ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When Michigan secured victory with 58 seconds left Saturday, screaming erupted at the rear of the press box, as offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and other staffers ran toward the elevators.
As the coaches rushed to join the team, fans stormed the field at Michigan Stadium, celebrating Michigan’s first win over Ohio State in a decade, and the first under coach Jim Harbaugh. Fifth-year senior safety Brad Hawkins cried, and he wasn’t the only Wolverine getting misty as light snow fell.
Michigan already had engineered an impressive turnaround after bottoming out at 2-4 in 2020. The team had reflected Harbaugh’s vision of power football, which surfaced early in his tenure then vanished.
But beating Ohio State seemed like a bridge too far. Not a Buckeyes team hitting its stride after whipping Purdue and Michigan State the previous two weeks by a combined score of 115-38. Not an Ohio State team that had beaten Michigan by a combined score of 149-86 since Ryan Day joined the coaching staff. Day, who entered Saturday never having lost a Big Ten game as head coach, last year privately declared Ohio State would try to “hang 100” on Michigan the next time the teams met (COVID-19 issues with Michigan forced the cancellation of the 2020 game).
Instead, No. 5 Michigan punished No. 2 Ohio State at the line of scrimmage and left no doubt about the better team after a 42-27 win before a fired-up crowd of 111,156.
“Feels like the beginning,” Harbaugh said.
Saturday wasn’t the beginning for Harbaugh, but rather seven years into a tenure that has brought more wins but not enough meaningful ones. He couldn’t beat Ohio State. He couldn’t win the Big Ten. He couldn’t get Michigan, a program that takes pride in national success that happened a very long time ago, into the national spotlight when it truly mattered.
One result doesn’t change everything, but it puts Michigan in position for all of those goals. With the win, the Wolverines advanced to their first Big Ten championship, where they’ll be favored to win their first league title since 2004 and reach their first College Football Playoff, while likely keeping Ohio State out of the CFP for the first time since 2018. This all comes after a season where Michigan didn’t win a home game and restructured Harbaugh’s contract so it could be easier to fire one of its most famous football alums if he couldn’t turn things around.
“It’s been so long since we beat them,” quarterback Cade McNamara said. “It’s just been an accumulation of everything that we’ve done and all the work that we’ve put in. We knew that we could beat ’em, and now we know what it takes. Now we’ve got to do that every single year. We’ve got to get better.
“They’re human, too, and we proved that today.”
Harbaugh credited “the ones” — veteran players who had suffered through the losing — for engineering the program’s reawakening. Those players included Hawkins and offensive linemen Andrew Vastardis, Andrew Stueber and Ryan Hayes, who bullied Ohio State for 297 rushing yards, including 188 in the second half (9.4 yards per carry).
The group also includes running back Hassan Haskins, who became the first player ever to rush for five touchdowns against Ohio State, and defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who set Michigan’s single-season sacks record with his 13th, and harassed Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud all afternoon.
Michigan RB Hassan Haskins torches Ohio State with 169 yards rushing and five touchdowns as the Wolverines defeat the Buckeyes.
“They’re the ones who, without them, we wouldn’t be where we are,” Harbaugh said. “Guys literally willing to take the team on their backs. It was like a train, a locomotive going down the tracks. They literally stopped it, picked it up onto their backs, turned it around and started pushing.
“The rest of us started pushing, too.”
For years, Ohio State not only had more talent than Michigan, but did a better job of prioritizing The Game. Former coach Jim Tressel was masterful at it, winning his final six games against the Wolverines. Urban Meyer continued the Buckeyes dominance, and Day has maintained the edge.
But Michigan recommitted to the goal in January, installing an electronic sign that reads: “What are you doing to beat Ohio State today?” There were other reminders in practice fueling players, especially seniors such as Hutchinson who knew they would only have one more chance.
“That’s something that we changed this offseason,” Hutchinson said. “We’re staring them in the face and not fearing them and stressing them always. Everything we did in that offseason, when it comes to training, when it comes to practicing, was to beat Ohio State.”
Michigan’s emphasis on and preparation for the Buckeyes generated a spirit that wouldn’t be denied Saturday. The Wolverines followed Gattis’ brilliant scripts for touchdown drives to begin each half. They generated four sacks and eight tackles for loss, while not allowing a single TFL. The Michigan defense, under a mostly new staff led by first-time coordinator Mike Macdonald, held Ohio State’s powerful offense to 64 rushing yards.
The Wolverines also were the more poised and disciplined team, drawing only two penalties to Ohio State’s 10. Even a halftime altercation with the Buckeyes in the famous Michigan Stadium tunnel didn’t deter the Wolverines. If anything, they gained more energy and fed off a frenzied crowd inside a large but rarely raucous stadium.
“These guys have been disrespecting us, stepping on our jerseys, talking about hanging 100 on us, doing all the rah, rah,” Hutchinson said. “But we were about it today.”
So was Harbaugh. The coach whose tweets and off-field antics defined the first part of his Michigan tenure had become understandably quieter in recent years. But when asked about how Ohio State’s words had motivated his team, Harbaugh ended his news conference with a zinger seemingly directed at Day, promoted to succeed Meyer after the 2018 season.
“The things you’re thinking of are probably the same as I’m thinking of,” he said, smiling. “Let’s move on with humble hearts, take the high road, but there’s different stuff that people have said that spurred us on even more.
“Sometimes people that are standing on third base think they hit a triple, but they didn’t.”
Saturday was undoubtedly the walk-off grand slam of Harbaugh’s Michigan tenure. He said it “feels like the best one,” but noted that next week’s game could supplant it.
“It’s [a celebration] that will go long into the night,” Harbaugh said. “There will be a lot of joy in Ann Arbor.”
The key for Michigan is not becoming a one-hit wonder. One triumph over Ohio State won’t mean much if the Buckeyes go on another winning streak.
If Saturday is indeed the beginning, Michigan must sustain its recruiting, player development, schemes and Buckeye focus for years to come.
“Long-term, we set the expectation now,” McNamara said. “It’s been so long since we beat Ohio State, and we did that today. For the guys coming back, now we’ve got to do that every single year.
“We know what it took, and we’re not done yet.”