It had been a game that could make a witness wonder if the two historic programs simply operate on different planes nowadays, with Michigan’s plane faster than most but then, once stationed opposite Ohio State, taking on jalopy tones. The backdrop of 62-39 has tinged everything this lead-in week, well beyond Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson’s statement to Michigan reporters that among his reasons for returning to Michigan this season, the need to try to ameliorate 62-39 proved “huge.”
Even beyond its status as Ohio State’s seventh straight win over Michigan and 14th in the last 15 clashes, 62-39 has changed the way one heard things along the path to No. 1 (College Football Playoff rankings) Ohio State (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) visiting No. 13 (CFP) Michigan (9-2, 6-2). Here are two quotations from Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh:
“Fired up about it. Can’t wait to watch our guys compete.”
“We’re excited to play. We’re confident … Looking forward to the game, looking forward to playing at home, looking forward to every possible thing about it.”
The former comes from the Monday before the 2018 game, as No. 4 Michigan (10-1) prepared to visit No. 10 Ohio State (10-1), and the latter comes from the Monday before the 2019 game. Both could sound reassuring to any fan when coming from a coach as accomplished as Harbaugh. The latter, though, sounds a notch less persuasive to anybody who sat through 62-39.
Before 62-39, Michigan’s defense had gone its first 10 games of the 2018 season with an incredible statistical distinction given the era: Only one opponent had surpassed 300 total yards, and that team, SMU, got only 319. Michigan State got only 94. Nebraska managed 132. Penn State got 186. In the 11th game, Indiana got 385 in a 31-20 loss, but the mind would not let that dent all previous impression.
Then, before the 12th game, the one at Ohio State, Harbaugh said: “A lot of things I love about our defense, and how they’re playing. So many players are playing at a really high level. They’re playing their best football of their college career, consistently playing really well week after week, but a lot of things to really like about the way the secondary covers, the way our front seven plays. And they play really well together — the front, the linebackers and the secondary. Consistently great with their fits, and they adjust well, they tackle really well. Could go on and on, there are a lot of things.”
What followed left the senses in a tangled heap: 567 total yards for Ohio State, 396 passing yards, the most points any Ohio State team had scored against Michigan, the most points anybody in football creation had scored against Michigan in regulation. Even time of possession told of some sort of toying: Ohio State kept the ball for 24:36, Michigan for 35:24. Ohio State zoomed. Michigan plodded.
Now, here’s Harbaugh talking as his same-stage news conference in 2019, referring to defensive coordinator Don Brown, a football coach unquestionably fantastic: “He does a great job of calling the defense, he does a great job of making adjustments during the week, in games, all of it, as well as I’ve ever seen it done.” Anybody who follows football to an addled degree knows that’s true, but 62-39 changes the way the ear receives it simply because Ohio State by now, after years of Urban Meyer’s recruiting, might be something else altogether.
Then, after seeming to have finished his answer, Harbaugh continued: “And, to say, everything’s possible [scheme-wise]. Everything’s possible. Just everything that, you now, everything we’ve done [already], everything that could be done, anything that could be changed, anything that could be added. Don’t mind your opponents knowing that. All things are possible.”
Does that matter right now, given the state of Ohio State? Look down the scores and stats from when Michigan entered this game with 4,726 total yards and 403 points in 2018, to its 4,429 yards and 369 points in 2019, and how it corrected early issues both seasons (opening loss at Notre Dame in 2018, early shellacking at Wisconsin in 2019), and there’s a feeling of sameness Michigan will just have to quell.
It will try to do so as two quarterbacks embody the state of the art with their mobility both on the field and geographically. Long ago, both finished loftily in the recruiting rankings, if behind people named Lawrence. Patterson was Rivals’ No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in 2016 and it's No. 3 overall player, behind only Rashan Gary (formerly of Michigan and now of Green Bay) and Dexter Lawrence (formerly of Clemson and now of the New York Giants). Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was Rivals’ No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in 2018 and it's No. 2 overall player, behind only Trevor Lawrence (now of Clemson).
Patterson went from childhood in Ohio to later childhood in Louisiana to high school football in Florida to college at Ole Miss and a transfer to Michigan. Fields went from childhood in Georgia to a commitment to Penn State to a commitment to Georgia to a transfer to Ohio State.
Can Fields master this matchup the way Dwayne Haskins did? Can Patterson find himself a game to place him in the rafters of the rivalry memory?
He went 20 for 34 for 187 yards and three touchdowns and one interception in 2018, strangely a forgotten figure given his team scored 39. Then he stood on the sideline beside receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones through the debris of the fourth quarter, just thinking, as he told Michigan reporters this week, “We’re gonna get another shot at ’em, at a different place.”
This year, he said of the offense, “Yeah, I think we’re all clicking on all cylinders right now, not only on the defensive side of the ball but the offense production has been a lot more, and I think we’re playing up to the defense’s level as far as helping them out as much as they help us out.”
As 62-39 still swirls in the air one autumn later, how much will that matter?