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Michigan ‘has to win’ for next chapter with Ohio State to truly start
Published on Nov. 24, 2018
In the storied history of The Game, the 1968 matchup between Michigan and Ohio State still stands out to fans of both teams as one of the pivotal moments of this rivalry.
That’s thanks to Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes, who, when asked after a 50-14 victory why he attempted a two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter against the Wolverines, gave a legendary response both sides know by heart:
“Because I couldn’t go for three.”
That response, whether it’s a myth or not, remains a flashpoint that elevated this rivalry to its current state. The latest chapter, 50 years in the making, will unfold at noon ET on Saturday when No. 4 Michigan travels to meet No. 10 Ohio State in a battle for supremacy in the Big Ten East. It’s a matchup that will either continue or break the latest cycle in The Game, which has been decidedly one-sided in the Buckeyes’ favor since 2001.
Michigan enters the game as four-point favorites, which ends Ohio State’s 51-game regular-season game streak as a favored team. The Buckeyes also haven’t been the underdog in The Game since 2011.
“I think (Michigan) should be favored by the way they’ve played,” Fox analyst Joel Klatt told Sporting News. “This is their best chance in a while. Upsets happen in either direction, but this is Michigan’s best shot to have a legitimate road win in this series.
“That being said, I wouldn’t favor them by very much,” Klatt said. “Ohio State is very talented, and in this game like so many rivalry games, and I hate saying it because it’s so cliche, it really doesn’t matter what you’ve done to this point.”
But back to that two-point conversion — mistakenly thought to have been converted in the lopsided victory — and how it has helped lead the rivalry to where it is today. It starts with the Buckeyes, who used that to win the ’68 national championship under Hayes.
“In my opinion, and I use this in all of my presentations, I use the word ‘transformational’,” Ohio State historian Jack Park told SN. “This was a totally transformational season. The 1968 season changed Ohio State football in so many ways.”
Perhaps more importantly, it marked the beginning of the best chapter of this rivalry — The Ten Year War.
To prove the point, Park pulls up Ohio State’s winning percentage on one of his many spreadsheets: .675 from 1890-1967, and .787 from 1968-2017. The Buckeyes are 10-1 this season and hold a 27-21-2 advantage against Michigan in the last 50 meetings. That 1968 matchup was the most recognizable moment, when Hayes flaunted his success against “that team up North.”
“There wasn’t any particular bad blood before Michigan and Ohio State before that,” New York Times best-selling author John U. Bacon told SN. “That’s when the poking starts, basically. (Ohio State fullback) Jim Otis threw the ball into the stands after a touchdown, which you never did back then. All that really ticked off Michigan.”
The Wolverines responded by hiring Bo Schembechler, a former Ohio State assistant. In 1969, No. 12 Michigan upset No. 1 Ohio State 24-12, and The Ten Year War was born. Bacon recalled how that upset lives together with the two-point conversion in 1968.
“Woody Hayes in 1980 was at a banquet, and somebody asked him, ‘What was your best team?'” Bacon said. “He said, ‘1969,’ and he didn’t blink. … Then he turned to Bo and said, ‘Dammit, Bo, you will never win a bigger game.’ You know what? He was right.”
That ’68 game led to two distinct cycles in this rivalry: The Ten Year War between Hayes and Schembechler that saw Michigan go 5-4-1 against the Buckeyes, and another nine-year stretch between Schembechler and Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, which produced six of the 11 top-five showdowns in this rivalry.
Schembechler had a 5-4-1 advantage head-to-head against Hayes, but ceded a 10-9-1 advantage to the Buckeyes over the next nine years against Bruce, who went 5-4 against Michigan. That culminated in the 1987 meeting, when Bruce was fired the week of The Game. His players wore “Earle” headbands for the game, and the Buckeyes won 23-20.
Schembechler then told Bruce the last thing you’d expect to hear from a rival coach:
“I always mind losing to Ohio State,” Schembechler told Bruce. “But I didn’t mind so much today.”
