Ann Arbor — Change the coaches, change the scheme, change the quarterbacks. Change the venue, change the records, change the rankings.
Doesn’t matter, and for the Wolverines, that should be mortifying and embarrassing. The gap between Ohio State and Michigan remains staggering, in talent and temerity, in every way. It’s a gap Jim Harbaugh was supposed to close, and after five attempts, it has only widened. It’s a gap defensive coordinator Don Brown was supposed to help fix, and in fact, it’s gotten worse.
Once the unbeaten Buckeyes got rolling Saturday, there was no stopping them, and no reason to believe they’ll be stopped anytime soon. Ohio State slugged Michigan 56-27 for its eighth straight victory in the rivalry, its 15th in 16 attempts.
The Buckeyes (12-0) will head to the Big Ten title game, and then almost assuredly to the playoff. The Wolverines (9-3) will head to a bowl game, psyche shattered, again unsure what to make of their season. The more things change, the more the numbers stay the same. Last year, it was Ohio State by a mere 62-39 score, with 567 total yards. This time it was a slightly larger margin, and 577 total yards.
Harbaugh seemed as frustrated and flummoxed as ever, partly by the Buckeyes’ overwhelming talent, partly by his own team’s critical mistakes. When asked if the gap between the teams was based on talent, preparation or coaching, he retorted bluntly, without raising his voice.
“I’ll answer your questions, not your insults,” he said.
There aren’t many ways to ask a question about Michigan’s woes in this rivalry without sounding insulting. Denigrating the Wolverines for their latest collapse is fair enough, although you can’t diminish what the Buckeyes have done. They indeed look like the best team in the country, with every victory by double digits, and only one by fewer than 24 points.
Ryan Day is in his first year as head coach, but he was Urban Meyer’s play-caller a year ago. Justin Fields is a first-time starter at quarterback, but he was wildly touted and transferred to Ohio State for this very purpose, to be the guy operating a dynamic offense.
The Buckeyes have no visible weaknesses, and the Wolverines had no viable answers. Under Harbaugh, they’ve proven they can pound a lot of teams, but they’ve come close to cracking the Buckeye nut only once.
“I just think we take it more seriously than they do,” said Fields, who threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns. “We prepare for it all year. I think it just means more at Ohio State. That's pretty much the bigger reason why we have more success than they do.”
If that has been the case in recent years — and it seems like it — the Wolverines swore there was no motivation deficit this time. They wore T-shirts adorned with last year’s score to remind them of the task ahead.
And on a cold gray day in Michigan Stadium, it was close for a while. Shea Patterson was sharp early and the Wolverines scored first on a 22-yard reverse by Giles Jackson. But then they missed the extra point. Later, Patterson fumbled at the Ohio State 12, and on the ensuing drive, Khaleke Hudson jumped offside as the Buckeyes were punting. They retained possession and scored two plays later on a J.K. Dobbins 5-yard run.
Over and over, with a chance to make a move, Michigan botched it. Late in the first half, Donovan Peoples-Jones appeared to catch a 5-yard touchdown pass, but the ball dribbled out of his grasp. Michigan settled for a field goal and a 28-16 halftime deficit. It wasn’t over but it would be quickly, as Dobbins raced 41 yards on the first play of the third quarter.
“The first half, there were some mistakes, and I’m not going into the criticizing and blaming and things like that,” Harbaugh said. “I thought our team was well prepared, thought they were playing good football, thought it was a good football fight, and it got away from us. Give (Ohio State) credit for playing well.”
Brown had vowed to adjust his scheme to better handle Ohio State’s speed and skill, and Michigan wasn’t quite as aggressive blitzing. But the Buckeyes still found all sorts of open seams in the secondary, and Dobbins was unstoppable, rushing for 211 yards and four touchdowns, the last a 33-yard dash for the game’s final points.
Hey, at least Michigan kept them under 60. Perhaps next year, under 50?
“It’s hard to look at, you know?” defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said, as he stared at a stat sheet in front of him. “We’re just a better defense than this, we’re a better team than this. We’re a lot better than the numbers on the sheet.”
Against most opponents, Michigan is better, and Harbaugh can notch his fourth 10-win season in five years. That’s fine, but as he likely hears daily, not good enough. This is the block that must be hurdled to quell the noise.
For the Wolverines, it’s more than a mental block, although they made enough mindless gaffes Saturday to support the theory. It’s a talent block, a scheme block, a blocking block.
There were mental errors and coaching errors, no doubt. But it begins with the talent gap, as the Buckeyes are loaded again, and their recruiting machine hums along. Michigan has landed its share of top-10 classes but the Buckeyes land top-three classes, and the difference is pronounced.
It’s most notable on the defensive fronts, where the Wolverines are undersized and the Buckeyes are uber-talented. Their best player is defensive end Chase Young, a legitimate Heisman candidate. Michigan held him without a single tackle, yet couldn’t run the ball. Instead, Patterson threw and threw, and at halftime, Michigan had 285 total yards, the most Ohio State had surrendered in an entire game all season. Think about that. The Wolverines were moving the ball better than anyone had, and basically were getting nowhere.
At times they were skittish and undisciplined — mental block, preparation, coaching? Eventually, the Buckeyes undressed them, although the Wolverines tried to do it first. In the second quarter, defensive tackle Carlo Kemp did what a frustrated player does. After tackling Dobbins, he undid one of the running back’s shoes and yanked it off. The unsportsmanlike conduct penalty accelerated Ohio State’s drive for another touchdown.
In the second half, Patterson completed only four of 24 passes, as Michigan’s receivers suddenly couldn’t hang onto the ball. The Wolverines were beating themselves, sure, but the Buckeyes were beating them worse. In the closing minutes, thousands of scarlet-clad Ohio State fans moved down to the lower seats, forming a red ring around the field. For the Wolverines, it must have felt like a ring of fire, a circle that gets hotter every year.