As the seconds continued to churn off the second-half clock Saturday, a sea of red began to funnel down the rows of Michigan Stadium. Chants of O-H-I-O from the traveling fan base rained down, and the locals filed for the exits.
The scoreboard was lopsided, and it would only grow moreso. The visiting sideline stayed composed because they’ve got more business to attend to in the coming weeks, and because nearly every one of them had been in this spot before, trouncing their supposed archrival.
It was a scene that could’ve been ripped straight from last year’s script, nearly verbatim.
After a 33-yard touchdown extended the Buckeyes’ lead to 56-27, where it would stay when the clock hit zero, sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson walked off the field, arms to his side, fists balled in rage, screaming to everyone and no one in particular. He looked up at the sky and screamed there, too.
“I didn’t see this coming,” Hutchinson would say later, choking back those emotions after Michigan’s 15th loss to the Buckeyes in 16 years.
“No one’s happy,” added senior tight end Sean McKeon. “(It’s) definitely really frustrating, especially for the seniors. It’s just kind of the same thing every year. Gotta execute better, and yeah it gets old, but just gotta play better against them.”
It’s easy to sit here and quibble about the particulars — about how three mistakes in the second quarter potentially accounted for an 18-point swing; about how senior quarterback Shea Patterson completed just four of 24 second-half passes; about how the defense relented 577 yards and 56 points a year after allowed 567 yards and 62 points; about a fourth-and-1 play call, and about nearly 100 before it; about how a team that fleetingly looked like it could compete was instead run off the field and shoved into another offseason of unanswerable questions.
But those would be mere quibbles, drowned out by the cacophony of reality, which is as follows:
This fanbase and this program measures itself against one program. That program is one of the three best programs in the country. Michigan is not.
Ohio State recruits at a higher level. It executes at a higher level. And for now, it is the singular force keeping the Wolverines from contending for titles most fans expect. That “level” is a nearly-impossible one to reach, and the Wolverines have found themselves hitting a really-good-but-not-great plateau in their attempts to climb there.
Twisting the dynamic of the “rivalry” into any other framework would be willful self-delusion.
Asked if that chasm instills a mental hurdle in Michigan’s players — some of whom have experienced just two wins over Ohio State in their lives — fifth-year senior Jordan Glasgow rebuffed.
“I can’t really speak for the other players, only myself in that aspect, but personally I don’t feel like that’s the case,” Glasgow said. “There’s a streak. It’s a bunch of individual games and they’ve been able to continue it on for the last 7-8 years. We just weren’t able to execute. As you said, execution plays a big role, the biggest role in every game. We just weren’t able to do that today.”
Today, or 15 of the last 16 tries.
Ultimately, trekking that steep mountain falls on Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh — who now drops to 0-5 in his tenure against the team he’s paid a hefty sum to beat. It would be wrong to insinuate he’s been complacent in those attempts. After being gashed for 369 rushing yards in 2015, Harbaugh turned around and hired Don Brown, who held the Buckeyes at bay in 2016. After watching Ohio State’s offense gash Michigan with quick tempo and alarming ease, he went out and entrusted an offensive overhaul to Josh Gattis, who hoped to mirror those traits. There will surely be changes in the offing, attempts to remedy yet another deep wound. Every week-to-week tweak, every wholesale change, every bit of evolution comes with one goal in mind.
When that goal never comes to fruition, vexation builds.
“It’s very, very frustrating,” Patterson said. “What we do all year leading to this game is for them. We know it’s an emotional game.”
Then he glanced to his left, peering at sophomore running back Hassan Haskins: “Luckily Hassan’s got a few more shots at them.”
After the game, a reporter asked if the disparity between the programs was the result of “a talent gap, a preparation gap, a coaching gap” or another factor.
Harbaugh glanced straight ahead and shot back.
“I’ll answer your questions, not your insults.”
At this point, they’re one and the same.