The Buckeyes Have It

In a classic showdown played just hours after the death of a Wolverines legend, No. 1 Ohio State edged No. 2 Michigan to earn a spot in the national title game--where the two teams could meet again
November 27, 2006

What would Bohave said? One day. I leave you guys alone for one lousy day, and you forgeteverything I taught you.

Bo Schembechler would not have expressed his displeasure to his MichiganWolverines, who rallied repeatedly and courageously last Saturday before bowingto Ohio State for the third straight season and the fifth time in six years.Rather, the former Michigan coach (page 46), who died the day before thesecond-ranked Wolverines scored 39 points but gave up 42 to the top-rankedBuckeyes, would have expressed incredulity to both teams, who combined for 900yards of total offense.

This annual matchup, known in the heartland as The Game, was never more heatedthan during the so-called Ten Year War (1969--78), when Bo clashed with WoodyHayes, his Ohio State bête noir. In that decade The Game featured all of eighttouchdown passes. On Saturday in the Horseshoe there were six--four by Buckeyesquarterback Troy Smith, who should feel free to begin composing his Heismanacceptance speech. Michigan, which came into the game boasting the nation'sstoutest run defense, was gashed for 187 rushing yards. Ohio State, which hadled the nation in scoring defense (7.8 points per game), gave up fivetouchdowns and a field goal. Expecting a pitchers' duel, the 105,708 fansjammed into Ohio Stadium got Boise State--Hawaii instead.

This One versus Two matchup, which doubled as the Big Ten title game and aplay-in to the national championship game, was saturated with significance andimport before Schembechler's death. The loss of the single most beloved figurein the 127-year history of Michigan football introduced an X factor to amatchup that had already been exhaustively dissected and analyzed.

Having retired in1990, Schembechler kept an office in the Wolverines' football complex, whichbears his name. His death, a day after delivering a pep talk to the players,had to affect the team's equilibrium. "It affected me," said defensiveend LaMarr Woodley, a frequent visitor to the old coach's office. "Hecoached me up Wednesday of this week," said the senior, "telling me howI need to get the defense going."

It wasSchembechler who hired the current Michigan coach, Lloyd Carr, as an assistantin 1980. Carr, to his credit, declined to deliver a win-one-for-the-Gipperspeech--to use the death of his friend and mentor "as a motivational deal.That would have been to dishonor him," said Carr, a notorious stoic who wasnearly overcome by emotion in his postgame press conference. Instead, he toldthe Wolverines that the best way to honor Schembechler was "to play in away that would have made him proud."

They did that,those ghastly defensive statistics notwithstanding. Despite trailing 21--7,then 28--14, then 35--24, even 42--31, the visitors stubbornly refused to goaway. Like Schembechler, who had his first heart attack on the eve of his firstRose Bowl 37 years ago and was fortunate, according to his physician, to havemade it to his 77th birthday, they would not go gentle into that good night.This game was not decided until Ohio State wideout Ted Ginn Jr. gathered inMichigan's onside kickoff with 2:16 left.

It took theBuckeyes three snaps to drain the clock and begin a celebration so raucous thatit was easy to forget that they still need one more victory, on Jan. 8 inGlendale, Ariz., to clinch the team's second national title in five seasons.The question now becomes, Who takes the field against them?

News ofSchembechler's death went public around noon eastern time. At 1:30 thatafternoon Ohio State coach Jim Tressel stood before his team, discussing thesad news. "I wanted to emphasize to them that Bo was a Buckeye" beforehe took the Michigan job, Tressel told SI. "He was born in this state,coached here under Woody, got his master's degree here. I wanted them to fullyunderstand his ties" to OSU.

After a moment ofsilence at the Horseshoe, the crowd on Saturday remained standing for agracious tribute. "The Big Ten has lost a legend and icon," intoned theP.A. announcer. "Ohio State has lost an alumnus and friend."

The desire to payrespects to this "icon" wrong-footed some Buckeyes fans, who are in thehabit of decanting anti-Wolverines bile at this time of year. They were alsoquieted by the crisp, seven-play, 80-yard scoring drive directed by Michiganquarterback Chad Henne on the game's opening possession. This was our firstclue that the Wolverines' game plan was not an homage to Bo: Henne passed onfour of his first six snaps.

Then, the deluge.Using the pass to set up the run, Ohio State did what no team had done allseason, mulching the proud Michigan defense and scoring touchdowns on four ofits five first-half possessions.

"Our filmstudy showed us that we might have our best chance if we spread them out,"said Buckeyes wideout Anthony Gonzalez, whose eight-yard touchdown grab gavehis team its 28--14 lead just before halftime.

On that play andmany others, OSU lined up in a five-receiver set. Such formations are thoughtto be risky. Not, says Buckeyes right tackle Kirk Barton, if your quarterbackis Troy Smith. "We just have to block the five most dangerous[rushers]," Barton, holding an unlit Cuban cigar, said afterward. Yes, thatoften leaves a sixth rusher unblocked. Then it's up to Smith to unload the ballbefore the defender unloads on him. For the third straight year the senior wasmasterly against Michigan, completing 29 of 41 passes for 316 yards and thosefour scores.

