Michigan football's 2-vs-3 matchup vs. Ohio State a rare pairing of top-4 teams in rivalry

Saturday’s game between Michigan football and Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, will be the 117th edition of well, The Game.

Both the Buckeyes and Wolverines enter their showdown undefeated, with the winner claiming a spot in next week’s Big Ten title game in Indianapolis, and the loser getting a week to stump for a second spot in the College Football Playoff.

Even without the enhanced stakes this week, it’s a rivalry with more than its fair share of hate, as well as more than its fair share of classic games between two programs that have mostly dominated the Big Ten over the past six decades.

And yet, as continuously strong as they’ve been, and as many times as the final game of November between the two has determined the Big Ten’s representative in the Rose Bowl or, more recently, the Big Ten East’s representative in the conference title game in Indianapolis, this season’s iteration, featuring both the Buckeyes and Wolverines as undefeateds, is still a rarity.

With Ohio State ranked No. 2 in the AP poll and Michigan ranked No. 3, it’s just the eighth time the two programs have met as top-four teams.

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Michigan running back Hassan Haskins scores a touchdown against Ohio State during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.
Michigan running back Hassan Haskins scores a touchdown against Ohio State during the first half at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.

Even last season’s matchup, perhaps as notable a showdown in the series this century — it served as the decider of the Big Ten East as well as a de facto play-in game for the College Football Playoff — featured a Buckeyes squad that was No. 2 in the AP poll and the CFP rankings vs. a Michigan team at Nos. 6 and 5, respectively. (The Wolverines, of course, leapt up to No. 2 in both after their 42-39 victory, planting the seed for this year’s grudge match.)

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the previous seven top-four matchups in the rivalry:

Nov. 23, 1968: No. 2 Ohio State 50, No. 4 Michigan 14

The buildup: Only Michigan’s season-opening 21-7 loss to Cal kept this from a matchup of unbeatens with the Rose Bowl (and a matchup against No. 1 USC) at stake. Still, both squads were 6-0 in Big Ten play, with the Wolverines outscoring conference foes, 193-33, and the Buckeyes managing a mere 190-100 edge. As Northwestern coach Alex Agase, interviewed by the Freep as one of the four common foes between the teams, noted, “I think Ohio State has the slight edge among the first 22 players and in quality depth. … It should be a very close game.”

The game: Uh, not so much. Granted, the Wolverines took a 7-0 lead on a nine-play, 80-yard drive. But a pair of wind-buffeted punts gave the Buckeyes excellent field position and short fields for two TDs to claim the lead. U-M had one more drive, turning a fumble at OSU’s 28 into a TD eight plays later. From there, it was all Buckeyes; OSU stayed on the ground for 421 yards and halfback Jim Otis scored three TDs. The Buckeyes’ final points, a 1-yard run by Otis, came with 83 seconds left and were followed by a 2-point try which failed. Contrary to the apocryphal quote, OSU coach Woody Hayes didn’t explain his decision to go for it as, “Because I couldn’t go for 3” — but he did explain why OSU punched in the final TD while leading by 30, telling the Freep: “I’ve got to the point now where 50 points and nothing less is a satisfying margin.”

Woody Hayes at the Michigan vs. Ohio State game in Ann Arbor, Nov. 22, 1969.
Woody Hayes at the Michigan vs. Ohio State game in Ann Arbor, Nov. 22, 1969.

The aftermath: Michigan coach Bump Elliott was equally understanding, telling reporters, “I don’t think he was pouring it on. He was playing to win, that’s all.” And then a pause, and: “Anyway, I’ve quit worrying about things like that.” A month later, Elliott resigned to become an associate athletic director at U-M. His replacement was a former Hayes assistant, then coaching at Miami (Ohio): 39-year-old Bo Schembechler. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, leapt over the Trojans in the AP poll, then claimed the national title with a 27-16 win over USC in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

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Nov. 24, 1973: No. 1 Ohio State 10, No. 4 Michigan 10

The buildup: The war between Bo and Woody began with a U-M upset in 1969, followed by OSU wins in 1970 and ’72. The 1971 game, in which the unranked Buckeyes narrowly lost to the No. 3 Wolverines, 10-7, had featured a temper tantrum by Hayes in which he threw a downs marker “javelin-style onto the field.” By the time the 1973 game arrived, with both undefeated and both featuring massive margin-of-victory spreads in conference play — 270 points for OSU, 188 for U-M — there was grudging respect hiding behind clenched jaws. Bo on the Buckeyes: “I want to avoid comparing them with 1969 and 1970. This year, they’re maybe a little more complete.” Woody on the Wolverines: “They are not a super team, but they are a darn good team.”

