It’s almost 3:45 PM on Saturday, November 18, 2006. The LONG wait is over, and you’re settling in for “THE GAME”. The stakes have never been as high in the long history of the rivalry. All of a sudden you hear a voice-
“Ohio State will turn the ball over three times today…”
Even if that’s true, you tell yourself, we turned it over twice last year on the road, recovered two other fumbles and still won. The voice isn’t through-
“Michigan will score on their first drive…”
OK, you think, no one’s done that on our defense this year. But Notre Dame did it in the Fiesta Bowl last year, and we all know how that turned out. Just as your mind eases, the voice hits you with this gem-
“Ohio State will give up the most points that a Jim Tressel-coached Buckeye team has ever surrendered…”
Scouring the memory bank, you recall the 44-38 triple-overtime win over North Carolina State in 2003. Wow, more than 38 today? Are you serious? Maybe it’s time to rethink that jaunt to the desert in January. But before you unpack the sunblock, you ask the million dollar question-
“So, what does Troy do?”
How about becoming Ohio State’s all-time single season touchdown pass leader with four scoring strikes…to four different receivers? How about carving up Michigan’s defense like a surgeon on a textbook two-minute drive before halftime? How about shaking off hit after hit from the most physical defense he’s probably ever seen to ring up OSU’s biggest point total against TBGUN since the 50-14 blowout of 1968? How about cementing the Heisman Trophy and shifting the conversation around Buckeye Nation to whether or not he’s the greatest quarterback to ever wear the Scarlet and Gray?
You take a deep breath, relax, and watch as the Bucks turn back the Wolverines for the fifth time in six years, 42-39. Troy Smith posts career highs for passes (41) and completions (29) while flinging for 316 yards. The Buckeye offense scorches the UM defense for 503 yards, including 187 rushing yards against a Maize and Blue “D” that was giving up less than 30 yards a game on the ground.
And to the victors (or as Michigan’s longtime band announcer says, “the vic-toooors” as in “door”) go the spoils- an outright Big Ten championship for the first time since the Reagan Administration and a chance for the fifth-year seniors to bookend their careers with another national championship in the Arizona desert.
“THE GAME” lived up to the hype. It had been building steadily since the Buckeyes throttled Iowa way back on September 30th. It gained even more steam once OSU dispatched Michigan State on October 14th in what was thought to be their last tough road test but proved to be a minor speedbump. It shifted into overdrive when the Wolves battered Penn State that night, and it was full speed ahead the next day when UM was elevated to the #2 spot in the AP poll, where they would reside behind the Bucks for the next 5 weeks while the college football world drooled in anticipation.
It would be safe to say everyone got his or her money’s worth. Some “Games of the Century” haven’t exactly made for great theatre (Ohio State/Notre Dame in 1935, Notre Dame and Army’s scoreless tie in 1946, the 10-10 ties forged by Notre Dame/Michigan State in 1966 and the 1973 edition of “THE GAME”). This game, however, can take its place along Nebraska/Oklahoma of 1971, Boston College/Miami of 1984 and last year’s epic national championship game between Texas and USC as track meets that had almost as many big plays as commercials. Of all the gaudy stats that emerged from Saturday’s battle, two stand out- Of the 12 scoring drives between the two old rivals, EIGHT of them took less than 2 ½ minutes. And Ohio State will now have the opportunity in Glendale to become the first team in collegiate pigskin annals to beat three #2-ranked opponents in the same season.
#2 Michigan took it right to #1 Ohio State on the game’s first series. Chad Henne came out firing to his top receiver, Warren, Ohio native Mario Manningham, hitting him with completions of 24, 9 and 25 yards as the Wolves marched to the OSU 1. Tailback Mike Hart circled right end for the score, putting the Bucks in a 7-0 hole with just 2:28 gone. Antonio Smith had been on Manningham in coverage on the opening drive, but from here on out Malcolm Jenkins would shadow Mario, holding him to only three more receptions the remainder of the day.
