The Game: Michigan vs. Ohio State

If you grow up in the Midwest, every year you take interest in “The Game,” whether you are a fan of the two teams or not.  Michigan and Ohio State, bitter rivals who have combined for 18 National Championships, 10 Heisman Trophies, and 77 Big Ten Championships.  It is a clash like no other, and being able to attend a game between these two is an amazing experience.  I had my first chance in 1991.

1991: The year began with a bang, as Gulf War I started.  Many people remember the Super Bowl victory of the Giants over the Bills when Scott Norwood would miss what would have been a game-winning field goal as time ran out.  It is also remembered for the national anthem sang by Whitney Houston, still arguably the best rendition.

This was the year the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist, and Boris Yeltsin became the president of Russia.  In American politics, a little known governor from Arkansas by the name of William Jefferson Clinton announced his intention to run for president.

This was the year Dr. Jack Kevorkian earned the moniker “Dr. Death.” A grainy video was recorded and later released showing Los Angeles police beating Rodney King during a traffic stop.

In entertainment, Terminator 2, JFK, and The Silence of the Lambs were hits in the box office.  Michael Jackson released Dangerous, his most popular album since Thriller.  Metallica released “The Black Album,” as it has come to be known, which is still their best seller.  Also, two little known bands from Seattle made releases, and soon topped the charts.  They were Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

Deaths for the year included Dr. Seuss, Miles Davis, Redd Foxx, and Freddie Mercury.

In sports, Duke shocked an undefeated UNLV team in the Final Four, and later beat Kansas in the finals.  The Minnesota Twins defeated the Atlanta Braves in 7 games to win the World Series, with game 7 being arguably the greatest game in World Series history.  Magic Johnson announced he had HIV, and would be retiring from basketball.  In Ann Arbor, five freshmen came to Michigan to play basketball, and they would be labeled the Fab Five.

In college football there would be a split National Championship for the second year in a row, which led to the Bowl Coalition being formed (the precursor to the BCS) in 1992.  On November 16, Miami and Florida State played a #1 vs. #2 matchup, which Miami won in what is now known as “Wide Right I.”  This game would help propel Miami to a share of the National Championship with Washington.

As for “The Game,” this was the 88th meeting between Michigan and Ohio State.  Michigan earlier in the year broke a 5 year losing streak to Notre Dame, only to be followed by a humiliating loss to FSU.  They won every other game after that, in pretty dominant fashion on both sides of the ball, and came into this contest ranked #4 in the country.  They had already clinched a berth in the Rose Bowl, but still had an outside shot of winning a National Championship.  A win over Ohio State, followed by a victory over undefeated Washington (and a loss by Miami) could give Michigan a claim at the National Title.  Also on the line for Michigan was a possible Heisman trophy for star receiver, Desmond Howard.  He needed to do something special to give himself the edge over Florida State quarterback Casey Weldon.

Ohio State was not having a great year, but they were still dangerous.  They came into the contest with 8 wins, a #18 ranking in the nation, but also with 2 losses, both within the conference.  They featured a power running game, and the usual tight defense.  This was not a Buckeye team with a lot of future NFL prospects, but they had a special player on each side of the ball – Defensive End Alonzo Spellman, and Wide Receiver Joey Galloway.  They could not keep Michigan from the Rose Bowl in this game, but bragging rights, and the ability to completely eliminate Michigan from the National Title picture, would have made for a sweet victory.

Game time temperatures were in the 40s, and there was a slight drizzle.  I remember it being “Michigan cold,” as I say now.  There was no hope of seeing the sun that day, which just meant it was a perfect day to watch these two schools beat each other up for the afternoon.

The cold didn’t stop us from tailgating at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School across the street from the stadium.  People are always amazed to hear the there is no parking lot or garage for the 100,000 plus fans that arrive every Saturday (Crisler Arena has parking, but those are reserved, and far too few to count).  You park at the golf course, on lawns, at businesses around town, or wherever you can find space.  Also, I don’t remember exactly what we had that day, but I loved it when my dad would pack a lunch for us, usually consisting of homemade subs or brats, or some combination of these.  Looking back now, these are some of my favorite memories as a kid.

