Niyo: Finally, it's 'on to the big game' for Michigan
Ann Arbor — Getting there is half the battle.
But on a day like this, when title contenders are forced to contend with the challenges in front of them and not the one looming just ahead, it’s a wholly different equation.
Won, plus two, equals the game everyone’s waiting for, sure. But that’s a problem that’s always tougher to solve in the moment, and particularly at this time of year, when minds tend to wander and opponents that have nothing to lose — at least comparatively speaking — are standing in the way.
Ohio State proved that early Saturday, escaping with a 52-51 overtime win at Maryland that had head coach Urban Meyer tossing his headset in disgust when he wasn't hunched over in agony.
Michigan then added its own reminder late, grinding out a 31-20 win over Indiana that took a serious toll, too, both physically and emotionally.
Junior defensive end Rashan Gary could barely contain himself as he left the field at Michigan Stadium, probably for the last time, after his third-down sack and the fourth-down incompletion that followed finally sealed the win Saturday night. Karan Higdon, Michigan’s senior running back who certainly won’t be back, admitted he was a bit of a wreck as well.
“My emotions are everywhere right now,” he said.
But now they’re here, right where they wanted to be and exactly where they needed to be, all of them. And that’s really all that mattered in the end, as Michigan kept its Big Ten title hopes and national playoff aspirations alive, setting the stage for another colossal game next weekend in Columbus.
“We always wanted to get to this point,” said Josh Metellus, Michigan's junior safety. “This the game everybody wants. This is the game we want. Last stop on the Revenge Tour.”
Trouble in the red zone
But this last step, it’s always a precarious one. Two years ago, it was a snowy game of survival against a .500 Hoosiers squad that set up a similar showdown with their arch-rivals. This time, it was a chippy contest against another 5-5 Indiana team that had everyone on edge from start to finish.
Michigan lost star defensive end Chase Winovich with what looked to be a significant shoulder injury midway through the third quarter, and the game ground to a silent, sickening halt later as Michigan’s Berkley Edwards was carted off the field after absorbing a vicious hit on a punt return. A handful of others limped off the field suffering from cramping in a game that featured more than 150 plays and almost 900 yards of offense in near-freezing temperatures.
And yet it was Michigan’s backup kicker — freshman Jake Moody (Northville) — who ultimately played the deciding role, setting a school record with six field goals after learning just before the game that he’d be the one handling the duties with Quinn Nordin feeling ill.
“Didn't look like he needed a pep talk or a Snickers bar or anything,” Harbaugh joked afterward.
Michigan needed something, though. The Wolverines, who hadn’t trailed at halftime since September, and really hadn't been tested since that comeback win at Northwestern, "found out what kind of game we were in" for early Saturday.
Even if some of it was their own doing. Michigan made eight trips to the red zone Saturday and came away with just one touchdown. There were missed throws, conservative calls, and even a curious sequence at the end of the first half when Michigan took a chance on a running clock and watched as another scoring opportunity almost literally got kicked away.
“We can’t have that,” said Higdon, who finished with 101 yards on 21 carries, as well as the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. “But I’d rather that happen now than next week.”
Next week is this week, finally. And after rattling off 10 consecutive wins following the season-opening stumble in South Bend, Michigan’s back to the brink of something big. It feels like something bigger, actually, and with Ohio State careening wildly as it turned this last corner — “alarming is the right word,” Urban Meyer said about his team — the Wolverines will be favorites in Columbus for the first time since 2004. Which is also the last time Michigan won a share of the Big Ten title, albeit after the Buckeyes won and the Wolverines backed into a trip to Pasadena.
There's no safety net this time around, though, and the Wolverines know it.
“It is different,” said Higdon, one of the co-captains determined to end this title drought. “It’s been a while since this has been a game to determine our fate in the national championship, for the Big Ten championship, So it definitely is a different game. and we’re gonna make sure we handle our business.”
Actually, it’s only been a couple years, though that can feel like an eternity for a college athlete. The 2016 matchup in Columbus featured No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan, and the result — a controversial double-OT loss for the visitors — left the Wolverines feeling “bitterly disappointed,” as Harbaugh seethed afterward.
But as Higdon noted Saturday night, “Nothing in the past matters at this point.”
All that matters is the task that's at hand, at long last.
“On to the next game. On to the big game. On to the championship game," Harbaugh said, finally easing back in his chair near the end of a postgame press conference. "Onward."