Can you smell it? Maybe you still have to pull your mask down, but it’s there.
It’s college football season. Conferences are fighting for realignment, kids are finally profiting from their existence, and while it may not have fully sunk in, we are a short time away from kicking off the 2021 season in a full capacity Big House. Fingers crossed.
There is no other feeling like this for Michigan fans. The realization that the August hype has quickly engulfed us. The clacking of angry Twitter replies to @bucknut78746394 because he insulted your third favorite player from 2011 (Jordan Kovacs is worthy of our futile defenses). Convincing your spouse that a futures bet for Michigan is a lock only to be sweating through Thanksgiving weekend again.
Every Michigan season for the last decade, save one or two, has felt like Friday Night Lights (the 2004 movie, apologies to Coach Taylor). While the beginning is full of hope and resolve, you know the ending is going to crush you.
Maybe this time Chris Comer finds his helmet. Maybe this time Mike Winchell breaks the plane. Maybe Michigan beats Ohio State. Nope. Never. Not in ten years has Michigan toppled the powerhouse that is the Ohio State Buckeyes.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 was dominating the box office when Brady “The Clapper” Hoke led the Wolverines to their lone victory against the Buckeyes this side of the Bush administration.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh’s approval rating has been a roller coaster during his tenure and that is largely due to his disappointing performance against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State. Harbaugh is 3-3 against Sparty and 0-5 against the Buckeyes.
While one could argue the Michigan State numbers are more alarming, the back-to-back SH-LACKINGS in 2018 and 2019 have upped the pressure to topple Ohio State now.
Last month at Big Ten media days in Chicago, Harbaugh iterated that exact point.
“Well I’m here before you, I’m as enthusiastic, excited as I ever am, always am, even more, to have at it, to win the championship, to win the, to beat Ohio, your hometown there. Our rival, Michigan State, everybody — that’s what we want to do. And we’re going to do it or die trying, you know.”
Finally, he is pointing all of his eggs in this basket. No more coachspeak about how every game means the same and we’ll get to them in November. No more vague, catty answers. The focus is aptly on the Buckeyes and the showdown in Ann Arbor on November 27.
Be careful what you wish for because COVID-19 depending, the Buckeyes will show up and once again be expecting victory.
Were the 2020 season and subsequent coaching overhaul a bitter ending to start anew or an apathetic gesture that will prolong the endless bitterness of this one-sided rivalry? How do Harbaugh and the Wolverines topple Goliath? Outside of the obvious, it will require a triumvirate of smaller victories to achieve what only three Michigan teams have done since Y2K.
The Hornburg 30
Every great war has a pivotal battle within it that can swing momentum one way or another. Think of Gettysburg, Midway, Antietam, or Lexington and Concord. For this example, think Tolkein.
In Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the Battle of Helm’s Deep did not decide final victory, but like the aforementioned nonfictional battles, this was a pivotal point in the war. Protecting the Hornburg fortress against wave after wave of Saurumon’s army carried massive influence over the fate of Middle Earth (yes, I have a girlfriend).
For Michigan, the Hornburg Fortress is personified by keeping Ohio State under 30 points. Seems simple, right? A 30-point cushion? Lest we forget the Buckeyes have averaged 59 points-per-game against Michigan during their last two meetings and 41.1 points-per-game since 2015.
Ohio State is 56-0 when scoring 30 or more points and 12-8 when scoring less than 30. While holding them under 30 points does not guarantee victory, it does make them mortal.
Pound the rock
While most remember the long touchdown passes from Justin Fields and the inability for Don Brown to implement more than a bracket zone coverage, the deciding battle has been and will be in the trenches.
You have to go all the way back to the year 2000 to find a game in the rivalry where the team that had the advantage in rushing yards lost.
The cumulative rushing totals in the Harbaugh era (2015-2019) are 1,314-500 in favor of Ohio State. Compare that to the passing yards where Michigan has a 1,266-992 advantage.
While Ohio State has innovated their offense, they have not gotten away from establishing the run and playing complementary offensive football.
What is Michigan’s current offensive identity? Speed in space? This t-shirt slogan sounds great and in stretches against inferior teams has looked every bit as advertised. Even on the first drive against Ohio State in 2019, speed in space seemed to be actualized in the biggest moment of the season.
However, as fans saw, this concept is not sustainable without a commitment to the running game. By the end of the aforementioned game, Michigan only trailed Ohio State by 8 passing yards but lost the rushing battle 264-91, and the game 56-27.
20 straight games have been decided on the ground. Pound the rock.
Don’t believe in curses
The last two meetings were over before they began. Ohio State knew they were going to win and never panicked. Even in 2017 trailing 14-0, the Buckeyes’ confidence never wavered.
15 of the last 16 games have been won by Ohio State and the Buckeyes are now only 6 victories away from tying the overall series which dates back to 1897. Michigan has quickly become the Boston Red Sox of cursed teams in college football.
How does a team break a curse? By not believing in it.
Only a handful of current Wolverines have extensive experience in The Game and congruously have minimal scars. Ronnie Bell and Hassan Haskins are the only returning offensive players that have had a previous impact against the Buckeyes.
It can be argued that this inexperience is negative and that the moment will feel too big for the first-timers. But the lack of bad memories and history allows this team some levity. What do Blake Corum and Andrel Anthony care about what happened in 2018?
After the 2004 Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino and captured the World Series, Manny Ramirez provided this gem of an interview:
Reporter Jeanne Zelasko: “Do you believe in curses?”
Ramirez: “I don’t believe in curse, I believe you make your own destination.”
To be a team of destiny (or destination) you have to believe you create your own.
Believe, win the trenches, hold the Hornburg, or die trying.