Our seats were in the southeast portion of the stadium behind the south end zone (when you see replays of Kordell Stewart throwing his famous Hail Mary pass to Michael Westbrook, the ball was in a straight line right to my seat).  I noticed that right behind the goal posts in our end zone was a small section of Ohio State fans, conspicuous in their red outfits.  Naturally, I thought they were obnoxious.

The focus of a game like this always starts with the coaches.  Gary Moeller was in his 2nd year as Michigan coach, after Bo Schembechler retired.  He won a share of the 1990 Big Ten Title, and now had an outright Big Ten Title under his belt, with his first invitation to the Rose Bowl.  He was 1-0 against OSU coming into the game.

On the other side of the field was John Cooper, who came in 0-3 against Michigan, and was in the process of resuscitating the Buckeyes.  A win for him in this game would endear him greatly to the Ohio State faithful.  He would finish his 13 year coaching career with OSU after compiling five top 10 finishes in the nation (including two #2 rankings) before he was fired after the 2000 season, mainly for going 2-10-1 against Michigan (despite going 111-43-4 overall).  Because of that record, Michigan students named February 10, 2001 “John Cooper Day” in Ann Arbor.  Things like these are what make this rivalry so great.

This particular meeting between these two rivals is not considered a classic, but it was definitely classic “Michigan vs. Ohio State” football.  At the end of the first half, the two teams combined for 9 pass completions, which meant there was a lot of “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

Michigan received the ball first to open the game, and Ohio State decided it would not kick it deep enough to allow either Desmond Howard or freshman Tyrone Wheatley a chance for a big runback.  They pooched it high around the 20 yard line, where it was caught by an upback, who was immediately hit.

Michigan did what you would expect – they ran the ball the first two plays of the game, gaining 21 yards.  Then they threw a pass for about 20 yards, and ran the ball the remaining 7 plays of the drive to score a touchdown.  Two interesting things happened on this opening drive.  First, Michigan tailback Jesse Johnson fumbled the ball inside the 10 yard line, and OSU recovered.  The problem for OSU was that the officials didn’t see the fumble, so Michigan retained possession.  There was no instant replay at this time, so there was nothing to challenge.

The second interesting thing that happened on the drive was that Michigan had a 4th down and 3 at around the 4 yard line, and they went for it.  They faked a field goal, using a play Florida State ran on them earlier in the year, using a shuffle pass to the full back on a sweep to the left.  It gained a first down (just short of the goal line).  Ohio State thought they earned a stop because a touchdown wasn’t scored, but Michigan earned a new set of downs by inches.  The next play they scored.  This was interesting, because neither Bo Schembechler nor Lloyd Carr would have been this aggressive against their arch rival.  They would have kicked the field goal, taken the points, and put their defense on the field.  Gary Moeller was underrated as a coach in this regard, because he was not afraid to take a risk like this.

Ohio State followed on their opening drive by running the ball down Michigan’s throat, using their feature power back Carlos Snow.  They pushed it down to Michigan’s 30 yard line, where the drive stalled, mainly because a Buckeye receiver dropped a wide open pass at the 20, and Erick Anderson made two tackles at the line of scrimmage.  They attempted a field goal, which fell short.

Michigan ran a reverse with Desmond on their first play from scrimmage, for about 8 yards.  Then they ran the ball a handful of times before Ricky Powers fumbled the ball and OSU recovered.  They again went to their power running game, before again stalling at around the 30 yard line.  They kicked a 50 yard field goal to make the score 7-3.  After this, the wheels came off.

Michigan got the ball back at their own 40, and went three and out.  They punted, and had the Buckeyes inside their own 20.  OSU tried a pass on first down, and threw an interception, leading to Michigan’s 2nd touchdown, after again going for it on 4th down inside the 5 yard line.  The score: 14-3 Michigan.

