Babb Bits: Momentum Has Shifted In Rivalry

It doesn't seem like that long ago that Ohio State fans were feeling the same way Michigan fans do now. Charles Babb talks today about the reversal of fortune in the OSU/UM rivalry and much more.

Haven't I Seen This Somewhere Before?

The similarities were striking, but the differences were stark.

I had heard the conversations before – a decade ago. "What is wrong with our coach? Why can't he beat his rival? Why do our players not make the big plays? Why do we have to lose at the end like that? We had the game won but just found a way to lose; if we lose again next year should we fire our head coach? Sure he wins other games, but this one is The Game."

The last time I heard such talk, it was Ohio State fans bemoaning their fortunes with John Cooper. Cooper, whose win over the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl endeared him to the Buckeye search committee, ironically saw his career tarnished in Columbus by Michigan dominance. His legacy is often summed up in one phrase by the average fan or alumni; ‘two, ten, and one – enough said.'

Yes, I had heard it all before, but now the shoe is on the other foot. Michigan is feeling the pain suffered by Ohio in the 1990's. Ann Arbor is in a state of stunned shock and disbelief made even more painful by their recent dominance.

Once upon a time, Michigan fans and players lived a spoiled existence. Their confidence bordered upon arrogance when facing the constantly under whelming, always find a way to lose Buckeyes under John Cooper. They chortled as Cooper's name was announced in their stadium, even mocking him via standing ovations. They celebrated as his contract was extended and expressed their fervent desire that he remain and only retire at a ripe old age. They pointed out that the problem was clear; Cooper tightened up like a noose around a condemned man's neck when Michigan appeared on the schedule. The colors of Maize and Blue did something to the man – the opposite of red to a bull. Taking a further shot across the bow, Wolverine fans demeaned their Buckeye counterparts by claiming Ohio State was no longer even their biggest rival; Michigan State and Notre Dame both beat them more frequently than the guys in Scarlet and Gray. Even after Cooper's termination, Wolverine fans had not lost their braggadocio, announcing via the Internet the second Saturday of 2001 was John Cooper day.

The date was 2-10-01.

Saturday's loss by Michigan had the same feel as several of those suffered by the Buckeyes prior to Jim Tressel's arrival. Leading up to The Game, Lloyd Carr and his players were grilled, "Do the Buckeyes have your number? Why is Tressel 3-1 against Michigan? How will you prepare differently this year?" They outwardly scoffed at the notion, but behind those words the uncertainty spoke volumes. Meanwhile, Tressel and Ohio State quietly but confidently prepared and embraced the challenge. Like Buckeye teams of the 1990's, Carr and Michigan alumni whined about extraneous reasons or offered justifications for the previous year's thrashing. Buckeyes simply pointed out they had overlooked Michigan in 2003 and didn't intend to make that mistake again.

During the game, the Buckeyes seemed destined to lose. Michigan charged from behind on their opponent's costly turnovers, foolish penalties, and bone-headed special teams play. Ted Ginn's muffed punts, pass interference calls on the defense, Maurice Wells' one and only carry (and fumble), a missed extra point, and a missed field goal seemed to signal the Wolverines were due. A last second loss in 2002, a close but no cigar comeback in 2001, and a 2004 thrashing must be and finally would be avenged. Ohio State was down by 9 points with less than seven minutes remaining, and the ball was deep in their own territory. The normally quiet stadium began to rock with emotion; everyone could sense it would be over with one last stop by the Michigan defense. A season of pain would morph into a moment of joy.

Enter Mr. Lighting Strikes Twice, Troy Smith. Saddling up his horses on the offensive line, he and the rest of the Buckeye skill players proceeded to plow through a Michigan defense accused of being soft earlier this season. Like a hot knife through butter, they stuck the ball into the end zone. After Michigan's next drive stalled – they did their best Henry VIII impression, ‘second verse same as the first.'

