COLUMBUS — The play was called 29 lead.
Curtis Samuel took a handoff going left. His blockers created a tunnel. He burst through it, jumped over the goal line and stretched his hands as wide as he could to the fans in the north end zone.
It may go down in history as one of the enduring plays in one of college football’s great rivalries — not because it was exceptionally drawn up (though it was), but because it ended an iconic game that may outlive those who saw it live.
The nation’s No. 2 team beat the No. 3 team, and then fans stormed the field. That doesn’t happen in games where the home team is favored. But this was Ohio State and Michigan, with the highest stakes in a decade. No celebration was unworthy.
That’s the significance of what happened at Ohio Stadium on Saturday: Ohio State 30, Michigan 27.
There will be time to rehash what was or wasn’t. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh offered plenty of thoughts in the moments following the game, when he said he was “bitterly disappointed” with the officiating. He thought one hold went uncalled, one pass-interference was called unjustly and one spot — on fourth down in double overtime, no less — should have given his team a victory. None of it matters. None of it’s changing.
It took two overtimes for the Buckeyes to beat Michigan, but they did it. They twisted the most jagged of knives through the hearts of those who dared to hope. They did it in the last game of the regular season, and they did it in a year where the Wolverines looked like one of the nation’s four best teams.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer called it an instant classic, and he’s right. Harbaugh said the implications of the rivalry weren’t on his mind. Both are probably true. That’s because instant classics don’t happen without heartbreak, “bitter disappointment” or whatever you’d like to call it. The ingredients of despair and ecstasy are exactly the same.
In his postgame press conference, Harbaugh stuck up his hands and showed how far from the first down he thought J.T. Barrett was on a double-overtime 4th-and-1. With Ohio State down three, Barrett rushed forward, took low contact from Delano Hill, and stretched toward the first-down marker.
Afterward, Harbaugh asked reporters what they saw on the TVs upstairs. “Short,” they agreed. The referees did not. They saw Barrett collide into Hill and fall just over the line of gain. The replay officials did not see enough to overturn it. That’s how these things go. Harbaugh has a legitimate gripe, but legitimate gripes are worth exactly zero wins.
Instead, they are worth years, even decades, of anguish. Harbaugh may be able to eventually rid himself of that burden with other games, other calls that do go his way and maybe even a championship. But he will never be able to undo what happened on the north side of Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
His team might have avoided it by gaining more than just five yards in the fourth quarter, or not committing one of its three turnovers, one of which occurred at the Buckeyes’ 1-yard line. But it’s too late for all that. Nothing will ever change the outcome. The game will be preserved, exactly the way it unfolded, for eternity.
After Harbaugh expressed his displeasures, Meyer held court in the southeast corner of the stadium. It couldn’t have been more different. There was Meyer, the victor, entirely flummoxed. He was asked all kinds of questions, including what he thought his chances were when his team was down 17-7 in the third quarter.
“I don’t know,” he responded. “We won the game.”
As the questions continued, Meyer found refuge in a clever response. Asked about an unsuccessful fake punt call, he said: “On the last play, we ran a stretch to the left. It’s 29 lead, is the call, and Curtis scored.” Asked about his health, he started, “Curtis…” before laughter finished the sentence for him. On if he remembered anything from after the game: “Yeah, Curtis scored.”
It was that simple for Meyer. Harbaugh didn’t even mention the play.
That’s the difference between being on the winning and losing ends of a game like Saturday’s. Harbaugh is left looking back on what went wrong, remembering the calls that could have been different. Meyer doesn’t have to remember anything. History will do it for him.