ANN ARBOR — It ended with a Michigan receiver leaping desperately into a sandwich of Ohio State defenders, the ball out of reach, the party over. The Buckeyes fans poured onto the field. The Buckeyes players hoisted their coach on their shoulders. It was not the finish the Wolverines dreamed about; more like the nightmare they could not escape.
“Turnovers, fumbles, interceptions,” Bo Schembechler would lament, after his team dropped the annual November war with the Buckeyes, 23-20, to end a dizzying regular season at 7-4. “We missed a field goal, we blew a touchdown. We are a young team, we made young mistakes. . . . “
Down the hall, inside the U-M locker room, the senior players were dressing slowly. They had just played their last game at their university. Jamie Morris, the star tailback, twisted his tie and stuffed it under his sweater. John Elliott, the offensive lineman nicknamed “Jumbo,” grabbed his pants off a hook and pulled them on slowly. Allen Bishop, the defensive back, was in the trainers’ room, having his ankle taped.
“It’s funny,” Elliott said into a TV camera’s lens “for a while there, I thought we were going to win by a rout. . . . “
Sometimes you win and sometimes you graduate. The shame at that moment did not seem that the Wolverines fell to the Buckeyes Saturday, or that they fumbled, bumbled, and ultimately gave the game away. Uh-uh.
The shame at that moment seemed that the senior guys wouldn’t get to try it again.
You know, my best memories have come out of this series,” said Elliott, the massive All-American lineman. “Like last year, when we came back, it was the most satisfying win in my life. And in 1985, when John Kolesar made that catch. . . .
“I was just thinking about the symmetry of this series. Last year we were losing what, 14-3? And we came back to win it. This year we had them down, 13-0 and they come back.”
Symmetry. Yes. From that perspective, this was a classic. Here were the Buckeyes, playing their final game for coach Earle Bruce, who had been fired last Monday in an ugly display of pressure. They had lost their last two Wolverine showdowns. This coach had recruited them, believed in them. What else could they do for him now but win?
So quarterback Tom Tupa sliced the Michigan defense like a razor, 219 yards, 18 of 26 completed, no interceptions. And Everett Ross, the flanker, caught the most important passes, including a go-ahead touchdown. And Matt Frantz — who missed the last-minute field goal that would have won the game in 1986 — kicked the deciding one straight and true this time, sealing the three-point victory.
And here was Michigan — which came from behind to win last year, with a senior Jim Harbaugh leading the way — watching their inexperience now choke now like a deadly snake. Freshman fullback Jarrod Bunch, in his first Michigan-Ohio State game, fumbled in the second quarter, leading to an OSU score. Demetrius Brown, the sophomore quarterback in his first Michigan-Ohio State game, threw an off-balance interception in the third quarter that led to another OSU score. And freshman fullback Leroy Hoard, playing in his first Michigan Ohio-State game, fumbled into a swarm of scarlet jerseys late in the fourth quarter. This year’s fate was sealed.
You know, it’s sad at this moment, we feel bad, but in a way I have to smile,” said Morris, sitting by his locker, in no apparent hurry to leave. “I see these younger players and I think of us. My freshman year, we were 6-6. People were saying, ‘God, we’re the worst Michigan team ever. But last year we won the Big Ten and went to the Rose Bowl. . . . “
He paused, and you could not help but wish him another curtain call. Here is a tailback who turned his heart over when he put on a Michigan uniform, a 5-foot-7 fireball of energy who Schembechler once thought might only return punts. Yet he now owns every important rushing record in Michigan history. He ran in the first half Saturday like God’s needle through scarlet and gray threads. He gained 130 yards by days end. It seemed, for a while, like he could beat any player out there. He just couldn’t beat them all.
“Bo told us afterwards we played like a young team, and it’s a shame that we had to make so many young mistakes. I agree with him. We didn’t really lose this game to Ohio State as much as we lost it by ourselves. . . . “
“I guess this hasn’t all hit me yet. I keep thinking ‘We’ll get ’em next year.’ It hasn’t dawned on me that I won’t be going down to Columbus with these guys.”
“It’s not the way you wanted to end your career here is it?” he was asked.
“No,” he said, sighing, “but I began in a rebuilding year, and I guess I’m ending in one. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
And maybe it is. College football is as revolving as college itself. What has made this Ohio State-Michigan rivalry great is that it always comes around, and you never really know what’s going to happen. Michigan has never been a big turnover team. It will be Schembechler’s challenge to wipe that stuff out — by the Hall of Fame bowl game Jan. 2, the final performance of this squad. And you can bet you won’t see the same thing next year in Ohio.
But that is the future. Here was the present. Morris, dressing slowly, hugging a coach. Elliott, shaking hands with reporters who might not see him again. Billy Harris, and Doug Mallory and Erik Campbell, all defensive starters. All taking their last walk through the tunnel, to friends and family who were waiting.
Not for a moment on this frozen afternoon did any of them play as if they knew that the game technically meant very little. No bowls were determined his time. No Big 10 championship was on the line. So? You think that mattered?
“What will you think of when you hear the words Michigan- Ohio State from now on?” someone asked Elliott.
He crossed his thick arms and squared his feet.
“The greatest rivalry ever,” he said.
Can you wait until next November? CUTLINE: U-M’s Jamie Morris charges up the middle, breaking this tackle attempt by Ohio State’s Mike Sullivan.