Of the many careers Ohio State players have had against Michigan, Kirk Barton can say without much cause for controversy that his is among the very best.
Not only was he part of Ohio State’s first four-game winning streak in the series since the 1930s, the offensive lineman from Massillon, Ohio, is also believed to be the first Buckeye to start four victories over the Wolverines.
And though Michigan’s dip in quality late in the last decade robbed the rivalry of a bit of its drama, Barton played in four games from 2004-07 that were highly charged, all for their own reasons. And unlike the ones he grew up watching in the 1990s, they all went the way of the Scarlet and Gray.
“I remember the ’95 game was traumatic, the ’96 game was traumatic,” Barton told BSB. “The fact that we were able to get it done is pretty amazing. It all comes down to having great players and great coaches.”
It began in 2004, when Ohio State was something the Buckeyes have rarely been since – a significant underdog.
Few gave the Buckeyes, who at 6-4 already had twice as many losses as the previous two seasons combined, much of a chance to stop the powerful Wolverines, who entered the game 9-1 and winners of eight in a row.
“That was a game where literally nobody picked us to win, and we were at home and really we weren’t very good,” Barton recalled.
Michigan was ranked No. 7 nationally and already had clinched a share of its second straight Big Ten title despite losing several key offensive players from the 2003 team to the NFL.
“I mean literally nobody picked us,” Barton said. “I still give (then-OSU student radio broadcaster and now-BSB editor Jeff Svoboda) crap about that game because he picked us to lose by two touchdowns in The Lantern, and it’s bad when the student newspaper picks against you.”
For most of the season, the Wolverines had hardly missed a beat with a pair of freshmen in quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart becoming immediate starters, but they were in for a rude awakening when they traveled to Ohio Stadium.
The Buckeyes jumped out to a 7-0 lead on a 68-yard pass from Troy Smith to Anthony Gonzalez on the opening drive of the game, but they fell behind 14-7 as Henne engineered a pair of touchdown drives before the first quarter was complete.
Undaunted, Ohio State reeled off 27 consecutive points to seize control of the game. That run included touchdown drives of 99 and 97 yards as well as an electrifying 82-yard punt return for a touchdown by freshman speedster Ted Ginn Jr.
“The thing about the ’04 game was it came down to guys making plays,” Barton said. “I had one of the best games of my career that day. Tony had the big play. Troy had some great scrambles. (Wide receiver) Santonio (Holmes) ate (Michigan cornerback) Marlin Jackson’s lunch all day. It was unbelievable. They couldn’t check Santonio. And the defense just stoned them. A.J. (Hawk) had a great game, Donte (Whitner) had a great game. We really wanted to hit Henne. That’s always our game plan and we got after him pretty good. He just wasn’t the same after he got hit.”
When all was said and done, the Buckeyes’ 37-21 win was their largest ever as an unranked team against a top-10 opponent, and it came with some extra incentive after the players learned Michigan wanted to celebrate a Rose Bowl berth on the field at Ohio Stadium with a victory.
“I remember one thing that pissed us off is they wanted to keep their roses in one of the big Gatorade fridges,” Barton said. “They wanted to have their roses so they could be on the field and have like their little signature celebration.”
Michigan still got to go to the Rose Bowl thanks to owning a tiebreaker against Iowa, but the Buckeyes denied the Wolverines an outright Big Ten title.
That was mostly thanks to Smith, who threw for 241 yards and ran for 145. He totaled the third most yards in an Ohio State game to date and became the first Buckeye to eclipse 200 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in the same game.
“Guys just played out of their shoes,” Barton said. “The skill guys really played well that day, and we blocked ’em.”
A year later the roles were reversed as Ohio State traveled to Ann Arbor as the top-10 team while Michigan was playing mostly for pride.
The 17th-ranked Wolverines looked like they would have bragging rights for the year when Garrett Rivas made a field goal to give them a 21-12 lead over the mistake-prone Buckeyes with 7:49 left in the fourth quarter, but Barton and Ohio State had the game’s trump card in Smith.
“If you asked a lot of guys from that game, they would say, ‘We’ve got Troy. We’re not worried,’ ” Barton said. “The one scramble he had on like a third-and-9 and (All-Big Ten defensive end LaMarr) Woodley had the angle on him and Troy stopped and Woodley went flying by him and Troy walked up the field for the first down.”
The Ohio State quarterback wrote the second chapter of his amazing career against Michigan by leading the Buckeyes to a pair of touchdowns, first connecting with Holmes for a 26-yard score then scrambling to find Gonzalez for a 26-yard completion that gave his team first-and-goal at the Michigan 4-yard line.
“That was probably the best catch of (Tony’s) career and then all we had to do was run it in and take the lead,” Barton said.
Two plays later, Antonio Pittman bulled into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 24 seconds left, and the ninth-ranked Buckeyes found themselves Big Ten champions for the first time since 2002.
Smith completed 27 of 37 passes for 300 yards and a touchdown while also running for 37 yards and a score, and Pittman totaled 85 yards on his 23 carries.
In 2006, Barton played in perhaps the most highly anticipated edition of The Game as the Buckeyes and Wolverines met as the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country for the first time in series history.
“The buildup was crazy because they ran that ticker on the bottom of ESPN all week counting down to our game,” he said, noting it only got more intense when legendary former Michigan head coach and Ohio State assistant Bo Schembechler died the day before the game.
