U-M in better shape, but not ready for Ohio State

The sky was clear but the storm kept coming, a relentless downpour of scarlet and gray that ran, got up, ran, got up, and ran some more. The Ohio State rushing attack was a tank, collecting first downs like mud in its tires and rolling over every possession, plowing through third downs, only stopping when it hit the end zone wall. Six touchdowns? Three hundred and sixty-nine yards rushing? Against a Michigan defense that was ranked fourth in the nation against the run?

Stopped, stomped, stampeded. Buckeyes 42, Wolverines 13. There would be no glorious finish to the inaugural season of coach Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, no repeat of his mentor Bo Schemechler’s 1969 upset of the archrival from Columbus.

Back then, the Wolverines used a stingy defense to stun the defending national champion Buckeyes, with a U-M coach pounding the blackboard at halftime and screaming, “They will not score again!”

Whatever was said at halftime Saturday, that wasn’t it. Not only did the Buckeyes score again, they made it a nasty habit, right from the second-half kickoff, going 82 yards for a touchdown, just as they did for 94 yards on their first drive, 75 yards on their second, 84 yards on their fourth, 75 yards on their fifth and 47 yards on their sixth.

“We got beat,” said a glum Harbaugh after the rout. “We did not play well enough to win.”

It was never really a contest. Michigan is improving, but it’s not loaded like Ohio State, not yet, anyhow. Two Buckeyes stars, running back Ezekiel Elliott, who wears No. 15, and quarterback J.T. Barrett, who wears No. 6, literally stepped all over Michigan, first one, then the other. The quick tempo of the Buckeyes’ offense left fans breathless and the defense exhausted, as the two stars barely stood up before running again. It was like watching a pair of Olympians take wind sprints — only they were shedding Michigan tacklers with every step.

Barrett finished with more rushing yards (139) than passing yards (113), while Elliott, who had complained about lack of use the previous week against Michigan State, galloped to 214 yards and two touchdowns.

“He belongs in New York,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told the media, referring to Elliott and the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

New York. Columbus.

Anyplace but Ann Arbor.

Stopped. Stomped. Stampeded.

Not even close

How lopsided was this game? The Buckeyes punted twice. Twice? They had nearly 500 yards of offense and never turned the ball over. By the end, Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock was out with a shoulder injury, the Wolverines were giving up an interception to lineman Joey Bosa — who smacked it in the air and caught it himself — and the stands were largely empty of maize and blue folks, but dotted heavily with red-cloaked fans, some of whom, up near the top of the stadium, held a sign, “Welcome Home Coach Harbaugh,” in Ohio State colors.

Sarcasm is the last thing you want from the cheap seats.

“They’re very good,” Harbaugh said. “They got after us running the football. I think the No. 1 thing was we weren’t tackling well enough.”

The coach had little to say after the loss. This was his third defeat at Michigan, but by far the worst. The first was the season opener, when no one expected much, against a good Utah team. And the Wolverines only lost by a touchdown.

The second was the now infamous Michigan State game last month, where a muffed punt resulted in a game-turning touchdown. Many Michigan fans still consider that a victory.

No one is thinking about that Saturday. This was a beat-down, plain and simple. Michigan’s defense, admittedly missing its best players on the front line, could not get Ohio State off the field. And its offense could not muster a rushing attack. It totaled 57 yards on the ground. No way you beat Ohio State with that.

Harbaugh seemed to place his hope in versatile talent Jabrill Peppers, who played receiver, rusher, and defensive back Saturday. But he rarely broke loose for the big plays U-M desperately needed to keep pace with Ohio State. And the Wolverines took too many penalties.

“In a game like this you need to be damn near perfect,” said tight end Jake Butt.

They were far from it.

A big change

Taken in perspective, U-M fans should not be miserable. The team is 9-3 under Harbaugh (6-2 in the Big Ten), which is a big improvement over last year. And all reports indicate a change in culture, attitude and talent attraction with Harbaugh’s reign.

But you don’t last long at Michigan losing to Michigan State and Ohio State, and those are the stinging blemishes on Harbaugh’s 2015 record. You can bet he will be itching for those rematches — both on the road — next year.

In hindsight, the Spartans ruined many things for the Wolverines. Their head-to-head game of course will be argued about for ages, and cost Michigan any chance at a playoff berth. But in beating Ohio State last weekend, Michigan State diminished the chances of a Michigan upset on Saturday even more.

Did anyone really think Urban Meyer, who was 48-4 in Columbus coming into Saturday — and had never lost a Big Ten regular-season game before the Spartans — would really lose two in a row?

“It would have been dire straits,” Meyer admitted to the media after Saturday’s win. “You can win a million in a row, but you lose two in a row and it’s back to square one.”

The Wolverines’ best chance was probably to have caught the Buckeyes with their chests puffed out, undefeated, feeling overconfident, perhaps dismissing the Wolverines too quickly.

That wasn’t going to happen once they lost to MSU. And you knew Elliott would have a monster game after complaining (perhaps justifiably) about his 33 yards on 11 carries the week before. Remember, this is a guy who rips off 100-yard games as if tying his shoes.

“I want to apologize for everything I said last week,” Elliot told the media Saturday.

Gaining 214 yards will do that.

And so ends the big game of the big season. It went out with a whimper, and Harbaugh seemed a bit lost without a game next week to prepare for, making reference several times to regrouping and coming back resilient, even though the next snap won’t be for another six weeks or so, depending on what bowl Michigan lands in.

“We closed quite a bit of ground,” Harbaugh said, when assessing the year. “There’s still more ground to close, but knowing our team, they’ll stay with it.”

Still, if he couldn’t emulate his beloved Bo’s inaugural victory over the Buckeyes, he might mimic something else. All during that 1969 season, Schembechler hung the number 50 wherever he could around the locker room, reminding his players of the 50 points Ohio State had rung up on the 1968 Michigan team.

Harbaugh might want to get a whole bunch of “42’s” and a big box of tape. After all, remembering this Saturday stampede is the best way to avoid a repeat of it a year from now.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.

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