COLUMBUS, Ohio – The reason they’re called storybook endings is because they usually happen in storybooks.
There was no movie moment Saturday. No winning one for the old coach. In the biggest game in the history of Michigan-Ohio State, under clear autumn skies and a heaven that now had Bo Schembechler looking down from it, the Wolverines came out swinging, then got hit, hit and hit again. They got up. They got hit. They got up. They got hit.
They trailed by two touchdowns at halftime. They trailed by 11 points in the fourth quarter. A predicted low-scoring battle was more like an IPO price on the stock market. But in the closing minutes, Michigan got up one last time, punched the ball into the end zone, and pulled within three. It was already a classic game, facing a classic finish.
U-M never quit, never surrendered.
And didn’t win.
No. 1 stays No. 1. Take your hat off to the Buckeyes, who took the Big Ten title with this 42-39 victory, on a day when Michigan’s celebrated defense was smothered by OSU’s even more celebrated offense. It was the 103rd meeting of these two teams, and it’s not likely any of the others had this much on the line, and this much beneath the surface. It was, on the field, a battle for the Big Ten crown, a perfect record, and a ticket to the national championship game. And it was, in the air and the sky and the heavy hearts of Michigan fans around the world, the first game after the death of their greatest coach.
It was a game that opened with a moment of silence for Schembechler, and an announcement that referred to him as “an alumnus and a friend.” He then received a standing ovation, and we’re pretty sure that’s the first and only time that has happened in a Columbus football stadium.
But once the game got going, it was all football, and, man, was there a lot of football. You’d need extra projectors to show all the highlights and extra ink to pen all the big moments. For a game steeped in the tradition of Bo versus Woody, there was precious little of their brand of football. Defense took a back seat to speedy offense. Running took a backseat to passing. Tackling took a backseat to elusive offensive moves. Ohio State had six offensive touchdowns. Michigan had five and a field goal.
Troy Smith, the Ohio State quarterback, was all but unstoppable. He threw for four touchdowns and 318. yards. Jim Tressell, the Ohio State coach, seemed to have plays being sent in via supercomputer. Still, the Wolverines – behind a wonderful game by leaders Mike Hart (140 rushing yards) and Chad Henne (two touchdown passes) – met the Buckeyes almost score for score until midway through the fourth quarter.
But in games like this, someone usually blinks.
The turning point may have come with just under seven minutes left, Michigan, trailing only by four, holding Ohio State on a third down on U-M’s 38, figuring on a punt – but Shawn Crable was called for a personal foul, a helmet hit on Smith as the quarterback went out of bounds. And instead, the Buckeyes kept the ball and got a free first down.
A few plays later, Smith hit Brian Robiskie for a touchdown, the 41st point of the game, and that would be simply too much for U-M to overcome.
Bo’s long shadow
Before the game, in the hallway of the press box, Jerry Hanlon was walking alone. Hanlon was one of the assistants who came up from Miami of Ohio when Bo was hired to take over Michigan. He was beside Bo every game of the coach’s tenure in Ann Arbor. Like other members of Bo’s universe, it seems he has, over the years, come to walk like Bo, even look like Bo. Two days ago, he dropped by Schembechler’s office and chatted. Then he went with him to the locker room for Bo’s last address to the team. It would turn out to be the last time he saw him.
“Bo told me he was having trouble breathing,” Hanlon said. “But he was going anyhow. In the locker room, Lloyd (Carr) asked him if he wanted a stool. He said, Hell, no, I don’t want any stool.’ “
Hanlon said Bo’s address was moving and inspiring and all about the team. He wasn’t trying to pep them up. He was trying to tell the guys on the sidelines that they were as important as the guys in the starting lineup.
“He said you never know when you’re gonna get called on, so be ready.”
If only we all could have been so prepared. Hanlon had the look that a lot of guys had before the game – men like Jim Brandstatter, the broadcaster, who was on Bo’s first team, and Don Shane, from Channel 7, who was taping a show with Bo when the coach collapsed to the floor. The look they had was the look of someone kicked in the stomach. They were here, but part of them wasn’t here.
Can you imagine then, what this game was like for Lloyd Carr? Carr, for the last 28 years, had never coached a Michigan game without Bo somewhere – in front of him on the sidelines, above him in the press box, waiting for him at the office on Monday.
Now he was supposed to do the thing that Bo preached most often: block. He was supposed to block his grief, his memory, the voice in his head that questioned, “What am I doing here? My friend just died.”
History will record many elements of this afternoon. It will never be able to chronicle that.
So much for predictions
So much hype is expended on these games, and, as usual, most of the predictions seemed silly by halftime. Smith, supposed to be most dangerous because of his scrambling ability, threw 13 passes in the first quarter alone – and none of them to Anthony Gonzalez, whom experts predicted would be a go-to guy. The Michigan run defense, which was averaging just 29 yards allowed a game, surrendered a 52-yard run to a freshman best known for his fumbling (and would later give up a 56-yard run to Antonio Pittman). The two teams, who were supposed to, by most predictions, play a low-scoring slugfest, had 42 points by the midway mark, and 81 by the finish.
So much for predictions.
Remember, there was emotion for Ohio State, too. This was Smith’s final regular-season game. The quarterback told a TV reporter that he broke down while addressing the team Thursday night, expressing his love for his teammates. Smith had not always been a model student athlete. But by all accounts, he has matured in the way you most want a kid to mature in college.
He sure was impossible to solve Saturday. Every time the Buckeyes needed a big play, he delivered one. And he’s likely to be holding a Heisman Trophy in a few weeks. If so it will be well deserved.
If there was a word for Saturday, it was “overwhelming.” The sadness of Bo Schembechler was overwhelming, the largesse of No. 1 versus No. 2 was overwhelming, and finally, Ohio State was overwhelming
It is not the ending anyone in Ann Arbor wants. And maybe some feel sad for the Michigan players that this game, which they waited all season to play, had to come with the heavy burden of the death of a beloved Michigan family member.
But college is supposed to be about learning. And while it may not be taught in classes, a real life lesson is that things don’t always go the way you want, and the timing of life is often inconvenient, the sad and the wonderful happening within hours of one another. However bad the players feel this morning, there are other things in life that are worse than losing a game. That lesson has been well learned in the last few days. And if they fell three points short in the biggest game in this big game’s history, well, that is hardly something to be ashamed of, is it?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.