Alex Hickey: The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry has flipped completely on its head
One time can be chalked up as a fluke.
Even a blind squirrel can find a nut, as every bad golfer who thinks they are funny is fond of saying after a good shot.
That’s when something starts becoming a trend. The old “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” principle.
Michigan’s 45-23 shellacking of Ohio State officially brings us into that territory.
A year ago, Buckeyes fans could shake it off. Michigan was due after a decade of disasters, especially in the snow at the Big House. Aidan Hutchinson was a generational talent on the defensive line. These things happen.
Once the Buckeyes got the Wolverines back in the Shoe, the story would be different. Especially when Ryan Day had an entire year to ruminate on Jim Harbaugh’s swipe about being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple.
Ohio State would come out angry and prove a point. And maybe the Buckeyes did come out angry. But it’s Michigan proving the point.
There’s no shaking if off now. Even though Michigan has consecutive wins in this series for the first time since 2000, the entire axis of the rivalry has tilted.
Look at Jim Harbaugh. Now he’s the captain.
Winning on Ohio State’s terms
When Blake Corum made his first cut of the game and realized that was it for the day, Michigan looked dead in the water. Its Heisman hopeful was out, and Ohio State had the Wolverines exactly where they wanted them — forced to pass their way to victory.
Ohio State’s cornerbacks were not up to the task. JJ McCarthy, who has been average against man-to-man defense all season, finally discovered the key to connecting against that coverage: have your receivers get 5-10 yards ahead of their defender.
With touchdown passes of 69, 75 and 45 yards, McCarthy and Michigan spent the first 33 minutes of the game showing they were comfortable playing a game on Ohio State’s terms. And it was obvious the Buckeyes were not prepared for that contingency.
Ryan Day falls into Harbaugh’s trap
Ryan Day began coaching like he was in charge of the program that hasn’t won a game in this series for a decade.
Decisions to punt on a 4th-and-3 from midfield and then a 4th-and-5 from the Michigan 43 felt absolutely gutless when his offense is leading the country in yards per play. And given how Michigan was exposing the Ohio State defense, trusting the unit to get the ball back rather than going for broke also felt peculiar. The type of decision-making that only happens when the nerves are getting to you.
Defensively, the Buckeyes adjusted to make sure McCarthy was no longer going to beat them through the air once Michigan took a 24-20 lead. But that’s the chess move Harbaugh was looking for to force the Buckeyes into checkmate.
The Wolverines spent the remainder of the game doing precisely what they did in Ann Arbor a year ago: mauling Ohio State’s defense into a paste.
Despite Corum being sidelined, Michigan averaged 10.1 yards per carry in the second half. In total, the Wolverines gained 242 rushing yards after halftime, 172 of which came in the fourth quarter alone.
Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who has been the toast of Columbus all season, saw his defense get toasted. The Buckeyes allowed 530 yards — the most since Alabama torched Ohio State for 621 yards in the 2020 national championship game.
And that’s what makes this loss so damning for Ohio State. The problem that looked to have been solved for the first 11 games of the season sprung a massive leak. And now there’s no telling where the Buckeyes find the answer.
Michigan is now genetically engineered to beat Ohio State. And the Buckeyes are designed to beat everyone except for the Wolverines.
The B1G runs through Michigan
The Big Ten has more or less run through Columbus since Ohio State’s 2002 national championship. Jim Tressel’s team won the first of 11 B1G titles that the Buckeyes have captured in the 21st century. And that total doesn’t include a 12th conference title in 2010 that was later vacated due to the now-quaint tattoo parlor scandal.
The calculus has changed.
Should Michigan win its second straight Big Ten title next week, the conference road map is altered. If you plan on winning the B1G, you better plan on beating the Wolverines.
It’s not unlike the sea change in the SEC, where Georgia is taking Alabama’s place at the head of the table.
Down south, Nick Saban has seen enough things in his career to potentially reverse that trend. For Day, who did begin on third base in Columbus, this is the first great crisis.
He’ll need to find a more physical team to reroute the course of this rivalry. His first chance to do so is likely to take place next year in Ann Arbor — the Big Ten’s new capital.