COLUMBUS — For 364 days, fans of the winning team use the score of The Game like a weapon.
Depending on one’s age and preference in the Ohio State-Michigan game, the score becomes the focal point of trash talk for the next year, and in some case, lifetimes. In this game, 42-39 and 13-9 and 26-24 and 50-14 have special meanings.
So what happened when nobody won The Game?
An entire generation has grown into adulthood without the possibility of ties. It has been an entire lifetime since Ohio State and Michigan last played to a draw. The 1992 meeting, a 13-13 tie in Columbus, turned 25 years old Tuesday, and it remains the last and final stalemate in the series.
Today, the 1992 installment exists in the same realm as the slick November afternoon during which it was played, a strange purgatory in which neither team was happy, but neither underwent the total devastation of losing.
The old saying goes ties are like kissing your sister, and for the players in the game — especially for a class of Buckeyes that never beat UM — the sensation of playing to a tie was a unique experience.
“It was weird,” former Buckeyes running back Robert Smith said. “People say the kiss-your-sister thing. It’s just kind of like, wow, this is crazy. We had our chances — but we didn’t lose.
“I guess it was a relief in a sense because of how the series had gone, but at the same time, you just lament the opportunities that you lost.”
A Different Era
Ties officially ended with bowl games in 1995, and a full overtime system was put into place the next season.
But in 1992, there was nothing beyond 60 minutes. When the sixth-ranked Wolverines traveled to Columbus to play No. 17 Ohio State, they already had clinched the Big Ten by — ironically — tying Illinois the week before. (Strangely enough, Michigan was an undefeated Rose Bowl champion that season ... and won only nine games. UM also opened the season with a tie, 17-17 at Notre Dame.)
The Big Ten already was decided, but the Buckeyes, who had not won in the series since 1987, thought they could end their drought.
“We had not won the previous three meetings during my tenure there, and we thought we had a great opportunity and lot of pieces in place,” former OSU linebacker Steve Tovar said. “We just had a feeling like we didn’t get the thing accomplished. “
The game was filled with the standard roller-coaster ebbs and flows of an evenly matched rivalry game. Ohio State started the game with a promising drive, but Michigan blocked the resulting field goal attempt.
Buckeyes safety Chico Nelson intercepted Michigan quarterback Elvis Grbac, but nothing came of it. Later, Grbac scored on a touchdown run to give Michigan the lead, but took a brutal hit on the play and did not return to the game, giving way to Todd Collins.
Collins scored on a bootleg to give UM a 13-3 lead late in the third quarter, but OSU stormed back. On a do-or-die fourth-and-goal with just more than four minutes to play, the Buckeyes tied the game with quarterback Kirk Herbstreit’s 5-yard touchdown pass to Greg Beatty.
Without overtime, those four minutes were the end, regardless of whether someone scored again. After the touchdown, the Buckeyes — to spattered boos at Ohio Stadium — did not go for the two-point conversion, but instead kicked the extra point.
On the broadcast, ABC commentator Gary Danielson snidely joked, “Listen to the coaches — they’re gamblers until they’re playing with their own chips.”
Ohio State coach John Cooper said after the game that going for two “didn't even cross my mind.”
Down the stretch, both teams played to avoid a loss. Playcalling was conservative, and there were two more punts.
With a fourth-and-4 just across midfield and fewer than two minutes to go, Cooper elected to punt.
And it became the play that everyone remembers.
The ‘Almost’ Moment
The entire stadium gasped.
Cooper, 0-4 against Michigan to that point, withstood questions from the press that week about whether he would be fired should he lose again. On that final punt, Cooper’s reaction shows a man who lives an entire lifetime in one moment. He is surprised, exuberant, hopeful, and crushed in a matter of seconds.
Michigan receiver Derrick Alexander stepped back to his 8-yard line and slipped, then dropped the punt into a sea of oncoming Buckeyes.
Tovar was closest, and two more teammates likely would have beaten Alexander to the loose ball. But the ball’s first bounce took a sharp left turn, and Michigan linebacker Shawn Collins astutely dove on the ball with no hesitation.
It saved the day.
Tovar said he remembers the play distinctly.
“I went to go dive for it and a couple guys were diving after it, and we didn’t get it,” Tovar said. “As I reflect back now, it’s those opportunities and bounces of the football that would really be pivotal in terms of the outcome. Those missed opportunities are the things that stick with you.”
On the sideline, Smith said the Buckeyes had a universal reaction. They were certain they had the ball inside the 10 — then a Michigan helmet popped up with it instead.
“We were all standing there like, ‘Oh, no! You gotta be kidding me!’” Smith said, laughing.
OSU intercepted Collins’ Hail Mary attempt on the ensuing drive, but the Wolverines were able to push Buckeyes defensive back Walter Taylor out of bounds some 34 yards short of the end zone.
The clock hit zero and the two sides sauntered toward midfield, neither quite sure how to feel.
Perspective was relative after the tie.
Michigan coach Gary Moeller was irate. He complained the crowd noise was “unfair” — imagine a coach saying something similar in the Twitter era — and railed the Ohio Stadium turf “was like an ice rink for both teams.”
Cooper was afforded at least some sense of relief by avoiding a fifth consecutive loss. He would go on to coach Ohio State through the 2000 season, but his Michigan problem never improved. He beat UM twice in 13 tries.
Herbstreit was devastated, saying after the game, “It feels like a loss because I've never been on a team that beat Michigan.”
Smith, who was leaning toward entering the NFL draft, knew 1992 probably was his final shot at a pair of gold pants, the trinket given to victorious Ohio State teams.
“I had an idea in my head that it might be my last chance to beat Michigan, so for me, it was, ‘We have to find a way to get this done somehow,’” Smith said.
OSU president E. Gordon Gee, for neither the first nor the last time, made a postgame comment that was widely pilloried by saying, “This tie is one of our greatest wins ever.”
Reminded of Gee’s comments this week, Tovar laughed. Even within a family, he said, there can be disagreements — and he disagrees.
The tide has turned for Ohio State in the series, as the Buckeyes have lost just twice since 2001.
For the seniors on the 1992 Ohio State team, yes, the game concluded as a tie. But there always was a sense of emptiness regarding the final draw in series history.
“It was utter disappointment,” Tovar said. “We know it’s so important to so many people on that team, so it was really disappointing, and it should be.
“Even to this day, it’s considered a loss in my book.”
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