Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
I was fortunate enough to attend The Game at The Big House this year, and I did so not as a member of the media but rather as a common fan. Well, as common as an Ohio State fan can be in Ann Arbor.
I’m a Buckeye by birth. My father is an alum, and he held season tickets for almost all of my school years. I went to at least one game at the Horseshoe every year from Archie Griffin through Eddie George, and I can regurgitate the quarterback succession chart from Art Schlichter all the way to Craig Krenzel without even thinking about it.
Even though I did not attend Ohio State, the Buckeyes remained my team. The college I went to, Ohio University, won 5 games in my first five years in Athens. It was very natural to have a “real” college football team to root for besides the Bobcats.
Alas, life became complicated. I fell in love and married a wonderful woman…who happens to come from a family of Maize and Blue. We are one of those House Divided families, and it always makes for interesting interactions between the in-laws. I went to the game with her brother, the most dyed-in-the-wool Wolverine in her family. We get along very well but make no mistake, it’s still awkward.
The pregame tailgate was even more awkward, or at least I anticipated it would be. Here I am wearing my scarlet #36 Chris Speilman jersey in a parking lot full of Michigan partisans. I’m a stranger in a strange land, a duck in a chicken coop where the roosters are ready to rumble.
So imagine my surprise when we arrive at our designated tailgate destination, brought to us by a cousin’s very friendly in-laws. I was far from the only Buckeye fan in the heated temporary gazebo, fully stocked with enough good food and alcohol to serve hundreds.
Most Michigan fans were bemoaning their chances. The most common refrains were “I hope we don’t lose by 40”, and many openly rooted for yet another substandard offensive performance to rid the Wolverines of truly reviled offensive coordinator Al Borges. There was very little hostility or outward animosity.
Inside the stadium, the amount of red was stunning. I had been to two other Michigan home games this year, Akron and Nebraska. The latter featured maybe 5 percent Cornhusker fans. This game I would conservatively estimate was at least 30% Ohio State fans, more than that in the pricier seats down by the field.
Once the game started, it was clear this was not going to be a blowout. The Wolverines offense looked nothing like the group that rushed for negative yardage and struggled to string together first downs in recent weeks. Wideout Jeremy Gallon was fluttering all over the formation and the Buckeyes could not cover him, not even with top 50 draft prospect Bradley Roby. The decision to elevate other RBs ahead of pedestrian Fitz Toussaint also paid dividends for Michigan.
But mostly, Devin Gardner looked like he dropped in from another planet. He was poised behind the shaky offensive line. The junior quarterback threw with confidence and accuracy, neither of which had been in his repertoire for weeks now. Young tight end Jake Butt excelled at chipping and releasing, often getting lost in the porous Ohio State coverage for big plays.
Ohio State was game for the challenge. Carlos Hyde was outstanding, often following the snowplow that was left tackle Jack Mewhort in the run blocking game. Braxton Miller was able to match Gardner blow for blow. This was going to be a close and exciting game, and that was very obvious to fans from both sides.
The somewhat good-natured ribbing from the Michigan folks around me subsided pretty quickly. A nervous energy and tangible buzz emerged. We all knew we were in the presence of an instant classic, one of the most thrilling meetings in this storied rivalry. As the score escalated, people from both sides of the argument agreed that it would all come down to one play…and it did.
There is absolutely zero question in my mind that Brady Hoke made the right decision to go for the win instead of playing for overtime. Gardner was clearly limited in his movement from a late knee tweak; he could not plant and drive off his right leg, which made his accuracy spotty. In addition, kicker Kevin Hine had struggled all day. In warm-ups before the second half he missed from 35 and barely squeaked in a 40-yarder, and he badly missed his first attempt in the game; that effort, which was nullified by a timeout, was closer to hitting the flag pole about 25 feet to the right of the goalposts than the goalpost itself.
Of course the play called was not necessarily well designed. Ohio State defensed it perfectly, rolling the coverage to that side and freeing the underneath coverage to the robber role. Inside the stadium, and later back at the tailgate, not one person was critical of the decision to go for two. Not a single soul I encountered, and I talked to scads of folks.
Instead, people wondered why Gardner wasn’t given a rollout option, with a chance to use his gimpy wheels. Moreover, they wondered why the Wolverines didn’t run their offense like they did in this game all season. Finally they figured out that quickly getting the ball in the hands of the playmakers is the best way to score.
As I shared multiple adult beverages with multiple Wolverine and Buckeye faithful, it dawned on me that the collective experience here overrode the natural enmity. Maize and Blue blended easily with Scarlet and Grey. Fans from both sides knew they just experienced a legendary game, and the mood was excited and conciliatory. Wolverine fans exhorted the Buckeyes to pummel Michigan State in the coming Big Ten title game. Ohio State fans openly admitted to being scared of losing, and to having the flaws of their unbeaten team laid out in ugly exposure.
It got me to thinking, why can’t Congress be like this? Why can’t people on opposite sides of a conflict realize there is a greater good to be served? People who would just as soon spat upon Ohio State fans hours earlier were now drinking buddies with them, regaling one another with their takes from a great battle between bitter rivals.
For their part, Ohio State fans were noticeably humbler in victory than I’ve seen before. I was at the game in 1985 where the Buckeyes upset #1 Iowa, and the few Hawkeye fans in attendance were probably lucky to escape without bruises. I was with a small pocket of Buckeye faithful at a packed bar in Muskegon when Ted Ginn torched the Wolverines from the opening kickoff a few years back, and we were beyond obnoxious in victory.
Not in this one. The enormity of the moment and the bond of mutually witnessing such a thrilling game buried the hate. It’s probably the favorite sporting moment in my life, and I’ve been fortunate to witness some historic games. It would still be that way had Ohio State lost, just as Michigan fans fortunate enough to be at the Big House that day will always recall this one fondly and prominently.