COLUMBUS, Ohio — Generations of Ohio State and Michigan fans will debate the latest episode of one of college football’s most impassioned rivalries, a 30-27 Ohio State victory in two overtimes on Saturday, the Buckeyes’ fifth straight win over the Wolverines.
What if Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight — who generally played well, completing 23 of 36 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns — had not fumbled the ball away at the Ohio State 1-yard line early in the second half? What if Ohio State kicker Tyler Durbin, a senior who entered the game 16 of 16 on field-goal attempts this season, had not missed two attempts, one from 37 yards and one from 21?
And of course: What if, with Ohio State on a do-or-die fourth-and-1 play in the second overtime, the officials had not ruled that quarterback J. T. Barrett had made a first down?
In that last instance, the debatable first-down call stood up to a video review. And on the next play, halfback Curtis Samuel ran the ball in 15 yards for the win.
The upshot was that the No. 2 Buckeyes (11-1, 8-1 Big Ten) had beaten the No. 3 Wolverines (10-2, 7-2) on a crisp autumn afternoon — the most consequential matchup in a decade for a rivalry contested 113 times.
No. 8 Penn State (10-2, 8-1) also won on Saturday, beating Michigan State, 45-12, in State College, Pa., a result that denied Ohio State a spot in next Saturday’s Big Ten championship game versus No. 5 Wisconsin (9-2, 7-2). Nonetheless, the Buckeyes remain a prime candidate for the four-team College Football Playoff. If they make it, it will be their second appearance since 2014, when the playoff format began. The loss very likely eliminated Michigan from contention for the playoff.
Ohio State won, but the scoreboard is an unreliable narrator. The Wolverines outplayed Ohio State in many respects: on offense, converting 9 of 19 third-down attempts; on defense, sacking Barrett eight times; and over all, keeping the game close despite a turnover margin of minus-two.
And then there was that crucial rush by Barrett. Needing either a field goal to force a third overtime or a touchdown to win, Ohio State elected to go for it from the 16-yard line on a fourth-and-1. Barrett took the snap in the shotgun, faked a handoff to Samuel running right and then took off to run over the left guard. Safety Delano Hill hit Barrett well behind the 16; Barrett fell forward into a scrum and landed … somewhere. It could just as easily have been called short; a replay review would most likely have upheld either call.
“When I got hit, I wasn’t 100 percent certain, to be honest with you,” Barrett said.
Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh held his hands about a half-yard apart and said, “My view of the first down is it was — that short.”
Harbaugh also pointed to a pass interference call on Hill (“a gift”) and one noncall on an incomplete pass to Michigan wide receiver Grant Perry, saying, “I’m bitterly disappointed with the officiating.”
Michigan committed seven penalties that cost it 59 yards; Ohio State committed two that cost it 6.
Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer is 2-0 versus Harbaugh, a former Wolverines quarterback whose move back to Michigan before last season put many in mind of the so-called Ten-Year War between Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Michigan’s Bo Schembechler from 1969 to 1978.
On Saturday, it became apparent early on that Ohio State’s high-flying offense, which entered the game averaging a conference-best 43.8 points per game, would be stymied by Michigan’s defense, which entered the game as the best in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards and points per game.
Both teams punted four times and tried for a field goal in their first five possessions. Michigan tried to get the star linebacker Jabrill Peppers, a top Heisman Trophy candidate, involved on offense with a direct snap on the first drive. Barrett ran and scrambled.
“J. T. didn’t start out very good,” Meyer said. “We had some misfires.”
Barrett finished 15 of 32 for 124 passing yards, no touchdowns and one interception, but he added 30 rushes for 125 yards and, in overtime, a touchdown.
Michigan’s first touchdown came on a goal-line handoff to fullback Khalid Hill, who also scored its second touchdown, on an 8-yard pass from Speight.
In a game steeped in tradition, Michigan was more traditional, moving up the field with stately huddles and between-the-tackles runs, while Ohio State’s tempo offense tried passes and runs outside the hash marks. (Michigan also wore its distinctive winged helmets while Ohio State wore relatively unfamiliar charcoal.)
Ohio State’s best offense was its defense.
With a little more than four minutes left in the first half, the Buckeyes had no points and 83 yards. A 60-yard punt pinned Michigan at the 6-yard line, and on the first snap, a delayed blitz forced Speight into a bad throw. The ball dropped into the hands of Ohio State safety Malik Hooker, who ran it 16 yards for a touchdown.
Another interception, by Buckeyes linebacker Jerome Baker, put Ohio State at the Michigan 13-yard line near the end of the third quarter and led to a 1-yard touchdown run by Mike Weber, Ohio State’s second and final touchdown in regulation.
That was all in a day’s work for the Buckeyes’ defense, which entered the game ranked fourth in the F.B.S. and whose 17 interceptions through 11 games had them ranked fifth. Ohio State’s seven interceptions returned for touchdowns are by far the best total in the F.B.S.
Ohio State also forced Michigan into three-and-outs in its last two full possessions, giving the offense enough time to march down the field twice. The first drive resulted in a missed field-goal attempt, the second in a 23-yard field goal by Durbin that tied the game at 17-17 with one second left.
The Michigan-Ohio State series has retained its status in recent years, with the teams refusing to say each other’s names and seeming to put nearly as much stock in the outcome of this game as they do in their seasons as a whole, in spite of an indisputable dynamic: its lopsidedness. Ohio State has now won 14 of the last 16 games.
Referring to a redshirt senior offensive lineman and to the small charms that Ohio State players receive for beating the program they call That Team Up North, Meyer said, “Pat Elflein just got his fifth pair of gold pants.”