Thrillers aren’t thrillers until the hero gets in trouble. And everything that happened until the third quarter in the Big House thriller Saturday, when Zak Zinter went down with a knee injury so gruesome Fox wouldn’t show it on TV, was just buildup.
After that — after the entire Michigan football team gathered around their fallen senior captain and best offensive lineman, after Zinter was rolled off in a medical cart, after he shook a fist at the crowd and Michigan Stadium roared with approval — suddenly we were inside something bigger than a football game, something even people who have never made a tackle could relate to.
“I looked back and Zak was screaming and Karsen (Barnhart) was literally holding his foot (because) it was just limp; it was a sight I don’t wish upon anyone,” quarterback JJ McCarthy would say. “At that moment, seeing that look in everybody’s eyes, seeing them rally together, (there) was something about it. It was spiritual, honestly. It was a different drive … after that happened.”
He’s right. As if maize and blue pixie dust had dropped from the late autumn sky, running back Blake Corum, who refers to Zinter as “my guy,” took a handoff on the very next play and, despite having been bottled up all day, burst outside, escaped a tackle and raced 22 yards to the corner of the end zone.
He held up six fingers then five fingers, for the number 65 that Zinter wears. But he could just have easily held up a “V” for victory.
Making the big plays when needed
In one of the finest of Big Games in the 119 years of this Michigan-Ohio State rivalry — and one of the most intense — the 12-0 Wolverines remained undefeated, winning 30-24 and flooding the field in a sea of delirious fans. For the third straight year, Michigan sent Buckeyes coach Ryan Day home with his head hanging low as a man walking to his execution.
“Devatasting,” he would call it. And in Columbus, they’ll use harsher words. U-M won because it made fewer mistakes, ran the ball better, played the clock brilliantly, converted gutsy fourth downs and stabbed the crimson bull every time it threatened to charge.
But mostly it won on heart — and timing. Ohio State may have had the flashy talent, but Michigan had the brightest moments, be it an early interception that led to a touchdown, a made-you-blink threaded TD by McCarthy to Roman Wilson between two defenders (“Insane!” Wilson would later call that pass) or the cherry on the top moment in the final 25 seconds. That’s when Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord, directing a desperate drive for a winning score, was pressured by Jalen Harrell. McCord tried slinging a pass to his star receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., but saw it flutter into the arms of a diving safety Rob Moore for a game-sealing interception.
Moore, who grew up in Ohio and came to Michigan after the Buckeyes didn’t offer him a scholarship, couldn’t believe what he’d just accomplished.
“I really can’t put it in words how I’m feeling,” he later said. “I was on the field looking like, ‘I just called game.’ I did that!”
He sure did. A kid who was told by friends when he enrolled at Ann Arbor that he would never beat Ohio State has now done it three years in a row.
You know what they call that?
Signs say they’re pretty good
And that, of course, must be the theme of this victory. If you believe in punishment, then you must believe in retribution. For the third straight week, the Wolverines played without their head coach, Jim Harbaugh. It was the most difficult stretch of their season — on the road against No. 9 Penn State, on the road against Maryland, and home against No. 2 Ohio State — a tripleheader that rivals almost any Division I school’s three game stretch this year.
The Wolverines won all three. Without Harbaugh. And certainly without any pregame sign stealing. Acting head coach Sherrone Moore was asked whether Saturday’s win puts to rest the idea that somehow Michigan wasn’t really as good as it seemed due to an unfair advantage.
“There are a lot of things I would love to say,” he answered cryptically, “all I know is this team is as good as any team in the country. And I think they just prove it every week.”
They proved it Saturday by staying just out of reach of the powerful Buckeye attack, like a man protected by a shark cage. Although Michigan’s defense stymied Ohio State early on, the second half saw OSU rev it up, with star running back TreVeyon Henderson chugging yardage and Harrison proving nearly unstoppable if the ball was thrown anywhere near him.
Michigan’s first half 14-3 lead was erased in the third quarter, and the Buckeyes tied the game, 17-17, with 5:35 left in the period. If you’d paused the game at that moment, you’d likely have put money on Harrison, Henderson and the OSU defense emerging victorious. They certainly seemed to have the momentum.
But football, like life, is a pendulum of emotions, and when Zinter went down and the entire team watched him lifted onto that medical cart (the image of massive linemen looking teary eyed speaks volumes about the dangers of this game) the pendulum swung the other way.
And when Corum ripped that 22-yard run on the very next play, then flashed the “65” for the cameras, you almost could hear him and his team declaring “We are not losing this game.”
From that point on, the volume boomed, the gas pedal was slammed. The game took on a storm-like intensity, as if set against a backdrop of blinding lighting and rolling thunder. Every hit mattered. Every first down was gold.
Here was defensive back Quinten Johnson leveling an Ohio State receiver so hard even the ball asked for a bandage. Here was Michigan calling a trick play early in the fourth quarter, Donovan Edwards taking a lateral and throwing a downfield to tight end Colston Loveland for 34 yards, knocking the air out of the OSU defense.
Here was a clock-choking fourth quarter Michigan drive, directed by McCarthy (16-for-20 passing, 148 yards, one TD, no mistakes) that chewed up nearly seven of the last eight minutes of the game, converting four critical first downs, including the entire team jumping into a scrum, rugby-like, to push Edwards past the line to gain.
That image, the entire offense coming together for 1 extra yard, pretty much symbolized the last three weeks of Michigan football.
“No one cried, no one whined, we were just like like, ‘OK, if this is what we have to to, this is what we have to do,’ ” Corum said. “The job has to get done no matter what — whether coach is here, whether players are hurt, the job has to get done and the job will get done. …
“It’s been great. A little adversity, feeling like everyone’s against you, Michigan versus everybody … it’s been nothing but great.”
Just can’t count them out
Well. You say that when you win. They’re not saying it in Ohio right now. Ryan Day has perhaps the most sterling record of any coach in college football since arriving at Ohio State — except for his three straight losses to Michigan. The fact that he lost Saturday without Harbaugh on Michigan’s sideline will sting Buckeye fans worse than having to go door to door on Christmas morning singing “The Victors.”
“There’s a locker room in there that’s devasted,’’ Day told the media after the game. “It wasn’t a lack of effort, but again, we didn’t win the rushing yards, we didn’t win the turnover battle. so you’re not going to win this game.”
It seems crazy to think that a guy with Day’s record could be in danger of losing his job, as some postulated he would if he lost to Michigan again. Yet stranger things have happened in a sport that suffers no loss like a rivalry loss.
But that, Michigan fans will say, is Ohio State’s problem. The Wolverines are done with them for another blessed 364 days. Now it’s about how far the postseason can go.
There will be another mood change next week. Harbaugh will be back. No more dangling swords. A win over Iowa in the Big Ten championship should assure Michigan nothing less than a No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff, and, should Georgia lose, possibly the No. 1 ranking.
Heady stuff. For now, Michigan fans — and really all sports fans — can revel in what a group of players did when their program was shaken, their coach was stripped, and their teammate was carted away.
They came together. There’s still something admirable, even honorable, in that. Thrillers aren’t thrillers until the hero gets in trouble. This may never really have been Michigan versus everybody, but it was always Michigan versus Ohio State. And the Wolverines just won a heartstopper.
“I don’t think we proved any of those guys wrong,” McCarthy said, summing it up. “I think we proved ourselves right.”
Who knows how far this blue train can go?