the right side. The Wolverines ran it, and Powell promptly jumped it.
"It was such a crazy ending, everyone's head's still spinning," said Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman, who caught a 22-yard touchdown in the third quarter. "A win's a win. We'll take it any way we can get it."
Still, even hours after the game had ended, it was hard to comprehend exactly how these teams wound up in a 42-41 shootout -- especially given the state of Michigan's offense coming into Saturday. In the Wolverines' previous four games -- losses to Michigan State (29-6) and Nebraska (17-13), an overtime win at Northwestern (27-19) and a loss to Iowa (24-21) -- they had scored five offensive touchdowns. Gardner, repeatedly battered by opposing defenses exploiting Michigan's inexperienced offensive line, looked like a shell of his former self.
A week ago, the Wolverines gained just 158 total yards against the Hawkeyes. Yet against the Buckeyes, Michigan eclipsed that total in the first quarter (208). Offensive coordinator Al Borges, who has recently become a punching bag for Wolverines fans, went deep into his playbook, calling reverses, flip passes and more. Michigan jumped out to a surprising 21-14 second-quarter lead. Ohio State seemingly restored order by roaring back to take a 35-21 advantage in the third. But Gardner led the Wolverines on an 11-play, 83-yard touchdown drive to cut the Buckeyes' lead to 35-28. And then he cashed in on Hyde's lone mistake of the night, a fumble at his own 41-yard line early in the fourth quarter, to tie the game up.
At that point, Michigan's attack was no longer fueled by trickery, save for repeated throwback passes -- with Gardner rolling right and throwing back to his left -- including a two-yard touchdown toss to tight end Jake Butt (five catches, 85 yards) on third-and-goal in the fourth quarter. Gardner stood tall amid pressure and threw darts to his receivers, most notably Jeremy Gallon (nine catches, 175 yards, one touchdown). The Wolverines finished with a rivalry-record 603 total yards.
"They kind of looked like a different team," said Ohio State All-America linebacker Ryan Shazier. "But we kind of expected that."
Offensively, the Buckeyes looked like the same juggernaut they have all season. Hyde, who would be a surefire Heisman finalist if not for a three-game suspension at the beginning of the year, made mincemeat of a defense that came into the day ranked 13th nationally against the run. He broke Beanie Wells' Ohio State record for rushing yards against Michigan. While Miller did not turn in his finest aerial performance (6-of-15 for 133 yards, with an interception), he threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Devin Smith, and broke scoring runs of 53 and 21 yards, respectively.
But the Buckeyes' Achilles heel -- and the reason they will continue to be seen as inferior to Florida State -- is their pass defense, which came into the game ranked 52nd nationally (in efficiency rating) and will sag further now.
"We didn't get the normal pressure we usually have, and Gardner is an excellent thrower," said Meyer. "We've got to fix some things."
They'll need to get things fixed quickly, because a tougher test looms next week in Indianapolis. Even with a school-record 24-game winning streak to begin the Meyer era -- consecutive 12-0 marks, a staggering accomplishment no matter the conference -- Ohio State doesn't yet have a trophy to show for it. That opportunity will finally come against the 11-1 Spartans, a team that already figured to be the Buckeyes' toughest opponent in two years. Now, after Saturday's escape against the Wolverines, the threat feels even greater.
If Ohio State wins its 25th straight game, there will be no shortage of fury from Buckeye Nation in the event Meyer's team is still excluded from the BCS title game at the expense of a one-loss SEC champion. In reality, the defense that facilitated Gardner's career day on Saturday might be better off accepting the Jan. 1 undercard in Pasadena rather than dealing with the likes of the Seminoles' Jameis Winston.
But that's hardly on anyone's mind in Columbus. Much like Saturday's surprise shootout victory, the Buckeyes will take a trip to the title game any way they can get it.
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