ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When the Big Ten decided to punish the Michigan football program for an alleged in-person scouting operation, it determined that suspending coach Jim Harbaugh was the proper punitive measure.
Whatever early season benefit Michigan gained from Connor Stalions’ operation would be balanced by making life harder and the path harsher. The Big Ten would force it to play its toughest games — at Penn State, at Maryland and mostly against archrival Ohio State — without its head coach.
And, therefore, with Sherrone Moore, its 37-year-old offensive coordinator.
In Ann Arbor, they like to mockingly call Ohio State’s Ryan Day “Coach Third Base,” a reference to a pointed and particularly vicious put-down by Harbaugh back in 2021, when the Wolverines finally beat the Buckeyes to cause this series to shift.
The theory was that anyone could take over Urban Meyer’s machine and win, but in the big moments and the big games, well, we’ll see who can hit a triple after all. In reality, Day, 44, has proven to be an elite coach and recruiter, 56-6 coming into Saturday, but in rivalries, reality doesn’t matter.
And so stood two coaches on two Big House sidelines on Saturday.
One a presumed heir apparent.
One a punitive case.
Well, one of them went 3-for-3 on fourth downs, used a surprise quarterback substitution to jumpstart a critical second-half drive and ran a halfback option to set up another key score.
One of them had his team produce points on all four second-half possessions, avoided any turnovers and essentially closed out the game with a 13-play, seven-plus-minute display of bullyball that represented everything holy in this rivalry.
Michigan to 12-0 and the Big Ten title game against Iowa next week.
Michigan with a third consecutive victory in this series and third consecutive playoff appearance on the clock.
In arguably the most anticipated and certainly one of the most heated and hated games in this series, the man whose inexperience was deemed by the league office to be a penalty that Michigan would have to overcome, pitched a near-perfect game.
Michigan didn’t win in spite of Sherrone Moore. It won, at least in part, because of him.
“That’s why you come here,” Moore said. “You come for the pressure.”
And then amidst the postgame jubilation, chaos and celebration, Moore looked like a guy who never feels pressure.
He said he slept well all week, unless one of his young daughters woke him. He said he didn’t think about calling trick plays because the guys had practiced so well all week. He said he never doubted anything, he just pushed forward.
“I would do a disservice to [the players] if I was conservative,” Moore said.
Ohio State-Michigan had crushed lesser men. It’s caused good coaches to crumble and otherwise brilliant resumes to be torn to pieces. The 365-day focus is so all-encompassing, so gut-wrenching every year it finds scenes like Ryan Day postgame, a befuddled coach looking mournful and shell-shocked and trying to “process” what had just happened.
“Sick,” Day said of his feelings. “... Devastated.”
Michigan had been caught scouting, which plenty of Buckeyes saw as the reason for two consecutive defeats. Yet Michigan believed Ohio State had hired private investigators to bust them — a claim of which there is no factual basis (at least not yet), not that reality matters. Michigan saw it all as petty and weak.
So it all boiled down to one football game, which felt like three games.
An Ohio State victory would cast doubt on Michigan’s 2021 and 2022 triumphs, when Stalions was still around. A Michigan win would silence those who claim the program only got elite because of sign stealing, not Blake Corum or Will Johnson or J.J. McCarthy, let alone Aidan Hutchinson or Hassan Haskins or David Ojabo before them.
In the end it was Michigan, in much the same way as before.
They won the rushing battle (156 yards to 107). They won the turnover battle (2 to 0). They won time of possession (by nearly seven minutes). They took momentum early and leveraged it all game. They blocked and tackled and blocked and tackled. They never trailed and never buckled.
No amount of Marvin Harrison Jr. or TreVeyon Henderson or any other of these elite Buckeye playmakers would matter. It’s not fair to say this was all about toughness and heart and fight — because Ohio State had plenty, too — but then again, the script keeps playing out that way.
“Guys who wanna put on the Louis V [Vuitton], the $1,000 outfit,” Michigan wide receiver Roman Wilson said. “You want to act hard but when we’re out there, they’re not hard. I see the film, you’re not tough.”
Part of toughness is mental, though. It’s brushing off the injuries. It’s not letting the unstoppable Harrison break your will just because he broke open a play. It’s avoiding confusion and panic that result in wasted timeouts.
And yes, it’s all those fourth downs. Ohio State didn’t attempt one, even running the clock down on fourth-and-2 at the end of the half so it could attempt a 52-yard field goal (it missed). Moore wouldn’t speak on it, but he was likely stunned by the decision.
“We wanted to be aggressive,” Moore said.
How aggressive? Whenever the situation arose for Michigan, Corum said Moore never hesitates and offers just one word to the team.
“Smash,” Corum said.
Sherrone Moore smashed it up on Saturday. Michigan smashed. Got the yards and got Ohio State, again. Three years running now, maybe none more painful.
They won without star players and their head coach. They won with a circus surrounding them and nothing close to the Buckeyes' firepower.
They won with a punishment, a hindrance, a perceived penalty as their acting head coach.
They won with Sherrone Moore — third game, not third base — on arguably the most glorious and satisfying and fantastic football afternoon they’ve ever known around here.
“All I know,” Moore said, deflecting the credit, “is this team is as good as any team in the country.”
And so now they go forward, with Harbaugh back, looking to win some more.