THIS IMAGE WILL ENDURE: HARBAUGH BACK TO PASS

ANN ARBOR — I hope you were watching. I hope you were glued to your TV set and had all your relatives over and you videotaped the whole darn thing. Otherwise, I don’t know if you’d believe me when I tell you how the Michigan Wolverines beat their archest of arch-rivals, Ohio State, to cap their season Saturday:

They passed them to death.

That’s right. Over the middle, down the sidelines, in between defenders, a short touchdown lob and a long touchdown bomb. Three touchdowns by air, 230 aerial yards all told.

The team that wears its defense like an amulet to ward off evil spirits won its annual blood feud with its offense.

And in so doing, it convinced a lot of people, me included, that it may indeed be the finest college football team in the country, polls or no polls.

But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, savor Saturday, the 82d time these two teams have clashed. Savor it, of course, only if you bleed Wolverine blue. It was not orthodox. But there it was.

Michigan 27, Ohio State 17.

And long after the cars had honked away into the night, and the goal posts had been left for dead, and the 106,102 screaming witnesses had gone home with their souvenir piece of the turf — long after all that, it was the way this game will be remembered that brought the biggest grin.

For the memory will not be a crunching goal-line stand or some last-second squeaker of a field goal. Nope. The image that repeats will be that of Jim Harbaugh dropping back in the fourth quarter and uncorking a soaring spiral that rose high and long as flanker John Kolesar ran underneath it, his steps seemingly in sync with the revolutions of the ball, so when it fell, it fell right into his arms, almost gently, and he lifted his legs and simply out-sprinted the Ohio State defender to the promised land.

“That took the starch out of their sails,” said Bo Schembechler. One play, 77 yards. Touchdown. Air Michigan.

More passes? Bo started fast

Yes, there have been more important games in this rivalry, which goes back to 1897. After all, the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl invitation sailed away in the middle of the third quarter Saturday, when the announcement that Iowa had beaten Minnesota came over the loudspeakers.

There was no prize anymore for Michigan and Ohio State, who were tied at 10-10 at that moment. Iowa had won the conference.

But in this series, the battle is the thing. So with the Rose Bowl out, all that was left was years of two-fisted tradition and the right to grin for the rest of the month.

Plenty to fight for.

And fight they did. Michigan opened its offense with a first-down pass.
“How about that?” Schembechler said with a laugh. “I did it for all you guys
(reporters). You always say I should pass more.”

That statement is consistent. The laughter is not. Schembechler had bristled before at criticism that he holds down the passing in the big games.

Not Saturday. From a 40-yard strike to tight end Eric Kattus in the second quarter to that 77-yard bomb in the last, the passing was the key.

This is not to slight the Wolverines’ defense. Despite giving up their highest point total of the year, they played brilliantly when they most had to. They clipped star running back Keith Byars to 35 yards. And how fitting that Ohio State’s last offensive play of the game ended with its quarterback being swallowed by a swarm of maize ‘n’ blue uniforms.

But the star of this game was clearly Harbaugh, the quarterback who had never played against Ohio State before, who sat out last year’s showdown with a broken arm.

He showed confidence, he showed accuracy and he showed speed under pressure. He completed 16 of 19 passes and, to my mind, proved that when he’s on, you may be watching the No. 1 team in the country. Really.

The offense took off

Now, this is not the rambling of someone caught up in a victory. Think about it. Michigan lost its only game of the year — to Iowa — because its offense went conservative at a crucial moment. The same thing was largely to blame for the Wolverines’ tie with Illinois.

But that offense has spread its wings in recent weeks (mostly behind Harbaugh’s passing) and, when matched with the incomparable defense, it makes for the best 1-2 combination in college football.

Polls don’t show everything. Neither does a won-lost record. Other teams may be ranked higher simply because you can’t knock an undefeated team (such as Penn State). But “best team in the country” means the team most likely to beat all the others. This column says, right now, it’s Michigan.

So send them no roses. They’ll take a Fiesta for New Year’s. The game they most wanted to win is theirs.

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