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The Game in '96: 13-9, Screw the Line

Ohio has hosted The Game ten times with national championship aspirations on the line. They've gone 9-1 in those games. The one loss? 13-9 in '96, the closest comparison point to present day. So let's take a deeper look at how Michigan won in '96 and what it means for Saturday.

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On November 19th, 1938 at Ohio Stadium, the Michigan Wolverines - led by first-year head coach Fritz Crisler - defeated Ohio by a score of 18-0. The victory marked Michigan's first in the rivalry since 1933, as a four-year winning streak helped Ohio narrow the Wolverines commanding lead in the series at the time (22-10-2 heading into '38). The Game was still in its infancy, but that was about to change with the Snow Bowl and The Ten Year War on the horizon.

Now, I chose the '38 rendition of The Game to introduce this piece because of a fact that probably didn't matter back then and may seem insignificant now: it was the first time Michigan entered The Game ranked (Ohio had been ranked the previous two years). Granted, college football polls and rankings didn't yield the same power in 1938 as they do today, but this match-up between Michigan and Ohio marked a significant turning point in the rivalry. Since that 18-0 victory in '38, the Wolverines have gone 2-6 in Columbus when they don't have a number next to their name on the box score. By comparison, Michigan has a 13-15-1 record when ranked on the road.

The pair of unranked victories include the aforementioned Snow Bowl and a face-off between mediocre versions of Michigan and Ohio in 1966. Since the weather forecasts aren't calling for snow in Columbus on Saturday and this year's Ohio team is a little better than middling (it should be pointed out that they did lose to a Virginia Tech team that just last week participated and lost in the worst college football game of the year), it's hard to make a case that either of the situations leading to an unranked Michigan victory at Ohio mirror this year.

So how about when Ohio hosted The Game with national championship aspirations on the line? To simplify the situation since what it means to win the national title has changed through the years, I looked back on when Ohio was ranked #6 or better when hosting The Game. That's happened ten times. Michigan's record in those games? 1-9, with the lone victory coming in 1996 during one of the good-but-not-great years under Lloyd Carr. While the Wolverines ranked #21 and finished the season 8-4 after a loss in the Outback Bowl, the '96 showdown between Michigan and Ohio is as close as it gets to present day. So here's a few comparisons between then and now.

POINTS

In '96, Ohio scored 426 total points (42.6 PPG) before hosting a Wolverines squad with 250 total points (25 PPG) to their name. Similarly, Ohio has scored 487 total points this year (44.3 PPG) while Michigan has tallied a meager 223 total points (20.3 PPG). The disparity in points per game is larger now, but the point is still the same: Ohio brings a powerful offense while Michigan lacks the ability to find the end zone consistently.

On the other side of the football, both teams had stronger defenses in '96 than they do now. 18 years ago, Ohio entered The Game giving up 101 total points (10.1 PPG), while Michigan surrendered 158 total points (15.8 PPG); today, 247 total points (22.5 PPG) for the Buckeyes to 227 (20.6 PPG) for the Wolverines. In other words, both teams fielded defenses performing around the same level in '96, and they will again on Saturday.

QUARTERBACKS

Ohio rolled to a 10-0 start in '96 behind a two-headed monster at quarterback comprised of Stanley Jackson and Joe Germaine. Prior to The Game, the duo combined for 154-277 passing for 2,334 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. This year, J.T. Barrett is putting up arguably better numbers by himself: 190-293 for 2,658 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions.

The picture's not as pretty for the Wolverines. Scott Dreisbach started at quarterback for Michigan in '96, going 145-259 for 1,996 yards, 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions prior to The Game. And unlike Barrett, Devin Gardner is performing worse than his '96 counterpart this year: 152-251 for 1,663 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions.

SPREAD

1996: Ohio favored by 17 points over Michigan

2014: Ohio favored by 21 points over Michigan

The Wolverines have a steeper hill to climb than the '96 team if they are going to overcome the betting odds on Saturday.

HOW MICHIGAN WON IN '96

For my three comparison points, I chose three fairly superficial statistics that in no way cover all the parallels or differences between then and now. Heck, they don't even give you that much information other than the simple fact that in both '96 and '14, Ohio is playing better than Michigan, and therefore, they are expected to win The Game.

So how did Michigan overcome their grim outlook in '96? Here's a few reasons:

  1. John Cooper was kind of an idiot.
  2. Michigan's defense held Ohio to field goals in the first half.
  3. The Wolverines, as a team, dominated the second half.
  4. The game was low-scoring.
  5. Michigan did not turn the ball over.

