ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The latest installment of The Game between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan was supposed to be another coronation for the four-time defending Big Ten champions.
Instead, the Wolverines’ decade-long hell froze over in the snow.
A strong running game helps. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh finally made The Game a 365-day obsession, and the Wolverines used that time-tested run-heavy formula to plow through the Buckeyes in a 42-27 victory at Michigan Stadium. The Wolverines rushed for 297 yards, and Hassan Haskins took his place in the rivalry montage alongside names such as Jamie Morris, Tim Biakabutuka and Chris Perry with 169 yards and a school-record five TDs.
That broke an eight-game losing streak to Ohio State, an 8.5-point favorite. That gave Harbaugh his first victory over the Buckeyes as a coach. That sends Michigan (11-1) to its first Big Ten championship game with a chance to make its first College Football Playoff appearance.
“The will was very strong on our team,” Harbaugh said. “The way it feels now; it feels like the beginning.”
A rivalry that turned 116 needed that new beginning, and that started in earnest in January. Harbaugh reset the coaching staff. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and linebacker Josh Ross made the decision to bypass the 2021 NFL Draft. McNamara assumed the leadership role. Every day, Ohio State, a team the Wolverines didn’t play in 2020, was on their mind.
“It’s been so long since we’ve beaten them,” McNamara said. “It’s just been an accumulation of everything that we’ve done and all the work we’ve put in. We knew that we could beat them, and now we know what it takes. Now we have to do that every single year. They’re human too, and we proved that today.”
Ohio State (10-2) suffered a second loss, which means no College Football Playoff berth. Third-year coach Ryan Day lost his first Big Ten game. The Buckeyes have real questions about a shaky defense that couldn’t stop the run in losses to Oregon and Michigan. That despite a high-flying offense built around quarterback C.J. Stroud, who passed for 394 yards and two TDs in a loss.
“When you work this game 365 days out of the year and you come up short, it’s a failure,” Day said. “It hurts, it hurts a lot.”
Michigan reversed those irreversible trends that have haunted the program for two decades by using the same philosophy.
The Wolverines set the tone with a TD drive to start the first quarter and a red-zone stop on Hutchinson’s first of three sacks. Michigan didn’t let a red-zone interception from Cade McNamara morph into a meltdown in the first quarter. The Wolverines kept their cool in those moments where the pushing and shoving started and led 14-13 at halftime. McNamara referenced the “What have you done to beat Ohio State?” video image in the locker room, the 6 a.m. workouts and the openness in which the Wolverines confronted the problem.
Still, how many times did this game turn Ohio State’s way at halftime?
Ohio State had the ball, but the Michigan defense forced three and out. Then Haskins scored a 13-yard run after a 55-yard run by Blake Corum, who returned from a leg injury. The Wolverines scored on the next drive, and McNamara hit Mike Sainristil on a flea flicker to set up another Haskins TD run. Michigan led 28-13 with 5:49 left in the third quarter. Instead of settling, which led to the collapse in the legendary 2016 loss, the Wolverines kept pounding behind a dominant offensive line.
Even when Ohio State scored two more TDs with Stroud and his all-world trio of receivers in Jaxon Smith-Njigba (11 catches, 127 yards) and Garrett Wilson (10 catches, 119 yards, TD) and Chris Olave (7 catches, 88 yards) scored, it took valuable seconds off the clock.
Michigan closed the door with Haskins, who scored on the next two drives in a bully-ball performance that Harbaugh made famous at Stanford. The Buckeyes were limited to 30 carries for 64 yards. TreVeyon Henderson (131 total yards, 2 TDs) was good, but Haskins was better.
Haskins manned a 28-carry workload. He hurdled defenders. He talked smack. He was the difference-maker.
“I told myself I’m not going down,” Haskins said. “I put that in the back of my mind. It was a determination to win.”
“They thought they saw the ghosts, but they didn’t,” Harbaugh added. “It was Hassan Haskins. It was No. 25. He was incredible. Great determination. Great focus.”
Harbaugh cited a group he called “The Ones,” a group of veteran players including Haskins and Hutchinson that had experienced the brunt of those losses to Ohio State in 2018 and 2019 that widened the gap between the programs. That long-awaited celebration happened, and that moment was worth the wait.
“It was just watching the rest of our teammates rush the field and watching the snow and all,” McNamara said. “The rest of the crowd rushed the field. It’s something we’ve dreamed of.”
“I wanted the goal posts to go down,” Hutchinson said. “I don’t think they’re down.”
Leave them up. The Game is back on. Michigan can win its first Big Ten championship since 2004, and Harbaugh is right. After losing five straight to the Buckeyes, the coach affirmed a new beginning around a revamped staff that included new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. Hutchinson heard the offseason chatter, and now it’s Ohio State’s turn.
“These guys have been disrespecting us, stepping on our jerseys, talking about hanging 100 on us,” Hutchinson said. “We were about that today.”
For Harbaugh, he took a veiled shot at his critics, a receipt that on the surface seems intended for Day.
“There are some people standing on third base thinking they hit a triple,” Harbaugh said. “They didn’t.”
For rivalry historians, call it a clumsy version of, “I couldn’t go for three.” Finally, Harbaugh admitted there will be joy in Ann Arbor all night, and he didn’t shy away from where this victory ranks.
“It feels like the best one,” Harbaugh said. “It sure does. We’ll get ready for next week. We’ll move on with humble hearts. Greatness doesn’t fear consequences. Fearless but not careless. That’s how it feels.”
It feels like a new beginning in Ann Arbor, and a heavy snow enveloped Michigan Stadium on Saturday night.
Isn’t that what happens when hell freezes over?