Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Potential for Change

Without much fanfare, I added a few Michigan sports blogs to the sidebar, and they're some of my favorites to read (and via Statcounter, I saw that at least one of them noticed...hope you guys don't mind).

Anyway,
this entry was posted the other day on Michigan Against the World, and I thought that it was worth quoting in full. It's a reflection on the 2004 UM-OSU game, the game that would begin OSU's three-year winning streak over the Wolverines. I remember sitting in a nearly empty St. Louis apartment with not much other than a TV, a computer, and a cat (the rest was on a moving truck heading for Ohio), thankful that I was at least in somewhat neutral territory and wouldn't have to hear about it. Of course, then my Buckeye alum sister-in-law found me on IM and started laying it on.

The point of the article is that this game was the latest big shift in the rivalry, and that there's little reason to doubt that the next one could come on Saturday or, if rumors are true, soon after. Enjoy.

(Oh, and there's language. Sorry.)

Flash back with me three years. On this day- November 14, 2004- the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry was in a much different place. As we anticipated the 101st meeting of these two bitter rivals in the big game, expectations couldn’t have been more different. After an early loss in South Bend; Michigan rallied behind Chad Henne and Mike Hart, two incredible freshmen in their backfield, to enter the final game at 9-1 ranked in the top 10, and having already clinched a share of the Big Ten title. With a win in Columbus, the Wolverines would clinch a return bid to the Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena. Ohio State? The Buckeyes were a team in disarray. After a 3-0 start, they slumped in the middle of the season losing three straight games. They entered the game on November 20 with a 6-4 record, long eliminated from the Big Ten championship picture, and catching heat from the people of Columbus.

Jim Tressel, only two years removed from a national title, was under about as much pressure as a coach can be without having legitimate fear of losing his job. “Tresselball” was being knocked in Columbus on internet message boards, sports radio, and no doubt water cooler conversation on Mondays throughout the state. Troy Smith was not Troy Smith, rather the “other” QB of the great class of 2002 who had seen action replacing an injured Justin Zwick, and shown flashes of brilliance but an overall inconsistency of play. Freshman sensation Ted Ginn had acclimatized well, but the questions in Columbus were abundant.

Michigan, on the other hand, was in about as good a place as a team could be it seemed. The aforementioned freshman stars in the backfield giving hope to all maize and blue backers that a bright four years were ahead of us. Senior all-world WR Braylon Edwards was in the midst of one of the most dominating seasons of all-time. Junior WR Jason Avant was about as good a #2 guy as you’d see, and the team was loaded with young talent. This Michigan team seemed stacked and ready to take the Big Ten title that was theirs, and hold on to it for four years.

Michigan also entered that game looking to re-establish dominance in the rivalry. John Cooper’s firing in 2000 after the 2-10-1 record against Michigan was followed by two wins in Tressel’s first two seasons. The Wolverines got back at OSU in 2003, and in 2004 looked like they would even the score, and turn things back toward the blue in the years to come. Few gave OSU a chance.

I remember heading down to this game supremely confident in victory. In fact, the one eerie thing about this looking back is that the OSU faithful had essentially written off victory as well. One guarantee in life aside from death and taxes is that you will catch shit wearing Michigan gear in Columbus. Yet, the smack talk from the OSU side was surprisingly non-existent compared with my first 3 trips in 98, 00 and 02 when I was informed multiple times before the game how badly we would be beaten. Aside from the typical “FUCK MICHIGAN!” chants, Kyle and I received relatively few taunts despite our bravado in chanting “PAS-A-DE-NA” and passing out “Tresselbucks” to OSU fans. Not since 1999 had the OSU fans been so reserved and humble about their team’s chances.

And then Tressel changed the face of the rivalry for good.

I’m not sure what did it. I know we had joked before the game that the only way OSU stood a chance would be if Tressel abandoned his traditional boring offense and studied film of how MSU was able to keep it close despite a gaping difference in talent by running their spread offense through the QB and delayed handoffs, and misdirections. After all, I reasoned, OSU does have Troy Smith who can run. Sometimes it sucks being right. Maybe Tressel listened to Busta Rhymes early in Michigan Week and took “flip mode” to heart. Who knows? But, out of shotgun, five plays into the game when Smith found a wide open Anthony Gonzalez for a 68 yard touchdown, the horseshoe awoke from its slumber, and things changed. Michigan fought back and took a 14-7 lead, and we were driving near midfield. When we failed to convert a third down near midfield, we punted back to OSU and pinned them back at their own one. The following drive- a 99 yard masterpiece by Smith- tied the score and changed the rivalry for good. Michigan never challenged OSU again on the day. By the time Braylon Edwards dropped Chad Henne’s fourth down pass late in the game and down by two scores, Michigan’s fate was sealed. Smith had the greatest day ever by a single player in this rivalry, running for 145 yards, and throwing for 241.

The 2004 game was the first game that in my opinion, Tressel really changed the rivalry. In 2001 OSU came in and beat us, but that was more on our team for poor execution and stupid mistakes. A 23-0 OSU lead only turned into a 26-20 win. In 2002, OSU flat out had the better team. But in this 2004 game, Tressel showed the world that he was willing to change his approach, modify the entire offensive philosophy of Ohio State football, and play to his strengths in order to beat Michigan. That attitude paid off, as since that game Ohio State has not lost to Michigan, has gone 33-4 and picked up 2 Big Ten titles. Michigan has gone 26-11 following that game.

So why, of all people, am I bringing this game up during this week? Clearly it’s not to sing the praises of Tressel or the OSU program, as Merriman-Webster is diligently working on a word to accurately describe the level of hate I have for them. The reasoning is quite clear: this is a game that can change the fortunes of the teams. I know this has been a trying year for Michigan fans, and for some reason there are quite a few folks who think we stand no chance in this game. I couldn’t disagree more, and I point to the 2004 game as an example of how a big win in this the biggest game in college football can change the fortunes of a program. Our program isn’t in a bad place right now. I’ve read the speculation on Lloyd’s retirement. I have a decent idea of what direction we would go in for his replacement, and I’m fairly certain that we can maintain the continuity of success here at Michigan, and raise the bar a little bit. I think that this game on Saturday can go a long way in getting us back to the level expected of Michigan teams. We have more to play for on Saturday than the 2004 Buckeyes did, and heading into an off-season that is likely to produce great change within the program with a Big Ten title and a win over OSU will make things that much easier in 2008.

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