Mitch Albom: Michigan football's sickening reality: Ohio State is just better
This is the hardest column to read if you are a Michigan football fan, and the hardest to write if you like to be the bearer of good news. But we all saw it. And to deny it is folly.
The Buckeyes are better. Say it and get it over with. Say it and spit the bad taste out of your mouth. It’s not a shame to admit, not when it’s true, and it doesn’t have to be true forever but it’s undeniably true now. On a day when Michigan put up a darn good offensive effort, a day when they completed big passes and escaped big pressure and held off Chase Young, maybe the best player in college football, on a day when they had every motivation in the world and a home field sellout crowd behind them, on a day a like that, they still lost 56-27.
That’s right. 56-27. Worse than last year.
Say it. Get it out of your system. The Buckeyes are better, and they have been for a while. Deeper. Faster. More tightly coached talent. They made critical plays when they had to. Their offensive line pushed the Wolverines halfway to Ypsilanti. They ran J.K. Dobbins like a tank down the Michigan windpipe, and even when the Wolverines tried to make adjustments, Dobbins ran through the adjustments, ran for the Buckeyes’ first touchdown, their last touchdown and two more in between, ran for 211 yards on the ground.
Ohio State’s quarterback, Justin Fields, who wasn’t even with the team last November, threw four touchdown passes — including one on his first play with a newly attached knee brace on his left leg.
A knee brace?
Enough. When the other team can’t be stopped when you most need to stop them, when the other team stops you when they most need to stop you, when the other team makes less mistakes and more killer plays — then the other team is better.
That’s not selling out. That’s sports.
“I thought it was a good football fight,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It got away from us today.”
He’s kind of right. It was a fight. For the first quarter, which ended 14-13. But mistakes led to a 12-point halftime deficit. And bad execution led to a second-half rout.
Whether it “got away” or was taken away doesn’t change the inevitable. You put these two teams on a scale of talent, execution and depth, it’s tipping red.
The Buckeyes are better.
And the better team won.
This one hurts
Now, there’s no shame in any team losing to the best team in the nation. There’s only bitterness because this is Michigan losing to Ohio State, and the last game in November is what we hang our hats on in this state, as does the state south of us that gives out speeding tickets to our drivers.
But the history of this rivalry is a lot more storied than the last two decades have been. Michigan has now lost eight in a row and 15 out of 16 to Ohio State. You’d have to have been born in the last century to be alive the last time Michigan won two straight.
That’s not a rivalry, that’s a chase.
And Michigan lost the chase again.
Say it and puke.
“How frustrating was this?” Shea Patterson was asked in the post-game news conference.
“It’s very, very frustrating,” he said, his voice barely more than a mumble. “What we do all year leading (up) to this game is for them.”
Patterson, in his final game at Michigan Stadium, looked terrific early on, but he finished with less than a 50% completion rate and had a critical fumble when the Wolverines had reached the OSU 12 in the second quarter.
“You can’t fumble the ball down there,” Patterson lamented.
Well, you can, if you’re playing another team. But given the talent gap right now, a Michigan win Saturday would have required a mistake-free game. And the Wolverines could not deliver that.
Here were the plays that haunted:
- A missed extra point on the Wolverines' first touchdown drive.
- Patterson’s fumble
- An offside penalty on a punt during the ensuing OSU drive, that gave the ball back to the Buckeyes, who scored a touchdown two plays later.
- A personal foul penalty for a late hit on Justin Fields on the first drive of the third quarter, which helped speed up yet another OSU score.
- A fourth-and-1 attempt when the Wolverines had closed the gap to 15 points. They ran a wildcat play for running back Hassan Haskins that Ohio State saw coming all the way.
“I just didn’t make the play,” Haskins later said.
