ANN ARBOR, MICH., NOV. 21 -- Ohio State Coach Earle Bruce could not have written, nor conceived a better way to go out than with the players on his 6-4-1 team carrying him off the Michigan Stadium field on their shoulders, surrounded by the Ohio State band, fans, alumni and teammates.

The Buckeyes beat Michigan, 23-20, on a 26-yard field goal by Matt Frantz with 5:18 left, before 106,031 today. That was important, because it was Michigan-Ohio State, but it was almost forgotten in the game's near-frenzied atmosphere.

There was Bruce, fired for reasons he still doesn't understand and the university president still won't discuss. There was freshman running back Carlos Snow, finding out what this rivalry really means. There was all-America linebacker Chris Spielman, ending his own career with 16 tackles, 14 unassisted, almost singlehandedly stopping all-America tailback Jamie Morris in the second half.

And there were the white-clad Buckeyes with "Earle" headbands on, in defiance of their headband-hating coach, just to let the world know what they thought of Bruce.

"There is no sweeter victory in the world than a win over Michigan in your final game at Ohio State," Bruce said. "But the real thrill was coming back when you're down 13-0 after what we had to go through this week. They showed me a lot. This is one for the Buckeyes; God bless them. I love them."

Ohio State came back on the strength of senior quarterback Tom Tupa's arm and the feet of Snow. Tupa (18 for 26, 219 yards, two touchdowns) danced between and around defenders, sidearming passes to a host of receivers.

And Snow (21 carries for 67 yards) made the biggest offensive play of the day, taking a dump pass in the left flat and racing 70 yards early in the third quarter to put Ohio State ahead for the first time, 14-13.

Meanwhile, Ohio State's defense held Morris to 19 yards rushing in the second half after he had run through the Buckeyes for 112 first-half yards. Poor Ohio State kickoffs and turnovers helped Michigan most in the second half.

"The only thing that was said {at halftime} was: 'We're playing this terrible and we're only down, 13-7,' " Spielman said. "If we play good in the second half, we'll win."

"I told them to stop somebody out there," Bruce said. "We're better than that. Did you see that defensive effort in the second half?"

It was the only postgame question asked of Bruce about football. The others concerned his dismissal from Ohio State last Monday, despite coming into the game with an 80-26-1 record and the best record of all Big Ten coaches in the last nine years.

"I guess anyone has the right to fire me," Bruce said, "but what I don't like is what they've said about me and my integrity. I learned from Coach {Woody} Hayes, who not only said what was right but did what was right. I have a lot of integrity in my program."

It was an emotional day for everyone on the Ohio State side. Almost forgotten was Morris' quest for the single-season rushing record at Michigan (he got it, with 1,469 yards this season), in his final home game.

Ohio State took over in the third quarter. After Snow's touchdown, Michigan managed three-plays-and a-punt and an interception on its next two series. The interception, by cornerback David Brown, was set up on Spielman's hit of Michigan quarterback Demetrius Brown (five for 13, 79 yards) as he threw.

Three plays later, Tupa scored from a yard out to give the Buckeyes a 20-13 lead. But Frantz missed the extra point, and the Wolverines tied the score late in the period on Leroy Hoard's 10-yard run.

It stayed tied until Ohio State moved from its 14 to the Michigan 9, using up almost seven minutes before Frantz hit the game-winner.

"This was the bowl game for Ohio State," said Frantz. The university announced last week that the team would not accept a bowl bid.

The Buckeyes stopped two late Michigan drives, then the craziness began. Bruce was hoisted on the shoulders of his players, pumping the air with clenched fists, while the Ohio State marching band came out on the field, followed by the Buckeyes' contingent of fans in the south end zone stands. They formed a gauntlet to the Buckeyes' dressing room.

Inside the room, all the emotion of the day and week came out.

"We sang the fight song, we sang 'We Don't Give a Damn About the Whole State of Michigan,' " said junior tackle Joe Staysniak, who conceived the white-and-red headband idea. "We tried to come up with some ideas about how to support Coach."

Obviously, the week was a trying one for Bruce. The marching band visited his house, moving the stoic coach to tears. Friday, when the seniors met for the university pep rally, they put out a blocking sled, and in Ohio State tradition, prepared for each player to hit it. And then they did a most untraditional thing.

They gave Bruce a crack at it.

"I wanted Coach Bruce to hit the sled," Spielman said, "because when he played here {in 1949}, he got hurt {a knee injury} and never got to play."

Today, he got his final crack at getting to coach his alma mater. "He might not have all the charisma," Spielman said, "but there's not a better coach in the country. He proved that today."

At long last, Bruce emerged from the dressing room. Dozens of fans were waiting for him, and they called his name over and over.

He received hugs. A cry of "Good luck, Earle!" More hugs, and a kiss from a woman who said Bruce recruited both her brother and son to play for the Scarlet and Gray. A handshake from an alumnus. Then, flanked by two state troopers, he boarded the bus.

And he was gone.