The game: And, indeed, the two teams proved evenly matched, each controlling a half. The Buckeyes rolled to a 10-0 halftime lead behind 99 rushing yards from sophomore running back Archie Griffin (who would finish fifth in Heisman Trophy voting before winning it in 1974 and ’75). But the Wolverines rallied behind big runs from fullback Ed Shuttlesworth, who topped 100 yards for the first time all season, and key passes from quarterback Denny Franklin. But neither side could get the decisive score, with Michigan’s final hopes dying on 58- and 44-yard field goals in the final 66 seconds. The Big Ten’s Rose Bowl berth would go to a vote of athletic directors the next day.

The aftermath: The Wolverines were confident they’d be the pick, as U-M had an extra nonconference victory and the Buckeyes had been to Pasadena in ’72: “I can’t imagine anyone going against Michigan,” U-M AD Don Canham told the Freep. “Frankly, I think the vote will be 9-1 in our favor.” Not quite. Instead, the vote went 6-4 to OSU, with Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State siding with the Buckeyes, while Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota voted for the Wolverines. (A 5-5 tie would have sent Michigan, meaning MSU’s vote was essentially the tiebreaker.) U-M stayed home for the holidays and had to watch OSU (which had dropped to No. 4 in the AP poll) dominate No. 7 USC, 42-21.

Nov. 23, 1974: No. 4 Ohio State 12, No. 3 Michigan 10

The buildup: For the sixth time in seven seasons, the winner would advance to the Rose Bowl, with a potential national championship on the line — Michigan was 10-0 and No. 2 in the UPI poll, while Ohio State was 9-1 (its lone loss coming to Michigan State two weeks earlier) and No. 3 by UPI … and favored by 7 by oddsmakers. Still, the Wolverines were undeterred: “The package comes all together,” said fullback Chuck Heater. “To beat Ohio State means the Rose Bowl, and to win in the Rose Bowl means a national champion. We’re shooting for the ultimate — the national championship.”

The game: After the Wolverines jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first eight minutes, it became a game of kicks. OSU’s Tom Klaban hit from 47, 25 and 43 yards in the second quarter, than connected on a 45-yarder five minutes into the third. U-M struggled to move the ball until the final minute, when a five-play drive got the Wolverines to OSU’s 16. But kicker Mike Lantry — who’d also missed the two kicks at the end of 1973’s game — pushed the 33-yard kick barely left.

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The aftermath: With both squads featuring one loss in conference play, it again went to a vote of the ADs the next day in Chicago. And again, the ADs —meeting in person, rather than over the phone like in ’73 — backed the Buckeyes, though the final vote total was kept secret. (The Freep’s digging found at least six votes for OSU, with one of them likely Northwestern AD  John Pont — Schembechler’s roommate at Miami.) The Wolverines did receive two small consolations: First, the Buckeyes lost to USC in the Rose Bowl, 18-17, to drop to fourth in the final AP poll. In that same poll, U-M received two first-place votes to edge OSU by 10 points for No. 3.

Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, left, and Ohio State's legendary Woody Hayes, shown here before the 1975 game, provided much of the fuel in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, which resumes Saturday as a No. 2 vs. No. 3 showdown.
Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, left, and Ohio State's legendary Woody Hayes, shown here before the 1975 game, provided much of the fuel in the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, which resumes Saturday as a No. 2 vs. No. 3 showdown.

