For 3,653 days — long, arduous, hollow days — the Michigan football program lived in the shadows of its unremitting failures against Ohio State.
There won’t be a 3,654th day. At long last, that futile streak is over.
After eight consecutive bitter losses to the Buckeyes, the Wolverines emerged from The Game victorious. No. 5 Michigan (11-1 overall, 8-1 Big Ten) shocked No. 2 Ohio State (10-2, 8-1), 42-27, clinching the Big Ten East and punching a ticket to next Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game.
“One of my favorite sayings of all time is, ‘When there’s a will, there’s a way,’ ” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. “And the will was very strong for our team.”
As the fourth quarter wound to a close, reality melded with imagination. Senior running back Hassan Haskins stood in the endzone with outstretched arms, celebrating a touchdown that handed Michigan a 15-point lead with 2:17 minutes to play. He blew kisses to the crowd, beckoning the raucous sea of maize pom poms that serenaded him for an electric five touchdown performance.
Pandemonium had officially set in.
When the clock struck double-zeroes, everyone seemed to forget about the freezing cold and the endless nightmares from previous defeats. Droves of fans plunged from the stands and spilled out onto the turf, reveling in their newfound glory.
Michigan, champions of the Big Ten East.
“It was a surreal moment,” junior quarterback Cade McNamara said. “It’s something we’ve dreamed of. Every 6 a.m. (practice), that feeling is the reason why we do it.”
Saturday offered an opportunity for the Wolverines to exorcise past demons, escaping the recent doldrums and persistent pain of the rivalry. A win would vault them into the Big Ten Championship Game and buoy aspirations of a berth in the College Football Playoff, two hurdles that the program had yet to clear as of the morning, seven years into Jim Harbaugh’s tenure.
But just as toppling the Buckeyes began to feel sisyphean, the Wolverines punched first — and refused to relent.
“It was really like a war out there,” senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who wreaked havoc on Ohio State’s offense with three sacks, said.
On Michigan’s opening possession, sophomore receiver A.J. Henning found the endzone on a 14-yard touchdown run, whipping Michigan Stadium into an immediate frenzy.
In the second quarter, even as Ohio State took a brief 10-7 lead, Michigan proved unfazed, embodying its season-long serenity. A 13-play, 82-yard touchdown drive sent the Wolverines into halftime clenching a 14-13 lead.
In past years, Michigan unraveled in similar moments, particularly in The Game. On Saturday, the team merely grew stronger.
The second half started to a tee. The Wolverines’ defense forced a crisp three-and-out, and the offense blazed down the field, running the ball three times for a total of 81 yards; Haskins capped the drive with a touchdown.
They had kicked Ohio State back onto its heels, and the Buckeyes would never recover.
Michigan’s offense, having re-discovered its rhythm, operated with machine-like efficiency. A 31-yard pass from freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy to sophomore receiver Roman Wilson set up a 34-yard flea-flicker from McNamara to junior receiver Mike Sainristil.
So hapless were the Buckeyes that only a brief kerfuffle could slow down the Wolverines. After a scrum triggered an unsportsmanlike conduct on Ohio State’s Cameron Brown, Michigan found the endzone again. Haskins bounced outside, scoring for the third time on the day, staking the Wolverines to a stunning 15-point lead.
The result incited delirium and momentarily broke the Michigan Stadium scoreboard — an apt microcosm for the shock of The Game’s result.
Even as Ohio State scratched and clawed its way to an early fourth quarter touchdown, Michigan responded with yet another emphatic, methodic drive. Haskins wiggled his way down the field, ultimately plowing into the endzone for his fourth touchdown.
In the game’s waning minutes, when Stroud’s fourth-and-18 heave fell shy of a first down, the reality set in. Bleachers rattled. The stadium shook. Hutchinson and fifth-year safety Brad Hawkins shed tears.
“We have (a sign) inside Schembechler Hall, ‘What are you doing today to beat Ohio State,’ ” Hawkins said. “And today, we beat them. It’s a blessing.”
A blessing, perhaps, but certainly not a product of luck.
“Every workout, every practice, every game, everything that we put into this season — that’s something that we kept in the back of our minds every single day that we entered Schembechler Hall,” McNamara said of Ohio State. “We did enough to beat them today.”
After nine years of perpetual suffering, Michigan had achieved the unthinkable. It’s a game that no one will soon forget.
“We’ve got a lot of hours left today,” Harbaugh smirked, allowing himself to digest the gravity of the moment. “… Celebrating long into the night.”