Smith finished the day with 300 yards passing, two touchdowns (one rushing and one passing), and 48 yards on the ground. His most critical play came as he danced out of a certain sack, jumped backwards, and fired the ball downfield for a leaping Gonzalez. Suddenly it was no longer about scoring a field goal; they were going for the touchdown. Smith's attempt to the right was sniffed out and then snuffed by desperate Wolverine defenders. With Pittman they were not so fortunate. Bouncing off the pile and then breaking a tackle, he scampered into the end zone with just 24 ticks remaining on the clock.

The blow he struck to the 90,000+ Michigan fans in Ann Arbor was palpable. Silence descended upon the crowd as they sat stunned. It was more gut wrenching or painful than a physical punch in the solar plexus. At least that pain would have eased in a few minutes, but now they will have to suck in their breath each time an Ohio State fan passes them for the next 12 months.

Not again was their agonizing response.

Yes, again. Again like the Buckeyes endured in 1991. Again like the horror in 1995 and 1997. Again, in suffering resignation, like the 1999 and even 2000 contests.

The shoe is now on the other foot, and it appears not to wear well.

Leaving the stadium, one less than gracious Ohio State fan yelled out, "Yeah…This isn't the Big House – this is OUR house."

Poor sportsmanship?

Perhaps. Then again, it has been said that it's not bragging if you can do it.

After a collective physical wince by those in earshot, one Michigan fan waited until the offender was safely away and said loudly, "Well, he is right you know…it's not like we doing anything to stop them from saying stuff like that."

And so it's déjà vu all over again as now Buckeye fans begin to snigger and say, "It used to be Michigan was our biggest rival…" and "You know I hope Carr has a great season next year and is able to get a contract extension; I would hate for him to retire…"

One post on a Michigan Internet board succinctly summed up the situation in just two words.

"Lloyd Cooper."

The Buckeyes in the BCS?

Late yesterday afternoon, the tiniest bit of joy was robbed from the Buckeye win as Penn State defeated Michigan State to win the Big Ten Title (shared) and claim the automatic BCS berth. That left three at large teams more likely to receive invites than Ohio State – Virginia Tech, Alabama, and Notre Dame. Arguments could have been made that the Buckeyes would bring a better crowd than the Hokies or fatter television ratings. Bama was thought to be a one faceted team with a poor offense and great defense, but they had just one loss. Notre Dame, despite a loss to Michigan State at home, is somehow inequitably ranked ahead of the Buckeyes. Yet the simple fact remained; Virginia Tech, Miami, Texas, Penn State, USC, West Virginia, LSU, and Notre Dame appeared ‘in' with Ohio State waiting in line behind Alabama.

All that changed when Georgia Tech upset #3 Miami and Auburn whipped Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

The current scenario barring further upsets:

· USC will be the representative of the Pac Ten.

· Penn State snapped up the Big Ten berth.

· The winner of the Virginia Tech/Florida State championship game will represent the ACC. No matter who wins, the Buckeyes now have nothing to fear. There will be at most one single loss team out of the conference. If Virginia Tech loses they will not be ranked ahead of Ohio State.

· Texas is unlikely to lose to either Texas A&M or Colorado. The Longhorns will represent the Big 12 and play for a national title.

· Notre Dame will claim one at large berth barring a loss to a less than decent Stanford.

· The winner of Georgia/LSU will claim the SEC crown and their league's BCS bowl. The loser is out of the BCS – or will at least fall below Ohio State.

· The winner of the South Florida/West Virginia contest will claim the Big East bid, and the loser will find themselves in a second rate bowl befitting their second rate conference.

This leaves one slot remaining with Ohio State and Oregon the top two teams in position to grab the prestigious opening. Given their national following, rankings, and quality losses (by a combined margin of 10 points), the Buckeyes will likely play in their third BCS bowl in the last four seasons.

An Ohio State game against LSU or Notre Dame would probably be the highest rated game this side of the national championship contest.

