The latest twist came Saturday afternoon, as Ohio State outlasted Michigan in the first half and then blew the door off its hinges in the second to overwhelm the Wolverines, 62-39.
The No. 10 Buckeyes improved to 11-1 and scheduled a date next Saturday in Indianapolis against No. 20 Northwestern (7-4) in the Big Ten championship game.
Even with a win there, a berth in the four-team College Football Playoff is far from assured. But here is a fact: Ohio State has won 14 of the last 15 games in one of sport’s most venerable rivalries, which has been played 114 times.
No. 4 Michigan (10-2), in its fourth season under coach Jim Harbaugh, entered the game as the higher-ranked team for the first time since its last victory, in 2011. To describe it as merely a loss would be an understatement.
Ohio State won the same way it has won all the previous rivalry games under seventh-year coach Urban Meyer: with splendid quarterback play in a relatively high-scoring game. This one was helped by freshman receiver Chris Olave, who caught two touchdowns — the first two of his college career — and blocked a punt that led to a third touchdown.
Sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins led the Buckeyes’ attack with quick-drop crossing routes to speedy receivers who beat their defenders for yards after the catch. The strategy — paired with option plays in which Haskins was a threat to run or pass — allowed Ohio State to score three touchdowns on its first five possessions and enter halftime leading, 24-19.
Haskins completed 19 of 30 passes for 318 yards and five touchdowns. Nine Ohio State players caught passes.
Michigan relied on huddles and handoffs up the middle. This old-school look worked fine most of this season, since Michigan accompanied it with college football’s best defense, sacrificing an average of 235 yards and 13.5 points per game.
But the Wolverines gave up 24 points in just the first half. They kept it close only after a fumbled Ohio State kickoff reception with less than a minute left in the half led to a Michigan recovery and a touchdown from 9 yards.
In the second half, as Ohio State piled on the points, the Wolverines failed to keep up. Through three quarters, their longest play from scrimmage was 23 yards; their longest run was for 15.
Not that a couple of such plays would have made the ultimate difference. Had the game been a boxing match, when would the referee have called it?
Early in the fourth quarter, after Ohio State’s Parris Campbell Jr. ran for a 78-yard touchdown on the first play to extend the lead to 48-25?
Late in the third, when Wolverines quarterback Shea Patterson — who finished 20 of 34 for 187 yards and three touchdowns — threw an interception deep in Michigan territory, setting up a Buckeyes score?
Or, just before that, when Patterson and tight end Zach Gentry failed to connect on an open third-down pass, and on the next play Olave blocked Michigan’s punt, the ball falling into the hands of Sevyn Banks as he streaked toward the end zone?
The nature of this loss is not the only reason it may sting more than others. This was a game the Wolverines were supposed to win.
Their roster features the fruits of nationally elite recruiting. They defeated teams like Michigan State and Penn State that had stubbornly stymied them in previous years. Their sole loss came by a touchdown in the season’s first game at Notre Dame, even as Ohio State had lost by 29 to Purdue (5-6) and barely survived Maryland (5-6) and Nebraska (4-8).
Before Saturday, the better-ranked team won this game every year dating to 2003. A win, plus a win next week over Northwestern, would very likely have placed Michigan in contention for a national title for the first time since 1997.
Ohio State’s playoff chances are less clear. Last week, the selection committee conspicuously ranked it below every other one-loss team in the Power Five conferences, plus two-loss Louisiana State and Central Florida, of the American Athletic Conference.
Yet that is a relatively minor issue compared with troubles at Ohio State this year. Questions had swirled about the future of Meyer, who has three national championships to his name. He was suspended for the first three games of the season after a university report found that he had mishandled accusations of domestic violence against a longtime assistant.
The report also said that Meyer, who several years ago left the University of Florida partly because of stress, had issues with headaches, and in recent weeks he appeared to be in physical pain on the sideline as his team struggled to put away Nebraska and Maryland.
But on Saturday, he seemed positively joyful as he greeted seniors before their final game at Ohio Stadium, exhorted the crowd of more than 106,000 to make noise during Michigan third downs and extended his record in the rivalry to 7-0.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Marc Tracy © 2018 The New York Times