Last week, the Michigan football team beat Ohio State for the first time since 2003. While it wasn’t anything like the half-dozen “Games of the Century” these two rivals have played, I believe it might be one of the most important.
Just a few years ago, ESPN’s viewers called the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry the best. Not just in college football, or all football, but in all sports. Period.
But this year’s game won’t go down as one of the best. Michigan entered the game ranked 17th, but the Buckeyes hobbled into their annual finale dragging a 6 and 5 record behind them, their worst team since the 1990s.
But all that just made the stakes for Michigan that much higher.
The Wolverines had not beaten the Buckeyes since 2003. The Buckeyes were reeling from just about every problem a major program can have – from an ongoing NCAA investigation, to a coach fired last spring in disgrace, to their star quarterback departing early for the NFL.
This Buckeye team was led by a freshman quarterback and an interim coach, making matters worse, just days before the game, reports surfaced that Urban Meyer would be named the permanent head coach after the game – which he was.
All this only put more pressure on the Wolverines. If they could not beat the Buckeyes at their worst, when could they?
Lose, and the critics would wonder if Michigan’s renaissance was just a mirage. How would the team do any better in 2012, when the schedule gets a whole lot tougher.
But win this game, and the Wolverines would have ten wins for the first time in five years. They would be going to a big-time bowl game. And they would have the monkey – scratch that, the fully-grown gorilla – off their backs and the train would be leaving the station.
The Buckeyes scored on their first possession to go up 7-0. But Michigan fought back, hanging on to a 37-34 lead late in the game.
On second down from the 5 yard line , Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussant broke through the line and appeared to score, giving the Wolverines a very safe 10 point lead.
But no. The modern game is determined not by the players or even the refs on the field, but some invisible official in a video replay booth hundreds of feet above. The mystery man made a mysterious call, declaring Toussant had not scored a touchdown after all.
Well, no big deal, right? Just do it again. But on the next play the refs called the Wolverines not for one but two penalties. Think those guys weren’t feeling the pressure?
The Wolverines had to settle for a long field goal – something they rarely made the year before -- but the Buckeyes could score a touchdown, and if they did, the upset would be theirs.
When Ohio State’s wide receiver broke free from Michigan’s defender, a hundred thousand Michigan fans held their breath. But the Buckeyes’ freshman quarterback panicked, threw it too far, and the Wolverines survived.
Well, survived is not quite the right word. They went crazy – fueled by joy and relief and the secure feeling that no one could take this away from them.
The students rushed the field in a scene now being replayed on thousands of Facebook message boards, a picture of pure salvation.
This week the Big Ten rightly named Brady Hoke Coach of the Year. If his defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison – who took one of the worst defenses in the country and made it one of the best in just one season – is not voted the nation’s top assistant coach, Michigan should demand a recount.
When you beat your arch-rival by a point, all everybody can talk about is what you did right. And when you lose by a point, all they can talk about is what you did wrong.
Winning is better.
Just ask the teary-eyed players hugging the students on Saturday.
No, it was not one of the best Michigan, Ohio State games of all time, but for Michigan it was one of the most important.