Kudos to Bill Snyder

Much has already been made of his retirement from Kansas State, but I cannot refrain from at least acknowledging the incredible job of coaching he did in Manhattan. To build a program at that school is a feat of genius perhaps unmatched in the last 40 years. He took the losingest program in the entire sport in a state that loves Basketball and was within one game of playing for a national championship. He pulled off upsets the like of which were never fathomed before his arrival and transformed the hapless Wildcats from chumps to champions.

He changed the very nature of the game. If Snyder could win at Kansas State, why couldn't coaches at schools like Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Purdue, and even Duke win a few more? Alumni pressured their presidents, upgraded facilities, and searched for another man in his image.

Most impressive of all, Snyder showed the true mark of brilliance by retiring before it was necessary. Instead of sucking up the glory for himself (with 18 starters projected to return in 2006), he has left the cupboard stocked for the coach who follows him. He wants to see his work continue.

Buckeye Leaves

While the whole team will receive leaves for their win in Ann Arbor – along with gold pants – a few players/units and their play stand out above the rest.

The Offensive Line. While not perfect, they consistently opened gashing holes in the Michigan front and gave Troy Smith the chance to find open receivers. Late in the game when it counted most, Smith had enough time to find Ted Ginn, Anthony Gonzalez, and Santonio Holmes coming from the opposite side of the field – dropping the ball into their hands to move the chains. This unit has taken some serious heat, but it may be the best edition at its position since the mid-1990's.

The Buckeye Linebackers. While it certainly suffered without Bobby Carpenter's presence, A.J. Hawk and Anthony Schlegel stepped up their play to compensate with 17 tackles. Those three Amigos will be missed in 2006.

James Laurinaitis. Schlegel and Hawk had bigger games, but for a true freshman to step onto the field and play in Carpenter's stead is impressive. Clearly the Ohio State coaches schemed to keep him from being placed in a position where he might be asked to do too much. Yet he should still take a bow for being ready.

Troy Smith. After slaying the Wolverines almost single handedly in 2004, Smith dressed and gutted them yesterday in Ann Arbor. Two touchdown drives in the last six minutes – one of them for 88 yards – is impressive no matter who you are playing. To accomplish this feat against your hated rival is simply mind-boggling. In the two games combined his statistics are 40 of 60 with 541 yards passing, 3 touchdowns passing, 2 touchdowns rushing, 193 yards rushing on 29 attempts, and no interceptions. He is the anti-Wolverine.

Anthony Gonzalez. Recruited as a defensive back out of high school, Gonzalez preferred that side of the football but ‘took one for the team' when coaches asked him to move to wideout. Now he is ‘taking one from the other team' on a regular basis. His circus grab inside the five with less than a minute to play is the buzz of the Buckeye nation; "Did you see that catch?" they are asking in near awe. Normally a reception loses its luster in slow motion, but this one simply becomes more incredible.

Nate Salley. Salley has at times been a disappointment this season. He has been a foot here or a foot there out of position and a second too late. Yesterday Salley was right on time in his final regular season game – breaking up a pass and intimidating Michigan receivers.

The Defensive Line. It's amazing what a healthy Mike Kudla and David Patterson add to this unit when placed alongside Quinn Pitcock and Marcus Green. The linebackers for Ohio State normally get the lion's share of the credit for holding down opponents' rushing totals, but when a team with the talent of Michigan can manage only 32 yards rushing on 24 attempts…the domination starts and ends on the defensive line. With the Wolverines' offensive front nicked up, the Buckeyes feasted on Mike Hart, Chad Henne, and Kevin Grady.

Antonio Pittman. Though he didn't reach 100 yards, he gained the ones that counted. His last minute heroics to bounce off the pile, move along the line of scrimmage, search for a hole, break a tackle, and score the winning touchdown were enough to earn him half a dozen leaves on one play. He took care of the football and his blocking assignments; then he took care of the Wolverines.

Other Notables: Santonio Holmes (as always), Tyler Everett, Marcel Frost, and Roy Hall.

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