COLUMBUS, Ohio — Michigan is set. Michigan is golden. After its second consecutive whipping of Ohio State — the world hadn’t seen that in 22 years — Michigan is thinking very big thoughts.
The Wolverines will be favored by a bunch in the Big Ten Championship Game against Purdue, and they could well be in the playoffs no matter what happens in Indianapolis. After Saturday’s fireworks show of electrifying touchdowns that highlighted a 45-23 victory, they have new tales of glory.
How Michigan hadn’t put this many points on the Buckeyes in 76 years. How the Wolverines had to face this imposing task pretty much without the guy who had rushed for 1,457 yards and 18 touchdowns. Blake Corum tried to go on a bum knee but managed only two harmless rushes. But the sophomore who replaced him, Donovan Edwards, put a stake through Buckeye hearts with touchdown sprints of 75 and 85 yards in the fourth quarter. The last man to cover that many yards that quickly in this stadium might have been Jesse Owens.
How they put the season in the hands of a sophomore quarterback who had never played in Ohio Stadium before. J.J. McCarthy shredded the Buckeyes secondary for lightning bolt touchdown passes of 75, 69 and 45 yards and constantly tormented the Ohio State defense with his ability to scramble out of trouble and pass even with Buckeye arms clawing at him.
How two of the biggest plays came from a receiver with Michigan blood. Cornelius Johnson’s mother graduated from medical school at Michigan. Saturday, her son hushed the crowd with touchdowns of 69 and 75 yards. He first learned the trade playing flag football back home in Connecticut at the Greenwich Boys & Girls Club. If that place rings a bell, maybe that’s because it was the setting for LeBron James’ famous take-my-talents-to-South Beach announcement.
And how they took on the nation’s second highest scoring offense and allowed it three points after halftime. Michigan has given up 20 points in the third quarter all season. “Credit to the team up north’s defense,” said Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud, who even in thorough defeat could not utter his rival’s name.
“This is a locker room of heroes,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
Yes, after Saturday, the Wolverines can bellow The Victors all the way to the playoffs.
But what about Ohio State?
When the College Football Playoff committee has its final say, will that 11-1 record be worth as much as Monopoly money? Did USC, if it beats Notre Dame, just pass the Buckeyes? Or two-loss LSU? Or even TCU if it is upset in the Big 12 title game?
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Can that 21-10 victory over Notre Dame nearly three months ago save them now? Will it be forgotten, how they’ve lost both their star running back and receiver to injuries but still came in Saturday putting up 46.5 points a game? Or how this loss left Ryan Day 45-5 in his four-plus seasons, and 31-2 in Big Ten games, both defeats to Michigan?
“This one game does not define this team,” Stroud said after he passed for 349 yards, but also two interceptions.
They better hope not. But the problem in a game with this much buzz, that’s exactly what might happen, in the public if not the committee room.
“We’ll figure out what’s next. I don’t know exactly what is next right now,” Day said. “That’s life at Ohio State. I certainly know what this game means to everybody. So when you lose it all comes back to me, I’m the head coach and that’s what probably hurts the most.”
The Buckeyes had been planning atonement since last season’s 42-27 humbling in Ann Arbor. Staff changes were made, pangs of urgency were felt.
“It was a harsh pill to swallow for 365 days. It was just non-stop, man,” Stroud said. “There’s not one stone I didn’t turn over to try to win this game.”
Said Day, “Emotionally, we came out swinging.”
But when Michigan punched back, down went the Buckeyes, with a defense leaky enough to sink the Titanic and too many penalties. After one rash of yellow flags, Ohio State actually faced a 1st-and-35.
As for the defense, it’s never good news when the opponent gains 349 yards . . . on five touchdown plays. Missed tackles, blown coverages, the running back roaming free and untouched with only the end zone to stop him. None of this will look good in the selection committee room.
“Too many explosives, and that’s disheartening, for not just the defense but the team and the fans,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “I have to take the blame for that, and I should.
“Obviously the players are hurting much more than me, and I’m crushed.”
Ohio State’s problem is this will have to be serve as its closing argument to the committee, and the Buckeyes lost to a Big Ten team at home for the first time in seven years. Make that 22 years they were beaten here by Michigan. You have to go back to 1946 to find a bigger thrashing by the Wolverines in Columbus. Ohio State actually led 20-17 at halftime Saturday, then got wing-helmeted 28-3 in the second half.
“Honestly I don’t know what to feel right now,” Stroud said. “We laid an egg in the second half.”
If he leaves for the NFL as expected, this was his final bow in Ohio Stadium. Not the farewell he had in mind, losing to Michigan again. “People are going to say I never won The Game and I understand,” he said. “People are going to say I never won the Big Ten championship, I understand. When it comes to that, I just have to eat it.”
But Stroud’s head coach had to try to find a different perspective for any committee members who might be listening.
“I thought we were in it. It obviously got out of control down the stretch but it wasn’t like we were outmatched in terms of just overall play,” Day said. “As we get to those decisions I think you’ve got to look at body of work and what we’ve done. We have a lot of good pieces on this team. We came up short today, but I think if we were able to get a shot in the top-four we’d be a dangerous team.”
In an empty and dark Ohio Stadium Saturday night, that was the operative word for the Buckeyes after the visiting team left to go back up north.