Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ohio State-Michigan postgame analysis

By Rick Morris

[NOTE: This story was written after attending today's Ohio State-Michigan game in Columbus.]

After the mammoth OSU-Michigan game of '06, which featured the first #1 vs. #2 meeting in the history of the series and was arguably the biggest college football regular season game of the decade, the next meeting of the two teams in the Horseshoe would never be able to top the aura of that moment. But that clash set in motion a series of events that rendered this rematch a mirror image of the game of 20 years ago.

With Lloyd Carr already on thin ice with the Wolverine faithful after dropping four of his first five to the Buckeyes since Jim Tressel took over, the 2006 game loomed as a must-win for his talented squad. And when his biggest protector, Big Bo, passed away the day before the game, he knew that the alums would be even more empowered if he lost. In a thriller that somehow managed to exceed the hype, Ohio State prevailed, 42-39, and set the stage for Carr's final sad series of events at Michigan. The following fall, his team opened with a shocking upset at the hands of Appalachian State and closed with a plodding, uninspired loss to OSU that came just before his retirement announcement.

There were at least some surface similarities to the final days of Earle Bruce at Ohio State in 1987 and the open of the John Cooper era the next year. Like Carr, Bruce did not survive more than a season after his biggest booster and legendary predecessor Woody Hayes passed away (although, unlike Carr, Bruce went out with a shocking upset win in the big rivalry game). Like Carr, Bruce was succeeded by a flashy swashbuckler who was a complete outsider to the program. Having made a good part of his reputation by beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl at Arizona State (in what would later become a painfully ironic twist), Cooper limped through his maiden season with a record of 4-5-1 going into the home finale against Michigan. A 34-31 loss sealed a losing season, the first in decades at the school.

New Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was already assured a losing record coming into today's tilt, as his roster, depleted by 2007 graduations and completely unmatched to the new spread option he installed, came in at 3-8. Like Cooper's '88 Buckeyes, his Wolverines were given a small chance of victory and were in fact three-touchdown underdogs. Unlike Coop's team, though, Michigan could not keep the game close past the midpoint of the third quarter and ended up unraveling thoroughly en route to a 42-7 drubbing, one of the worst in the history of the series and an unprecedented fifth straight win for Ohio State in this rivalry.

Former Browns coach Butch Davis will deservedly take to his grave an idiotic comment from the day that running back Jamal Lewis carved his defense up for a then NFL-record 295 yards. His defense, he stated with a straight face, defended Lewis well for all but five plays. Rodriguez surely has too much of a survival instinct to break out such shameless spin to explain away today's game, but his team did in fact contain OSU except for big plays. Unfortunately for him, the Buckeyes had lots of them.

A defensive stalemate was broken open when Chris Wells rushed for a 59-yard touchdown to give Ohio State first blood. Subsequent scores from the Scarlet and Gray came from the following: a 53-yard touchdown pass from Terrelle Pryor to Brian Hartline, a 49-yard touchdown run from Dan Herron (that was immediately preceded by a 42-yard run by Wells!), an 80-yard punt return by former pariah Ray Small that set up a short TD pass to Hartline, a 35-yard pass from Pryor to Dane Sanzenbacher (an exquisite broken play that saw Pryor run around and elude tacklers effortlessly while waiting for a downfield option to materialize) that set up a short Herron TD run and a Marcus Williams fumbled punt recovery that set up a short TD pass from Todd Boeckman (who looked sharp in garbage time) to Hartline.

In between, Ohio State did struggle to move the ball via sustained drives. Pryor's inexperience did show itself in the form of his stats (5-13, 120 yards, two touchdown passes and one absolute lock-on interception early in the game -- after which he and his teammates got very lucky when Michigan botched a chip-shot field goal) and some coverage sacks that he took. Rodriguez tried to use his limited defensive resources to stack the box against the Bucks and had occasional success in the form of blitzes against empty backfield formations and a decent amount of run-stuffing. But these same moves left his team thin beyond the line of scrimmage and open to the big plays that decimated them.

Michigan's offense, meanwhile, was completely feeble until a 14-play, 65-yard TD drive in the late second quarter that followed an inexplicable Tressel decision to throw long on fourth-and-two from the Michigan 35. The Wolverines also moved the ball fairly respectably in the early third quarter before the Ohio State barrage, a 28-0 run to close out the scoring, that shut down what remained of the spirit of That School Up North.

Tressel showed considerable restraint down the stretch, in marked contrast to Woody's conduct in 1968 when he decided on a two-point conversion late in the game in a 50-14 rout. Ohio State fans to this day proudly remember his reply when asked why he went for two points: "Because I couldn't go for three!" The spirit of sportsmanship was considerably less popular four decades later with a bloodthirsty fanbase.

Cooper's initial missteps in 1988 went far beyond the home loss to Michigan. He developed a reputation as a money-grubber with his aggressive pursuit of any and all endorsements and he immediately began his signature practice of excuse-making and expectation-lowering (aided greatly by media sock puppets like Jimmy Crum, who circled the wagons by throwing Bruce under one of them when he claimed that the previous coaching staff had left the cupboard bare). Ultimately, Cooper could not have survived those thirteen interminable seasons without the support of a university president defiantly proud of his own cluelessness about college football like Gordon Gee. Unfortunately for Rodriguez, he has no such crutch, as the Powers That Be in Ann Arbor will have him on a short leash after this crushing climax to a nightmare season. Tressel will bring a team bereft of senior leadership into The Big House for the 2009 regular season finale. A bad effort against a vulnerable Ohio State, or another pathetic campaign leading up to it, will probably ensure that Michigan will have its third coach in as many visits to Columbus in 2010.

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