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How to beat Ohio State in Columbus and preserve life

Avoiding death in Ann Arbor took everything, staying alive in Columbus will take even more.

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Before last season, Michigan Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh reflected on the importance of beating Ohio State at Big Ten Media Days. Entering the season, Harbaugh was 0-5 against the Buckeyes, including being blown out in the prior two meetings by a combined score of 118-66.

“Well, I’m here before you,” Harbaugh spoke candidly with an authentic passion that had gotten away from him in previous years. “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.”

There were no funerals at Michigan Stadium when the Buckeyes visited Ann Arbor, only the world’s smallest violin playing for Ohio State’s head coach Ryan Day and his proclamation of “Going to hang 100” on the Wolverines. However, despite the absence of a funeral, an occasion of this magnitude still calls for scripture. Allow me to quote the prophet Augustus Johnson from the book of Haskins, chapter 42, verse 17: “OH-JA-BO!

In that exclamation, Michigan fans around the world breathed a little easier as complete and utter elation washed over them like a wave 10 years in the making. It was finally happening — the Wolverines were victorious over Ohio State, death was avoided and the page was turned.

This next chapter in the storied rivalry is about preserving life because although now revived with an actualized sense of belief, winning in Columbus is an ethereal feat that has not been achieved by the maize and blue since John Cooper’s last stand in 2000.

In fact, the Wolverines have only won six times in Columbus since 1980, and the Buckeyes have only grown stronger in the last decade. Ohio State has only lost four times at the Horseshoe since 2012 (Virginia Tech, 2014; Michigan State, 2015; Oklahoma, 2017; Oregon, 2021) and only once without J.T. Barrett as the starting quarterback.

In the most recent loss last fall, Oregon provided a modernized blueprint on how to defeat the Buckeyes that was largely imitated by the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Now, Michigan must plagiarize the rest and improve upon it even further to topple Ohio State for the second straight season.

Last year, I wrote a detailed article about a triumvirate of smaller victories the Wolverines must achieve in order to end their 10-year losing streak against the Buckeyes. The three victories were, 1) Hold Ohio State under 30 points (27, check), 2) Win the rushing battle (297-64, check), 3) Believe (check, check, check).

While all three of those will again be important — as will turnovers and penalties, like they are in every game — these are three victories imperative to life again and finding a way on the road for the Wolverines.

Zombieland vs. Cleopatra

Most remember the 2009 action-packed horror/comedy Zomebieland starring Jesse Eisneberg, Woody Harrelson and Emma Stone. The movie that captured the cultural zeitgeist with its violent physicality, purposeful storytelling and concise length. But more than anything, the movie was uniquely fun and self-aware as it navigated the post-apocalyptic and zombie-infested alternate reality.

As it pertains to the Ohio State offense, the Buckeyes are well known for their clinical precision, explosiveness and propensity to overwhelm opponents. When rolling, the offense is physical, purposeful and succinct, much like Zombieland, leaving fans of the Buckeyes entertained with the offensive carnage afflicted on opponents.

According to Football Outsiders, Ohio State was the best offense in the country across numerous categories, but two that stand out are touchdown rate and first down rate. The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on 51% of their drives and only went three-and-out on 11% of all drives. Much like a casino keeping players gambling, opponents have to keep the Ohio State offense playing the entire length of the field. The longer the drive, the more chances a defense has at stopping them.

Oregon forced Ohio State to drive 70, 75, 73 and 75 yards on each of their four scoring drives. Michigan implemented a similar strategy and forced the Buckeyes to drive 56, 82 and 75 yards on each of their three touchdown drives in Ann Arbor.

Remember the film Cleopatra? The 1963 historical epic starring soon-to-be husband and wife (for the first time) duo Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton is a nearly four-hour overly ambitious spectacle that fades down the stretch as the movie’s grasp cannot match its reach.

Oregon and Michigan prioritized winning the field-position battle last year and it is imperative to success to win it again. If the Buckeyes are in “Nut up or shut up,” rhythm, they are unbeatable. But if Michigan can force them to go the full Cleopatra, the high-powered offense will eventually fall short much like Joe Thomas Barrett in 2016. Except this time, it’ll be conclusive.

George S. Armstrong

After beating Washington in a run-dominant performance, Harbaugh was asked about potentially expanding the vertical passing game and answered only like Harbaugh can:

“All those things are at our disposal. Heard a little bit of noise about, ‘Why so much running? Are you gonna throw more?’ That kind of thing. We all know there are a lot of ways to travel. Some people choose to travel on the ground; some people by air. George Patton was able to get his job done on the ground. Neil Armstrong: through the air. Last Saturday night, we chose to grind it out on the ground. And we were also able to get our mission accomplished.”

In 2021, Harbaugh was able to stick to his guns against the Buckeyes in one of the most impressive team rushing performances in program history. Undoubtedly, Patton’s quote of “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week,” was at the forefront of Harbaugh’s rushing attack.

Michigan was so effective at running the ball, the Wolverines only attempted one pass (two, technically, but the latter was negated by a penalty thus not registering as an attempt) in the fourth quarter. But in Columbus, Harbaugh will need to employ more Neil Armstrong tactics in his approach because the Buckeye defense will be more formidable at home, especially under the guidance of new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.

Although Oregon was out-gained last year (612-505), the Ducks employed the more balanced approach in their offensive attack, keeping them unpredictable even when they couldn’t be dominant. Oregon rushed for 269 yards and passed for 236 yards, as compared to Ohio State’s pass-dominant approach of 484 yards to only 128 on the ground.

Winning in Ann Arbor was a small step but with the threat of Patton’s violent run game and the balance of Armstrong’s aerial attack, winning in Columbus would be a giant leap for the Michigan Wolverines.

Wear Maize; Steal Gold

Last season, Michigan made a concerted effort to “steal” the home traditions of rivals. Who could forget jumping around in Madison or the raucous commandeering of Thunderstruck in Lincoln? While it would be frowned upon to interrupt the ‘dotting of the i,’ there is one tradition Michigan can make its own in Columbus.

In 1934 when new Ohio State head coach Francis Schmidt was asked about beating the dominant Wolverines, Schmidt echoed the sentiment of mortality about that team up north, “They put their pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us.

Inspired by Schmidt’s words, local businessmen Simon Lazarus and Herb Levy founded the “Gold Pants Club.” Still active to this day, the Gold Pants Club is a members-only club in Columbus that awards all Ohio State players and coaches with a trinket of gold pants engraved with their initials, date of the game and score whenever the Buckeyes beat the Wolverines.

Michigan used several different uniform combinations last season and were chosen by the players in a move of delegation by Harbaugh and the coaching staff to empower the players. It’s time for the Wolverines to continually wear the pants in the rivalry again and to set the standard that the gold pants that go to the victors are worn by the victors, and are in fact maize.

While this last point is slightly in jest, the notion of taking over the tradition of winning in Columbus is not, and that starts with a sense of belief and projected confidence. Augustus Johnson will again be reading the scripture in November and while the book, chapter and verse have yet to be chosen, if Ohio State wants to win another pair of gold pants, they will have to beat the team wearing them.