For Michigan, finishing takes on new meaning heading into Ohio State showdown
Ann Arbor — It used to be used as a mantra at the end of games.
But now, as No. 4 Michigan prepares for a meeting with No. 10 Ohio State on Saturday, it’s taken on a larger meaning.
The bitter rivals will be playing for a spot in the Big Ten championship, and a win for Michigan would stabilize its No. 4 ranking in the College Football Playoff standings.
The matchup had similar implications in 2016, when Michigan’s 10-point third-quarter lead was turned to a mere footnote after Curtis Samuel’s touchdown in double overtime lifted No. 2 Ohio State over the No. 3 Wolverines.
Two years later, senior defensive lineman Carlo Kemp isn’t shying away from the pressure of another top 10 matchup.
“I think it’s what we all wanted,” Kemp said Monday. “Two teams, 10-1, one last game.”
The book is already out on most of what separates this year’s squad from any other teams in the Jim Harbaugh era: It’s a tightly-knit group; the offense finally has a true playmaker at quarterback in Shea Patterson; the defense is dripping with swagger and has an insatiable taste for “revenge.”
That all may be true, but what has kept the Wolverines steady on its 10-game win streak, players said, is their ability to finish games.
“I feel like the difference this year is we’re in those games and we’re finishing strong,” senior defensive back Tyree Kinnel said. “Besides the Penn State game last year where we got blown out, every game (was) winnable, (was) close.”
Michigan is ranked second among Power 5 schools in time of possession, the Wolverines’ scoring margin is the fourth-highest in the country and the offense is converting on third down at a 50 percent clip.
Achieving success in all of these areas has played a factor in making sure the Wolverines “don’t need to make it dramatic at the end,” junior captain Ben Bredeson said.
“We try to be up by a couple scores so that when the game’s, two minutes left, we feel pretty safe about it and that we don’t need to put the game in anybody’s hands besides our own.”
Running back Karan Higdon, whose fourth-quarter touchdown was the final act in Michigan’s 17-point comeback victory over Northwestern on Sept. 29, said that the team put in a concerted effort to close out games in the offseason.
“That’s when all those types of characteristics and traits are developed,” he said. “We did a great job of pushing each other this offseason and made sure that we embedded that mentality.”
Of course, the defense has played its part, too. In the fourth quarter, Michigan’s top-ranked scoring defense has given up an average of 4.8 points through 11 games this season.
Continuing that dominance against Ohio State “would really be a statement,” Kemp said, “of what we mean this year.”
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Kemp and the other senior leaders of this Michigan team, who have been with Harbaugh for each of his three losses to Ohio State, know the pain of falling short against the Buckeyes all too well.
“Everybody’s going to remember what you did against Ohio State,” Kemp added.
Devin Bush lamented last year’s loss, saying, “we had them, and we let it slip.”
But it’s worth noting, to some degree, that Michigan is usually playing the underdog against the Buckeyes. This year’s game will be the first time the Wolverines are favored to beat Ohio State since 2011, and the first time they’re favored in Columbus since 2004.
And while none of that will matter come noon Saturday, it will test the legitimacy of Bush’s assertion that the missing quality of years’ past was being able to “(keep) our foot on the pedal.”
Because Bush’s team is not the No.2 Wolverines taking on the No. 1 Buckeyes like in 2006, or the one-loss team trying to bring down the undefeated Buckeyes from two years ago. They’re 3.5-point favorites on the road with an undefeated record in conference play.
For the first time in a long time, the Wolverines aren’t trying to chase the Buckeyes on the first Saturday after Thanksgiving.
They’re trying to finish them off.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.