On Ohio State’s first play from scrimmage on the next series, they fumbled, and Michigan recovered.  Again, without instant replay, there was no chance to try to overturn the play, which was difficult, at best, to tell.  This could have been a completely different game if instant replay could have been used at this time.  After a bunch of penalties and poorly executed plays, Michigan settled for a field goal, and made the score 17-3.

Ohio State received the ball back, and immediately threw a nice pass play to get the ball near mid-field.  After hitting the 50 yard line, they stalled, and were forced to punt.  The interesting thing is they had not given Desmond Howard a chance to beat them all game.  At this point he had 1 catch for 4 yards, and 1 run for 8 yards.  They could have kicked out of bounds, and pinned Michigan, or kick the ball into the end zone.  Instead, it appeared they tried to force a fair catch out of Howard, which didn’t happen.

Howard caught the ball at the 7 yard line, dodged a tackle immediately, ran forward, dodged another tackler, and then turned it into a foot race down the east side line of the stadium.  Just before Howard scores you could hear Keith Jackson say “Hello Heisman” if you were watching the broadcast.  In the stands, we saw Desmond sprinting toward us, then angling toward the section of Ohio State fans behind the end zone.  From where I stood, it appeared he was taunting the Ohio State fans, but we were all going too crazy to realize Desmond had just transcended history, and entered into the legendary.  Not only had he solidified the Heisman trophy on that play, but he also made the indelible pose which is still seen all over today, whether in advertisements or video game covers, or simply in replays of some of the great moments in college football history.

Looking back on it today, what strikes me is that Michigan did not get a 15 yard penalty for taunting.  This was a kid having fun, and enjoying his day in the sun against his arch rival.  That was how we all saw it, and that’s how it was.  If anybody tried that today, there would be penalties, repercussions, and controversy over somebody showing such a lack of sportsmanship.  I say that because when Michigan played Ohio State in 2010, an OSU player was flagged for making an “O” symbol with his hands after scoring a touchdown.  That sounds tame, but it received a penalty flag.

So, now the game stood at 24-3.  It was over.  OSU did not have the personnel to come back from that, because they were a power running team.  Because this was Michigan & Ohio State, no Michigan left for the duration of the game.

At halftime, I remember watching both bands, with Ohio State’s band performing first.  I have no way to prove this, but I remember that while they were performing their last song, in full formation, the Michigan band jumped in with “The Victors” and high-stepped their way right toward the Buckeyes.  Ohio State had nothing else to do but stop their song and get out of the way, defeated.  Again, these are the things that make rivalries great.  Even the bands hate each other.

The second half was nothing special.  Ohio State did bring in their backup quarterback, a kid by the name of Kirk Herbstreit.  It’s funny to think he and Desmond Howard were on the same field, and nobody had a clue they would later be colleagues.  Herbstreit actually played pretty well, driving OSU deep into Michigan territory on their first two possessions.  The only problems were 1) because of the nature of the OSU offense, each drive ate up huge chunks of time, and 2) OSU simply could not get the ball in the end zone against the Michigan defense.  They turned it over on downs twice in the 3rd quarter, which used up all of the time they had.

Nothing which would be considered noteworthy happened for the remainder of the game, except for one thing.  At the time, it seemed innocuous, but now it is a rather cult clip.  Kirk Herbstreit was hit in the 4th quarter as he was releasing a pass, and ended up with a concussion.  This clip has been viewed hundreds of thousands of time on You Tube, but again, at the time he was a kid trying to help his team gain some momentum against their arch rival.

The amazing thing to me as the game came to an end was that I didn’t notice any fans leaving the stands.  Michigan fans were all too aware that 1) beating Ohio State 31-3 was a rare occurrence which needed to be savored, and 2) the next time Michigan played was going to be in Pasadena.  We all had a big lovefest for the remainder of the game, chanting “Rose Bowl” and cheering our boys every chance we got.  This would only happen in a rivalry of the magnitude of Michigan and Ohio State.