ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Ohio State beat Michigan Saturday, which will only surprise people who emerged from a 16-year coma last week, and afterward, Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields said something that was utterly ridiculous and yet perfectly summed up the state of this rivalry:
“I just think we take it more seriously than they do.“
Yes, ladies and gents, this is where we are: Jim Harbaugh suddenly does not take football seriously enough. And the man who knows that is Justin Fields, who spent last season on the Georgia Bulldogs. Fields said Ohio State puts more year-round emphasis on The Game than Michigan does. He moved to Columbus in January. He hasn’t even been there a year!
Ohio State whipped Michigan, 56–27, not because Fields is right about the Wolverines’ mindset, but because Fields is absurdly good at playing football. He has a lot of teammates who are absurdly good at playing football. These Buckeyes appear to be an absurdly good, perhaps historically great team.
The 2019 Buckeyes are what the 2015 Buckeyes should have been: loaded with NFL talent all over the field and determined to squeeze the most out of it. That ’15 team was coming off a national title, and played like it was good enough to sleepwalk through games—which it was, for most of the season, until Michigan State pulled an all-time upset in Columbus.
This team? This team has the roster of a favorite and the mindset of an underdog. Ryan Day’s team has not had one bad Saturday. Day was asked after this whooping: Which of his Heisman Trophy candidates had the best day? He said he thought Fields, running back J.K. Dobbins, and defensive end Chase Young should all be finalists. It’s hard to argue.
After Ohio State wins the Big Ten championship game next week, we will find out if anybody can force the Buckeyes into a close game. Maybe LSU or Clemson can do it. So far the only team to come close was Penn State, and that was only because Ohio State lost three fumbles.
Say it loud, clear, and between refrains of Carmen Ohio: Ohio State is better than Michigan, and maybe better than everybody else. The Buckeyes have won eight straight over Michigan, and 15 of the last 16. Ohio State-Michigan doesn’t feel like the best rivalry in sports anymore. It feels like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, then kicking him in the head.
And yet …
If you have followed college football long enough, you have seen dozens of upsets in rivalry games. There are a lot of recipes, but they almost all include two ingredients: the underdog believes it can win, and it limits mistakes. Jim Harbaugh’s teams believe. That has been evident at the start of every Ohio State game; in five first quarters since Harbaugh took over, the combined score is Ohio State 28, Michigan 23. This one was 14-13, Ohio State, after 15 minutes. Michigan was in it. And then Michigan was not.
Ohio State is better. But the Buckeyes should not be 29 points better. This is the same Michigan team that won nine games, crushed Notre Dame, came within a fingernail of forcing overtime at Penn State, and has looked like a top-10 team for the last month. There is talent there. Not as much as in scarlet and gray, but enough to compete.
What happened at Michigan Stadium is what happens when the more talented team plays the cleaner game. The Wolverines dropped too many passes (Donovan Peoples-Jones dropped at least three), fumbled a snap, jumped offside on a rare Ohio State punt, committed a personal foul and holding penalty that turned a third-and-10 into first-and-goal, failed to down a punt inside the five … they even missed an extra point.
Day said afterward that he got too conservative on one possession and caught himself: “You have to be aggressive against them. You have to set the tone.” Michigan got too conservative in the red zone a couple times in the first half, and on a fourth-down play in the second half when it still had faint hope.
Was all of this why Ohio State won? Of course not. But it is why Ohio State won by 29. Michigan made more big mistakes on a day when it badly needed to make fewer to have any chance.
Also: After getting drilled in Columbus last year, Harbaugh realized his offense needed revamping, and so he revamped. Now he needs to take a hard look at his defense. Coordinator Don Brown’s unit has been great against lesser teams, but looked hopeless against Ohio State the last two years. Brown is highly regarded. But something needs to change, even if it’s something relatively small.
And this brings us back to what Fields said about the game meaning more to Ohio State. Well, his team won. He can say what he wants. You can also understand why he sees it that way. The Buckeyes have their Senior Tackle before playing Michigan, and they give out gold pants after beating Michigan, and they refuse to even say Michigan (it’s That School Up North or That Team Up north) and in recent years they crossed out their M’s as though they can punish their biggest rivals by making the alphabet shorter.
Michigan doesn’t really do stuff like that. But Michigan has never really done stuff like that. Back in the 1990s, when Michigan dominated the rivalry, there was a lot of chatter about Ohio State putting too much emphasis on The Game—the thinking was that it got inside the Buckeyes’ heads and they played tight.
This was part of what made the rivalry great. Ohio State approached it publicly with rabid hostility, and Michigan approached it publicly with confidence and contempt, and when the two met at the end of November, they were equals but not the same. Those days will come again someday. But right now, they seem a long way off.