This post is part of a series of posts in which I have documented, in a completely biased manner, my experiences at, the build up to, and the aftermath of each Ohio State-Michigan game since I became a freshman at Ohio State in 2002. I have attended every game in person except The Game in 2003.
Every Buckeye football fan hoped that the 2017 season would start off differently than the 2016 ended. The Buckeyes were handed a 31-0 loss to Clemson in the first round of the 2016 playoff, into which it had snuck past the Big Ten champions Penn State. Ohio State lost the tiebreaker to Penn State and didn’t get the chance to go to the Big Ten championship game, in which Penn State beat Wisconsin. The playoff selection committee deemed Ohio State better than Penn State despite that, and we all know how that worked out…
There was a lot of hype over the 2017 season, especially since it was quarterback JT Barrett’s senior year the defense was tested and ready. Talks of Ohio State returning to the playoff were everywhere. The Buckeyes were ranked #2 in the preseason AP poll, receiving three first place votes. With a big first week victory over Indiana 49-21 on the first-ever Thursday night game for the Big Ten, Ohio State had eight full days to prepare for the Saturday night showdown with Oklahoma in week two. #2 Ohio State versus #5 Oklahoma in Columbus. Considering the Buckeyes beat the Sooners by 21 points in Norman, Oklahoma the year before, home-field advantage would clearly provide an even larger margin of victory.
Except it didn’t.
Ohio State, particularly JT Barrett, played terribly all around. The defense gave up almost 400 yards passing, and Barrett completed barely half of his passes, recording no touchdowns and one interception. After the game, the chatter started. “JT Barrett can’t play and win in the big games,” pundits and fans would say alike. There was at least an ounce of truth to that. Sure, he had beaten Oklahoma last year and was 3-0 against Michigan, but scUM wasn’t that good and wasn’t much of a match for the Buckeyes. He led the offense to a goose egg in the playoff in 2016. Despite Barrett being one of the most prolific offensive players in not only the Big Ten but in the history of college football, he wasn’t getting much respect because he couldn’t win the big games.
After beating Army the next week 38-7, Barrett and the Ohio State offense started to put up some big numbers, scoring 54 or more points in each game during the next four contests. Sure, they were against cupcake teams like UNLV, Rutgers, Maryland, and a very much beaten down Nebraska. But in those four games, opponents scored a total of 49 points, with the Ohio State offense scoring 228. It seemed like the offense was working again, we thought, and the defense, which had always been at the top of college football, was working, too. Just win the rest of the games and they’ll win the Big Ten championship and get back into the playoff. It was that simple.
That plan would face its biggest test on a Saturday afternoon in Columbus against Penn State. The Nittany Lions were furious and seeking revenge from 2016, in which Ohio State had gone to the playoff despite not winning the Big Ten crown. But at the same time, the Buckeyes were out for blood as they saw a seemingly sure victory in State College fade away on a potentially game tying field goal attempt, which Penn State returned for a touchdown.
I was watching the game from the comfort of a hotel room in Sedona, Arizona on a biannual trip I took there with my wife. Three hours behind, the game came on a 12:30, so we decided to stay in our hotel room and watch it there. It started off terribly, with Penn State running back/returner/receiver/guy who can do anything Saquon Barkley returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown. The Ohio State offense got the ball on the next possession and promptly fumbled, allowing another Penn State touchdown a few plays later. Less than three and a half minutes into the game and the Buckeyes are down 14. While the offense added a field goal, the defense let in another touchdown, and suddenly Ohio State is down 21-3. At this point, most people were thinking, “Well, there goes the season. No Big Ten Championship. No National Championship. Goodnight.”
But not me, because I had noticed something very interesting in the first quarter and early part of the second quarter. Besides the obvious shooting itself in the foot by Ohio State, including the kickoff return for a touchdown and the fumble, Ohio State’s running game was doing something quite special. The tripartite running attack of JT Barrett, JK Dobbins, and Mike Weber was really smacking Penn State in the face, with runs of 4, 18, 11, 6, and 21. Despite those runs, penalties, sacks, and some short and incomplete passes stalled the initial drives. But just like the national championship game against Oregon, a defense can only get gutted by runs like that so many times, and get hit in the face by those offensive linemen so many times, before they start to crack. And that’s what started to happen in the second quarter.
Down 21-3, runs for six and five yards set up a 36-yard pass down field, which set up a touchdown. Penn State capitalized on another huge kickoff return and scored another touchdown. 28-10. Don’t worry, I told my wife, Ohio State would come back.