Nov. 22, 1975: No. 1 Ohio State 21, No. 4 Michigan 14

The buildup: Yes, the Rose Bowl was on the line again, but for the first time, the loser would receive a consolation prize: a spot in the Orange Bowl against the Big 8’s champion, Oklahoma. Both U-M and OSU were once again undefeated, though Michigan’s September ties with Stanford and Baylor had shaken the football world’s faith in the host Wolverines — U-M was a six-point underdog (and a seven-point ’dog from Columbus bookies). Not that it worried Schembechler: “I’ve never gone into a game I didn’t think I could win,” Bo told the Freep. “I don’t care about the bookies.”

The game: Everything was going according to plan for U-M — with RBs Gordon Bell and Rob Lytle combining for 228 yards — en route a 14-7 lead. The Wolverines had even contained Griffin, the reigning and soon-to-be repeat Heisman winner, to just 46 yards on 19 carries, his worst total since his freshman year. But midway through the fourth, the Buckeyes drove for the tying touchdown, then took the lead 59 seconds later after intercepting U-M QB (and future Detroit Tigers outfielder) Rick Leach with 2:23 remaining. Why the pass, so late in the game? “When you throw from down there, you are taking a chance,” Schembechler told reporters afterward. “But that was a chance we had to take. … No, we’re not playing for a tie. Ties have done nothing but hurt us.”

The aftermath: Neither the Buckeyes nor the Wolverines got what they wanted out of their bowls. OSU, with a chance to cement a national title with a win over No. 11 UCLA, lost, 23-10, to Dick Vermeil’s Bruins and finished fourth in the final AP poll. U-M, meanwhile, was flummoxed by Oklahoma’s wishbone offense, and even more so by the Sooner defense, which only allowed a TD late in the fourth quarter after a fumble granted the Wolverines the ball at OU’s 2.

Michigan's Charles Woodson races ahead of Ohio State's Scott Fulton during a second-quarter punt return touchdown Saturday, Nov. 22, 1997 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan won, 20-14.
Michigan's Charles Woodson races ahead of Ohio State's Scott Fulton during a second-quarter punt return touchdown Saturday, Nov. 22, 1997 at Michigan Stadium. Michigan won, 20-14.

Nov. 22, 1997: No. 1 Michigan 20, No. 4 Ohio State 14

The buildup: Since losing to Penn State in mid-October, the Buckeyes had taken out their frustration on the rest of the Big Ten, pounding Indiana, Northwestern, MSU, Minnesota and Illinois by a combined 189-28 score. The Wolverines, meanwhile, had allowed multiple touchdowns in a game just three times — to Notre Dame in September, Iowa in October and Wisconsin just the week prior. And still, unbeaten U-M was favored by just 3½ points in Ann Arbor.

The game: It wasn’t pretty — well, unless you were Charles Woodson, or related to him — but the Wolverines got stops when they needed to, even though the offense only delivered one touchdown (set up by a 37-yard reception by Woodson). The future Heisman winner was electric in all three phases, returning a punt 78 yards for a score with 3:43 left in the first half and intercepting a pass in the end zone to zap a Buckeyes scoring chance on the first drive of the second half. (Woodson wasn’t perfect, either, as he was beat badly by David Boston with 4:50 left in the third quarter to get OSU on the board.)

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The aftermath: The Wolverines got another gift while they were beating the Buckeyes: Florida State, No. 1 in the coaches poll, lost to Florida, giving Michigan the top spot in both rankings. All they needed was a win over Washington State in Pasadena for an undisputed national championship, right? Well, almost. The Wolverines did their part, holding off the Cougars in Pasadena despite some clock shenanigans at the end. But Nebraska’s victory in the Orange Bowl — and perhaps a few heartstrings plucked by the retirement of coach Tom Osborne — put the ’Huskers atop the coaches poll, while the Wolverines finished No. 1 in the media vote.

