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Back to the way it was: Ohio State-Michigan feels like it used to

November 20th, 2012 by Justin Potts


On November 18, 2006, Michigan and Ohio State squared off in Columbus, both undefeated. Two titans with an unrivaled history found themselves in what was dubbed by the national media “The Game of the Century.” The Big Ten title and a spot in the BCS National Championship game were at stake. The game went back and forth like a heavyweight fight, but in the end, the scoresheet went in Ohio State’s favor.

The day before, the great patriarch of Michigan football, Bo Schembechler, had passed away, and along with him metaphorically went the program. Michigan went to Pasadena on New Years Day and got thumped by USC.

Bo's passing shook the rivalry and the Michigan program

Bo’s understudy, Lloyd Carr, decided to stick around for one more year. After all, he had a senior, fourth-year starting quarterback and running back, the eventual first overall NFL Draft pick at left guard, and a talented receiving corps. Who could blame him for giving it one last go-around? But a shocking loss to Appalachian State started the season, followed by a humiliating drubbing by Oregon and the Michigan program that had spent most of the previous season looking unbeatable had now lost four straight. The program that had seemed unshakeable for over 40 years was now suddenly lost without its figurehead.

The Wolverines rebounded with eight straight wins before dropping the final two to Wisconsin and Ohio State. In Carr’s swan song, Michigan faced a heavily favored Florida squad coached by Urban Meyer who relied heavily on his star quarterback. Carr pulled out all the tricks in the bag, using an offense almost foreign to the Michigan faithful and beat Meyer’s Gators.

Carr’s retirement a year after Bo’s passing signaled the end of Michigan football as we knew it and college football’s greatest rivalry suffered along with it. Ohio State beat Michigan by a combined score of 100-24 over the three years that followed while Michigan was guided by an outsider who many felt never truly understood the importance of the rivalry.

And so it was only fitting that it would take a Bo disciple to right the ship. Brady Hoke immediately returned the program to what it was like under Bo and followed in Bo’s footsteps by beating Ohio State in his first season. It ended Ohio State’s seven game winning streak over Michigan, but the Buckeyes were going through some troubles of their own. The great tattoo scandal sent Jim Tressel packing and left the Bucks headless last season, but led the man who was on the losing end of the final game of the old Michigan era to become the new head man in Columbus.

All he has done in his rookie season is not lose a game. Despite being ineligible for the postseason, OSU is ranked fourth in the AP poll and could conceivably be crowned national champions by the writers upon season’s end. Michigan faced a much tougher non-conference schedule which eliminated any national title hopes, but still holds hopes of a Big Ten title. And that’s just the way it should be: title hopes on the line, dreams either made or dashed.

Tim Biakabutuka's record performance ruined OSU's perfect season in 1995 (Larry E. Wright)

It’s the way it was so often throughout the past few decades. Something was always on the line, and more often than not, it was that way for both teams. The season-ending battle truly was the one game season.

Six times in the past 19 matchups, at least one of the two has entered The Game undefeated. Saturday marks the seventh and Michigan will be looking to do what it has done three times since 1993: hand the Buckeyes their first loss.

In 1993, OSU entered with a 9-0-1 record, it’s only non-win a 14-14 tie at Wisconsin. Michigan was just 6-4 with losses to Notre Dame, Michigan State, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The Wolverines played spoiler with a resounding 28-0 win in what Ohio State head coach John Cooper called “by far the most embarrassing game I’ve been associated with in college football.” Tyrone Wheatley gashed the Buckeyes for 105 yards and Todd Collins played an efficient game. The defense picked off the Buckeyes four times and Michigan ended Ohio State’s 16-game unbeaten streak and hopes of an outright Big Ten title and handed the Bucks their first shutout since 1982.

Two years later, in 1995, Ohio State visited Ann Arbor with a 11-0 record and a No. 2 national ranking. Michigan was just 8-3. A Buckeye win would give them the Big Ten title and likely a national championship pending the Rose Bowl result. But yet again, Michigan played spoiler. Prior to the game, Ohio State receiver Terry Glenn mouthed off to the media that Michigan was nobody. But when the teams took to the field, Tshimanga Biakabutuka rushed for 313 yards, the most an Ohio State defense had ever given up to a single back as Michigan soared to a 31-23 victory. Once again, Cooper issued a strong statement, saying, “I don’t know if I’ve ever been as disappointed in my life as I am right now.”

Charles Woodson helped keep Michigan's perfect season intact against OSU in 1997

The following season, Michigan traveled to Columbus to face yet another unbeaten and second-ranked Ohio State squad. Michigan was 17-point underdogs and this time, Cooper kept his players from speaking to the media in order to prevent any bulletin board material. But Michigan didn’t need it. Ohio State jumped out to a 9-0 halftime lead, but wouldn’t score again. Michigan had to turn to Brian Griese due to an injury to starter Scott Dreisbach and he threw a 68-yard touchdown to Tai Streets. Kicker Remy Hamilton added a pair of field goals to give Michigan the 13-9 win. Following the game, it was Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson who did the talking, saying, “It was a great victory, to be able to look those people in the eye and say, ‘this is why I didn’t go to Ohio State’. I wanted to win at Michigan.”

In 1997, it was Michigan that carried the undefeated season into The Game. At 10-0 and ranked first in the nation, Michigan hosted the 9-1, fourth-ranked Buckeyes. The Big Ten title was on the line – either Michigan won it outright or the two shared it – and for Michigan, the national title was at stake. Michigan prevailed 20-14 on the heels of a great all-around performance by Woodson and advanced to the Rose Bowl where the Wolverines beat Washington State and captured the national title.

In 2002, Ohio State once again brought an unblemished record into the matchup. At 12-0, and ranked second, Ohio State needed a win to capture the Big Ten and advance to the BCS National Championship game. Michigan was 9-2 with losses to Notre Dame and Iowa. The Buckeyes held on, intercepting a John Navarre pass near the end zone to win 14-9 and eventually won the national title.

This Saturday, the rivalry has the ferver it did back then. Michigan needs a win and a Nebraska loss to advance to the Big Ten championship game. Ohio State needs a win to complete an undefeated season. The only thing holding the game back from receiving all of the national spotlight is the sanctions Ohio State is currently facing, keeping the Buckeyes from being able to win the Big Ten and play for the national title. But on the field, the two teams will battle it out just like the good old days and Michigan will hope to ruin Ohio State’s dream season for the fourth time in the last 20 years.

The man who has resurrected Michigan’s program with the Bo-like approach now faces off with the man who has transformed the Buckeye program. It has all the makings of a new “ten-year war” like the one Bo and Woody Hayes once fought with both programs at the top of their games. Most importantly, the game matters again. It’s back to the way it was.