We have come to the finale of the top-10 games of the Jim Harbaugh era, and this one shouldn’t be a surprise. Harbaugh had yet to conquer the program’s archrival in the Ohio State Buckeyes, a team that had shown nothing but dominance over the last several seasons. But that all changed this past season.
A trip to the Big Ten Championship Game was on the line and for the first time in nine years, the Wolverines finally found themselves on top. Let’s revisit that momentous day:
Season Significance: 10, Pre-Game Hype: 10
The Big House was flooded with fans and the atmosphere in Ann Arbor and across the country was racing. Ohio State had won the last eight meetings and came into this game with a perfect record in the Big Ten, and their only blemish coming against Oregon.
A high-explosive offense led by quarterback C.J. Stroud and a trio of future NFL wide receivers had shaken up opposing defenses all season long. The issue for the Buckeyes was a far less than standard defense. Still, the Buckeyes cruised past Michigan State by an impressive 56-7 margin.
Similarly, the Wolverines clicking on all cylinders. The week prior they had one of their best performances of the season in an annihilation of the Maryland Terrapins, 59-18. They were ranked as the No. 6 team in the country, four spots behind Ohio State.
The national media leaned towards the Buckeyes, and with good reason. The two decades of dominance by Ohio State had been looming over the Michigan fanbase to the point where several were calling for Harbaugh’s job based on his previous two performances.
However, this was the best team Harbaugh had brought to the table against Ohio State. The added pressure of a Big Ten Championship Game berth and the fact The Game was skipped in 2020 meant everyone had their eyes fixated on this contest. It was the first opportunity in a while for Harbaugh to change the narrative.
Highlight Play Score: 10, Individual Performance: 10
A rambunctious crowd cheered on the Wolverines as they received the opening kickoff. Michigan picked up a couple yards on the first two plays but were two yards away from going three-and-out. Instead, the offensive line created a huge hole for Hassan Haskins and the Wolverines surpassed midfield:
It was the first of three third-down pick ups for the senior running back, who had 38 rushing yards on the opening possession. Thanks to him picking up the sticks, the Wolverines had the opportunity for some trickeration in the red zone. A reverse play to A.J. Henning left a lot of greenery for him to run. Michigan strikes first:
Mistakes galore for Ohio State early as its kick returner called for a fair catch, watched it bounce, and then caught it, pinning the Buckeyes at the four-yard line. Three throws from a rattled Stroud fell incomplete and Michigan got the ball back in stellar field position.
But just two plays into the drive, Cade McNamara made a mistake in the red zone. Looking over the middle, he tried to force a ball through three Ohio State defenders, and he was picked. Fans were nervously watching as the expected added cushion was now gone:
The Buckeyes looked rejuvenated and the momentum of the game had changed early. The offense was back in possession with a skip in their step, especially in the running game. Six-straight runs for Ohio State flipped the field and the Buckeyes were threatening inside the five-yard line. But Aidan Hutchinson made a huge play and sacked Stroud on 3rd and goal:
Ohio State got on the board with a field goal to cut the lead to 7-3.
Michigan lost a little confidence and its next two possessions resulted in punts. After a hot start, there were certainly fears this one was about to turn to the red tide. Those fears only escalated as Stroud and the OSU offense started to get hot at the beginning of the second quarter. He completed three consecutive passes for 56 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown pass to Garrett Wilson to put the Buckeyes up 10-7.
Michigan needed a response to ensure the lead wouldn’t increase any further. It rode on the coattails of McNamara who had settled in following his interception. He was 4-of-6 on the next drive and found a wide-open Cornelius Johnson down the sideline for a 37-yard gain down to the one-yard line:
Haskins dove over the pile two plays later to put the Wolverines back up 14-10 on what was a pivotal drive.
The Buckeyes wrapped up the first half with another impressive drive, going 62 yards on 12 plays. A second field goal had the teams going into the half in a tight one, 14-13 Michigan.
