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What we learned from Michigan’s third straight win over Ohio State

The Game carried more weight than ever before in the rivalry’s history.

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

It has been 1,458 days since Ohio State has beaten the Michigan Wolverines. In that time, a lot has changed — the presidency has switched hands, Marvel has spiraled from the 2.7 billion-dollar juggernaut Avengers: Endgame to a “not branding-inspired,” creatively apathetic The Marvels, oh, and a pandemic occurred.

But a number that is even more meaningful than the Buckeye drought is 1,094. It has been 1,094 days since everything changed for the Michigan program. It has been 1,094 days since Nov. 28, 2020, when Michigan found itself at a crossroads.

Following a clunky premature finish to a 2-4 season, something just wasn’t working for head coach Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines. Since Harbaugh took over in 2015, Michigan had never won the Big Ten, never won more than 10 games and had never beaten Ohio State. Michigan was trending in a vastly different direction than the Buckeyes, who finished as the national runner-up in 2020 while the Wolverines endured one of the worst seasons in program history.

Despite heavy criticism from one of the most vocal fanbases in the country, Michigan retained Harbaugh on a “prove it” contract. A contract that essentially meant, “If you don’t beat Ohio State this season, you’re gone lol good luck.”

Maybe Athletic Director Warde Manuel really believed in his former teammate to turn around the team with one more swing at the plate. Maybe the incentive-heavy contract was just a way of delaying a proper coaching search until COVID-19 restrictions were lessened the following year. Whatever the reasoning, Harbaugh was back and no one could have predicted what would follow.

To open the 2021 season, Michigan throttled overmatched Western Michigan before showing the world that the Big House was much more than a tennis crowd against Washington. A 53-point evisceration of Northern Illinois followed before a nail-biter against Rutgers brought fans back down to Earth. The next week, Michigan jumped around against Wisconsin and came away with its first win in Madison since 2001.

After rocking out to a light show and escaping Nebraska with a win, Michigan ran through Northwestern before suffering a heartbreaking loss to Michigan State. The Wolverines rebounded by beating Indiana by three scores before tight end Erick All broke free late to score and beat Penn State in Happy Valley. The world was formally introduced to running back Donovan Edwards against Maryland in Week 11, thus setting up a collision with Ohio State.

Behind Hassan Haskins’s five touchdowns and Aidan Hutchinson’s three sacks, Michigan vanquished the Buckeyes for the first time in a decade, 42-27. The Wolverines manhandled Iowa for their first outright Big Ten Championship since 2003, Hutchinson finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up, and the Wolverines clinched their first berth in the College Football Playoff (CFP). Despite a loss to Georgia, the team restored prestige to a dormant program that had no hope a year prior. However, Michigan wasn’t done yet.

To open the 2022 season, Michigan ran through its first six opponents by a combined score of 258-68, setting up a high-profile matchup against Penn State and the nation’s best run defense. The Nittany Lions had only allowed 398 rushing yards all season before they were run over, through, and around by the Wolverines in historical fashion. Michigan ran for 418 yards against Penn State, which is the third-most the Nittany Lions had allowed in a game since they started tracking stats in 1947.

Following that thunderous win, the Wolverines exacted revenge against Michigan State and won their next three games, setting up the second-ever 11-0 vs. 11-0 matchup against Ohio State, this time in Columbus. Michigan took advantage of an over-aggressive defense and relied on explosive plays to once against thwart the team from Ohio, 45-23. Michigan would steamroll the Purdue Boilermakers for its second-straight Big Ten title and advance to face TCU in the CFP.

Following an upset loss to the Horned Frogs, several Wolverines put their NFL plans on ice and returned for unfinished business this season. Just like last year, Michigan went 11 up and 11 down, setting up Saturday’s third-ever undefeated matchup with Ohio State.

If you are wondering, “Why is any of this important?” It’s important because this is what was at stake against the Buckeyes last Saturday. If Michigan loses, everything will get slapped with a giant asterisk. Ball knowers understand the deeply limited impact of advanced scouting and sign-stealing, but still, every fan, or even those in the faintest shade of maize and blue, deep in their hearts, were afraid the sign-stealing allegations were a catalyst to Michigan’s turnaround. No one could blame them, the noise surrounding the allegations was deafening:

“You only won because of sign-stealing.”

“HAIL TO THE CHEATERS!”

“Tear down the banners!”

It didn’t matter Michigan had already triumphed over Penn State on the road two weeks ago and it didn’t matter Michigan was facing Ohio State without Harbaugh. Narratives don’t care about context. If Michigan loses to Ohio State, EVERYTHING — Hutch’s Heisman finish, Haskins’s career day in the snow, the Penn State pulverizing, Dono’s big runs in Columbus — will be questioned, challenged and scrutinized.

On Saturday, Michigan Stadium was packed with more than 110,000 people, and there wasn’t even standing room for excuses. There was no snow and there were no signs to steal. It wasn’t going to be defined by “fluke” big plays, and neither team held a glaring advantage. Saturday was a battle between two evenly matched, top-five teams with nowhere to run except at each other. Chess moves were met with chess moves, the officials mainly swallowed their whistles, and the teams hashed out their differences on the gridiron.

When the dust settled, Michigan — with an interim head coach which lost both its All-American caliber right guard and corner during the game — prevailed, 30-24. But this was more than a win against a rival.

This win kept the Wolverines alive for the final four-team CFP. With a 12-team expanded playoff beginning in 2023, the next time these teams meet both with perfect records, the stakes won’t be as high. Especially, with a likely rematch looming the division-less Big Ten Championship.

This win kept the promise that Blake Corum, Zak Zinter, Kris Jenkins and J.J. McCarthy, among others, made to Michigan fans before the season. This season was about unfinished business, but in order to have an opportunity to fulfill that promise, this team had to block out deafening noise and beat Ohio State.

This win proved that offensive coordinator/interim head coach Sherrone Moore and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter were not relying upon cheap tricks and grainy iPhone videos to reach the top of their profession. Minter’s defense sealed the game against Ohio State’s vaunted offense and Moore is unequivocally the top assistant coach in the country.

This win justified everything — Hutch’s Heisman finish, Haskins’s career day in the snow, the Penn State pulverizing, Dono’s big runs in Columbus — Michigan had accomplished the last three seasons. Those 60 minutes on Saturday served as undeniable validation of the last 1,094 days.

This win was the most important in the history of The Game, which makes it the most important win in the history of Michigan. The win represented win No. 1,001 in program history and, of course, 1,001 in Roman numerals is MI. How can you not be romantic about football?

It has been 1,458 days since Ohio State has beaten Michigan, and 1,094 days since the start of the winningest three-year stretch in the history of Michigan’s program. Now, subtract those numbers and be sure to remind all detractors, but especially Ohio State fans, of both facts for the next 364 days.