- Four or five dropped passes at key times, including those by star players Donovan Peoples-Jones and Ronnie Bell
Those were plays you could circle. Circling a tide is not as easy. But the tide of this showdown turned inexorably with each mishap, with each first down converted by Ohio State, with each jailbreak run that Dobbins laid on this defense, none worse than the first play of the third quarter, when he took the ball and escaped outside for 41 yards.
That summed it up. The Wolverines had all halftime to make adjustments for a guy who was killing them on the run. And on the very first play, he burns them for 41 yards. The Michigan defense was ranked No. 4 in the country coming in, allowing an average of 267 yards a game. They gave up more than twice that on Saturday — perhaps because they were playing the nation’s No. 5-ranked offense and No. 1-ranked defense.
The Buckeyes are just …
Well, you know.
It has become maddening. A November masochism. It’s worse than Charlie Brown falling for Lucy’s phony snap. It’s starting to become Wile E. Coyote getting sucked in by the Road Runner. Ohio State is the dragon waiting outside the castle, and year after year, it blows crimson fire and leaves the Wolverines a charcoaled army.
How long does this go on?
Which brings us to the elephant in the column. Jim Harbaugh. No doubt there will be calls for his dismissal. “Enough!” critics will say. “Five tries. Five losses.” Never mind the 10-win seasons Harbaugh has hung on the walls, they’ll insist. There are only a handful of games that the zealots in Michigan’s fan base care about: Michigan State, the Big Ten title, a national championship, and Ohio State.
In reverse order.
Someone during the post-game press conference asked about the gap between Michigan and Ohio State’s programs. Harbaugh responded, “I’ll answer your questions, not your insults.” When the questioner persisted, saying it wasn’t an insult, Harbaugh said, “They played really good. They played good.”
That won’t score points with his critics.
But to those who say Harbaugh should go, I would simply ask: Who’s better? Who’s going to come in here and guarantee dominance over Ohio State? It’s not just the Wolverines who are trying to bring them down. It’s every other team in the country. It’s all but certain the Buckeyes will be in the College Football Playoff and quite likely they will play for the national championship. A lot of teams would love a coach who can promise to take that kind of powerhouse down.
Show me one.
The argument that makes more sense is about the moves Harbaugh must make to the Michigan program — the recruiting, the coaching staff, etc. Because undeniable in this loss is the fact that a guy nobody heard of last year, Ryan Day, is now coaching the Buckeyes, and at 40 years of age, he just crushed Harbaugh’s team at the Big House.
You could argue he’s still working with the benefit of Urban Meyer’s players and infrastructure. His coaches will be hired away. Players will graduate. Eventually Day will be doing it all on his own, and while I’d imagine the excellence to continue, one never knows if it will stay at this level.
Harbaugh can’t leave things alone. He can’t say this will never happen again, because the Wolverines kind of said that last year and this year, statistically, was actually worse. They lost last year by 23. This year by 29. They gave up 567 yards last year, and 577 this time.
But this was in Ann Arbor. Which changes the lighting on how you view that.
But change will be decided on another day. For now, we should not end the Wolverines’ story without acknowledging the rest of the season. Michigan could have come into this game limping on failure, after a blowout to Wisconsin and a heartbreaker to Penn State left them out of the running for any titles.
The fact that they rallied and smoked rivals like Notre Dame and Michigan State, the fact that they came into Saturday 9-2, must count for something. So must the moist eyes of players like Haskins and Patterson, who, when asked to sum up his feelings having just finished his career at Michigan Stadium, said this:
“It’s been, from Day 1, a dream come true to come play football for the University of Michigan. And I wouldn’t really change anything — obviously the outcome of this game — but I wouldn’t want go to war with anybody else.”
You realize, after the helmets and pads and gobs of tape come off, they’re still just kids, really. And your instinct is to shield kids when reality gets too harsh.
The problem is this reality is too glaring to block out anymore. The Buckeyes are better.
They have been.
Whether they will be depends on what happens next. Because nobody wants this to keep happening.
Except, you know, the Buckeyes.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.