Ahead of Michigan’s trip to Columbus on Saturday, the question posed to the Wolverines was, ‘if not now, when?’
That question, of course, referred to their inability to beat Ohio State. After 13 defeats in the last 14 editions of The Game, frustration had reached a tipping point, but this was the chance to right nearly two decades worth of wrongs.
The Buckeyes came in reeling, on the back of allowing 51 points to 5-7 Maryland. Two weeks earlier, they nearly lost to 4-7 Nebraska. Purdue — who eked out bowl eligibility on the last day of the season — beat them 49-20 last month. Their defense ranked outside the top 50 in most major categories.
Yet, despite its worst season in years, Ohio State entered Saturday at 10-1 and on the precipice of College Football Playoff contention. This wasn’t 2011, when a rebuilding year allowed Buckeyes fans to discard a loss in The Game. No — this was everything The Game is supposed to be: a place in the Big Ten championship game on the line, national title hopes in the balance, the eyes of the college football world fixated on Columbus.
But there was also reason for Michigan to believe this year was different. On paper, it seemed to possess a clear edge and most Vegas sports books — who hadn’t picked The Game wrong since 2004 — favored the Wolverines by four points. They didn’t have some kind of mental block against Ohio State, they had just been worse — or so the argument went.
On Saturday, that argument got thrown out the window, hit by a car, and obliterated by a semi-truck for good measure in a four hour embarrassment at Ohio Stadium.
At halftime, Michigan trailed by just five points and I began to prepare a game story for a potential comeback win. In that story, I noted that, had freshman wide receiver Ronnie Bell not broken up a potential pick-six late in the first half, the Wolverines would have been down 19 instead of five at the break. By the final whistle, that interception would have been the difference between a 62-39 loss and a 69-32 one. Somehow, the latter would have been a more just representation of the four preceding hours.
Michigan’s defense, which entered the day leading the nation with 234.8 yards allowed per game, allowed the Buckeyes to eclipse that mark before halftime. The second half was no better, as Ohio State found the end zone on five of its last six drives and would almost certainly have done so on all six had Urban Meyer not shown some mercy by entering victory formation with a minute to play.
“They beat us in every way—run game, pass game, everyone’s to blame,” said senior safety Tyree Kinnel.
But the problem doesn’t lie in how the Wolverines lost. It doesn’t matter whether they lost 3-0, 28-27, or 62-39 — this was a game they simply had to win. They had to win it for the sake of this season but more importantly, they had to win for the sake of the program.
Instead, Kinnel’s graduating class becomes the eighth in 12 years to have never beaten the Buckeyes. Before 2007, no Michigan seniors had carried that unfortunate distinction since 1975.
“Wish I could have got a couple wins in (the rivalry),” Kinnel said. “That’s the toughest part, I guess. I’m gonna have to sleep on that the rest of my life, that I was not able to win in this game.”
Coach Jim Harbaugh’s postgame reaction might be most telling. When asked how his reaction this year compared to after 2016, he described it as the “same.”
Then he elaborated on what that means.
“Just motivated to come back make darn sure it doesn’t happen again.”
But, according to Harbaugh himself, he was also motivated to make sure it didn’t happen again in 2016. And yet, his team has lost to Ohio State twice since then — by a combined 34 points.
There is no rational explanation for what happened on Saturday — and that’s the problem. In each of the past 13 defeats, the Wolverines could point to some reason for its loss to the Buckeyes, whether that be its defense, its quarterback, its coach, or simply the opponent’s talent. After another humiliation in The Game, the only surviving explanation is that Michigan can’t beat Ohio State.
Which begs the question: It didn’t happen now, so will it ever?