With Ohio State holding just a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter against Michigan, a record crowd at Ohio Stadium fell nearly silent.
Redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett — thought by many to be a Heisman Trophy candidate — was down on the field with trainers huddled around him. Barrett wound up being carted off the field after sustaining what appeared to be a right leg injury.
After the game, OSU released a statement saying Barrett’s injury is a fractured right ankle that will keep him on the sidelines for the rest of the season. The release said he is scheduled for surgery on Sunday.
Senior tight end Jeff Heuerman said Barrett didn’t seem to realize the extent of the injury immediately following the play.
“I know he didn’t because he was trying to get me to help him up, and I was like ‘dude, you can’t get up,’” Heuerman said after the game.
Redshirt-sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones entered the game and came up short on a third-down run, but the Buckeye defense forced a punt on Michigan’s next possession.
OSU found itself in a fourth-and-one at the Wolverines’ 44-yard line when sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott found a hole to his left and went untouched for a touchdown, paving the way for the Buckeyes’ 42-28 win Saturday afternoon.
Co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman said the win came with mixed emotions after the Buckeyes lost Barrett for the season. He initially replaced currently-injured senior quarterback Braxton Miller just 12 days before the opener when Miller tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder.
“You’re really happy, really happy for this team,” Herman said after the game. “You’re happy for what we’ve accomplished in the regular season, you’re happy to beat our rival at home and get a third pair of gold pants. But at the same time, your heart goes out to J.T. because he’s — not only meant so much to this team, but this team has meant so much to him in his growth as a young man.”
OSU (11-1, 8-0) topped the Wolverines (5-7, 3-5) for the third consecutive season and eliminated Michigan from bowl-game contention in front of 108,610 fans at the Horseshoe.
Coach Urban Meyer said he was honored as he became the first Buckeye coach to beat Michigan in each of their first three seasons in Columbus since the 1930s.
“We’ll take that as a coaching staff and team,” Meyer said after the game. “That’s a hell of an honor.”
The win marked the Buckeyes’ third-straight undefeated run in Big Ten regular-season play.
Barrett addressed the team after the game, and senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said the signal caller stressed the importance of winning the game above his own health.
“He said ‘it’s not about me, it was about winning this game,’” Bennett said. “I think that hit us a lot because you see all he’s done, he stepped in when Braxton went down. He’s been humble throughout the whole process.”
After tying the game just before halftime, OSU took a 21-14 lead on the opening drive of the second half with Barrett’s second rushing touchdown in as many drives.
Michigan responded with a touchdown of its own, set up by an 18-yard pass from redshirt-sophomore running back Drake Johnson to redshirt-senior quarterback Devin Gardner. But in a game of swings, the Buckeyes took the lead back minutes later with a two-yard touchdown run by Elliott.
After Barrett’s injury and Jones failed third-down run, the Buckeye defense took a bend-but-don’t-break stance, forcing a Wolverine punt that bounced into the end zone for a touchback. Elliott’s touchdown run on the next drive extended OSU’s lead to 14 with 4:58 remaining.
The Buckeyes scored again exactly a minute later when redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee picked up a Gardner fumble and ran 33 yards for a touchdown.
“When I scooped, I turned and I just ran,” Lee said of the play. “I didn’t even wanna look and see if anybody was around me to try and strip me.
“I knew I was gonna get in the end zone, and it felt really good.”
The fumble was forced by defensive lineman Joey Bosa as he sacked Gardner. Bennett called the play the “nail in the coffin” and Bosa said he’d been hoping for that chance throughout the day.
“I was waiting for it all game,” Bosa said. “I had one that was called back and that just killed me. My other defensive lineman kept my head up and it just felt really good to get that play.”
The late second-half surge for OSU came after an opening 30 minutes in which the Buckeyes were outgained, 203 yards to 176.
Lee credited Bennett for the Buckeyes’ turnaround on defense in the second half after the co-captain spoke to the team during the third quarter.
“It didn’t feel right, the way they were scoring,” Bennett said. “We expected them to do a bunch of screens and draws and all that stuff, but they just straight up ran the ball down our field and scored, and that’s not all right.”
Gardner was intercepted by sophomore safety Vonn Bell on the second play of the game, setting the Buckeyes up in Wolverine territory.
OSU’s ensuing drive was capped off by a touchdown pass from Barrett to redshirt-junior tight end Nick Vannett to put the team ahead 7-0. After two sacks by OSU forced a Michigan punt on its next drive, the Buckeyes stalled and momentum swung in the Wolverines’ favor.
Gardner found sophomore tight end Jake Butt on a 12-yard touchdown to tie the game before a Michigan drive that lasted more than seven minutes put the visitors ahead with 7:34 to play in the first half.
OSU punted on its next possession, but a holding penalty and a sack by senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett forced Michigan into a third-and-29 and an eventual punt. The Buckeyes took over with 2:15 to play before the break.
Barrett capped OSU’s drive with a 25-yard touchdown scamper to tie the game at 14 going into the half.
Meyer said he considered running out the clock going into halftime, but changed his mind and it paid off for the Buckeyes.
“(Former college football coach) Lou Holtz always said the last five minutes of the first half, first five minutes of the second half, that’s where all the momentum is,” Meyer said. “And we went into the locker room with a lot of momentum.”
Before leaving the game, Barrett had 176 passing yards and another 89 on the ground. Elliott ran for 121 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries while senior wide receiver Devin Smith led OSU with 52 receiving yards on one catch.
Barrett’s touchdown pass to Vannett was his 43rd total touchdown of the season, giving him sole possession of the Big Ten record. Through 12 games as the starter, Barrett has accounted for 45 touchdowns.
Jones finished the game two for three on pass attempts for seven yards and had two carries for another 18 yards. Herman said the replacement quarterback did well as he finished out the game, apart from one missed throw.
“Great, mentally. He missed the one pass to (redshirt-sophomore wide receiver Michael Thomas), but mentally he was very in tune,” Herman said. “He keeps a headset on the entire game, so he’s in tune to everything we’re talking about.”
Lee finished the game with nine tackles, one sack and two tackles for loss to go with his touchdown return as the Buckeye defense totaled five sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
Gardner finished the day with 233 passing yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Johnson ran for 74 yards and two scores for the Wolverines while junior wide receiver Devin Funchess had 108 yards receiving on seven receptions.
The win came after OSU honored 24 seniors before the game on Senior Day, but one senior — defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge — was not part of the festivities.
Karageorge was reported missing on Thursday and was last seen around 2 a.m. on Wednesday. Bennett said he’s hoping for Karageorge’s safety, and added he hopes the former OSU wrestler had a chance to watch the Buckeyes come out victorious in The Game.
“Hopefully he was somewhere watching this game, we got this one for him,” Bennett said.
The Buckeyes — who clinched the Big Ten East Division crown with a win over Indiana last weekend — are set to play in the Big Ten Championship game on Dec. 6 in Indianapolis. OSU will take Wisconsin at 8 p.m. in Lucas Oil Stadium.