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Opinion: Michigan’s resurgence a blessing for Ohio State, college football

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Then sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) carries the ball during a game against Michigan on Nov. 29 at Ohio Stadium. OSU won, 42-28. Credit: Lantern File Photo

Then sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) carries the ball during a game against Michigan on Nov. 29 at Ohio Stadium. OSU won, 42-28. Credit: Lantern File Photo

Since the turn of the century, Michigan has been to five BCS Bowls. The Wolverines won two: a three-point victory in the Sugar Bowl over Virginia Tech in 2012 and a one-point victory over Alabama in the 2000 Orange Bowl. However, their Rose Bowl performances have been utter disappointments. Additionally, they have yet to participate in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Since 1950, Michigan has captured one national championship; Ohio State has won seven.

Since the turn of the century, Purdue’s four wins over OSU are more than Michigan’s three.

Simply put, Michigan football has been marred in recent decades by coaching instability, poor quarterback play and an inability to win The Game.

Having said this, the question as to the annual significance of the OSU-Michigan game must be raised. Seemingly, rivalries like the Auburn-Alabama, OSU-Michigan State, LSU-Alabama and Oregon-Stanford have overshadowed The Game due to recent dominance by the men in scarlet and gray. In fact, in most of our lifetimes, only one game between the two comes to mind as meaningful; a clash of the titans, per se. That one game, however, epitomizes the importance of The Game, as I can recall every little detail despite having been just a little 9-year-old Buckeye without a master’s degree in OSU fandom.

The game of the century

It was a pleasant fall afternoon in Hudson, Ohio. Autumn leaves fell from high above as the sun departed from the clear blue sky. Inside our neighbor’s house, our family and friends reminisced over school systems, neighborhood drama and our crazy families.

Meanwhile, two hours south down I-71, the same could not be stated. College GameDay set up shop on the OSU campus to promote the heavyweight title fight between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation. When Lee Corso donned the Michigan helmet in front of thousands of Buckeyes, he was met with ruthless replies to the likes of, “Corso sucks!”

Regardless, this game clearly had a special place in the rivalry’s history, as to this day it remains the only installment of The Game to ever kick off at 3:30 p.m. in ESPN/ABC’s primetime window. The town was buzzing. The hype was tremendous. Ohio Stadium was bursting with excitement. And the Big Ten was ready to put one of its two signature programs in the national championship game.

Dubbed “The Game of the Century” as kickoff became imminent, conversation back in Hudson swayed to BCS projections, to quarterbacks Troy Smith vs. Chad Henne and to the duel between two coaching greats, Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr. Finally, OSU won the coin toss, deferred to the second half, and Michigan prepared to receive the opening kickoff in what would go down as one of the greatest college football games not only in the OSU-Michigan rivalry, but of all time.

After trading touchdowns on their opening possessions, both teams followed by exchanging punts. In the beginning of the second quarter, the Buckeyes took their first lead behind a Beanie Wells 52-yard touchdown run. Add on two Smith touchdown throws — one to Ted Ginn Jr. and the other to Anthony Gonzalez — offset by one Michigan touchdown, and OSU would take a two-touchdown lead into the second half.

The ‘Shoe was hopping. The family room in which I watched the game was buzzing with excitement and anticipation. I realized that the Buckeyes were just two quarters of solid football from the national championship game.

Unfortunately, no football game comes without adversity. OSU would learn that the hard way.

In the blink of an eye, the Scarlet and Gray went three-and-out, conceded a touchdown and compounded the mistakes with a pivotal interception captured by Michigan defensive lineman Alan Branch.

Great teams, however, overcome adversity and respond stronger.

The Buckeyes proceeded to stymie the Michigan offense and held it to just a field goal, and they soon after responded with a touchdown of their own. All of a sudden it was a two-score game. All of a sudden the dream of two national championships in a four-year span was unfolding before my very eyes.

After a couple of series of mistake-filled football, Michigan started the fourth quarter in the red zone, down 11. Running back Mike Hart scored two plays later, cutting the lead to just four. A Buckeye fumble followed, but Michigan could not capitalize.

OSU would then not miss this opportunity to close the game out for good. An 11-play, 83-yard, season-defining drive ensued, punctuated by Brian Robiskie’s 13-yard touchdown grab.

With just over five minutes remaining, it seemed as if OSU had its plane ticket to Glendale, Arizona, booked, but Michigan, once again, as great teams do, fought back.

A clutch 11-play, 81-yard drive capped off by Tyler Ecker’s 16-yard touchdown reception and a two-point conversion brought the Wolverines to within three. An onside kick could reverse the course of college football history.

But it wasn’t meant to be that day for the Maize and Blue. Ginn secured the onside kick, the victory and a date with Florida in the championship game.

Pandemonium infiltrated the exit stairways of Ohio Stadium and followed students and alumni alike to the High Street bars and to drives up and down I-71 home. This was a classic OSU-Michigan game, magnificent in quality of play and implications. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about many of the games played recently.

A new era

Even with the advent of the College Football Playoff and the resurrection of the Wolverines, it is naive to expect every clash in the next decade to become a de facto qualifier for the Big Ten Championship Game, and thereby the playoff. It is way too early to elevate Jim Harbaugh vs. Urban Meyer to the status of Woody Hayes vs. Bo Schembechler and to associate any upcoming OSU-Michigan game with the great ones from the “10 year war.”

However, with Michigan beginning to supplant itself as an annual contender, this rivalry that has seemingly lost a bit of its luster should and will revive its tension. And no college football fan can deny that an intriguing and relevant OSU-Michigan game is the greatest game on turf.

I’m not asking for every Buckeye-Wolverine showdown to match the classic that was the 2006 clash; just every once in awhile it would be appreciated that the two of the most historic programs in college football provide a game that is worthy of the national spotlight it inevitably attracts.

I’m not asking for every Buckeye-Wolverine clash to be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 clash of the titans. Sometimes, in fact, it adds to the rivalry when one team has the opportunity to undermine the rival’s playoff aspirations even amidst a disappointing season.

But, thinking about the potential of the OSU-Michigan game turning into the must-see game every year is tantalizing. What if someday, the Buckeyes and Wolverines somehow met for the national championship? It’s definitely not impossible given the precedent the CFP committee has set on schedule strength, margin of victory and quality of loss.

It would be tough to deny a one-loss OSU team that traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the No. 2 team preparing to face undefeated and No. 1 Michigan. And this scenario is coming sooner rather than later, especially with the recruiting standards Meyer and Harbaugh are currently setting.

Gone are the days of Michigan being worse than Purdue. Home are the days of Michigan being the archenemy it was destined to be. And I can’t wait. Nor can the world of college football.

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