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Unnecessary Buckeye Preview: Ohio State Buckeyes at Michigan Wolverines

We’re finally here, Michigan Week! Both teams are undefeated and playing for a berth in the Big Ten Championship, perhaps a ticket to the College Football Playoff. The stakes are often high for The Game, and this year is no exception. But for this rivalry, you can put the stakes aside; the game is more about pride and bragging rights.

How Did They Get Here?

Ohio State and Michigan both enter the game with a perfect 11-0 record, but the teams have taken very different paths to get here. Ohio State dodged a bullet this year against Notre Dame, putting together a last-minute touchdown drive and squeaking out a 17-13 victory in South Bend. Other than the game against the Fighting Irish, the Buckeyes were not threatened by any other opponent on the schedule. 

The Buckeyes have had a drama-free season for the most part. Early on, I heard comparisons to Ohio State’s 2002 National Championship season: Close wins by a small margin of victory, a quarterback who’s a game manager instead of an athlete, and of course the dramatic victory over Notre Dame in week 4 was somewhat like Ohio State’s come-from-behind victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats in 2002.

That’s pretty much where the comparison ends. The 2002 team won seven games by seven points or less, two wins coming in overtime. The Buckeyes were challenged every week and found a way to pull through. 2023 has not had much drama at all.

Ohio State is 2nd in the CFP rankings and Michigan is 3rd. It’s possible the loser of this game still makes the playoff, there will be several one-loss teams in contention for the final spots.

2023 Challenges for Both Teams

The drama surrounding Ohio State’s 2023 season was wondering if quarterback Kyle McCord would develop into a trusted Field General, a la Craig Krenzel. The team has great weapons at McCord’s disposal, but the question has been “Will the offense put it all together and live up to their potential?” Ohio State displayed a more balanced attack the last two weeks, albeit against easy opponents, but it provides hope the offense can sparkle on Saturday.

Michigan’s 2023 regular season has been a season of turmoil headlined by bookend suspensions of Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh was suspended the first three games by the NCAA for recruiting violations, and the last three games for his [assumed] role in the sign-stealing operation coordinated by former Michigan staffer Conor Stalions. Stalions left the program mid-season, and Michigan’s linebackers coach Chris Partridge was fired last week for allegedly destroying evidence of the sign-stealing scandal during the investigation. Michigan is still standing with a record of 11-0, but the team’s preparation and focus has to have taken a hit.

Ohio State as an Unbeaten Team

Going back to 1951, the beginning of the Woody Hayes era, this is the 18th time Ohio State has entered the season finale against Michigan without a loss. The Buckeyes are 11-5-1 in the previous 17 games against the Wolverines trying to remain unbeaten. Woody Hayes is the most successful head coach in Ohio State history, as evidence by his stellar 5-1-1 record playing Michigan as an undefeated team. The loss the sustained in 1969 was devastating, however. More on that in a minute.

Here are the win/loss records for Ohio State head coaches playing Michigan as an undefeated team from best to worst: Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes 5-1-1; Urban Meyer 3-0; Jim Tressel 2-0; Earle Bruce 1-0; Ryan Day 0-1; John Cooper 0-3. 

It isn’t hard to recognize the precarious situation Ryan Day is in. Day has a losing record against Michigan overall (1-2) and has lost two consecutive games to the Wolverines. No one wants to be next to John Cooper on this list. Cooper wasted great teams in 1993, 1995, and 1996.

It’s likely Michigan’s sign-stealing operation affected the outcome of the game last year, but it’s too early to speculate what action the NCAA will take. It’s possible Michigan will have to forfeit wins including their wins against Ohio State. Nevertheless, Ryan Day needs the Buckeyes to win the football game after consecutive losses. Having losses erased after the fact is not as gratifying as defeating your archrival on the field of play.

Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes

Ohio State won the 1968 National Championship with a bunch of Super Sophomores who all returned for their junior year. The 1969 Buckeyes were arguably the best team the university had ever fielded to that point, and it was presumed they would repeat as national champions. Michigan’s first-year coach Bo Schembechler had something to say about that.

Bo and Woody’s relationship went back a long way. It wasn’t always the fire-breathing Woody and chippy Bo show, their relationship was based on deep respect and admiration. Bo Schembechler played for Woody Hayes at Miami University for two seasons in 1949-50. Bo graduated after the 1950 season, and Woody kicked off Bo’s coaching career by hiring him as assistant coach in 1951, Woody’s first year at Ohio State. Bo was an assistant coach for Ohio State in 1951 and again from 1958-62, after which he was named Head Coach at his alma mater Miami University. 

