COLUMBUS, Ohio — No bigger games. No bigger moments. This is all you live for if you wear a Wolverines or Buckeyes uniform, this game, this Saturday in mid-November, and the final gun was but 66 seconds away, and there were hearts beating crazily all over the field, as if they would burst.
“‘Make it, make it,” prayed the Ohio State players.
“Miss it, miss it,” countered the Michigan team.
A field goal? This had all come down to an Ohio State field goal? Yes. The ball was kicked, it rose toward the uprights, and they all just stood helpless and watched. Everybody in red and everybody in blue and everybody in between. Ho, what was riding on that thing! Just a championship, just a Rose Bowl, just a season. Just 59 minutes of a 60-minute war that the players would carry with them the rest of their lives.
“My stomach . . .” Andy Moeller, the U-M linebacker, would say later, moving a hand up and down.
His. Yours. Everyone’s.
The ball carried, the crowd roared. . . .
No bigger games. No bigger moments. Was there anything left to give this cold afternoon? The score was close — 26-24, Michigan — Ohio State had played brilliantly, Michigan had played brilliantly, Jim Harbaugh had made good on his boasts and Jim Karsatos and Cris Carter had earned a few of their own. There comes along, every now and then, an affair that colors your character, that ages you, leaves you somewhere newer, older.
Here it was. The Michigan players watched that ball rise, rise, saw the Buckeyes’ players raise their arms up as if the field goal were good, heard a thunder begin in Ohio Stadium — then felt it die like a blink.
No good. Wide left.
The Wolverines were going to win. They were going to the Rose Bowl. But they leaped into the sudden silence — and each others’ arms — with more than a victory.
They were, suddenly, all of them, men.
You don’t go through a game like this and come out anything else. Here was a Michigan team that had marched through the first nine challenges of the season, fallen on its face last week against Minnesota, and had come into this annual showdown with some people questioning their talent. And when the game began, Michigan looked terrible.
What was the first quarter like? Like stepping outside and having a dump truck bury you in manure. Ohio State went through Michigan like a bull goes through a fence. The score was 14-3, Buckeyes, when they broke to start the second quarter, and there was a feeling this might be a rout.
Everywhere except the Michigan sideline.
“Were you scared at any point during this thing?” someone asked Harbaugh afterward. “Did you ever think you might lose it?”
“When you come up in a program like Michigan’s,” he said, “you always think you’re going to win. You’re taught from Day 1 to never give up on your teammates. Never.”
Well, who is to argue? Never give up. Kids give up. What Harbaugh and Jamie Morris and Greg McMurtry and the rest of the Wolverines earned Saturday was nothing less than their rites of passage. No more kids. No more young men. Kids and young men would never have handled this pressure, never have caught a bullet in their teeth and spit it back.
This was a game that could have gotten away as easily as Karsatos seemed to slip the grasp of every defender who reached him. 14-3 in the first quarter? In Ohio Stadium?
But . . . Harbaugh. He was playing just a few days after his father lost his coaching job at Western Michigan — a firing that was all over the newspapers. Don’t think that won’t distract you. Yet he played like a general, like an adult, directing the offense on a day when he had to scream with hands around his mouth just to be heard.
But . . . Morris. He suffered a knee injury earlier this season and has been taking ribbing about being caught from behind ever since. But he played bigger than his body this day, like an adult, gained 210 yards rushing, and on U-M’s first touchdown, he literally dragged three defenders into the end zone with him. Three? Little Jamie Morris?
But . . . the U-M defense. Yes, it was like a lace curtain the first half. But in the fourth quarter, when it mattered most, it played beyond itself, like an adult, and held Ohio State on three straight downs to force the Buckeyes to attempt that final field goal from a long 45 yards away.
To be honest, there were more than a few media people who at halftime, figured the consolation-prize Cotton Bowl awaited the Wolverines.
“What was said at halftime in your locker room?” someone asked Moeller.
“We knew we were going to win this game at halftime,” he said. “Ask anyone on our team. We just felt it.”
They were behind at the time, 14-6.
So no doubts. No questions. Whatever happens in Hawaii or Pasadena is secondary now.
No bigger games. No bigger moments. Let the scribes note that it was up to the Michigan offense to carry the team Saturday — and asking an offense to do that in a game like this is liking asking a bird to carry an anvil.
And the offense came through with three second-half touchdowns.
Let them note that after a fumble by Thomas Wilcher with 3:17 left — the classic, ill-timed mistake — U-M did not collapse. It held tough.
Let them note that in a game that featured a time-out charged to the crowd, a 15-yard penalty charged to U-M coach Bo Schembechler, and several controversial plays — including a missed pass-interference call that cost U-M a two-point conversion — the Wolverines kept their heads together.
Held them high.
And won, 26-24.
“Were you mad at Harbaugh for ‘guaranteeing’ a victory?” someone asked Schembechler when it was over.
“Hell, no, I wasn’t mad,” he said. “I’d have said it myself, if I’d had the guts.”
The Wolverines had the guts. They had the right stuff. This was a game that many figured was Ohio State’s early on, and the journey from 14-3 to that final leap when the field goal missed, must rank as one of the strongest, surest and most mature comebacks in recent Michigan memory.
In the mob scene outside the locker room, lineman Mark Messner was standing amid his friends, this big hulking body, and his eyes were closed in a most unusual pose.
He was sniffing a rose.
No bigger games. No bigger moments. Today they are men.
And they are going to Pasadena.