Saturday, November 18, 2006

Can you say 'Rematch?' Buckeyes squeak by Michigan, 42-39

1Ohio State 42, 2Michigan 39


Let the debate begin. Although there are still a few meaningful games left to be played this season, the number of teams that actually have a chance to play for the National Championship game was reduced today. That's because the team that lost this epic battle just might be the best team in the country.

The Buckeyes and Wolverines played a Game of the Century that not only lived up to the hype but actually surpassed it. One of the greatest rivalries in college sports saw the second-highest scoring game in its history from two teams that came in as a couple of the stingiest in the country. So what happened? They covered the over in the first half (28-14 OSU), sending millions of degenerate gamblers into toilet stalls, and then traded big plays throughout the thrilling second half en route to an 81 point, 900 yard blitzkrieg that left no doubt who the top two teams in the nation were.

You got the feeling from the opening drives that it was going to be one of those days. Michigan took the opening kick and drove 80 yards in just over 2:00 minutes for a confidence-boosting early touchdown by Mike Hart. The highlights of the drive though were 3 passes to electric receiver Mario Manningham, who had 3 of his 6 receptions and 57 of his 86 yards in that series.

Not to be outdone, or let Michigan get confidence, Ohio State came roaring right back, mounting a scoring drive that was dominated by QB Troy Smith (29-41, 316yds, 3TDs, 1INT) and the Buckeyes pass-orientated offense. Since Michigan came in #1 against the run Coach Tressel & his coordinators came up with a great game plan: let Troy throw to any of his 4 or 5 receiver options, spread the field, and then sprinkle in the run later. Mission accomplished from the start as Smith threw 11 passes in the 14-play drive that culminated in 2-yard TD pass to Roy Hall (who?!) for they tying score.

The teams settled down from there, each holding the other down on their next series to end the first quarter in a 7-7 tie.

The second frame got off to a quick start. OSU held the Wolverines and forced them to punt and the Buckeyes took over at their 42. Three plays later the running game was officially worked in as freshman phenom RB Chris Wells took a hand off, did a spin-o-rama at the line and then darted up the middle and into the end zone for a stunning 52 yard touchdown run. The "drive" consisted of 2 plays, took less than a minute, and gave Ohio State a 14-7 lead just 2:00 into the 2nd quarter. Things would get worse for Michigan from there. After another stalled drive Ohio State took over at their own nine. Before you could say "Maurice Clarett" Smith hit the underrated reciever Brian Robiske (7recs, 89yds, 1TD) for a 40 yard gain and got a 9 yard carry from RB Antonio Pittman. On 2nd & inches everyone in the country expected another run, but Tressel pulled one of his many great calls on the day: Smith faked the hand off, Wells leaped over the line, and then Smith unleashed the pass he was hiding in his hip pocket & found Tedd Ginn Jr.(8recs, 104YDs, 1TD) for a 39-yard touchdown to run the score to 21-7, and it looked like they were ready to run the Wolverines out of the Horseshoe.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a Buckeye Blowout. Michigan found that inner strength, that second gear, that adrenaline rush that allows great teams to stand up to adversity and fight the good fight until the very end. Michigan got the ball with a little over 5:00 left in the half and proceeded to mount a drive that probably kept them in the game until the final minutes. Hart, who had a monster game (23 carries, 142yards, 3TDs) led the way with 3 rushes for 38 yards, then after a 15-yard PI call on OSU CB Malcolm Jenkins, QB Chad Henne (21-35, 267, 2TDs) hit underrated receiver Adrian Arrington for a 37-yard score that quieted the record crowd, albeit momentarily, and pulled the Wolverines to within 7, 21-14.

So you would have thought that another score by Ohio State, an 8-yard strike from Smith to Anthony Gonzalez (4recs, 50yds, TD) with :24 left in the half that made the score 28-14 at the break, would have been the straw that broke the Wolverine's backs. Not true, because on a day when the entire Maize & Blue family was remembering their fallen leader Bo Schembechler, the boys in the Winged Helmets were about to put on a second half display that would have made the feisty old coach proud.

After holding the Buckeyes to 3 & out for the first time on the day Michigan would make their statement that although their "great" defense was being shredded like Enron documents they would not be going down quietly. Hart asserted himself and showed why he is one of the best runners in the country when he ripped off runs of 9, 32 & 17 yards before jogging in for a 2-yard score to close the gap to 28-21. Game on. This is when turnovers stared to pile up and cost the Buckeyes a chance to put the game away. Smith, who hadn't thrown an INT in 2+ Rivalry games, gave it away on a ball that was tipped by his intended receiver and recovered by Michigan at the OSU 25. A defensive stand held the Wolverines to a FG that made it 28-24, and then OSU would try to go for the knockout punch again. Pittman took a hand off on 2nd & 1 from their 44 and went on a 56-yard romp to deliver a "take that, rushing defense" score to run the count to 35-24 and give the Buckeyes some breathing room again,
momentarily, again. On their next possession Smith was the victim of a high snap by an incompetent center (he also muffed a snap later), and Michigan headed into the final frame with the ball at the Ohio State 10.

Michigan would start the 4th quarter like they did the 1st & 3rd- with a Mike Hart touchdown. Talk about keeping a team in the game. The stocky (5'9", 198) junior took it in from 1 yard out and suddenly there was nervous chatter from the 105,000+ at the Shoe; 35-31 two minutes into the 4th. (Question: why didn't Lloyd "Dumb & Ruder" Carr go for the 2 pointer here. he started to, took a timeout, then kicked the PAT to go down by 4. Curious call, as pointed out by a perplexed Herbie on ESPN on ABC.) After yet another Smith fumble due to that "idiot center", who snapped the ball sideways and directly into the ground, Ohio Sate held and got the ball again. This time Smith made sure he did what he was supposed to do, namely deliver a 13-yard strike to Robiske for the killer score, making it 42-31 with 5:00 to go. game over, right?

Wrong. This was the Game of the Century, remember, and the teams were determined to live up to that heady moniker. Michigan would summon all their strength and march down the field again, riding 10 Henne pass attempts to a 16 yard touchdown and a butt-clenching 42-39 score (this time Genius went for 2 and got it.) But all that was left was an on sides kick attempt, and when Ginn Jr. fell on the ball the epic battle was over and everyone felt as if they'd witnessed an all-time classic.

So what now. Well to many observers (Herbie, Corso, Musberger, me) Michigan proved that they were most definitely the second best team in the country, and if they played on a neutral field or at The Big House, possibly the best team in the land. The is no way that any of the 1-loss teams are better than Michigan, with the possible exception of USC. Should USC lose to Notre Dame next week the point will be almost moot, because the Wolverines waxed the Irish earlier this season. Which is why the debate will begin raging tonight as to whether a rematch should take place on the neutral field of the BCS Championship Game in Glendale Arizona 50 days from now.

But Ohio State proved that they are without a doubt the best team in America by pummelling a proficient defense both in the air (316 yards) and on the ground (187yds). It was by far the most yardage allowed by the defense all year, and like I said OSU proved that they just have too many weapons for any defense to stop, much like the USC team 2 seasons ago. Then again the Buckeyes couldn't stop the normally flaccid Wolverine offense either, which is another reason that a rematch would have appeal. maybe the next game would be a little more in the Schembechler/Hayes tradition, with a little defense thrown in.

All I know is that only one thing was settled today in Columbus:

Troy Smith better clear a space on his mantle for this:

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