ANN ARBOR — By the final minutes of Ohio State’s exasperating and thrilling 42-41 win over Michigan on Saturday, coach Urban Meyer just wanted the ball last.
It seemed the only sure way the highest-scoring edition of The Game in more than a century could be won.
"It reached the point where we were just matching score for score," Meyer said.
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Yet in the end, on an afternoon that featured a brawl resulting in three ejections and a more stunning blow-for-blow fight for supremacy between the third-ranked Buckeyes and the host Wolverines, it was a defensive stand that provided the lasting image.
After Carlos Hyde’s redeeming one-yard touchdown run pushed the Buckeyes ahead 42-35 with 2:20 remaining, Michigan answered with a 65-yard scoring drive that set up the boldest call of coach Brady Hoke’s career.
Hoke went for the two-point conversion — "We played the game to win," he said — only to watch the Wolverines stopped for one of the few times all day. Buckeyes freshman safety Tyvis Powell, saying he knew exactly which play was coming, intercepted quarterback Devin Gardner’s laser into traffic to a slanting Drew Dileo.
Gardner was left on his back and in disbelief, staring skyward for several seconds, while the Buckeyes darted to their sideline — a mix of euphoria and relief.
"I don’t even know how to describe it," OSU tight end Jeff Heuerman said. "It was such a crazy end. I think everybody’s head is still spinning."
Vanquishing UM for the 11th time in 13 years while extending their national-best winning streak to 24 games, the Buckeyes (12-0, 8-0 Big Ten) will play No. 11 Michigan State in next weekend’s Big Ten title game with a national championship berth possibly on the line. OSU’s hopes were given a major lift by fourth-ranked Auburn’s stunning 34-28 win over No. 1 Alabama later Saturday.
Meyer called the Buckeyes’ win an "instant classic," and it may have been just what the rivalry needed.
Never mind that Michigan was a staggering 16½-point underdog in a stadium splotched with scarlet. Or that it has lost five of its last seven games. With the annual season finale appearing on the brink of becoming the Ten Year Bore — the chasm between the two programs growing by the week — Michigan (7-5, 3-5) rallied with the performance of its season.
In a game that evoked ghosts of 1969 — and the other four seasons UM spoiled perfect Buckeyes seasons — both sides had their way with the other.
OSU running back Carlos Hyde rushed for 226 yards and a touchdown — a Buckeyes record against UM — quarterback Braxton Miller accounted for five touchdowns, and Gardner threw for 451 yards and four touchdowns. OSU had 523 yards of offense while Michigan had 603 in a burst that came with no warning.
Like a pool hall hustler, it was as if Michigan spent the last few weeks using its historic offensive futility to bait OSU, only to take its rivals for all they were worth.
Embattled offensive coordinator Al Borges and the Wolverines evacuated their playbook, with Gardner’s throwback screen pass to Jeremy Gallon for an 84-yard gain on the third play from scrimmage foreshadowing an electric day.
Michigan soon went ahead 7-0 on a one-yard TD run by Gardner and had more yards in the first quarter (208) than it did all of last week at Iowa (158).
"To be honest, they looked like a different team," OSU linebacker Ryan Shazier said.
Michigan senior left tackle Taylor Lewan afterward said he was "proud of these guys."
"It doesn't matter what our record is, it doesn’t matter what happened the past few years," he said. "We're the winningest program in college football. I don't care about the fairweather fans or the media or anything like that. We care about the people in that room. I don't care if there's 110,000 Ohio State fans out there. This team knew what we were going to do today. This team was going to fight."
The fight was sometimes literal. Ohio State guard Marcus Hall and receiver Dontre Wilson and Michigan backup linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone were ejected after a first-half skirmish. But more often, the punches came on offense — the Buckeyes bruising for 393 rushing yards and UM knifing through the air.
OSU and UM traded touchdowns in a first half that ended tied at 21, then did the same in the second. Miller ran for a three-yard touchdown — one of three ground scores on his 153-yard rushing day — and threw a 22-yard TD pass to Heuerman to put the Buckeyes ahead 35-21. But Gardner answered with an 11-yard TD pass to Dileo early in the fourth quarter, and after Hyde lost a fumble at the OSU 41, a game-tying two-yard pass to Jake Butt.
When the Buckeyes had first-and-goal at the Michigan 1 with less than three minutes left, Meyer wanted to drain as much clock as possible. But offensive coordinator Tom Herman talked him out of it — "You can’t jerk around," Meyer said — and Hyde scored on the next play.
Meyer’s fears, though, came to life as Gardner connected with Devin Funchess for a two-yard touchdown with 32 seconds left. The Buckeyes’ perfect season would come down to one play, though players insisted they knew what was coming. Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs told Powell his man — Dileo — would run an "angle route out of the triple stack." Or, as it turned out, precisely what Michigan ran.
"It kind of shocked me," Powell said. "Like, ’Did he really throw that ball?’ I was thinking to myself that coach Coombs is a genius."
After a day in which they had few answers, the Buckeyes had the only one that mattered.