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Revisiting the original Game of the Century between Michigan and Ohio State in 2006

The 2006 meeting in Columbus was an instant classic.

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Michigan Wolverines v Ohio State Buckeyes Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It’s 3rd and 1 from the Michigan 28-yard line. Ohio State has the ball and a four-point lead with 12:09 left in the fourth quarter. Fifth-year center Doug Datish points out a would-be blitzer, looks between his legs at quarterback Troy Smith, waits a beat and snaps the ball.

Except the ball doesn’t snap. The ball gets caught in a divot on the three-week old turf inside Ohio Stadium and for the second consecutive possession, the Buckeyes fumble and it’s recovered by the Michigan Wolverines.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Ohio State Joe Robbins-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan has the ball with a chance to take its first lead since 7-0 in the “Game of the Century’’ against its biggest rival. Everything is on the line: the season, endless pride, a national championship game berth, legacy…everything.

Eleven unblemished weeks led to this once in a lifetime moment between the two greatest rivals in any sport, meeting in Columbus for the first time ever as the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the country. However, this meeting in 2006 felt far more serendipitous than predictable when the season began.

Michigan was not supposed to be 11-0. The Wolverines were modestly ranked No. 14 entering the year following a 7-5 campaign in 2005 — the worst record of the Lloyd Carr era — which included an Alamo Bowl loss to Nebraska. Somewhere, Scott Frost felt vindicated.

The Wolverines sparked their first six opponents by an average of 19 points and quickly flew up the rankings to No. 4 in the country. After holding on to win by a touchdown in Happy Valley, Michigan would move up to No. 2 in Week 8. It then survived a scare from Ball State in Week 10 and entered the final week of the season holding strong in second position.

Ohio State, however, was the prohibitive favorite in college football dating back to January after manhandling Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl, 34-20. The Buckeyes returned eight starters on one of the nation’s best offenses, including Heisman Trophy frontrunner and eventual winner in quarterback Troy Smith.

The Buckeyes were a machine in 2006, trampling opponent’s by an average of 28 points per game and only allowing two opponents to score more than 10 points against them in the first 11 games. Ohio State was resembling an evolved form of its 2002 National Championship team. The only obstacle remaining in its way was the Michigan Wolverines.

There was no Big Ten Championship Game in 2006 — the winner of “The Game” this season would win the conference and advance to the BCS National Championship. The loser would still go to the Rose Bowl, but would have to reluctantly accept the invitation at the behest and superiority of their rival.

This meeting between Michigan and Ohio State caught the attention of the country. Of course College Gameday was present, but even HBO filmed a documentary “Michigan vs. Ohio State: The Rivalry,” which was released the subsequent year. The documentary told the entire history of the rivalry dating back to 1897 and while it followed the build-up and clash in 2006, the documentary was centered around the “Ten Year War.”

The Ten Year War refers to the games played between 1969-1978, which involved the two most prominent figure heads of the rivalry: Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes and Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler, a former Hayes assistant.

Both coaches embodied their respective schools and personified the rivalry as a whole with a hatred so passionate it infringed upon love. Michigan could not be the leaders and the best without a rival like Ohio State, and Ohio State may not give a damn about the whole state of Michigan, but immortalized the state’s existence in song. Bo needed Woody, and Woody needed Bo.

Schembechler and the Wolverines got the better of Ohio State during those 10 years with a 5-4-1 record, but the results were secondary to the connection between the programs, coaches and overall impact the rivalry had on college football. Michigan and Ohio State became the premiere game in the sport, with anticipation rivaling or exceeding most national championships.

As the dust settled on the Ten Year War, Hayes’ tenure in Columbus would unceremoniously and infamously end in 1979, but he and Schembechler had forged a bond in opposition that would last a lifetime.

In Woody’s last public appearance on March 10, 1987, he introduced Bo at a speaking event in Dayton, Ohio, with a reverence and warmth reserved for the one person who most closely resembled Hayes himself, despite his allegiance to “that team up north.”

Two days later, Hayes was dead.

Bo would remain a fixture of Michigan long after his coaching career ended and became as synonymous with the university as Fielding Yost and Fritz Crisler before him. The Thursday before the game with Ohio State in 2006, Bo addressed the team one last time. The next day — on the eve of the biggest game in the history of the rivalry — a teary-eyed coach Carr came into the locker room to announce Bo had died.

According to an oral history, Carr challenged the team: “We’re going to win this game for Michigan. Coach Schembechler wouldn’t want us to win this game for him.”

Due to the magnitude of the matchup and the championship implications, the kickoff was changed to 3:30 p.m., making it the latest start to any game in the rivalry’s history.

The Wolverines donned their traditional road white tops and maize bottoms. Maybe it was coincidence, or maybe Michigan wanted to start its own history of gold-panted success in Columbus (since 1934, all Ohio State players have been given a trinket of gold pants when they defeat the Wolverines).

Michigan Wolverines v Ohio State Buckeyes Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The back and forth game lived up to the hype, and now early in the fourth quarter after the aforementioned fumble, Michigan had a chance to take back the lead.

On first down, sure-handed wide receiver Mario Manningham dropped a pass while streaking open on a crossing route. On second down, running back Mike Hart took the ball seven yards on the left side to set a manageable third down and short. But on the next play, quarterback Chad Henne’s pass sailed into the turf and the Wolverines punted.

The Buckeyes fumbled the ball, but the Wolverines fumbled their moment.

Ohio State and Michigan would each trade one more touchdown during the game, and the Buckeyes would hold onto victory, 42-39.

The Buckeyes would go on to lose to the Urban Meyer-led Florida Gators in the national title game, and Michigan would fall in the Rose Bowl to USC. But neither Wolverine nor Buckeye fans talk about what took place after Nov. 18 because that game in Columbus was bigger than the National Championship.

That 2006 meeting is still the second-most watched regular season college football game of all time (21.8 million) and is a seminal date in the rivalry’s lore. That victory propelled Ohio State to an unprecedented run of dominance in the rivalry and sent Michigan into one of the worst droughts in program history.

Saturday’s game pits the No. 2 ranked Buckeyes versus the No. 3 ranked Wolverines, 11-0 versus 11-0, for the second time in the rivalry’s history. The outcome of this game could set the standard and direction for each program for the next 10 years.

While a potential Big Ten Championship Game and College Football Playoff appearance hang in the balance, those are all secondary to The Game’s outcome. On Saturday, it’s blue vs. red, Bo vs. Woody, Michigan vs. Ohio State, in the Game of the Century Part II, with everything on the line.