It lived up to its billing as Ohio State defended its No. 1 ranking by a 42-39 final score that was closer than the game appeared and clinched an outright conference championship and sent the Buckeyes to the first BCS National Championship Game.
Barton played his part by protecting Smith as the quarterback threw for 316 yards and four touchdowns and helping clear the way for Pittman to run for 139 yards. Pittman and freshman Chris Wells provided two of the signature moments of the game with touchdown sprints of 56 and 52 yards, respectively.
“We knew what was at stake,” Barton said. “It was basically like a night game because with the 3:30 kickoff, by the second quarter it was dark, and they had a good team. I know we exposed their defense a little bit, but they still had a lot of good components. It speaks to how good our skill guys were just between Tony and Teddy and Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie and ‘Pitt’ and Beanie. We had really good skills players, and we blocked ’em.”
After the game, Barton made his own headlines by bringing a bottle of champagne and a lit cigar into postgame interviews.
“You get these moments in life where you work so hard and you’re so stressed out and maniacal about your stuff, and every so often you can actually like achieve something,” he said. “The games are fun, but there is a huge amount of stress. You’re playing someone that can beat you if you don’t perform.”
The move ruffled some feathers at the time – including those of head coach Jim Tressel – but Barton can look back now and smile about it.
“I thought it was harmless at the time, but obviously it wasn’t,” Barton said. “You know people celebrate kids being born or a wedding with a cigar, and those things are great, but playing in a one-versus-two Michigan game, how often is that going to happen?”
The coda to Barton’s four-game sweep of Michigan came in 2007 back at Michigan Stadium, where the Wolverines had a chance to salvage what had been a disappointing season to that point by stealing a share of the Big Ten title from Ohio State.
The Buckeyes had already clinched a share of the championship but failed to make it outright a week earlier when they were stunned 28-21 at home the week before by Illinois.
That was Barton’s Senior Day and one he has not yet forgotten.
“I tell these guys, ‘You’ll remember your senior year more than all the other ones put together,’ ” he said. “The ’07 game was the one I love more than any of them because it’s literally your last shot and you don’t want to go out your last time against these guys with a loss. That’s like the worst thing that could happen.
“That was my favorite game of all time because it was my last Michigan game and of course we were coming off losing Senior Day. I always tell the guys make sure you don’t lose Senior Day because it’s your last shot in the stadium. We lost to a good Illinois team, but we still shouldn’t have lost.”
On a miserable day in Ann Arbor that featured blustery winds, a cold rain and temperatures just above freezing, Ohio State pounded out 229 yards rushing against Michigan while limiting the Wolverines to only 15 on the ground and 91 total.
Wells was the star on offense as he ran 39 times for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 62-yarder in the third quarter that gave Ohio State a 14-3 lead. The two-score advantage seemed insurmountable given the weather conditions, and it turned out to be the final.
“That was the coldest game I ever played in,” Barton said. “It was slick and we didn’t throw it because the ball was too slippery and it was cold so it was like throwing a cinder block. Basically we just ran ‘power’ and ‘iso’ all day and they couldn’t stop it. Beanie broke off a couple of long ones and we physically just manhandled them. That was kind of like the coolest game ever because it was something Woody Hayes would have enjoyed.”
The physical domination was impressive, but the win was even more satisfying after Wolverine stars Henne, Hart and offensive lineman Jake Long had spoken in the offseason about their plans to return for their senior seasons to beat the Buckeyes, win the Big Ten and play for a national title.
The last part of that plan was wiped out when the Wolverines lost to FCS foe Appalachian State in their season opener then were humiliated by Oregon a week later.
Ohio State’s 14-3 victory in the regular-season finale made Henne and Hart part of the first Michigan class ever to go 0-4 against the Buckeyes since freshmen became eligible in the early ‘70s.
Afterward, Barton was among the Buckeyes reveling in not only their success but the Wolverines’ failure to follow through on their offseason boast.
“Some of them came back and said they were going to beat Ohio State,” Barton said. “They were picked No. 2 and picked to win the Big Ten, but it was like, ‘We’re still the best team in the Big Ten even though we were picked third.’ That’s great when that happens because then you’ve got motivation for the whole year
“It was a thing where when you get that game won and especially the way we did it, we physically just manhandled a team, so when guys want to talk tough and say they want to beat Ohio State, that’s great, but we still ended up beating them. We were the first four-year class to win four in a row and then they were the first to lose four in a row, so that was kind of nice.”
Like many youngsters in Ohio who rooted for the Buckeyes in the 1990s, Barton had a lot of holidays ruined by Michigan.
The 2003 Massillon Perry graduate ruefully recalled watching the Wolverines pull upset after upset in the series, including a 31-23 stunner in Ann Arbor in 1995 and an agonizing 13-9 Ohio State loss at home in 1996.
He never dreamed he would be part of such a turnaround in the following decade and play such a unique role in the series.
“It was cool because to start and win four games had never been done before,” Barton said. “I didn’t want to look it up and then get hurt in practice and miss the game or do something stupid, but if someone said, ‘Hey, this can be your career – you can be the first guy to beat Michigan four times, you can be a first-team All-American, you can be a captain,’ if you could take me back to 1995 when I watched us lose all those Michigan games and some genie came out of a bottle and said, ‘This is your career if you want it,’ I’d be like, ‘Please, God. Thank you so much.’ No mention of a national title or Big Ten titles, but, ‘This is what I can offer your or else,’ I would be like, ‘Sold.’ ”
“It’s like the greatest blessing ever.”