The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Michigan finally slays the Buckeyes beast and earns a spot in the Big Ten title game

Michigan wide receiver AJ Henning scored the first touchdown of the game against Ohio State. (Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)
6 min

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The kind of mirth attainable only through misery swept its way around the Big House on Saturday, one of those curious occasions when the depth of the bygone misery seemed to keep ratcheting up the height of the newfound mirth. Michigan would defeat Ohio State for the first time in 3,654 hard and trampled days in their monster rivalry, and as the closing minutes drained toward the 42-27 final, the majority of the 111,156 in the biting cold and spitting snow looked uncommonly ready for the next 364 days.

Maize pompoms shook in droves with upgraded madness. Booming sounds came out of the corners. Dancing occurred. A field-side DJ worked. Singing occurred. Defensive stalwart Aidan Hutchinson felt “literally the loudest [crowd] ever in the Big House, the most invested,” and eventually everybody stormed the field to bounce in a stunning mass. The whole thing felt as if Michigan improving its record against a rival to 1-8 in the past nine and 3-17 in the past 20 might just constitute some sort of oddly happy equation, the wins gaining value from the rarity.

“The way it feels now, it feels like a beginning,” seventh-year coach Jim Harbaugh said.

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With 297 rushing yards of sparkling variety and notable nerve, Michigan (11-1, 8-1 Big Ten, No. 5 in the College Football Playoff rankings) — a team that looked same-old-pretty-good four Saturdays earlier when it lost at Michigan State — had won the Big Ten East Division for the first time in Harbaugh’s long, loud tenure. It had advanced to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis for the first time since the conference hatched the thing in 2011. It had dismissed No. 2 Ohio State (10-2, 8-1) from all of the above, a fact Michigan also would not mind. It had reversed an array of locomotive stats, making Harbaugh 1-5 against Ohio State, making Ohio State Coach Ryan Day 25-1 against the Big Ten. “Yeah, I feel awful,” Day began, calling it “a failure.”

The winners kept speaking of duration.

“You know, it’s been so long,” quarterback Cade McNamara said.

“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for years now,” Hutchinson said.

“It’s been a long time,” graduate student defensive back Brad Hawkins said, then soon thereafter said, “I’m just speechless, man,” and soon thereafter said, “I cried.”

They spoke of a sign that turned up in their football facility last winter — “What Are You Doing Today To Beat Ohio State?” — and McNamara said, “We’ve been playing these dudes, really every day, since January.”

A day so far along the horizon that it seemed to keep sliding nearer and nearer to never to arrive had come with thoroughness, with team heartbeat Hassan Haskins rushing for 169 yards and five touchdowns full of ravenous intent, with containing defense and with some second-half mastery all but unseen in this rivalry since Michigan last won, 40-34, in long-ago 2011. For plenty of the routs and thuds of recent-years meetings, the Wolverines had reached workable halftime scores such as their 14-13 lead of Saturday, but they hadn’t done anything such as this: four second-half possessions, four touchdowns, zero punts and all in a fine paucity of plays — 81 yards in three (running) plays, 78 in five, 66 in nine, 63 in five. In Michigan football lore, those 22 offensive plays will stand up maybe even somewhere near the apex of 52 years ago, when Michigan put a 24-12 toppling on a No. 1 Ohio State.

“Come out and you only run the ball,” offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said, “and you take it down the field, that says something about your confidence in yourself.” Ever since Oregon rushed for 269 at Ohio State on Sept. 11, subsequent opponents had averaged 72.6, but Michigan ignored that. “We thought a lot of teams came out and played a little scared against them, played a little timid,” Stueber said, “and that’s just not Michigan football.”

“I want to thank every single one of my linemen today,” Haskins said. “They played their hearts out. I bow my head for that.” That and: “I told myself, ‘I’m not going down.’ . . . I just kept telling myself that.”

So there went the plays, Blake Corum heading left, finding a prairie of a gap and going on a 55-yard run early in the third quarter, Haskins following that with a 13-yard sweep for a romping touchdown for 21-13, J.J. McCarthy throwing 31 yards up the right sideline to Roman Wilson on the next possession, a flea flicker on which McNamara had Mike Sainristil alone on the left for an eventual 34 weaving yards toward 28-13.

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Finally, as the last shreds of fear of the Buckeyes beast in Michigan minds seemed to dissolve, there was Haskins, tearing off on a 27-yard run to the Ohio State 4-yard line and leaping a defender along the way. When he scored on the next play to make it 42-27, the place shook literally.

And while Ohio State’s awesome wide receivers had gotten their usual touches — 11 catches for Jaxon Smith-Njigba, 10 for Garrett Wilson, seven for Chris Olave — only one of those catches went for more than 26 yards, and that came late. Hutchinson got three sacks. All the dinks — C.J. Stroud hit 34 of 49 passes for 394 yards — could not counter how Michigan grew the lead: to 21-13, to 28-13, then defiantly after Ohio State twice got within eight. Michigan actually outgained Ohio State’s oft-frightening offense 487-458. Even midway through the third quarter, the Michigan sideline bounced in a mass dance, and while that might have seemed premature, it actually was the first of so many.

Maybe each dance through the Ann Arbor night would reflect the tortured, cluttered path through Harbaugh’s seven years from national obsession to national afterthought to Saturday, when he said of a win: “It feels like the best one, you know? It sure does.” He acknowledged that occasional slights from down south had helped “a bit,” and said, “Sometimes people standing on third base think they hit a triple.” He said his alma mater would “get ready for next week,” a whoa of a thought, and “move on with humble hearts” while “fearless but not careless.” And he said of how he kept plodding on through the woe: “I don’t know if I’ve got a really spectacular quote or anything for you. It’s what you do. It’s what you do” — until maybe the day comes when the woe itself has value.

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