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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — A scarlet-and-grey hammer. A maize-and-blue nail.
Ohio State-Michigan remains a rivalry because the fans, the media, the institutions declare it so. This is especially true in Ohio, where the Buckeye fans have never tired of not giving a damn about the whole state of Michigan.
Emotion is one thing. Reality is another. The annual result remains precisely what you’d expect when hammer and nail meet.
This year it was Buckeyes 56, Wolverines 27. That’s Ohio State’s 15th victory in 16 years, its 17th in 19 and its eighth consecutive. That includes all five against Jim Harbaugh, who long ago as a player defeated the Buckeyes (twice), but hasn’t been able to prevail as a coach.
The seasons change. The coaches and players, too. Nothing else does. This is pushing toward two decades of a mismatch with no end in sight.
It’s like watching two programs on two different tracts, just pretending it’s still the 1970s and things were equal. This game is all about nostalgia, the weather usually as grainy and black and white as the old television clips of Woody and Bo.
Michigan seems to spend its year arguing with Michigan State about who is or isn’t the big brother around here. Then dad shows up in late November to remind them who is the real boss.
“I just think we take it more seriously than they do,” quarterback Justin Fields said. “We prepare for it all year. I think it just means more at Ohio State.”
That’s debatable, because Michigan takes it very seriously. That Ohio State has more talent isn’t in question.
“In this game, it’s about the players,” coach Ryan Day said.
The Buckeyes, once again, are off to bigger and better things, the Big Ten title game next week in Indianapolis, the College Football Playoff (presumably) after that. These days, the program’s true focus is the teams down south, not The Team Up North.
It’s just polite to not admit it.
Michigan is, well, back to the drawing board, although what exactly can be drawn up is anyone’s guess. The Wolverines can’t beat Ohio State and haven’t won the Big Ten since 2004. They are 9-3 again, and while Harbaugh has returned the team to respectability (it’s at least back to beating MSU with some regularity), he remains a mile behind the Buckeyes.
Ohio State has better players, a better system ... a better everything, really, other than perhaps the fight song and helmets (a matter of personal taste).
It’s been that way for awhile, but when Urban Meyer arrived in 2012, he established the closest thing he could to an SEC program in the Midwest. He demanded Ohio State competed outside the region … in recruiting, in development, in chasing championships.
Ryan Day is in his first year in Columbus, but thus far he’s shown no sign of letting up. He’s 15-0 as a head coach, including 12-0 this year.
Day, 40, looks like Ohio State’s next great coach. Michigan’s best hope is that it’s somehow all a mirage. It’s happened before. Larry Coker took over a Miami juggernaut in 2001 and started his career 24-0 with a national title. He was fired four years later as the program sagged. Mark Helfrich replaced Chip Kelly in Oregon in 2013, started 24-3 and was in the national title game. He was canned two years later as the Ducks went 4-8.
Banking on Day not being as good as he looks isn’t much of a plan, but nothing else has worked for Michigan.
Harbaugh does well in recruiting, well enough to beat most of the Big Ten. He doesn’t, or can’t, do it as well as Ohio State though. Since his arrival, Michigan has run satellite camps from Alabama to Australia. It’s run spring practice at IMG Academy in Florida. It’s taken overseas trips to Europe.
Yet even with a famous Super Bowl coach and longtime NFL quarterback at the helm, it’s signed half as many Rivals.com five-star recruits (14-7) as Ohio State. As for the class of 2020, Day has two five-stars committed. Michigan has none. Harbaugh is trying everything. The Buckeyes keep doing more.
On Saturday, the Wolverines even did some things well. They mostly neutralized Chase Young, Ohio State’s great defensive end (and former five-star recruit). They moved the ball and got strong play from quarterback Shea Patterson.
They still got destroyed, in part because of dumb penalties and unforced errors, but mostly because the Buckeyes are just way, way better. Ohio State has scored 118 points the last two years.
This means more in Ohio. It just does. There is one major program in the state. Columbus is an NFL-sized market (2.1 million people) with no NFL team. The Buckeyes, and this rivalry, are ingrained into everything.
During Cleveland Cavalier games, the video board tries to get home fans to boo opposing free throws by showing a Michigan symbol. The converse would never occur in Detroit. For years, Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich would annually decree a “Scarlet Letter Saturday” that encouraged Ohioans to avoid the use of the letter “M.” Another time he tried to ban khakis, Harbuagh’s favorite fashion.
There’s no similar political response in Michigan.
As the years slip further and further from the Bo Schembechler days, let alone the Lloyd Carr ones, the gap just becomes more obvious. Michigan isn’t going to fire Harbaugh. He’s doing an adequate job for what the program wants.
Beating Ohio State seems like too big a hurdle to demand he clear.
It’d be nice and all, but nails generally don’t do well against well-struck hammers, and Ohio State sure is swinging it these days.
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