Long after the Ohio State Buckeyes stormed the Michigan Stadium turf from the visitors’ sideline to celebrate their 25-21 come-from-behind victory over the Wolverines on Saturday, the Michigan student section remained. Standing silently in shock and disbelief, the blue-clad, blue-faced fans in the Big House’s northwest corner seemed to be standing vigil over the Wolverines’ dead Big Ten championship hopes.
The crowd had gradually deflated as Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith orchestrated a nearly flawless 12-play, 88-yard drive capped off by tailback Antonio Pittman’s three-yard touchdown run with 24 seconds left on the clock. After the Wolverines’ last-ditch drive stalled near midfield, the Michigan faithful descended from their jubilant early fourth-quarter enthusiasm to a catatonic state.
But the Buckeyes’ game-winning drive, executed with surgical precision, should have come as no surprise. The warning signs were there.
Michigan’s opponents had marched down the field and scored to take the lead or force overtime in the final minute of regulation on four occasions this season prior to Saturday.
In the end, it was simple.
The Michigan defense needed a stop. Instead, as it had so often this year, it collapsed.
“It’s huge disappointment and hurt,” fifth-year senior cornerback Grant Mason said of his emotions. “You never want to go out like that – with a loss.”
Michigan (5-3 Big Ten, 7-4 overall) led, 21-12, with under seven minutes to play. But the Wolverines’ defensive unit, which had held Ohio State (7-1, 9-2) scoreless since late in the first half, folded in spectacular fashion.
The Buckeyes overwhelmed Michigan with two big plays – a 27-yard pass from Smith to wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez and a thrilling 14-yard third-down scramble by the Ohio State signal-caller – before striking quickly to close the gap to two points on Santonio Holmes’s 26-yard touchdown catch with 6:40 left.
The Wolverines took over near midfield after a short kickoff by Ohio State’s Josh Huston. Holmes’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for diving into the end zone on his touchdown reception had forced Huston to kick off from Ohio State’s 20-yard line. But during a disastrous series, tight end Mike Massey dropped a pass from quarterback Chad Henne, backup running back Kevin Grady lost yardage, Michigan burned a timeout because of a miscommunication, and left guard Leo Henige broke his right leg.
Garrett Rivas’s pooch punt pinned the Buckeyes on their own 12 with 4:18 left. Ohio State needed to drive all the way down the field for a shot at a winning field goal.
“We had the mindset, ‘Let’s get this stop, fellas. It’s on us,’ ” Mason said of the defense’s final series. “Everybody went into it with confidence. – I really felt like we were going to get the stop. We didn’t find a way to.”
The Buckeyes strung together six first downs – without facing a single third down – on the pivotal series, combining short- and medium-range passes to Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr. with Smith’s highlight-reel maneuvers and another back-breaking completion to Gonzalez. The receiver snagged a 26-yard reception by leaping over Mason. Ohio State moved the ball inside Michigan’s five-yard line on the play, and Pittman plunged in from three yards out two snaps later.
“Obviously, we talk about (closing opponents out) all the time,” defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. “The big word is ‘finish,’ and we knew we were going to be in that situation. We knew it was going to be a close game today, one way or the other. We felt, if the defense had a chance to be on the field, that would be great with us and we’d go out there and get the job done. But we just didn’t. The attitude is right. We’re just not making enough plays.”
But Michigan didn’t just falter on defense. Despite a solid performance by Henne, the Wolverines mustered a paltry 32 yards rushing for the entire game. Ohio State accumulated 118 yards on the ground. Star running back Mike Hart carried nine times for 15 yards before he left the game for good with an injury. As Hart’s replacement, Grady picked up 11 yards on six carries against the Buckeyes’ aggressive front seven.
“You can’t win if you can’t run,” running backs coach Fred Jackson said. “You talk about how great Troy (Smith) is and some of the guys, and they are, but if you can keep them off the field, you have to be able to run the ball some. We struggled running, and that hurt us.
“We tried different schemes. Zone schemes, gap schemes, man schemes. We had a hard time. We tried to get it going, and after the third time, you say, ‘OK, if you’re not getting anything rushing, you’re going to have to do what you have to do to win.’ That’s probably why we abandoned (the running game).”
Hart explained Michigan’s lack of a running attack with a laundry list of faults.
“We were just getting beat at the line of scrimmage, missing blocks, making wrong cuts,” Hart said. “Overall, they just had a great defensive scheme against us today, and they stopped our run game. That hurt us a lot.”
Smith threw for a career-high 300 yards. He carried the ball 11 times for 37 yards, including a four-yard touchdown scamper that put the Buckeyes ahead 6-0 – Huston missed the extra point attempt – in the first quarter.
“Troy Smith obviously made some unbelievable plays that enabled them to pull that game out,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “In the end, Troy Smith was the difference in the game. – I think he threw the football awfully well, for the most part, all day long. He made some big throws.”
In the second quarter, defensive tackle Gabe Watson recovered a fumble by Ohio State backup running back Maurice Wells to give Michigan possession. Henne orchestrated a 36-yard drive that ended with senior co-captain Jason Avant catching a two-yard touchdown pass. The score was sandwiched between two Huston field goals, and the Wolverines entered halftime trailing 12-7.
Following a three-and-out by the Wolverines’ offense to start the second half, Ohio State turned the ball over again when rush linebacker LaMarr Woodley knocked the ball from Smith’s grasp. Defensive lineman Alan Branch fell on the football. Still, Michigan managed to move the ball just 10 yards and settled for a Rivas field goal to narrow the margin to two.
Grady punched a two-yard run into the end zone late in the third quarter, and Henne kept the ball for a two-point conversion as the Wolverines took their first lead, 18-12.
Huston missed a 46-yard field goal before Rivas connected on a 19-yarder to extend Michigan’s advantage. The kick followed a first-and-goal situation from the Buckeyes’ nine-yard line. The drive stalled on the two.
Smith then took over, leading the Buckeyes down the field for the game’s two final touchdowns.
“They just got a couple big plays on us,” Woodley said. “We didn’t get enough pressure, and that hurt. When you have a nine-point lead, it’s the defense’s job to make sure the other team doesn’t score. We didn’t hold up our end.”
Ohio State standout linebacker Bobby Carpenter watched the entire game from the sideline on crutches and a walking boot after being injured on Michigan’s first offensive play, but the Wolverines were in even worse shape. Offensive tackle Jake Long and Hart entered the game at less than full strength. Aside from Henige’s injury, right guard Matt Lentz also left the contest after going down, and starting center Adam Kraus didn’t play.
“This team has been the most unlucky team I’ve ever been around,” said Carr, who has coached in some capacity at Michigan for 26 years. “We’ve not had the continuity you need to develop as a team. If you ask me, ‘Could we have been a more productive offense?’ Yes, we could’ve. But I think, based on the situation we had today, I thought our offensive coaches found some ways to do some things without Mike Hart (and others).”
Carr was pleased with his players for what they showed him over the course of the season.
“There is nothing that can make you feel better after losing in this game,” Carr said. “There’s absolutely nothing. And yet, I think they know that I’m proud of them as people. As competitors. As guys who fought the great fight all year long.”