COLUMBUS – The only thing crueler than losing to Ohio State is losing to the referees.
Less than a minute into overtime of a scoreless game at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium, the Buckeyes took a corner kick. The ensuing shot hit the crossbar, obviously bouncing at least a foot in front of the line.
The bounce was obvious to everyone but the referee.
Abbey Okulaja – the same referee who made a questionable red-card call against defender Jeff Quijano earlier this season – signaled a game-ending goal. The scarlet-and-gray faithful went into a frenzy of celebration as the Wolverines poured back out onto the field, outraged, toward the ref. Fifteen minutes later, Michigan coach Steve Burns still stood on the field with the officials gathered around him, arguing in a firm but gentlemanly manner that his team had been seriously wronged.
But the goal stood, without the ref asking for help from his assistants, and the game went down as a 1-0 overtime loss to No. 23 Ohio State. Michigan remains winless against Big Ten opponents.
“The toughest part of this game isn’t that we got beat by Ohio State,” junior goalkeeper Patrick Sperry said. “We got cheated by a third party. . You can’t stomach it easily because we didn’t get defeated. I’d much rather have had them net a clear goal than have (something) like that happen.”
The Wolverines (0-3-2 Big Ten, 10-5-2 overall) entered the game as underdogs but with a fierce sense of mission. Before the bus departed Ann Arbor, Michigan football legend Jamie Morris gave the team a pep talk about the intense rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State.
“It inspired me,” sophomore Peri Marosevic said. “I thought about what he said the night before when I went to sleep. Before the game, I thought about what it means to be a Michigan Wolverine playing in such a rivalry, against Ohio State. . I think it helped a lot of guys, not just me. I think it helped the whole team.”
The Wolverines took Morris’s words about pride and playing hard but relaxed to heart, hanging tough with the Buckeyes all day. Ohio State (3-1-1 Big Ten, 10-3-3 overall) kept possession for most of the game – all part of Michigan’s plan to formulate counterattacks in the meantime. In typical style, Michigan’s possessions involved blazing forays into Buckeye territory. And thanks to the impenetrable defensive line, the many Buckeye drives produced just as much as the Michigan scoring chances – nothing.
Sperry, Burns’s man of the match, and his defending line of co-captain Michael Holody, Santos Perez, Ben Carter and Julian Robles, made countless miraculous saves. When a ball eluded Sperry, a defender was always ready to clear it away. Perez especially made a habit of running down Buckeyes who thought they’d broken free and foiling their scoring plans.
And with just five seconds left in regulation, it briefly seemed as though Michigan would pull off an upset. The Wolverines drove on Ohio State goalkeeper Casey Latchem, who had made as many crucial saves as Sperry on the day. Suddenly, junior midfielder Jake Stacy was left alone in front of the net with the ball – and his shot easily found the back of the net.
But it turned out there was a reason Stacy was all alone: He was offside. The clock ran out and the ill-fated overtime period began.
Following the loss, the Wolverines were understandably downhearted but focused on their next game, coming up next Saturday at Penn State. It will be their last chance to record a regular-season Big Ten victory before the conference tournament.
“We’re a good team that would love to have this game back and maybe we can get the chance to have the game back in the Big Ten Tournament,” Burns said. “It’s my job to lead these guys in the good times, the bad times and the controversial times, and that’s what we’ll do.”