When it comes to football, mental blocks don't do as much damage as crackbacks or an Orlando Pace pancake. But try telling that to Ohio State. Somehow the Buckeyes' old archrivals, the Michigan Wolverines, have put such a whammy on the fragile psyches underneath the scarlet-and-gray helmets that Ohio State might have to call in the guys in the white jackets.
How else to explain what took place last Saturday in Columbus? For the second straight year Michigan ruined No. 2 Ohio State's hopes for a perfect season and a national championship, with an upset that only the most die-hard Wolverines fan could have envisioned.
"I know we prepared for them," said Ohio State safety Rob Kelly after Michigan, a 17-point underdog, pulled out a gritty 13-9 victory. "We had one of the best weeks of practice all year." Next year the Buckeyes might want to skip the practices and head right to Dr. Frasier Crane.
Ohio State coach John Cooper has a 1-7-1 record against Michigan since taking over in Columbus in 1988. So obsessed was Cooper with breaking the Michigan hex this year that he allowed only four of his players to speak to reporters before the game, and even then he limited them to a one-hour session six days before kickoff. "I don't want you guys interrogating my players this week," Cooper told reporters. Before last season's Michigan game the Wolverines were inspired by a remark made by Terry Glenn, then an Ohio State wideout. When asked about the Buckeyes' rivalry with the Wolverines, Glenn had replied, " Michigan's nothing." The resulting articles naturally wound up on a bulletin board in the Michigan locker room, and the Wolverines wound up with a 31-23 upset victory.
It's probably a good thing that Glenn is with the New England Patriots this fall. If Michigan struck him as unworthy last season, imagine what he would have thought of the '96 Wolverines. Not only were they coming off successive losses to Purdue and Penn State, but they had also committed 10 turnovers in those games. "For the first time," said Michigan placekicker Remy Hamilton, "we were having some doubts."
Those doubts seemed well founded late in the first half, when the Wolverines' starting quarterback, Scott Dreisbach, went out with a concussion after being turned into a grass stain by Buckeyes linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer. Ohio State was leading 3-0 at the time, and Michigan's offense was stuck in neutral.
But Michigan coach Lloyd Carr had been telling his players all week that if they kept Ohio State from breaking the game open, the Buckeyes were ripe for the picking, and the message seemed to get through at halftime, when Ohio State led only 9-0. After emerging from the locker room, the Wolverines outscored the Buckeyes 13-0 and outgained them 237 yards to 84. 'All last week, last night and even this morning, Coach was telling us we'd win if we kept it close," said cornerback Charles Woodson, who along with strong safety Marcus Ray helped limit the Buckeyes' speedy receivers to one pass reception longer than 14 yards through the first 3� quarters. "I guess he was right."
Nonetheless, the Wolverines needed a few breaks. Early in the third quarter Brian Griese, filling in for Dreisbach, hit receiver Tai Streets on the most important play of the game, a slant pass into single-man coverage. Ohio State defender Shawn Springs slipped, and Streets ran untouched for a 68-yard touchdown that pulled Michigan to 9-7. "After we scored that touchdown," Woodson said, "you could see it in their eyes. They were starting to feel the pressure."
Throughout the day, in fact, the Buckeyes seemed to get tighter and tighter, as if they were being squeezed in a vise. While Michigan gambled repeatedly—attempting a fake field goal in the second quarter and, with only a minute left in the half, passing on two out of three downs with the ball deep in its own territory—Ohio State got increasingly conservative.
The Buckeyes never got their vaunted ground game going in the second half, even with the mammoth Pace leading the way. Time and again, running back Pepe Pearson tried to find a hole in the belly of the Michigan defense, only to be repelled by nosetackle William Carr, linebacker Jarrett Irons and the rest of what was routinely a wall of white jerseys.