Pre-game wisdom had it that OSU would need to spread the field to stymie the potent Michigan front seven, and it certainly showed on the Buckeyes’ opening possession. Troy Smith threw on seven of the first eight plays from scrimmage, the lone exception being a 5-yard sack by Rondell Biggs. Facing a 3rd-and-16 at his own 49, Smith hooked up with Roy Hall for 27 yards and a huge first down at the UM 24. After a five-yard Antonio Pittman run and an incompletion, Smith went back to Hall for 10 and a critical first down at the Maize and Blue 9. Stan White gained six on a pass reception in the flat, and Pittman pounded the middle for 1, bringing up another third down from the 2. Following a timeout, the Bucks pulled off a “pick” play as Brian Robiskie, split far to the right, ran his man into the defender that was over Hall, who lined up just inside Robo. Smith delivered a seed to Roy right at the pylon for the touchdown. Coming into the contest with 10 catches on the year, Hall had plucked three on this initial drive, and the senior’s second touchdown of the year evened the score at 7.
Henne engineered one first down on Michigan’s next series, but the OSU defense stiffened and Zoltan Mesko punted to the Buckeye 20. The kick came on a 4th-and-just over-5 play, and the Bucks were called for being offside, but the yardage wouldn’t have resulted in a first down so the Wolves let the play stand.
Ted Ginn, Jr. hauled in a pair of first down catches on the subsequent Ohio State march, but Troy Smith got pressure on 3rd-and-9 and had to throw the ball away. A.J. Trapasso punted the Maize and Blue to their 14, and on first down Lawrence Wilson dropped Chad Henne for a three-yard loss as the first quarter concluded. A screen to Manningham worked for 12 before John Kerr, getting extended playing time at linebacker due to the anticipated physical nature of the contest, showed great closing speed coming all the way across field to stop Mario a yard shy of a first down. It was the first of back-to-back big plays by Kerr as he teamed up with Vernon Gholston and James Laurinaitis to hold Mike Hart to no gain on third-and-1. Zoltan Mesko’s punt was fair caught at the OSU 42, giving Smith and Co. excellent field position.
Troy picked up six on first down before being belted by David Harris. The offensive coaches (OK, just Tress…who am I kidding?) must have decided to let someone else carry the ball, so freshman Chris Wells entered. Now I’ll admit up in section 10C I had a momentary flashback to last year when Maurice Wells coughed up the ball on his very first carry in Ann Arbor, leading to a Wolverine recovery that turned that entire game around. Well, this time C-Dub turned THIS game on its ear. Lining up next to Smith in the shotgun, something I don’t think he had done all season, Wells took the handoff and headed left only to meet up with Shawn Crable. Spinning away, Wells stumbled through the line, shook off safety Jamar Adams and for the first time showed off the wheels that combined with his power to make him the most sought-after back in the country last year. And as defenders closed in on him inside the 10-yard line, Chris tightened that ball up by his pads as he was clocked entering the endzone. It was one of those magic moments in Ohio State football- scoring a touchdown on your first-ever carry against The Team Up North. The 52-yard romp gave the Buckeyes a 14-7 lead, and it was reminiscent of 1972, when freshman Archie Griffin broke off a 30-yard scoring scamper into the same south endzone to put OSU out front 14-3 in a game they would win 14-11.
Antonio Smith, who had a rough first defensive series trying to keep up with Mario Manningham, made his presence known on Michigan’s next drive as he blitzed and caught Henne for an 18-yard loss. Compounding the problem, Henne tried to throw the ball away but was whistled for grounding, losing the down. Mesko came on to punt, but for the first time in the almost 140-year history of collegiate football, a roughing-the-center penalty was called on Austin Spitler for hitting the long snapper too soon after the snap. Next time the Bucks should line Spitler up 10 yards away and let him get a running start to take the guy out. That way the poor center will have that one second before getting blasted. The personal foul gave the Wolves a gift first down, but the defense responded and forced another Mesko punt, which Ted Ginn, Jr. fair-caught at his own 9.
After a 3-yard run by Pitt, Troy again broke out a highlight-reel play. Dodging a safety blitz from Ryan Mundy, Smith rolled right and pegged a throw to Robiskie at the Buckeye 31. Robo shook off Leon Hall and moved to the middle with practically nothing but green in front of him, but Morgan Trent was able to upend Brian at the UM 48. Pittman pounded for almost 10 yards, but the measurement showed them just short. Fans who wonder throughout the year what kind of wrinkles the team is working on for the Maize and Blue got their answer on the next play.