The running game continued to chip away at Penn State’s will to resist. Runs of 9, 23, 3, 5, and 5 set up a two-yard touchdown run by Weber, putting the Buckeyes down only 11 at halftime, 28-17. In the second half had both team trade blows, an Ohio State field goal, a Penn State touchdown, a punt here and there, and a sloppy fumble by Ohio State. But then the momentum changed on a moment pulled from the 2016 game. Ohio State blocked a Penn State punt and scored two plays later. The Buckeyes held the Nittany Lions to a field goal on the next drive putting them down 11 points with less than six minutes to go. This was the moment that all of JT Barrett’s haters were waiting for. Big stage. Big time. Can he do it?
Two penalties by Penn State and four straight completions by Barrett led to a touchdown. 38-33. Another stop by the Buckeye defense forced a Penn State punt from deep in its own endzone. Now Barrett has the ball on his own 42-yard line with three minutes to go. He was the colonel leading his troops. Two-yard run. 20-yard pass. Six-yard pass. 14-yard pass. Striking distance. 16-yard pass to Marcus Baugh in the endzone. Touchdown. Ohio State wins 39-38. Barrett shined when the everything was on the line. He could play with the big boys, right? 33 of 39 with four touchdowns and no interceptions?
Interceptions…perceptions…and how they change from week to week. The following Saturday, which I spent in Philadelphia at a writer’s conference, Ohio State was playing at unranked Iowa. No big deal, right? They got blown out. Blown up. Destroyed. Barrett, just like against Oklahoma, completed barely 50% of his passes and while throwing three touchdowns, threw four interceptions. He only had one interception the whole year up to this point. The defense allowed 6.4 yard per rush, when they held “Heisman candidate” Barkley and the Penn State offense to 2.6 yards per rush.
But it seemed that the only thing people and pundits could talk about was, “Is Ohio State completely out of it?” The Buckeyes seemed to have an answer to that question when they completely obliterated #12 Michigan State the following week 48-3. On the Spartans’ eight possessions in the first half, five were punts, one was a fumble, one was an interception, and one ended in a field goal as time expired in the half. Of Ohio State’s seven first half possessions, they had five touchdowns, a punt, and an interception. Then to add insult to injury, they scored on their first possession of the second half. The following week they beat down Illinois in similar fashion, scoring on their first six possessions and not allowing an Illini first down until there were two minutes left in the third quarter.
Ohio State entered Thanksgiving week and preparation for The Game at 9-2, averaging 45 points per game and holding opponents to less than 20.
Michigan, on the other hand, had a typically mediocre season. By the week of The Game, scUM’s offense had been anemic, averaging only 26 points per game to a schedule that featured only three ranked teams, all of which they lost (#21 Michigan State, #12 Penn State, and #5 Wisconsin). scUM’s defense was mediocre as well, limiting teams to an average of 17 points per game, and while that’s respectable, the teams they had played were not, considering all of Michigan’s wins had been over teams with losing records: Florida (4-6), Cincinnati (3-8), Air Force (4-7), Purdue (5-6), Indiana (5-6) in overtime, Rutgers (4-7), Minnesota (5-6), and Maryland (4-7). Sure, Ohio State lost to Iowa and Oklahoma, but at least Oklahoma was ranked #3 and Iowa had a winning record.
Putting all that together, Vegas put Ohio State as a 12-point favorite over scUM and ESPN’s “Football Power Index” (whatever that means) predicted Ohio State had an 80% chance to win the game. But we all know that The Game is unaffected by predictions. It all happens on the field.
As usual for The Game in Ann Arbor, Andrew had acquired our hotels and Joe got us tickets. Thanks to Michigan’s loss to Wisconsin the previous week, all hope for the blue-clad fans for anything good to come out of 2017 had waned and fans were dumping tickets for cheap. $215 is all it cost for us to sit in the 13th row of the stadium, far cheaper than usual when The Game mattered. scUM fans had witnessed five losses in a row to the Buckeyes, and clearly most were not interested in watching a sixth.
Michigan players had talked about their hopes for something great this season, including a chance at the Big Ten East Division title, but that was no longer relevant considering scUM had three losses in the conference. Even if they beat the Buckeyes, Ohio State would win the head-to-head matchup with Penn State and go to the Big Ten championship game anyway. Their players talked about how they wanted to play “spoiler” for Ohio State’s season, but looking at it from the outside, there was nothing to spoil. Ohio State was out of the playoff and was heading to the Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin either way. It would be different if a Big Ten Championship was on the line, like it was when unraked Ohio State beat #7 Michigan in 2004, which led to Michigan having to split the Big Ten championship with Iowa that year. I didn’t know what scUM players were planning to spoil, but they’re entitled to whatever helps them sleep at night.