Smith was sackedonce and hit hard half a dozen times. On Ohio State's first drive he wasleveled by Woodley, after which the two had a spirited exchange. On the nextplay, a third-and-16, Smith made a different statement, snapping off a 27-yardrope to wideout Roy Hall, who also caught the one-yard TD pass that capped thedrive.

Some years theHeisman ceremony packs drama and suspense. This is not one of those years.Smith had the trophy wrapped up by halftime, at which point he'd completed 21of 26 passes for 241 yards and three scores. Even more jaw-dropping were theBuckeyes' rushing numbers. Against a unit that had held Notre Dame to fouryards on the ground; that had bullied Penn State into the humiliating realm ofnegative integers (the Nittany Lions ran for minus-14 yards); that had yielded29.9 rushing yards per game, Ohio State netted those 187 yards.

On its heels onaccount of Smith's aerial assault, the defense surrendered touchdown runs of 52and 56 yards. On the first of those, said Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel, freshmanChris Wells "broke a tackle at the line, and everyone else wasblocked." The 56-yarder was the work of junior Antonio Pittman, who zoomedbehind, pulling left guard Steve Rehring, a 6'8", 329-pound sophomore whonoticed, upon hitting the hole, that "it was already wide enough for fourof me to fit in, so I knew Pitt was going to get through."

The Wolverinesweren't finished. Trailing by two touchdowns at halftime, the team that hadspent this season watching vignettes from Cinderella Man lifted itself off thecanvas. With a little help from the home team. Michigan converted a pair ofthird-quarter takeaways by Alan Branch (the junior defensive tackle intercepteda pass, then recovered a muffed snap) into 10 points. Suddenly, with 14:41left, it was a game--The Game--again.

A second botchedsnap gave the Wolverines, down 35--31, a chance to take the lead. Instead, theywent three-and-out. Smith responded by directing an 11-play drive that endedwith the game-clinching touchdown.

That scoring passwent to sophomore wideout Brian Robiskie, who struck a storklike pose whilemaking sure he got one foot down in the end zone on the 13-yard reception. Oneof the key moments in the drive had come nine plays earlier. During a stoppagein play, Buckeyes coaches decided to heed the advice of Bebe.

Every threemonths or so, Tressel told SI after the game, "I get a nice letter from anolder lady from Akron. Her name is Bebe." In her most recent missive Bebewondered, according to Tressel, "what ever happened to that Statue ofLiberty play," which Ohio State had run with such success last season.

What indeed? Atlast Thursday's staff meeting Tressel mentioned the letter, and he asked,"What if we got the Statue of Liberty in this week?"

On first-and-10at his own 28, Smith whirled to his left, cocked his arm and followed through,but where was the ball? It had been plucked from his hand by Pittman, who went26 yards around right end.

It is an imagethe popular, populist Tressel enjoys cultivating: that he is a mere steward ofa program that belongs to all Ohioans. The truth, of course, is that he can bea ruthless micromanager--a trait he shares with virtually every other greatcoach. Tressel's biggest accomplishment this season may have been taking thetroupe of stars he has on offense and persuading them to share. They havefollowed the lead of Smith, who, when answering questions about the Heisman orhis record against Michigan, defaults into a mode that Ohio State beat writersrefer to as RoboTroy. The Heisman? "It's a team award." His recordagainst the Wolverines? "I'm not 3--0 against them," he said after thegame. "The team is."

Smith spent theweek before the game giving props to everyone from the scout team to theprogram's academic counselors. He upped the ante afterward, declaring, "Ilove every one of my teammates with the deepest passion you can feel foranother person."

While theBuckeyes shared the depth of his passion, they had no such strong feelingsabout whom they should face in Glendale. "I could care less," saidGonzalez.

Should USC loseto Notre Dame this Saturday--or fail to beat the Irish as convincingly asMichigan did on Sept. 16 (the final was 47--21)--the Wolverines will argue,with some plausibility, that they deserve another crack at Ohio State. Theywill meet resistance from some pollsters, who would be bored by a rematch, andBuckeyes backers, who will counter, with justification, that forcing theirplayers to strap it on for a rematch with their most bitter rival is less thanfair.

That said, it'stough to see anybody beating this Ohio State team. That's what college fanseverywhere can take away from last weekend, when a great light of the sport wasextinguished, and a young and rising star glowed brighter still.

BCS-BOUND

For bowlprojections, including Ohio State's possible opponent in the national titlegame, go to SI.com/collegefootball.

Some years the Heisman ceremony packs drama andsuspense. This is not one of those years. Smith (right) had the TROPHY WRAPPEDUP by halftime.

PHOTOPhotograph by Bob RosatoSEVENUP
Ginn, whose second-quarter touchdown grab put the Buckeyes ahead 21--7, was oneof four Ohio State receivers to score.
PHOTOBILL FRAKESONE-TWOPUNCH
Henne threw for 267 yards and two touchdowns, but the Buckeyes sacked him fourtimes.
PHOTOJOHN BIEVERCLEARSAILING
The Buckeyes sprang Wells for his touchdown on a play during which, as Bartonsaid, "even the umpire got crushed."
PHOTOAL TIELEMANS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)