Breaking the huddle, the Bucks quickly moved to the line of scrimmage and lined up in a funky formation with Chris Wells in the backfield and five guys lined up to the right of center Doug Datish. Making a brilliant fake to Wells, Troy hesitated just a heartbeat before launching a missile to Ginn, who went up and snagged the throw in the endzone for a 39-yard touchdown. The lead grew to 21-7 as the Bucks completed their longest scoring drive of the season (91 yards) in just 4 plays. ABC’s cameras got a few up-close shots of Michigan’s defenders and they looked absolutely bewildered.
The Wolverine offense came through with a clutch series to keep things tight. Hart got loose on a great draw call for 30 yards to midfield, and then a third-down interference call on Malcolm Jenkins gave UM a first down at the OSU 27. Jenkins helped to turn the tide on the next snap, as his blitz occupied tackle Rueben Riley enough to allow Joel Penton to slide through and clobber Henne for a loss of 11. But just like that, Michigan counter-punched as Adrian Arrington got loose down the west sideline when corner Donald Washington followed Manningham on a post route. Henne easily dialed Arrington up for a 37-yard touchdown, the longest scoring play against Ohio State this season. 2:33 remained in the first half and the UM deficit stood at 21-14.
Whether it was part of the Buckeye gameplan or not, Anthony Gonzalez hadn’t caught a pass to this point. If the Wolverine defense had forgotten about him, they were about to be brutally reminded. Gonzo lit the fuse on the two-minute “O” with a 12-yard reception, and then Troy connected with Ginn for 7 and Robiskie for 17 to the Michigan 44. After an incompletion, Gonzo caught a short toss and juked corner Johnny Sears for 13, then it was Rory Nicol on a rare tight-end screen for 3. Gonzo went up the ladder to bring down a Smith rainbow for 16, and with the ball now on the UM 12 and the Wolves’ “D” reeling, Michigan called timeout. Robiskie hauled in a short 4-yard toss and with only 24 seconds left in the half, Jim Tressel took time. Having launched this trek, Gonzo finished it with an 8-yard touchdown catch on the slant play that has worked like a charm in the redzone for two years. The four catches by Gonzalez would be his only ones for the day, but he had now claimed 49 receptions for 2006, with an incredible 43 of them resulting in first downs. It had been a two-minute clinic by Troy Smith and his receiving corps, and with Aaron Pettrey’s PAT, the Buckeyes took a 28-14 lead into the locker room. If any of the Heisman voters had wanted to finish their ballot during the break, who could’ve blamed them? #10 was 21 of 26 for 241 yards and three scores.
I’m sure many of you we’re thinking the same thing during intermission- Since the Bucks get the ball to start the second half, a touchdown would pretty much put this thing on ice. But to Michigan’s credit, and as a tribute to the sixty-minute spirit of the rivalry, old “Mo” shifted to the east sideline. Ohio State’s offense promptly served up their first 3-and-out of the afternoon, and after a short Trapasso punt the Wolverines took over at their 40. Just as quickly as they had struck on their opening possession, Michigan went the distance in a hurry. Or should I say Mike Hart did- the junior tailback ate up all 60 of the yards in 4 carries, topping things off by going in over the right side untouched from 2 yards away. The Buckeye lead was down to 28-21, and on OSU’s next series it looked like John Cooper had returned to the sideline.
First the Bucks had to burn a timeout after confusion in getting a third-down play in, and then Troy tried to squeeze a pass into double coverage to Robiskie. David Harris and Jamar Adams deflected the ball into the air where Alan Branch picked it off. The big tackle was brought down at the OSU 25, and all of a sudden that somewhat cozy 14-point halftime lead was on the verge of being obliterated. But as they’ve done time and again this year, the “Silver Bullets” cranked it up. After a tough pickup of 5 on first down by Hart, David Patterson and Jay Richardson got into the backfield to hit him on the next play, knocking him off course before Quinn Pitcock and Brandon Mitchell cleaned up for a 2-yard loss. Vernon Gholston pressured Chad Henne into an incompletion, so it was left to Garrett Rivas to hoist a 39-yard field goal. The 3 points were, unbelievably, the first the Buckeye defense had given up all year long following an OSU turnover, and with the fast 10-point barrage out of the second half gate, Michigan trailed 28-24.
