On Jim Harbaugh’s fifth try, on Michigan’s eighth since it last won this matchup and on a day that, for a moment, seemed to have all the ingredients, it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. And after another year of coming up short against Ohio State, it seems like it might never be.
When Austin Mack delivered the last dagger to Michigan’s hopes, running to the corner of the end zone after a 16-yard touchdown and celebrating with his teammates as the Buckeyes’ lead grew to 22 late in the fourth quarter, Harbaugh looked on with one hand on his hip. He slumped his shoulders, then started to walk up the sideline.
After the ensuing kickoff, Patterson had nothing left to do but trot back out onto the field. He took a first-down sack and was still on the ground as four Buckeye defensive linemen celebrated behind him. What remained of the maize portion of a crowd of 112,071 headed towards the exits. Those in scarlet congregated in the lower level, knowing their school’s grip on the conscience of the Michigan football program would last another year.
No. 1 Ohio State beat No. 13 Michigan, 56-27, on Saturday in a game that felt inevitable even after the Wolverines injected belief into it. The Buckeyes went for 577 total yards and 264 on the ground as, a year after giving up 62 points in Columbus, Michigan’s defense had just as many answers as it did in 2018.
“We gotta be so much better,” said sophomore defensive end Aidan Hutchinson. “There’s nothing we haven’t seen before, it was all as expected. We just gotta execute better and just all do our jobs. And we didn’t.”
Against an Ohio State team that left Ann Arbor 12-0, the College Football Playoff likely in front of it, the Wolverines (9-3 overall, 6-2 Big Ten) had to play a near-perfect game to keep up. All it took to put the game out of reach was a few mistakes.
Senior safety Josh Metellus let Buckeye receiver Chris Olave get a step on him late in the first quarter. Seconds later, Olave was streaking down the right sideline for a 57-yard touchdown, turning a 7-6 game into a 14-6 game. A few drives later, with Michigan trying to cut into an eight-point deficit, Patterson dropped a snap in the red zone. It was the second of three first-half drives that got to the red zone. Michigan got a combined nine points from them.
“We knew we were gonna have to put up points and we needed to score a couple touchdowns in the red area,” Patterson said. “… You can’t fumble the ball down there.”
Following the fumble, the Wolverines’ defense seemed to have secured a monumental stop, but senior VIPER Khaleke Hudson jumped offsides on a punt. On the very next play, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields sailed a 47-yard post route to Garrett Wilson, and on the play after that, running back J.K. Dobbins walked into the end zone for his third of four touchdowns on the day. At that point, with just over three minutes left in the first half, the Buckeyes led, 28-13. Michigan wouldn’t get within one score again.
Despite Patterson’s 300 yards on the day, and despite an offense that kept pace for as long as it could, that was all it took for the floodgates to open.
Dobbins opened the second half with a 41-yard run, then got 21 more when the Wolverines left him uncovered in the flat. On the sideline, Don Brown screamed and clapped his hands. It all built to a six-yard K.J. Hill touchdown to extend the Buckeyes’ lead to 35-16, and all but ending the competitive portion of the afternoon.
As much as winning this game was an expectation few thought the Wolverines could meet, the sting will linger, just as it always does. Harbaugh is now 0-5 against the Buckeyes. Don Brown’s defense has given up 1,144 yards against them in the last two years. Fields said afterwards that Ohio State takes this game more seriously, and true or not, Michigan can’t look to any on-field result to refute him.
It has been eight years now since the Wolverines beat a handicapped 6-7 Ohio State team with an interim coach, their last win in this rivalry, and that streak is as defining to Michigan football as any intonation of Fielding Yost, Bo Schembechler or Jim Harbaugh.
“I’ll answer your questions, not your insults,” Harbaugh said postgame, when asked to compare the gap between the two programs, including in coaching. “They played really good. They played better today.”
Later, when asked if the gap has to do with want, Harbaugh was incredulous. “We really want to win the game, yes,” he said.
It had been 2,926 days since Michigan had done so coming into Saturday. And now, the Wolverines will wait at least another 364.