Nov. 18, 2006: No. 1 Ohio State 42, No. 2 Michigan 39

The buildup: Both the Buckeyes and Wolverines were built around stingy defenses — ranked third and eighth, respectively — and punishing ground games. But they’d arrived at 11-0 entering The Game from very different positions: OSU opened the season at No. 1, then beat 10 of 11 opponents (including No. 2 Texas in Week 2) by at least 17 points; U-M opened at No. 14 and didn’t reach No. 2 in the polls until beating Penn State in Happy Valley in mid-October. And just as the two teams were set for an epic showdown — the first ever between Nos. 1-2 in the rivalry — Schembechler died of a heart attack, just hours after speaking to the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, and showed the two fanbases how much they really shared.

The game: But The Game went on in Columbus — though for a while, it looked like no one told the defenses. U-M needed just 2:28 to drive 80 yards for an opening touchdown, then surrendered three OSU TDs in roughly 15 minutes. The Wolverines battled back (helped by three Buckeye turnovers that led to 10 points) but OSU seemingly had an answer at every turn. After Chad Henne’s passes to Tyler Ecker (for a TD) and Steve Breaston (for a 2-point conversion) made it a three-point game, Antonio Pittman’s 6-yard run on third-and-2 finally closed out the Wolverines’ hopes of a storybook ending.

The aftermath: For one of the few times in the rivalry, it was the loser headed to the Rose Bowl, as fellow one-loss Florida leapt past Michigan to No. 2 — despite a few scattered calls for a January rematch in Arizona — and a date with No. 1 Ohio State in the Bowl Championship System title game. Then again, perhaps the BCS knew what it was doing; the Gators pulverized the Buckeyes, 41-14. The Wolverines, meanwhile, had to settle for Pasadena, where they were no match for the Trojans’ superior speed.

Nov. 26, 2016: No. 2 Ohio State 30, No. 3 Michigan 27 (2 OT)

The buildup: Every era gets its own version of The Game, and this one featured a twist created by the College Football Playoff, in its third season, and the Big Ten title game, in its sixth. After years of the Wolverines wandering in the wilderness, they’d finally made it to the finale with just one Big Ten loss (two weeks prior, to Iowa). The Buckeyes had just one loss as well — to Penn State. And the Nittany Lions had one conference loss, too — to Michigan. A Wolverines win would send them to the conference title game in Indy, while the Buckeyes needed to win AND get a PSU loss to Michigan State for a trip to Indy. But if the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes both won, the former would head to Indy, while the later would have a week off before almost certainly being handed a CFP berth. It almost made one long for the days of Big Ten ADs handing out Rose Bowl berths by phone. Almost.

Ohio State's J.T. Barrett rushes for a first down in double overtime against Michigan at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 26, 2016.
Ohio State's J.T. Barrett rushes for a first down in double overtime against Michigan at Ohio Stadium on Nov. 26, 2016.

The game: Of course, a Michigan win in Columbus would cut though all the tiebreakers, and when Khalid Hill scored his second TD of the day, a little over eight minutes into the third quarter, that looked more and more possible. But with a three-point lead and 5:37 remaining, the Wolverines punted and OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett led  13-play, 77-yard drive to U-M’s 5, where Tyler Durbin’s field goal with one second left forced an overtime — something else that didn’t exist in Bo and Woody’s era. The squads traded TDs in the first extra session, followed by a U-M field goal to open the second. OSU’s drive came down to fourth-and-1 at the 16; Barrett kept a run-pass option and got to the 15, his 125th and final yard of the game. Or did he? A series of TV replays suggested Michigan had gotten the stop, and coach Jim Harbaugh vigorously signaled so from the sideline. But the call stood, and on the next play, running back Curtis Samuel scampered 15 yards for the winning score.

The aftermath: Afterward, the phantom yard was all anyone could talk about, as Harbaugh declared he was “bitterly disappointed” in the officiating and insisted, “It wasn’t a first down, by that much,” with his hands about six inches apart. Nevertheless, Penn State was headed to the Big Ten title game (and, eventually, the Rose Bowl), Ohio State was headed to the CFP semifinals (and, eventually — and perhaps fittingly — a 31-0 loss to Clemson) and Michigan was headed to the Orange Bowl (and, eventually, a 33-32 loss to Florida State).

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's 2-vs-3 matchup vs. Ohio State a rare rivalry pair