You won’t find officials in any edition of “THE GAME” reaching for their flags very often, and such was the case for this matchup. But the penalties that were called on both teams in this contest were costlier than usual, as Michigan discovered on the kickoff after Rivas’ field goal. Ted Ginn, Jr. returned the kick to his 20, but a late hit at the sideline advanced the ball to the 35. Troy went right back to Ted for 9 yards on a quick out, setting the stage for another Buckeye uppercut to the vaunted Wolverine run defense.
Left guard Steve Rehring pulled around to his right on the Bucks’ bread-and-butter “Power O” play, and with Rehring, Alex Boone and Stan White, Jr. clearing the way, Antonio Pittman blew through the right side and was gone like that- 56 yards to the house. It was Ohio State’s longest running play of the year, just besting Chris Wells’ earlier 52-yard scoring jaunt, and once again OSU had control at 35-24.
With Mario Manningham being locked down by Malcolm Jenkins, Chad Henne began to hone in on Adrian Arrington, and the two combined on third-down throws of 15 and 25 yards on UM’s next drive, advancing the pigskin to the Buckeye 33. But three plays later the ball was still parked at the 33, and on fourth down Steve Breaston could only manage 5 yards when he slipped down after making a catch. Again the Ohio State offense had a shot at a knockout punch, but the Wolverine defense answered the bell. Troy Smith took off for 3 on first down, after first pulling down a high shotgun snap that would become a menace as the game wore on. Terrance Taylor then barreled through Doug Datish to not only drop Chris Wells for a loss of 4, but also draw a hold on Datish that was declined. Brandent Englemon broke up a third-down toss for Rory Nicol, and the Wolves took over at their own 34 following an A.J. Trapasso punt.
UM was facing a 3rd-and-2 from the 42 when Henne tried to hit Manningham deep. The ball carried toward the middle of the field where Malcolm Jenkins dove to pick it off at the OSU 23. ABC cut to the Buckeye sideline, where you could see Anthony Gonzalez heading for the field while telling Jim Tressel they needed to get the first snap off before play was held up. The Bucks weren’t quick enough, though, and after review the pass was ruled incomplete. Zoltan Mesko’s punt carried into the endzone so Ohio State would get started at the 20 after all.
It only took two plays for the bubble to burst, as Troy Smith tried to run with another high shotgun snap before he had the pigskin corralled. The football rolled back to the OSU 9 where Alan Branch fell on it- his second turnover of the day and third in two games against Ohio State. Two plays into the fourth quarter Steve Breaston ran an end-around and split Jamario O’Neal and Antonio Smith for an apparent score, but his knee was ruled down at the one. It only delayed the inevitable as Mike Hart ran over Brandon Mitchell for his third touchdown of the game. It appeared Lloyd Carr would go for two to make it a field-goal margin, but after the Buckeyes used up a timeout to make sure their personnel was right, Carr changed his mind and had Rivas kick for 1. Once more the Wolverines had cut into a double-digit lead and now trailed 35-31. The three rushing TD’s by Hart equaled the amount of scores on the ground the OSU defense had surrendered all season.
On the Bucks’ next drive, Troy Smith was 4 for 4 passing as the Scarlet and Gray moved to Michigan’s 29. Ted Ginn, Jr. faked Morgan Trent out of his jock on a nice 21-yard catch-and-run to highlight the march, but that play and receptions by Brian Hartline and Rory Nicol all ended up going out of bounds, so the clock was moving painfully slow. That became the least of OSU’s problems; however, when Doug Datish got the football caught in a divot on the field and didn’t even get the snap off the ground. LaMarr Woodley pounced on the loose ball at the Michigan 32 and the Wolves were back in business, but the offense couldn’t do anything and Ohio State took command at their 17.
