Wojo: More than ever, Wolverines need to smite the Buckeyes

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
From left, Michigan defensive back Ambry Thomas, linebacker Devin Bush (10), and defensive back Josh Metellus celebrate after the defense held off a fourth-down attempt by Indiana in the fourth quarter.

Ann Arbor – It got a bit edgy and momentarily precarious. And yet somehow, at the conclusion of a cold-sweat weekend, it ended up where it was destined to end up, where it used to end up, with the type of collision Michigan fans have been craving.

The Game is back on, with the old familiar repercussions and reverberations, plus some. Michigan and Ohio State are 10-1, and when they meet in Columbus at noon on Saturday, a spot in the Big Ten title game will be at stake. A playoff berth almost assuredly will be at stake. Perceptions and images will be at stake.

And let’s face it, the Wolverines and Jim Harbaugh need a victory as badly as they’ve ever needed one. Reputations could be redefined, as Harbaugh can officially fulfill the enormous expectations when he arrived four years ago. He just posted his third 10-win season – more impressive than he gets credit for – but a championship has eluded him.

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For the Buckeyes, it has been a season of defensive deficiencies and off-field turmoil. Yet Urban Meyer still could deliver the cruelest blow by knocking off the fourth-ranked Wolverines, who are favored to finally take back their share of the rivalry. Ohio State has won 13 of the past 14. Meyer is 6-0 against Michigan, 3-0 against Harbaugh. Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004, hasn’t won in Columbus since 2000.

Need we go any farther? That’s what Michigan fans have been saying for years – how much farther can it go? This is the Wolverines’ best chance to restate their case and retake their claim. The Buckeyes have shown vulnerabilities in several games, while Michigan has been much steadier, with nine of its 10 straight victories by double digits.

The Wolverines slogged past Indiana 31-20 in Michigan Stadium Saturday, not nearly as dramatic as the game that preceded it, but dramatic enough to raise concerns. A few hours earlier, Ohio State escaped with a 52-51 overtime victory at Maryland, which certainly ratcheted worry in Columbus.

Beauty points can affect the rankings, sure, but they mean nothing to the rivalries. If Michigan wins, it heads to the Big Ten championship game against Northwestern, where a victory would almost assuredly clinch a playoff spot, the program’s first. If No. 10 Ohio State wins, it might need help to carry the Big Ten banner into the playoff, but that certainly doesn’t diminish the showdown.

“Everybody in the country knows what this week is,” Michigan defensive star Rashan Gary said. “We know what this week is. So we’re going to attack it.”

The Wolverines were somewhat subdued after beating Indiana, as seniors played their final home game, and there was concern for wounded players. Defensive dynamo Chase Winovich left in the third quarter with an apparent shoulder injury, but Harbaugh cautiously suggested it might not be that serious, as X-rays were negative.

“Chase is a tough guy, a real tough guy,” safety Josh Metellus said. “He walked off the field, so I think he’s gonna be there next week.”

Harbaugh wouldn’t go that far, and we’ll see after Winovich is tested further. But if he can’t play, the Wolverines have developed imposing depth on their top-ranked defense.

They didn’t roll through Indiana, but they didn’t collapse like Ohio State nearly did, with the Buckeyes prevailing on a missed two-point conversion by the Terps in overtime. Ohio State surrendered 535 yards, which prompted Meyer to call his defense’s play “alarming.”

Michigan’s red-zone offense was mildly alarming, settling for a school-record six field goals by freshman Jake Moody, who was told just before the game that starter Quinn Nordin was ill. Michigan’s injuries were initially alarming, although apparently not as bad as feared. Reserve running back Berkley Edwards was clobbered on a cheap hit – which drew a targeting penalty – by Indiana’s Cam Jones. Edwards laid on the field for several minutes before being carted off, but Harbaugh said afterward the prognosis was good.

Shea Patterson was a bit off and Michigan dropped a few passes, which was uncharacteristic. But as they have all season, the Wolverines responded with grinding toughness, standard signs of a special team. Compared to previous seasons that ended in disappointment, Patterson’s steady calm has made a huge difference. He threw an interception but it was his first in five games, and his fourth all year.

If Patterson’s stay in Ann Arbor lasts only one season, as many expect, after his transfer from Ole Miss, it has been a dutifully proficient one.

 “In football, not everything’s going to go your way, and we overcame some adversity,” Patterson said. “I think there’s a lot of positives to take out of this. When you’re tested, you either give into it or come out resilient, and I think we did that.”

They entered the season with a 24-17 loss at Notre Dame and came out at the end with everything still in sight. Sitting at No. 4 in the playoff rankings, Michigan surely will stay there if it wins and the other three – Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame – all win. In fact, it likely helped Michigan’s chances that Ohio State slipped past Maryland, because the Buckeyes will remain a top-10 team and might even move up with West Virginia’s loss.

Since the opener, the Wolverines have been brutally efficient, with their only real scare at Northwestern, where they rallied from a 17-0 deficit to win 20-17.

“We’re not proving anything to anybody,” running back Karan Higdon said. “But we are proving stuff to ourselves, that we definitely can be the best team in the country, that we’re definitely a top four team, and that we’re a playoff contender and we deserve to play in the playoffs.”

Destiny is in their hands, for the most part. Where the playoff field could get interesting is if Georgia beats Alabama in the SEC title game, or Oklahoma’s offense overwhelms West Virginia and wows the committee. We get to speculate, but the Wolverines can’t waste time doing it.

Would they have preferred to clinch the East already with an Ohio State loss? Maybe, but I really don’t think so. They want to beat the Buckeyes for any stakes, in any manner, especially after the crushing 30-27 double-overtime loss two years ago, when the championship also was on the line.

“When you’re in playoff mode, and that’s our mindset right now, Big Ten games in late November are huge,” Harbaugh said. “We’re happy to be in position and we’ll do what we do, and that’s get ready for it, prepare, and our team will be really fired up to play.”

Saturday was simply a day of survival, and Michigan and Ohio State managed to do so against a pair of 5-5 opponents. Neither power could afford to hold anything back and save it for The Game. It got dicey, and critics understandably will use those performances to downgrade the Big Ten’s playoff chances, not that it will matter.

It’ll be discussed for a week and then decided in a day, with everything to gain and everything to lose. It’s like the old days, only different. Winning the last game in November used to settle it all. Now it’s the next biggest step to something even larger, a step the Wolverines are desperate to take.

Twitter: @bobwojnowski