Ohio State football has realized perfection for the sixth time in its 123-year history.
With a frigid Ohio Stadium as their stage and a sprinkling of snow whipping about their home field, the 2012 Buckeyes, ranked No. 4 by the Associated Press, exited the season in grand fashion, defeating the arch-rival and No. 20-ranked Michigan Wolverines, 26-21. The team becomes the sixth undefeated squad in OSU history and the first since 2002.
Saturday’s game was the 109th meeting in the series and the victory is OSU’s 44th in the history of The Game, though UM, eliminated from Big Ten title contention after Nebraska won on Friday, still owns the all-time series advantage with a 58-44-6 record.
UM took a 21-20 lead into half on the strength of the dual-threat quarterbacking combo of senior Denard Robinson and junior Devin Gardner. Gardner threw for 171 yards, one touchdown and one costly interception on 11-of-20 attempts. Robinson did not attempt a pass in the game, but did lineup under center. He rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown.
The Wolverines were held scoreless in the second half by an OSU defense that forced four turnovers despite the absence of senior defensive end John Simon, who missed the game due to a right knee injury. The Buckeyes defense held UM to just 107 total yards a -4 rushing yards in the second half, holding the visitors scoreless.
OSU junior kicker Drew Basil tallied 14 points in the game, including two second-half field goals that put the Buckeyes ahead for good. In addition to two successful extra-point attempts, Basil was 4-of-5 on field goal tries, connecting from 41, 52, 28 and 25 yards.
OSU junior safety C.J. Barnett intercepted a Gardner pass with less than four minutes to play in regulation. First-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer then called upon junior running back Carlos Hyde to put the finishing touches on the undefeated season. Hyde obliged, rushing for 27 yards while helping the Buckeyes collect two first downs that Meyer used to bleed the game clock out.
Hyde, who scored on a 3-yard run on the very first possession of the game, finished the afternoon with 146 yards.
Buckeyes sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller completed 14-of-18 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown pass to junior receiver Corey Brown – the final argument in the player’s case for the Heisman Trophy.
The largest Ohio Stadium crowd in the history of the rivalry – 105,899 – assembled for this year’s installment of The Game, and many poured onto the field as the clock ticked down to “00:00.”
“That was a classic rivalry game,” Meyer said after the game. “Well, to be 12-0 – it really hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Hyde blew through the Michigan line 2:19 into the game, scurrying into the end zone on a 3-yard run to put OSU up, 7-0. The early score was keyed by 52-yard pass reception by sophomore receiver Devin Smith, who broke loose, gathered the deep ball from Miller and joined many of the OSU faithful in attendance in a celebratory bounce.
Hyde said Saturday was an example of why he chose to come to OSU.
“That’s exactly why I came here, to play in big games like this against our rival in the ‘Shoe,” Hyde said. “Having a shot at being undefeated made it even more special.”
At the time of Hyde’s score, OSU was far from having clinched the game, and the contest’s back-and-forth tenor would be established by Gardner on UM’s next drive when he found senior receiver Roy Roundtree on a 75-yard reception to level the score. Roundtree broke down the east sideline in front of the Wolverines bench and, after slowing his run for a blocker, traipsed into the end zone.
“We prepared well,” Roundtree said after the game. “It was a tough game but we need to look at the mistakes we made and improve.”
The weather seemed to mimic the intensity of the rivalry in that moment as the snow began to fall heavier.
Brown, a returner of two punt-return touchdowns during the season, muffed a punt early in the second quarter, resulting in threatening field position for UM on the OSU 25-yard line. Gardner eventually capped the drive, scoring on a 2-yard quarterback-keeper run to put the Wolverines in front, 14-10. The lead was the first for UM in Ohio Stadium since the team’s 2006 meeting, which OSU won, 42-39.
Fighting to gain an edge heading into half, OSU edged in front when Miller connected with Brown on a 14-yard touchdown to restore the Buckeyes lead at 17-14. UM retook possession with 90 seconds to play until the break, and retook the lead when Robinson scampered 67 yards into the end zone, gesturing to fans in the south stand after he crossed the goal line.
Robinson’s long touchdown run, OSU junior safety Christian Bryant said, was the result of a collision between he and redshirt senior cornerback Travis Howard.
“Travis and I actually collided and hit heads on that play, and (Travis) was shaken up afterward,” Bryant said. “Those are plays we need to overcome like we did in the second half.”
OSU countered with a season-long 52-yard field goal from Basil, but went into break trailing by a point at 21-20.
The OSU defense overcame the lapse on Robinson’s long score by squelching the UM attack in the second half, shutting UM out in the final 30 minutes of play.
Basil, who attempted just six kicks in the 11 previous games this year, made two more field goals in the second half to put the Buckeyes up for good. Barnett’s interception left the game in the hands of Hyde and OSU’s offensive line, and they delivered.
With less than two minutes to play and victory nearly in-hand, Meyer pumped his fists in celebration. When time expired, he and his players streamed out into the field – improbably, the dream season that so many had hoped for but few truly thought possible had been achieved.
Fans mobbed the Buckeyes on the field while the Wolverines scurried up the ramp to the right of the south stand.
After the game, Meyer thanked the fans for their support.
“I want to thank a few people, most importantly, I want to thank Buckeye Nation, and from the Skull Session to the stadium,” Meyer said. “I just don’t want that to go unappreciated.”
OSU, which won the Big Ten Conference’s outright Leaders Division title last week when it beat Wisconsin, will now wait until the end of college football’s bowl season to learn of its final standing in the AP poll – the team still has a chance at a share of the national championship.
For now, 12-0 is good enough for some of the Buckeyes, including Miller.
“It’s a perfect season,” Miller said. “You can’t ask for anything better. You have to get all the wins you can, especially against (UM), and at home.”
OSU redshirt senior linebacker Etienne Sabino agreed.
“It still hasn’t hit me,” Sabino said. “I keep thinking about it and I can’t get over we’re 12-0.”
Jim Tressel, 2002 national champions honored
Much of the intrigue in The Game centers around the history of the respective programs, and OSU paid homage to its greatest football triumph of the last decade when the 2002 national championship team was honored between the first and second quarters. Former Buckeye coach Jim Tressel, once shamed by the “Tattoo-Gate” scandal that resulted in his forced resignation as OSU coach, was hoisted onto the shoulders of his former players, much to the delight of many in Ohio Stadium.
The loudest cheers during the ceremony in which the 2002 team was honored occurred when Tressel was on the Ohio Stadium video board.