Ohio State got the ball out of the half but went three-and-out on the opening drive. The Wolverines took over and Blake Corum broke loose on his third carry of the afternoon:
The very next play, Haskins got the job done picking up 13 more, getting the Wolverines back on the scoreboard:
Three plays, 81 yards, all on the ground, and Michigan set the tone early for what this second half would look like. After the extra point, the Wolverines had an eight-point lead.
The Buckeyes needed to get back into this one quick, but the Big House was starting to cause some big issues. A holding penalty, a false start, and this sack from Hutchinson killed any hopes of this becoming a formidable drive:
Up 21-13, Harbaugh deployed the J.J. McCarthy offense and he executed the play perfectly. McCarthy rolled right, but tucked the ball making it look like he was going to run. It provided just enough wiggle room for him to toss a ball to Wilson near the sideline for a big gain:
On the very next play, McNamara came in and the Wolverines went with a flea-flicker. Ohio State’s secondary bit on the run again and McNamara hit a streaking Mike Sainristil for another 30-plus yard gain:
Michigan was looking to run the ball deep in the red zone and the team that was down started to get a little whiney. The Joe Moore Award offensive line came to the rescue in what was one of my favorite clips from this game:
The next play, Haskins found the end zone for the third time and it was starting to feel like it was all maize and blue. The Wolverines had a 28-13 lead with a few minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Ryan Day and the Buckeyes did respond, however. Stroud was red hot on the next drive, helping his team to a 17-play, 82-yard possession that resulted in a touchdown and had the Buckeyes back within one score.
Michigan was now looking to keep that safety net in its lead, and the Buckeyes obliged. Two third-down penalties assisted Michigan in moving the sticks and suddenly the Wolverines were looking for blood in the red zone again. As he did all day, Haskins punched his way in for six and the lead was back up to double-digits, 35-20, with just a little over 10 minutes of action remaining.
Still, the pesky bug that is Ohio State wouldn’t go away. Chirs Olave beat D.J. Turner for a 39-yard reception. The Buckeyes then converted two 4th and longs, including a 10-yard touchdown pass to TreVeyon Henderson. The desperation was apparent, but what has made the Buckeyes so good for so long kept them in this one.
With under five minutes remaining, a score of any kind would all but cement a win for Michigan. The previous five drives (other than the end of the first half) all ended with touchdowns. Could the Wolverines do it just one more time?
They looked to Haskins to get the job done as he had all game, and all season long. It was five consecutive runs for him, and three of them were for more than 10 yards. The most impressive was this 27-yard gain:
On the next play, he went untouched up the middle. Yep, untouched up the middle, for the final score of the ballgame to seal a 42-27 victory for the Michigan:
After the final kneel, the fans stormed the field in the utter bliss of finally conquering their bitter foes:
A trip to the Big Ten Championship was ahead, and a College Football Playoff berth was on the way after that. It all came down to Ohio State, as it had several times over Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan, but finally, it went the way of the Wolverines.
Historical Significance: 10
Michigan snapped a streak of eight losses in nine years to the Buckeyes thanks in large part to Haskins’ record-tying five rushing touchdowns. Three sacks from Hutchinson in the biggest game of the year pushed him to the runner-up in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
And finally, Harbaugh got the job done. He did the unthinkable. A team that went 2-4 and was depleted of hope and talent in 2020 came back a season later, beat their archrivals for the first time in a decade, won the Big Ten Championship for the first time and made their first appearance in the College Football Playoffs.
A perfect score for a perfect game. Throughout this series, so many games would have been even more meaningful had the Wolverines finished their season strong by beating the Buckeyes. There have been seemingly endless instances where if Harbaugh and Michigan had won The Game, the overarching story of the season would have been different. This game was no different, and because they came out on the winning side, it has to be No. 1 on the list.
Check out the other games in this series:
No. 11: No. 4 Michigan blows out unranked Penn State in 2016
No. 12: Shea Patterson shines in big win over Michigan State in 2019
No. 13: No. 11 Michigan starts season strong with win over No. 17 Florida
No. 14: Michigan’s goal-line stand wins Little Brown Jug in 2015
No. 15: Karan Higdon saves the day in 2017 win over Indiana