ANN ARBOR, Mich. – What started under the guise of a defensive struggle turned into a heavy-powered offensive affair, as No. 8 Ohio State decimated No. 10 Michigan on the ground to pull out a 42-13 victory in the 2015 edition of The Game.
“From the bottom of my heart, I told these players, that might have been the best week I’ve ever seen,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said.
Junior running back Ezekiel Elliott rebounded from his oft-publicized 12-carry, 32-yard performance in OSU’s 17-14 loss to Michigan State a week prior to explode for 214 yards on 30 carries to lead the Buckeyes through the hostile road atmosphere.
“We wanted to get out here and make up for last weekend,” Elliott said. “We were just determined, and then on top of playing (Michigan), this big rivalry, this was so much emotion and I think we handled it really well, we came out and executed.”
For the game, the Buckeyes (11-1, 7-1) had 369 rushing yards, including 139 by redshirt sophomore quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Wichita Falls, Texas, native also chipped in 113 yards through the air by completing nine of 15 passes.
After the game, Barrett offered one reason for why the offense looked so much more smooth than a week prior: “We played faster.”
Before the offensive onslaught, the contest started out characteristic for a matchup between two of the top defenses in the nation. Despite seven combined first downs on the first three drives, each one ended in a punt from midfield.
The fourth drive — and OSU’s second — seemed to be going nowhere, as the team only gained three yards with its back to the goal line. A roughing the kicker call on the ensuing punt gave OSU new life, however, and the visitors took advantage.
A 66-yard run by junior running back Ezekiel Elliott moved the Buckeyes to the red zone, where Barrett ran it into the end zone from seven yards away two plays later to give OSU a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.
Not to roll over in front of their home crowd, the Wolverines (9-3, 6-2) embarked on a long 14-play, 72-yard drive on the next possession. OSU had Michigan held to a third down three separate times, but redshirt senior quarterback Jake Rudock converted each, followed by another first-down pass to move to the 10-yard line.
The Scarlet and Gray held from there, however, keeping the Wolverines to a 25-yard field goal to cut the margin to 7-3.
With the passing game showing few results but the running game working, OSU switched to an up-tempo offense on its next drive, and it worked like a charm.
Barrett started out the drive with a six-yard pass, but the final eight plays and 69 yards of the drive all came on the ground, finished off with a five-yard run by Elliott to move the score to 14-3. Barrett had 48 yards rushing on the drive, Elliott chipped in 13 and redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller picked up the remaining eight out in direct-snap formations.
“It wasn’t a magic formula or lucky draws or anything like that, it was more just execution,” Barrett said.
Seeing the momentum slipping away before the half, Michigan stuck around with an 11-play, 92-yard drive ending with a five-yard pass to redshirt junior receiver Jehu Chesson to make the score 14-10 at the half.
Junior safety Vonn Bell said after the game that despite the final result, letting Michigan back in the game at that point was an area of disappointment.
“We really didn’t have a complete performance,” Bell said. “We had a lot of mess-ups on third down, we had to get off the field. So I don’t really think it was a complete performance.”
OSU held the lead at the break despite being outgained 226-189, with all but 18 of its yards coming on the ground. The Wolverines were anchored by a phenomenal third-down conversion rate, going 8-of-11 in the first half, which allowed them to possess the ball for more than 18 minutes of the opening two quarters.
The Buckeyes did not miss a beat coming out of the half, continuing the back-and-forth affair with an 82-yard scoring drive. Elliott rushed the ball three times for 45 yards on the drive, but it was a 25-yard catch by redshirt sophomore H-back Jalin Marshall in heavy coverage that extended OSU’s lead to 21-10.
“They had one of the better corners on me, but I didn’t feel him above me, so I just beat him deep,” Marshall said. “I didn’t see anybody back there, and I saw J.T. step up in the pocket and throw it up there, and I did everything I could to go get it.”
The next drive featured a break of the tit-for-tat scoring pattern, as OSU stopped Michigan near midfield, giving the road team the ball back with a chance to break the game open.
And the Scarlet and Gray did just that, embarking on its fourth consecutive long scoring drive, not counting the short drive to end the first half. This one was an 84-yard march, capped off by a 13-yard run by Barrett — his second of the game — to make it a 28-10 edge.
The Wolverines answered back with a lengthy drive of their own when they got the ball back, but it was stalled in the red zone for another short field goal. The kick cut OSU’s lead to 28-13 with 14:44 remaining, but time and momentum were not on the Maize and Blue’s side.
The momentum turned out to be the final nail in the Wolverines’ coffin, as the Buckeyes effortlessly embarked on a 75-yard drive that took less than two minutes.
Elliott ran for 28 yards on the drive, including a 10-yard rushing score, while a large chunk of the yardage was picked up by a 38-yard completion to redshirt junior receiver Michael Thomas. A third rushing touchdown by Barrett followed on the next drive, tying last year’s 11-rushing-touchdown total despite only starting four games.
Redshirt junior guard Pat Elflein said the key to keeping the offense’s foot on the gas pedal was making the defensive line exhausted, especially in the second half.
“I think at the start of the fourth quarter they had a whole new D-line out there. They were getting tired,” Elflein said. “That tempo was wearing on them.”
Elliott passed Eddie George for the second-most rushing yards in OSU history with his 214-yard outburst. He still sits 1,777 yards behind Archie Griffin for the OSU record.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever been around,” Meyer said about Elliott.
There were a flurry of injuries in the contest, given its usual physical nature. OSU sophomore linebacker Raekwon McMillan came up hobbling in the first half but returned in the second, while sophomore cornerback Damon Webb did not have the same good fortune, leaving the game on the opening kickoff of the second half and not returning.
Rudock was injured on a hard sack by OSU junior defensive end Joey Bosa early in the fourth quarter. He did not return and was replaced by redshirt freshman Wilton Speight. The Buckeyes are no stranger to a quarterback getting injured in The Game, as last year Barrett was lost for the season with an ankle injury in Columbus.
Meyer improved to 4-0 against archrival Michigan, which includes a pair of wins at Michigan Stadium. As a whole, OSU has won 11 of its last 12 meetings with the Wolverines.
The Buckeyes do not know when their next game will be played, as they were shut out of the Big Ten Championship Game after Michigan State locked up the Big Ten East with a 55-16 win over Penn State. OSU will learn its bowl destination when the lineup is announced on Dec. 6.
Editor’s note 11/28: The final paragraph has been updated to reflect the results of the Michigan State-Penn State game.