Coach Jim Harbaugh proved his squad could win another way, on the arm of a quarterback who is on no one’s Heisman Trophy shortlist, sophomore J.J. McCarthy, who fired touchdown throws of 69, 75 and 45 yards, then ran for another score in what proved a fourth-quarter Michigan romp.
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Sophomore running back Donovan Edwards more than compensated for Corum’s absence despite dealing with an injured hand that had sidelined him the previous week. Edwards put the game away down the stretch with touchdown runs of 75 and 85 yards.
Harbaugh praised his players as a “locker room of heroes” after his Wolverines celebrated on the field by planting Michigan’s flag on the block O at Ohio Stadium’s midfield.
“It feels good to sing ‘The Victors’ in Columbus,” Harbaugh added. “Our team really earned it in every way.”
Ohio State’s Heisman contender quarterback C.J. Stroud did what he could, throwing for 349 yard on 31-of-48 passing, but finished with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“There’s no stone I didn’t turn over to try to win this game,” Stroud said afterward.
With Ohio State’s chances of reaching the College Football Playoff in doubt, Stroud, 21, who’s projected to be a high first-round pick in April’s NFL draft, said in his news conference that he wasn’t sure if he’d take part in a non-CFP bowl game.
With the win, the Wolverines (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten) clinched a spot in next weekend’s Big Ten championship in Indianapolis and all but assured themselves of a berth in the College Football Playoff.
It was a seesaw battle that delivered on the massive pregame hype — all of it warranted, considering the stakes and enmity.
Saturday’s clash marked the first time since 2006 that Ohio State and Michigan met as unbeatens.
Multiple storylines dangled in the balance: Not only the Big Ten championship and national playoff berths, but also the résumés of a Heisman contender on each squad (Corum and Stroud) and those of the coaches, Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Michigan’s Harbaugh, who well know that no matter what their team’s record is each year, failing to defeat their conference rival is regarded as a demerit that university administrators and football boosters will tolerate for only so long.
Despite their unblemished records, both teams entered the game with questions.
For Michigan, Corum’s readiness was the paramount concern after he tweaked his left knee the previous week against Illinois.
For Ohio State (11-1, 8-1), the question was whether Stroud, whose 35 passing touchdowns were tied for the most in the Football Subdivision entering the game, could conjure his magic in the face of Michigan’s top-ranked defense.
And both teams’ journeys to their regular season finale were a bit suspect: Neither had faced an opponent of this caliber.
In the end, Michigan was the more inventive and composed team, while Ohio State, so desperate to avenge last season’s 42-27 loss in Ann Arbor, made its job harder with rash second-half penalties as the momentum swung in the Wolverines’ direction.
“We kept shooting ourselves in the foot,” Stroud conceded.
Said Harbaugh, whose Wolverines were docked 30 yards on five penalties compared to Ohio State’s 91 lost yards on nine penalties: “We felt like any kind of stop was going to be like gold. We weren’t going to mess up any stop with a penalty.”
Ohio State scored on its first two possessions to take a 10-3 lead and outgained Michigan in the first half, 315 yards to 214.
But while the Buckeyes defense muzzled a Michigan run game that sorely missed Corum, it paid dearly for underestimating Michigan’s passing attack.
Stymied on the ground and trailing 10-3, Michigan’s McCarthy erupted. In a two-minute span, he hit Cornelius Johnson for touchdown throws of 69 and 75 yards on back-to-back possessions.
The first knotted the score and brought the raucous crowd of 106,787 to a hush.
The second, which followed 12 seconds after Ohio State had inched ahead with a field goal, gave the Wolverines their first lead, with 5:24 remaining in the half.
Afterward, McCarthy conceded he hadn’t expected Michigan’s receivers to be that wide open. “It was just kind of being out there and reacting to what [Ohio State’s defense was] doing,” he said.
Stroud answered 95 seconds later with a 42-yard strike to Marvin Harrison Jr. that reclaimed the lead, 20-17.
Michigan squandered a chance to knot it before the break, and Ohio State took a three-point lead into halftime.
It was short-lived. McCarthy continued his heroics to open the second half — this time, connecting with an unlikely target, freshman tight end Colston Loveland for a 42-yard score.
As the third quarter wound down, Michigan’s backup tailback Kalel Mullings flashed his arm skills, lofting a pass for a first down that took the Wolverines to Ohio State’s 23. Another penalty — defensive pass interference — played into Michigan’s hands as the quarter ended. And McCarthy ran for the 3-yard score that gave Michigan its first two-score lead, up 31-20, with 13:10 remaining.
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With a would-be touchdown pass from the Michigan 4 broken up in the end zone, the Buckeyes settled for a field goal, making it 31-23, with 7:23 remaining.
From there, it was a tape-loop of Buckeye nightmares.
In a flash, Edwards streaked 75 yards to put Ohio State further in arrears, 38-23.
The game’s first turnover followed, with Stroud picked off by edge rusher Taylor Upshaw.
Then came Edwards — again — speeding nearly the full length of the field for another score, and Stroud was intercepted again.
Asked afterward if he was surprised to be so open on his long touchdown run, Edwards asked, “Which one?” then credited the offensive line with opening big holes. All he had to do, he said, was hit them.