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In Jolt for the Program and the Rivalry, Jim Harbaugh and Michigan Get Their Ohio State Win

The Wolverines and their coach at last took down the Buckeyes, and did so commandingly on a day that won't be forgotten in The Big House.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Two decades of dominance and two states full of rage had converged upon one man who knew, like everybody else, that the ball would be his. Hassan Haskins was a three-star recruit. He is probably the third-flashiest running back on his own team. But he is all Jim Harbaugh wants in a football player, because when you give Haskins two yards, he picks up four. Give him four yards, and he gets seven. Give him the ball with less than five minutes to go in one of the great rivalries in sports, and he runs straight through the No. 2 team in the country, stomps on lazy narratives and pounds his way into the Big Ten championship game.

The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is back—not just because Michigan won, but because of how. The Wolverines’ 42–27 win was a throat-stomping. They only punted twice. They scored touchdowns on all four of their second-half possessions, not counting kneel-downs at the end. They ran for 297 yards at a 7.2-per-carry clip. It doesn’t make up for all the Ohio State beatdowns of Michigan in recent years, but as Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said, “it’s going to leave a mark for a while.”

Ryan Day and Jim Harbaugh shake hands after Michigan's win

Day and Harbaugh shake hands after Michigan's win.

It will, and it should. There was no magic to what Michigan did. No wild play at the end. No superhuman performance, except maybe from Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who should be a Heisman Trophy finalist. There was just hammer hitting nail for 60 minutes. Late in the fourth quarter, when Michigan led 35–27 and everybody in Michigan Stadium understood Haskins was getting the ball, nobody in scarlet and gray could do a thing about it. He ran for 15, 6, 11 and 27 yards, the last one ending with a hurdle of a Buckeye defender. Finally, from four yards out, Ohio State just let him score. It was a strategic decision to get the ball back, but what was the difference, really? He would have scored either way.

This is the program Michigan envisioned when Jim Harbaugh took over in 2015: tough and feisty, mixing the repetitive with the creative, intimidated by nobody. The Wolverines have been closer to Harbaugh’s vision over the last few years than most analysts have acknowledged, but he arrived in Ann Arbor as Ohio State was in the middle of one of the most dominant stretches in Big Ten history, and he couldn’t beat the Buckeyes. Until now.

The Wolverines didn’t do much chirping afterward. They didn’t overdose on glee. They said that they knew they could beat Ohio State going back to last spring, which is a testament to Harbaugh and his reshuffled staff. They were coming off a 2–5 pandemic-affected season and expected to beat a team that had owned them for a decade.

Harbaugh described his team as “beautifully soldered together” and talked about having “humble hearts,” and he really didn’t say a whole lot else … until the very end of his press conference, when he couldn’t help himself. Somebody asked Harbaugh if he took note of what others had been saying about his team. Harbaugh mentioned “people who were born on third base and think they hit a triple. But they didn’t.”

On the ride back to Columbus, Day can remove that arrow from his neck. It was a direct shot at him, presumably because ESPN reported that Day told his team in the summer of 2020 that he wanted to “hang 100” on Michigan. Hutchinson referenced it after the game. Harbaugh doesn’t particularly enjoy talking to the media, and he sometimes goes out of his way to say nothing, but he revels in having tense relationships with rivals: Pete Carroll, Mark Dantonio, Urban Meyer, now Ryan Day. He probably didn’t plan to bring this up, but he knew what he was doing when he did. Day inherited a program in far better shape than the one Harbaugh inherited from Brady Hoke.

Well, a few things need to be said. One is that Day was talking to his team, not the media or a booster club, and coaches say a lot of stuff to motivate their teams. Another is that, since becoming Ohio State’s full-time head coach, Day is 23–1 in Big Ten play. He has done a hell of a job.

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But also: Day was completely outcoached Saturday. The Buckeyes had a slew of false starts and looked ill-prepared for the moment, though to be fair, linemen who are getting beat a lot tend to flinch. Day had the game’s biggest talent mismatch, his NFL-quality receivers against Michigan’s corners, but Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald kept him from exploiting it.

“I feel awful,” Day said. “It’s a failure. It hurts. It hurts a lot.”

The good news is he will only be reminded of it everywhere he goes for the next year. Day is 1–1 against Harbaugh. Next year, for the first time in a long time, the pressure will be on Ohio State’s coach to show Michigan is not in his head. Yes, given Day’s record, this is a little silly. But he can’t fight it. All he can do is act appropriately hurt, win The Game next year—and hope Michigan falls flat next week or in the playoff.

The tougher, more disciplined, more confident team won Saturday. Maybe time will show it was an aberration. But Michigan can at least reasonably believe it is something more.

Michigan QB Cade McNamara celebrates the win over Ohio State with fans

Quarterback Cade McNamara celebrates with fans.

Harbaugh said, “it feels like the beginning.” Asked to elaborate, he just said “accomplish one goal and then go to the next and to the next and to the next.” But there are reasons to believe Michigan is on its highest plane of the Harbaugh era.

After contending for conference titles in 2015, 2016 and 2018, he can win one next week. His revamped coaching staff is clicking. He has his quarterback of the present (poised and efficient Cade McNamara) and future (dynamic talent J.J. McCarthy). Michigan keeps leaning on the power running plays Harbaugh loves, but it can also be explosive. Even with run-heavy play-calling, five Michigan skill-position players had plays of at least 27 yards Saturday.

There are a lot of “nexts” that Michigan has yet to accomplish: The Big Ten title game; a playoff game if it gets there; signing more of the elite recruits that top-five programs land. But this one could leave a mark on both programs. Give Hassan Haskins two yards and he gets four. Beat Ohio State once, and who knows where Michigan might go from there?

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Ryan Day: Loss to Michigan Is 'a Failure'