COLUMBUS, Ohio — When the four hours and merciless tension had ended and the moods of two substantial rivals had parted into wild divergence, the participants in Ohio State’s 30-27, double-overtime, season-altering, mind-altering win over Michigan on Saturday began the steep task of processing.
“I guess I just looked around like, ‘Man, that just happened,’ ” Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett said.
“Nobody’s talking after the game,” Michigan linebacker Mike McCray said.
“To be honest with you, I don’t remember,” Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer kept saying.
“It was a long game. It was a hard game,” Ohio State running back Curtis Samuel said.
“Sucks,” Michigan defensive lineman Chris Worley said.
“I don’t remember,” Meyer said again.
“Every single play of that game mattered,” Ohio State guard Pat Elflein said.
“I am bitterly disappointed with the officiating,” Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh said.
“I lost my brain cells,” Meyer said.
Yet when the Ohio Stadium-record 110,045 witnesses discuss this classic for the remainder of the year and the remainder of their days and when they scroll back through the fourth downs and the fake punt and the missed field goals and the interception returns and the interference call and Samuel’s carnival of a roam around the field for eight yards on third down in the second overtime, they might remember one booming quotation the most:
“After review, the play stands as called on the field.”
That quotation came in an official’s voice. It reverberated through the crowd and rescued most of it from despair. It referred to the spot on Barrett’s run on fourth and one in the second overtime, when Ohio State trailed 27-24, Michigan safety Delano Hill corralled Barrett’s legs and Barrett seemed to bang into the considerable rump of tight end A.J. Alexander before bouncing backward. The officials ruled that by a fraction of a fraction of a fraction, a wee sliver of pigskin, Barrett had reached the first down, but then came a buzz. “That stopped the heart for a second,” Meyer said, “when the official said, ‘They’re buzzing for the spot’” to conduct a replay. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
Only a whole season’s gargantuan effort stood in the balance of that review. The Wolverines on the sideline, seeing that Barrett looked short, exulted. A reversal could have placed them in the Big Ten championship game at 11-1, one win from the four-team College Football Playoff in Harbaugh’s second year after the long-acclaimed program had spent seven seasons littered with dreariness.
Instead, Ohio State continued. Instead, it handed the ball to Samuel headed left on a play Meyer called “29 Lead.” Instead, Samuel stopped, cut and streamed into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown run, whereupon Buckeyes fans streamed onto the field, whereupon No. 2 Ohio State reached 11-1, with a plausible shot at the playoff.
No. 3 Michigan became the glummest 10-2 team extant. “You know how I feel,” said Harbaugh, whose glittering NFL and college résumé includes an unusual ration of cruelty. His eight minutes of talk became a serial and no-star review of the officials, as when he said, “It wasn’t a first down — by that much,” and held his hands apart.
His team had proved that his program has recovered. For much of the fittingly gray afternoon, it looked the more capable side. After Ohio State romped 72 yards on its first possession only to have Tyler Durbin yank a 37-yard field goal wide and ugly left, Michigan began defending grudgingly and tackling expertly. For a spell, the nation’s No. 1 defense had held Ohio State to 42 yards in 30 plays. “One of the best defenses we’ve ever played against,” said Meyer, the Ohio native who called the game “one of the classic games of this rivalry that will ever be, and I know this rivalry as well as anybody.”
Michigan led 17-7 late in the third quarter and reduced most of the 110,045 to a frightened hush.
The Wolverines had only their own sins to lament. In the second quarter, junior quarterback Wilton Speight, who sprinkled a 23-for-36 performance with umpteen world-class throws, backed into his end zone, saw linebacker Raekwon McMillan surge toward him on a delayed blitz and floated a helpless thing that Malik Hooker intercepted and took 16 yards to the end zone.
With the ball and a 10-point lead as the third quarter waned, Speight again failed to see an underlying defender, and his pass across the middle wound up in the gut of linebacker Jerome Baker, who ushered it 22 yards to make sure that for the Buckeyes to get within 17-14, they needed only 13 yards.
Then the Ohio State offense, so challenged all along, began to rumble through the fourth quarter, largely through the outlet it tries to avoid but to which it often resorts: Barrett’s running, both planned and improvised, toward his 125 rushing yards. It went 61 yards to a nightmare, Durbin’s missed 21-yard field goal. It went 77 yards as the clock drained to six seconds — aided by a third-down interference call on a pass Harbaugh deemed “uncatchable,” calling that penalty into question — and Durbin made a 23-yard field goal, and his teammates mobbed him as if it had been 50.
The first overtime in the 113-year series was on, and it served to cram more game memories into brains that barely had room for them. Ohio State scored hurriedly, in two plays, Samuel for 18 and Barrett for seven. Michigan faced fourth down from the 5-yard line, but as the cases of inches kept playing out all over the place, cornerback Marshon Lattimore couldn’t quite get to Speight’s terrific pass, which found Amara Darboh’s clutch in front of the end line.
Michigan got Kenny Allen’s 37-yard field goal.
Ohio State got Samuel’s circuitous eight-yard run on third and nine, then the daredevil Meyer had an old thought: “If you can’t get this, then you’re not a championship team.” Then the Buckeyes got it. Then the officials reviewed it. Then they told it to an exhausted crowd, just another humongous little wrinkle in an afternoon too loaded with them.