Bo was the Head Coach of Miami from 1963-1968. The Michigan head coaching vacancy opened at the end of the 1968, after a 50-14 thrashing by Ohio State. This was the game where Woody went for and converted a two-point conversion with a 48-14 lead. 

There was no time for Ohio State to get the kicking team on the field after player celebrations. A five-yard delay of game penalty wouldn’t have been the worst thing, but Woody didn’t like penalties, so he had the offense line up and run a play. The play resulted in a successful conversion and a final score of 50-14. When asked in the postgame interview why they went for two, Woody responded “Because we couldn’t go for three.” It was Woody’s most famous quote, even if the statement wasn’t exactly accurate.

The Wolverines fired their head coach after the blowout and hired Bo Schembechler as the next Head Coach at the University of Michigan. In his first year, Michigan avenged the embarrassment from the year before and upset the top-ranked Buckeyes 24-12 and snapped Ohio State’s 22-game winning streak. Bo defeated his mentor on the biggest stage, and the “Ten-Year War” between Woody and Bo was born.

A Match of Unbeatens

This will be the fifth time Ohio State and Michigan have faced off as unbeaten teams since 1951: Michigan won in 2022, Ohio State won is 1970 and 2006, and the teams tied 10-10 in 1973. Ohio State was invited to the Rose Bowl after the 1973 season, and Michigan had to stay home; in 1973 there were no bowl game options for a conference runner-up. Bo Schembechler was so distraught by the Rose Bowl snub he suffered a heart attack.

The Game of the Century

The 2006 game was a monumental matchup that pitted #1 Ohio State against #2 Michigan in the rivalry’s first night game. This was the first time they played each other as the top-ranked teams in the country. Ohio State was led by quarterback Troy Smith and Michigan was led by running back Mike Hart. Adding to the mystique, Bo Schembechler died the day before the game.

Bo’s death seemed like a bad omen for Ohio State, one of several for me personally leading up to the game. I was living in New York City at the time and booked my ticket to Columbus months in advance. I booked a Thursday flight to be safe, in case something went wrong, and it did. I was at the front of the boarding line when the doors closed. No more passengers.

The game was so highly anticipated in 2006 there wasn’t a flight to be had within three hours of Columbus the day before the game. Flying wouldn’t be an option, but I had to make it back somehow. I had a streak on the line: I’d been to every home Ohio State-Michigan game since 1976, and there was never a game as big as this.

I went to the rental car area and tried to get a car, no luck! Every car was either rented or not available for one-way. I felt panic starting to rise, but then I noticed someone from the boarding area on a rental car phone talking to an agency. We made eye contact from across the way, he nodded his head, and the road trip was on!

Mike (so we’ll call him) and I drove all night from Newark International Airport to Columbus. Mike drank a four-pack of Red Bull on that drive; I’m still in amazement and will never forget that detail. It was a long drive, but we arrived in Columbus Friday morning as the sun was coming up; it felt amazing, we had defied the odds and made it in for the game! But as Mike was pulling into my driveway, we heard the news that Bo had passed. So much for defying the odds! The Bo karma would be too much for Ohio State to overcome and I had a sinking feeling about the game.

Michigan may have had karma, but Ohio State had Troy Smith, Antonio Pittman, and Ted Ginn. It proved to be enough as Ohio State defeated Michigan 42-39 to advance to the BCS National Championship. Unfortunately, the Bucks were destroyed by Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators in the Fiesta Bowl, but Ohio State beating Michigan was the most important thing.

This Year’s Prediction

I knock on wood as I write this, but Ryan Day will get his-much needed victory over the Wolverines on Saturday. The Michigan program is in disarray; the players are distracted and won’t be as prepared as they need to be. Ohio State, on the other hand, will be ready, focused, and determined to win. Ohio State’s star power of running back TreVeyon Henderson, wide receiver Marvin Harrison, Jr. and tight end Cade Stover will be too much for a linebacker corps that lost their position coach last week.

Michigan might hang around for a half or three quarters, but in the fourth quarter the wheels will fall off. Ohio State will take over in the trenches to put this game away. I expect Henderson and Harrison, Jr. to both eclipse 150 yards from scrimmage with at least one touchdown. Ohio State’s defense will grow in confidence as the game goes on, and they won’t allow Michigan to get back in the game. The Buckeyes win the 2023 version of “The Game” 31-13 and advance to the Big Ten Championship game where they will face an overmatched Iowa Hawkeyes team. Go Bucks!

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Thom Gall

    November 24, 2023 at 1:17 am

    Great assessment, Joel! I think the game will be tight, similar to the ND game -low-scoring. It would be wonderful to lay 31 points on Blue, but I think we’ll be more in the 20s with UM in the teens, something like 27-17. But, hey, I don’t care if have only 1 point more than them as long as we win the game and slay the cheating beast!

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