ANALYSIS: Coaching, QBs and offensive lines decided another Ohio State-Michigan game

The ironies in Ohio State’s 61st loss to Michigan were many, and they were cruel.

Just like old times.

The Wolverines’ hinted last season they had completely flipped the rivalry in their favor after two decades of suffering, and they confirmed it Saturday with a hard-fought 30-24 victory over the Buckeyes.

Prior to this edition of The Game, the most likely scenarios were (in no particular order): Ohio State is just better and will prove it, Michigan is just better and will prove it, Michigan will find ways to win or Ohio State will find ways to lose.

The outcome was a mix of the latter two for sure.

Ohio State did not play badly, but Michigan made more plays because that is now the state of the rivalry until further notice.

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy is not a classic drop-back passer in the mold of a Tom Brady, but he is a gamer at least to the degree of someone like former Buckeye Craig Krenzel. McCarthy, the junior who grew up an Ohio State fan made plays with his feet, and he was rewarded on a couple of gutsy throws into traffic that paid off.

Kyle McCord had a decent game, but the Ohio State quarterback’s unforced first-quarter interception was a killer for the Buckeyes, whose offensive line also wasn’t bad throughout but gave up the pressure that caused McCord to throw the game-clinching interception.

In another ode to history, McCord ended up having a Wilton Speight-type of day. Speight threw for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Buckeyes in 2016, but he committed three crucial turnovers, including a Malik Hooker pick-6 in the first half, and Ohio State went on to win 30-27 in overtime despite being outplayed for most of the afternoon.

The result was familiar to anyone who was alive in the 1990s, but the method more resembled the early 2000s.

Acting Michigan head coach Sherrone Moore took a page from former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel (9-1 against Michigan) by having some tricks up his sleeve that seemed to be saved for the Buckeyes, including a successful a halfback pass and “Wildcat” package for his backup quarterback to steal a few yards on the ground.

The explosive plays the Wolverines manufactured replaced the coverage busts that led to five long touchdowns and undid Ohio State’s defensive effort a season ago in Columbus.

They also provided enough yards to let Michigan lean on Ohio State with its running game like it did in 2021 despite the matchup in the trenches not being as lopsided as it was then. The Wolverines couldn’t overpower the Buckeyes for the whole game, but part of the fourth quarter was enough as Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles still didn’t seem to have the right answers.

Sometimes constructing a narrative that stretches across multiple games is difficult. This time? Not so much.

Moore’s team also was set up to win by the newfound daily interest in preparing for The Game that Michigan adopted in 2021 after losing eight in a row to the Buckeyes and enduring a disastrous 2020 season.

That, too, was a Tressel special taken up by successor Urban Meyer, who never lost to the Wolverines while he was head coach of the Buckeyes.

On top of that, the pandemic reset seems to have helped the Wolverines and hurt the Buckeyes, who used to have a superior offseason program but have taken a backseat to Michigan’s development of players over the past three seasons.

Ohio State still signs higher-rated recruiting classes and has more players selected earlier in the NFL Draft, but in between, the Buckeyes haven’t been as successful on the field.

Meanwhile, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day still says the Buckeyes “work the rivalry every day,” but it is more in the sense that they do everything the same every week and expect that to carry over into a good performance on the fourth Saturday in November.

Will that continue, or can the New Hampshire native figure out how to recapture the mindset Tressel’s teams took into The Game?

A few weeks ago, I started thinking about 24 points would be enough for Ohio State to win in Ann Arbor.

They weren’t, and you can choose your reason why: The seven points Michigan scored off McCord’s first interception or the defense failing to force a punt in the second half.

I lean more toward the latter.

Michigan hit Knowles’ strikeout pitches out of the park multiple times in 2022, but the Wolverines won by stringing together walks and singles while Knowles nibbled around the strike zone this time around.

He is a smart coach with a proven record of success, but this is a results-driven business. So far he hasn’t produced them.

More than that, Knowles is squarely in damned if you do, damned if you don’t territory at this point, and the same can be said about Day as long as the Buckeyes aren’t winning this game.

That is most definitely the last place any coach wants to be in this rivalry, as plenty of former coaches on either side can attest.

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