#1: JOHN COOPER WAS KIND OF AN IDIOT

It's a well known fact that the Wolverines had Cooper's number during his 13 years in Columbus. A record of 2-10-1 against Michigan speaks volumes about a head coach from Ohio. After losing an undefeated season in The Game in '95, Cooper didn't want history to repeat itself. So he decided to switch up his strategy at quarterback to hopefully down the Wolverines. Jackson had started each game for Ohio before sharing snaps with Germaine the rest of the way. However, Germaine was the Big Ten's most efficient passer, and Cooper decided he'd switch it up, giving Germaine the nod against the Wolverines.

This decision backfired, as Germaine recorded a miserable game - 12 for 31 for 148 yards and one interception - and Jackson only completed one of four passes for nine yards. Would it have mattered if Jackson started over Germaine, as he had all season? I have no idea since I was four years old when this game was played, but it seems to me that in the final and biggest game of your regular season, you don't mess with your starting quarterback rotation.

#2: MICHIGAN'S DEFENSE HELD OHIO TO FIELD GOALS IN THE FIRST HALF

This is a big, if not the biggest, reason why Michigan won in '96, in my book. The Wolverines may have trailed 9-0 at half time, but it could have easily been 17 or 21 to nothing. Ohio drove the ball inside Michigan's 20-yard line three times in the first half and stalled short of the end zone at the 4-, 19-, and 4-yard line for three field goals instead of touchdowns. A 9-0 game isn't out of reach at halftime, but 17-0 or 21-0 starts to weigh on a team and diminish hope for a comeback. Stopping Ohio short in the red zone proved to be important, because Michigan didn't score many points in '96.

#3: THE WOLVERINES, AS A TEAM, DOMINATED THE SECOND HALF

Here's the first half offensive stats for each team:

Michigan: 0 points, 62 yards, one drive into Ohio territory

Ohio: 9 points, 220 yards, four drives into Michigan territory

And here's the second half:

Michigan: 13 points, 237 yards, four drives into Ohio territory

Ohio: 0 points, 84 yards, two drives into Michigan territory

As the saying goes, it was a tale of two halves back in '96, and the difference maker came off the bench for Michigan to start the second half: quarterback Brian Griese. With Dreisbach suffering an elbow injury after a poor first half - 4 for 10 for 49 yards - Griese was thrust into action and tasked with leading a comeback against Ohio after throwing only 10 passes all season. Pretty easy, right? Griese made it look that way by throwing a 68-yard touchdown pass to Tai Streets on the second play of the third quarter.

It was all Michigan from that point on as the Wolverines completely shutdown Ohio, holding them to just five yards rushing and 84 total yards in the second half. After the touchdown, Michigan's offense did just enough to get inside Ohio's 30-yard line for two field goals to cap the 13-9 victory.

#4: THE GAME WAS LOW-SCORING and #5: MICHIGAN DID NOT TURN THE BALL OVER

These two points are getting lumped together, because they both speak for themselves. By keeping the game close, Michigan's defense gave their offense a chance at a comeback. And everyone knows turnovers kill. While there were zero turnovers until an Ohio interception to end the game, not turning the ball over always helps.

HOW MICHIGAN WILL WIN ON SATURDAY

For the Wolverines to shock Ohio (and the college football world) on Saturday, a combination of all of the above points needs to take place (except the first one, since Braxton Miller isn't coming back and Meyer has no reason to make a Cooper-esque decision at quarterback). Michigan's defense will have to play the best game they've played since Charles Woodson wore #2, because I don't see the offense scoring much more than what the Wolverines mustered in '96. As Bill Connelly has pointed out, "field goals are basically failures," so if Michigan's defense holds Barrett and Co. to three rather than six, there is reason to believe the Wolverines have a chance. On the flip side, Michigan's offense can't afford turnovers or missed field goals or really any big mistake. I don't think last year's 41 points is a possibility, but I do believe that anything can happen in The Game, and an offense that has struggled all year can find a way to put up enough points to win like in '96.

It might seem crazy to think that a Wolverines win is in the cards tomorrow, but maybe Gardner falters and his injuries become too much and Morris comes in a la Brian Griese to lead the Wolverines to victory. Maybe Brady Hoke leaves Michigan on a high note. Maybe '96 is repeated. All I have to say is screw the line. Go Blue!