As former Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown once said: There are some football games, and then there are some football f***ing games.
The 2016 Michigan-Ohio State game was certainly the latter.
“That was one of the coolest environments I ever played in, one of the best games I ever played in,” former Michigan defensive end Chris Wormley told The Daily. “… It just had all the makings of why you go to Michigan, why you go to Ohio State.”
The Game in 2016 really did have everything. The Buckeyes were ranked second in the country, and the Wolverines were ranked one spot behind them. It was the first time The Game went to overtime, and — of course — it ended on a controversial call that’s still debated to this day.
Whatever it is, you name it and the 2016 rendition of The Game probably had it. And beyond the physical game that was played on the field that late November afternoon, the result had long-lasting effects on the rivalry that can be felt to this day.
“You lose that game and it costs you a (College Football Playoff) appearance and that narrative about (Michigan coach) Jim Harbaugh spirals for years,” Max Bultman, who covered the 2016 game for The Daily, said. “They were good enough to get there, but they did not get there.”
Ultimately for Michigan, simply being good enough on paper to get into the playoff in 2016 was not sufficient. After the dramatic loss, the Wolverines’ season fell flat. A month later, they lost to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, and the season that could’ve been Harbaugh’s breakthrough came to an unceremonious 10-3 end after a 9-0 beginning.
“It killed us,” former Michigan offensive lineman Erik Magnuson told The Daily. “We went from potentially playing in the Playoffs, winning the Big Ten championship to playing in the Orange Bowl. … It just killed everything.”
There is no telling how much from the last five years came as an aftershock from the 2016 game. Had Michigan not come up an inch short, Harbaugh could’ve gotten a win against Urban Meyer — something he never captured — and he wouldn’t have started 0-5 against the Buckeyes.
The Wolverines’ 2016 loss in Columbus sent them down a path of mediocrity for five years, cast in Ohio State’s shadow. And that all came down to one controversial inch — former Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett’s one-yard rush on 4th and 1 at the Michigan 16-yard line in double overtime.
“Ultimately, the narrative around the program would’ve been so different if they get the benefit of the doubt on that call or they close it out sooner,” Bultman said.
At this point, the spot has been harped on, analyzed and dissected so many times it’s now more of rivalry lore than anything else. Six years later, the debate has never ceased about whether or not Barrett was short on that fabled play.
Wormley had a view of the play that altered the course of Michigan’s program for years to come that was a bit better than most — he was right at the first down marker, making the tackle.
“When we tackled (Barrett), we thought the game was over, we thought he was short,” Wormley said. “Everyone on the Michigan side thought he was short and everyone on the other side thought (Ohio State) got the first down. … There was just so much riding on that one play, and we came up short in the ref’s eyes.”
Regardless of what you believe the call should’ve been, Barrett was awarded the first down. And on the next play, former Buckeye running back Curtis Samuel ran left, found a seam and took it to the house, punching his team’s ticket to the playoff, and leaving Michigan dejected.
Afterward, the Wolverines rushed off the field as fast as they could, not wanting to have to deal with the field storming already underway in Columbus.
“(I remember thinking), ‘Get me out of here,’ ” Magnuson recalled. “I was just in disbelief.”
Wormley says that the team didn’t really process everything until after the game. They silently sat in the locker room trying to figure out what just happened.
“We were all kind of looking at each other, not a lot being said, just trying to understand what the hell just happened,” Wormley said. “… In the end, it was a tough pill to swallow, especially with it being my last year (at Michigan).”
But, despite all that happened and how the game finished, when talking about that game now, Wormley and Magnuson both emphasized the positives.
“Looking back at it now, damn, that was a cool experience and I was really glad to be a part of it,” Wormley said.
Everyone who was around the 2016 Michigan and Ohio State game in any capacity will surely say something similar. It was an all-time installment of one of the greatest rivalries in sports, dramatic up until the very end, and its effects are still felt to this day.
As Brown would say: It was a football f***ing game.