The Buckeyes got the ground game in gear as Smith faked a reverse to Ginn and rambled for 9 yards and a first down at the OSU 28. Troy then worked the “Statue of Liberty” to perfection as he fake-pumped left, and handed to Pittman heading right. Pitt made a beautiful cutback at his 34, and with Doug Datish out front providing interference, Pitt scooted to the Wolverine 46 before getting run out of bounds. Two runs by Chris Wells and a clutch snag by Hartline moved the chains to the UM 33, but then Michigan’s “D” asserted itself. Pittman was held to no gain, and then an unblocked LaMarr Woodley drilled Smith as his throw to Ginn was too high. After a delay penalty, Smith rolled right and fired incomplete for Robiskie, but Shawn Crable committed the most crucial penalty of the afternoon- going helmet-to-helmet with Smith as he unloaded for Robo. The 15-yard flag moved the ball to Michigan’s 23, and it was Smith-to-Robiskie for 9 on the slant to the 14. From there, Smith got great protection as Robiskie ran a fade route into the endzone before coming to a complete stop. Morgan Trent’s feet went right out from under him, and all Troy had to do was lay it in to Robo, who made a great catch at the front pylon with one foot in for a huge score. It was Troy’s fourth touchdown pass of the day, something no other Buckeye quarterback has ever accomplished against the Maize and Blue, and it was Smith’s 30th scoring toss of the year, breaking Bobby Hoying’s school record of 29 in 1995. Most importantly, it gave his team a 42-31 lead with 5:38 left to play.
Chad Henne wasn’t finished yet, and he fired five straight completions on UM’s next series, moving his team from their own 19 to the OSU 44. He actually made it 6 for 6 with a strike to Arrington, but a holding call negated the gain.
Tyler Ecker couldn’t get his hands on a second-down throw, and when Jay Richardson sacked Henne for a loss of two, it was 4th-and-16 at the Wolverine 46. The Buckeyes were a defensive stop away from Glendale, but after a Michigan timeout, a mighty questionable interference call on Jamario O’Neal gave the Maize and Blue new life with a first down at Ohio State’s 41. Henne completed a 5-yard throw to Manningham, then connected with tight end Mike Massey on a diving 20-yard hookup. On second down from the 16, Ecker caught a pass in the right flat and took it all the way for six. This time there wasn’t much doubt that Lloyd would go for two, and Henne hit Steve Breaston just past the goal line to make it 42-39 with 2:16 to go.
Michigan had exhausted all of their timeouts, so they had no choice but to try the onside kick, which Ted Ginn, Jr. grabbed on a friendly hop at the Wolverine 48. The Bucks killed the clock, and the game ended as any edition of “THE GAME” should end in Columbus- with the fans swarming the field and the Victory Bell ringing for the world to hear out of the southeast tower. Police guarded both goal posts, but other than that they let the mob engulf the field to celebrate Ohio State’s first undisputed Big Ten championship since 1984 and a trip to the BCS national championship game in Glendale, Arizona on Monday night, January 8th.
RANDOM THOUGHTS- Jim Tressel’s 5-1 record against TBGUN sets a new school mark for a coach’s first half-dozen games against the Wolverines (for those who actually stayed in town that long); Francis Schmidt and Earle Bruce both had gone 4-2 in their initial six Michigan tussles, while Woody Hayes was 3-3…Ohio State’s 5-1 ledger vs. the Maize and Blue under Tressel is the best stretch since Hayes also went 5-1 from 1960 through 1965…The Buckeyes are four quarters away from being the first team in school history to win a national title the same year that they were the pre-season #1 team in the AP poll. Another streak that needs to stop- OSU’s last four outright Big Ten title squads (1970, 1975, 1979 and 1984) all lost in the Rose Bowl…The 2006 Buckeyes are only the second unit in OSU annals to beat the Wolverines in a year ending in “6”, joining the 1936 team…That ’36 squad was quarterbacked by “Tippy” Dye, who now shares with Troy Smith the honor of being the only quarterbacks at Ohio State to start in three Michigan victories…Troy finishes his career with a 15-0 record as a starter in Ohio Stadium, and his impending Heisman Trophy will be OSU’s seventh such award, tying Notre Dame and USC for the most in college football history…Finally, is it just me, or is every single time a TV camera is trained on Lloyd Carr he’s crying to an official? I swear ol’ Coach “K” down at Duke has absolutely nothing on this guy