How did Michigan football finally beat Ohio State? They had will to go with skill

by | Nov 28, 2021 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

You can’t be denied what you will not surrender. That message was delivered with every lowered helmet, every busted tackle, every push behind a blocker or dive over the pile, every churning step that Hassan Haskins powered through with the football Saturday and that his team took along with him, until the final seconds ticked off the clock and the scoreboard read, “Michigan 42, Ohio State 27,” and tens of thousands of long-suffering U-M fans spilled onto the field in a sea of blue joy and yellow pom poms, all but screaming these three words:

Not. This. Time.

The Wolverines were not losing, not this year, not to this Ohio State team, not with this group of gritty, physical Michigan players who played as if they’d waited a lifetime to get back at the Buckeyes. At 9-1, with a dominant defense and a crushing run game, it was, after eight straight defeats in this rivalry, a case of “If not now, never.”

And “never” was not an alternative.

“I told myself I was not going down,” Haskins said after victory. “That was my mindset the whole game.”

He ran for five touchdowns and 169 yards of thumping and bumping distance. He took every ball on the game sealing drive: five straight plays, all Haskins, all the time, 65 yards, pay dirt. He was, as his quarterback would call him, “a beast.”

Meanwhile, Aiden Hutchinson, with three sacks Saturday, led a defense that refused to tire, despite C.J. Stroud’s nearly 50 passes, until, finally, on Ohio State’s last desperation drive, Michigan swarmed the young quarterback and threw him to the ground, a symbolic and very real end to his Big Ten season. 

And then there was coach Jim Harbaugh, who has been left slack-jawed his last five swings in this rivalry. With the final snap, he turned to his staff as if to say “It’s real, right?” And the hugging began.

It didn’t stop for a while.

Not this time.

A beginning, and an end

“They’ll be a lot of joy in Ann Arbor,” Harbaugh predicted, after his No. 5 Wolverines put an emphatic end to their frustration, earning the coach his first Big Ten East Division title and a certain hoist into the College Football Playoff rankings, while handing Ohio State’s Ryan Day his first Big Ten defeat since he took over the program in 2019. 

“My favorite saying of all time is ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Harbaugh added. “And the will was very strong with our team. The way it feels now, it feels like the beginning.”

For many U-M fans, it felt like the end. The end of futility. The end of hopelessness. The end of thinking that this was going to be a permanent state of affairs, a string of good Michigan seasons laid to waste every year by a Buckeye squashing on the last Saturday of the regular season.

Not this time. Remember, these Wolverines daydreamed, night-dreamed and paced the floor over this game. It had been two years since the last meeting, and 10 years since the last Michigan win. When the ball was kicked off, in blustery, snow-swirling winds, it seemed clear that the Wolverines were going to own this day or die trying, no matter how many passes Stroud threw up there, no matter how many circus catches his trio of future-NFL receivers pulled out of the sky.

You can’t be denied what you will not surrender. And the Wolverines, it soon became clear, were not giving up the football. They went 75 yards on their first drive, 55 on the ground, and after Ohio State took a brief 10-7 lead, the Wolverines marched 82 yards, and Haskins powered into the end zone.

They never trailed again.

U-M goes on the offensive

“As soon as I took the (final) knee,” said quarterback Cade McNaara, “…watching the snow fall down as the crowd rushed on the field, it was truly a surreal moment. … That feeling is why we do it.”

You want to know how this game was won? Check out the ball control and the efficiency. Michigan converted five of its eight third downs, while Ohio State went 8-for-18. McNamara hit on 13 of his 18 passes, while Stroud went 34-for-49. Ohio State had 10 penalties for 66 yards (including one that negated a Stroud touchdown run.) Michigan was only flagged twice.

Most importantly, Michigan ran for nearly 300 yards — against a team that just last week held Michigan State’s celebrated rushing attack to 66 yards total. It was the relentless pounding of Haskins and Blake Corum that kept pushing the chains. And an unshakable confidence that kept pushing the team.

During the week, Harbaugh said his staff told the players, “don’t be discouraged when they make plays, when they move the ball, when they score touchdowns, they’re going to. That’ll be the offense’s job to respond.” He added, “And our offense did.”

And how. Since the second week of the season, only one team scored more than 24 points against Ohio State. And no one had anyone beaten them. Michigan, in scoring six touchdowns Saturday, did both.

The truth is, the Buckeyes looked shaken at various points in the game, fumbling snaps and exchanges, jumping too soon. Their pure talent is so great that it’s impossible to keep them down — there was a touchdown throw from Stroud to a leaping Garrett Wilson that was as pinpoint as anything you’ll see in the NFL — so you have no choice but to outscore them.

Michigan did, taking a 15-point lead into the fourth quarter and finishing the game by that same margin.

You can’t be denied what you won’t surrender.

The rivalry returns

“These guys (Ohio State) have been disrespecting us, stepping on our jerseys, talking about hanging 100 on us,” Hutchinson, the star defensive lineman, said afterwards. “They were doing all the rah-rah, all the talk. But we were about it today.”

And let’s face it. This win was good for the rivalry. You could say it was vital. Had Harbaugh’s men gone down again, despite having just one close loss this year, despite the excellence of the run game, despite a top-10 nationally ranked defense, we might as well have thrown the schedule away, awarded Ohio State an automatic W every year and designated the second day after Thanksgiving as Scarlet and Gray Saturday.

Instead, we have ourselves a fight again. No, one win doesn’t erase the previous eight consecutive defeats, but it shows that the Buckeyes are human as well. They clearly had the edge in talent Saturday, but not in heart. Not in effort. Not in belief. 

“We’ve been playing these dudes (Ohio State) every day since January,” McNamara said. When asked to explain, he said, “Every workout, every practice, every meeting, everything that we put into this season…

“It got leaked that we have on our boards “What are you doing today to beat Ohio State?” And that’s something we kept in the back of our minds every single day that we entered Schembechler Hall.”

What did they do to beat Ohio State Saturday? Everything they had to do, beginning and ending with holding onto the football until it reached the Promised Land. Which, come to think of it, is where they’re getting closer to this morning, with a date in the Big Ten championship this Saturday in Indianapolis against Iowa and a crack at — dare we say it? — a national title.

Not this time, Ohio State. There’s a pulse in this old rivalry yet.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!