Looking back, it seems nearly impossible this rivalry will be able to match those incredible streaks of competitive games. Since then, the schools have taken turns dominating the rivalry.
Michigan took command of the next phase from 1988-2000, a stretch in which Schembechler, Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr combined for a 10-2-1 record against former Ohio State coach John Cooper, including wins in 1993, ’95 and ’96, all matchups in which Ohio State entered The Game without a loss.
Heisman Trophy winners Desmond Howard (1991) and Charles Woodson (1997) made their mark with legendary punt returns at the Big House. Howard’s “Heisman pose” and Woodson’s all-around performance, which keyed Michigan’s last national championship run in 1997, are the flashpoints from that cycle.
“For me, more than anything else it’s imprinted what Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson did in this game,” Klatt said. “Those are the most iconic moments in my mind.”
It was also a stretch where Cooper’s teams had a 43-7-1 record from 1995-98 — but three of those losses were to the Wolverines.
When Ohio State hired Jim Tressel in 2001, the rivalry shifted once again, this time in favor of the Buckeyes. Tressel, formerly the coach at Youngstown State, knew — and prioritized — the importance of beating Michigan from Day 1. Tressel’s speech at an Ohio State-Michigan basketball game became the flashpoint for the rivalry’s current swing of dominance in favor of the Buckeyes.
Tressel and current coach Urban Meyer have since combined for a 15-1 record against Michigan since 2001, with the Wolverines’ last victory coming in 2011 against interim coach Luke Fickell.
“Under Tressel and Urban the players have had a confidence that they didn’t have before that,” Park said. “Some of John Cooper’s teams were far superior to Michigan’s team and we lost.”
Ohio State won the signature game of that period, too, a 42-39 victory when the teams met in the No. 1-vs.-No. 2 Game of the Century in 2006. The Buckeyes’ success, combined with Michigan’s failures, contributed to a lull in the rivalry.
Jim Harbaugh was hired after predecessors Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke combined for a 1-6 record in the seven years before his arrival. Harbaugh’s first season as Michigan coach in 2015 followed Ohio State’s last national championship season in 2014 — a move that was compared to when Schembechler was hired in 1969. Which, of course, leads to the present.
Through three years, Ohio State’s grip on the rivalry hasn’t weakened. Meyer is 3-0 against Harbaugh, and the flashpoint of this era, to date, is the 2016 game in which the Buckeyes won 30-27 in double overtime.
This year, however, should be an even bigger moment, given what’s at stake. Harbaugh is trying to avoid a 0-4 record against Ohio State, and the Wolverines are in control of their Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff destiny.
Ohio State isn’t in desperate need of a victory in the series, but the three-game suspension of Meyer to start the season, combined with what would be his first loss to the Wolverines, would undoubtedly lead to dissatisfaction in the program for the first time in a long time.
“If Michigan wins this year, even if we won’t know for five or 10 more years, it will be perceived as the dawn of a new era,” Bacon said. “It’s not clear how much longer Urban Meyer will be doing it; there are rumors. Jim Harbaugh clearly seems to be enjoying himself and appears to be in it for the long haul.”
Still, Park believes it’s on Michigan to break that cycle. And considering the Wolverines haven’t won in Columbus since Cooper’s last regular-season game in 2000, that’s easier said than done.
“Nobody wants to lose, but if you lose three out of 18 instead of two out of 18 that’s not like the world’s coming to an end,” Park said. “For Michigan, it’s a much more important game. If they lose, and (Harbaugh) goes 0-4 and they’ve won one of the last 15, then I think the pressure is much more on Michigan.”
In that regard, this game could be that next flashpoint moment, such as 1968, 1969, 1987, 1991, 1997, 2001, 2006, 2014 or 2016.
All of those moments elevated the rivalry to its present status. The dynamic with Meyer and Harbaugh, the big stage — bigger perhaps than it has been in years — and the social media age could combine to produce that moment.
But for a new cycle to begin, the Wolverines need to do what the ’69 team did.
“For this rivalry to be what it was,” Bacon said before a pause. “Michigan has to win one like this.”