COLUMBUS — It felt shockingly improbable, yet so oddly familiar.
Like everything that happened — from the opening touchdown drive to the blocked punt to the four ensuing touchdowns, and all the gory details in the middle — was so wholly predictable. Like everyone with two eyes and a cursory knowledge of recent college football history should have known better. Especially those who’d lived it, breathed it and suffered the consequences.
Four hours later, after a staining 62-39 defeat, it sure seems like everyone was duped anyway.
“It didn’t go good, didn’t end up good,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh “We take responsibility for it.”
This team was different; at least, the lead up to Saturday’s game was billed as such. Michigan had the top-ranked defense in the country, weapons galore on offense and finally a quarterback. It had paraded a “Revenge Tour” for the wrongs done in 2017 — and was 3/4th the way through those opponents. Tepid as it may have been, junior running back Karan Higdon guaranteed a win. There was swagger.
Ohio State was different, too. Finally, oh finally, vulnerable. It had lost by 29 points to Purdue just weeks prior. It had a porous defense, ripe for exploiting. Conventional wisdom ahead of the matchup was that the home field was the only advantage the Buckeyes held.
Michigan went into The Game between a three- and five-point favorite.
“We all had mindsets to go to the Big Ten Championship. We all had mindsets of beating Ohio State,” said senior safety Tyree Kinnel. “And I felt like we start having that mindset after the Wisconsin game. After we beat them, beat Michigan State, beat Penn State, we were high on confidence.
“Maybe we were a little bit too ahead of ourselves.”
In the process, the Wolverines lost their season. There will be no trip to Indianapolis next weekend, nor a destination in the College Football Playoff. Just 10 hollow wins, one giant mental block and interminable questions.
The Buckeyes hung 62 points on that aforementioned top-ranked defense Saturday — topping the prior Michigan record of 56 points allowed to Cornell in 1889.
“I mean, I guess you could say shocked a little bit,” Kinnel said. “My mindset, our mindset as a defense coming into this game was to play like we’ve been playing all year. We feel like we had high confidence, we felt like we had a good shot at dominating this game.
“We made adjustments at halftime, we addressed the issues we had in the first half, and they came out and beat us with something else in the second half,” he added. “…They completely beat us today.”
The Wolverines offense didn’t fare much better, tallying just 235 yards of offense and 18 points before three late-game drives made the scoreline appear closer than the game really was.
In the end, this was Ohio State and this was Michigan, both holding true to form of the previous two decades. In the end, nothing was truly different.
It almost seems beyond the scope of the present to point fingers in a team-wide drubbing of this magnitude. Which is why it’s easy and fair to turn point them straight at the coaching staff. Harbaugh, for his part, accepted blame.
Even that seems to bely what’s institutionally baked into the program. This is 14 of 15 years now. It’s 19 years without a win in Columbus; players are coming into the program who haven’t been alive that long. There’s a mental stranglehold that extends beyond talent or execution or individual gameplans. This is a purgatory Michigan cannot escape until it finally clears the last hurdle. After Saturday, that mental hurdle seems as high as ever.
Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins summed it up best.
“I mean, we didn’t need the underdog score point. We didn’t need the revenge tour. We didn’t need the guaranteed win. We know what this game means to our school, to our teammates and to our coaches.”
As the Michigan offense waved the proverbial white flag, milking the clock down by 23 in the fourth quarter, the mind wandered to broader implications. There will be a cushy bowl game in Pasadena or New Orleans or some destination getaway. Players and coaches will talk about turning the page. There will be hand-wringing over what consistutes a successful season. It will all mean nothing. It’s almost as though today was never about just one game.
This is a program that came into Ohio Stadium seemingly on the precipice of a breakthrough. It leaves four hours later as far from that as ever.
“We’ll come back motivated to make darn sure it doesn’t happen again,” Harbaugh said of his mindset.
And he will, for the next 12 months, convince himself that next year is the one. So will some fans. Then next November will come and the Wolverines will be shoved back into reality by the “rival” that still controls it all.
In the end, maybe it’s just that simple. Same old Michigan.