ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Justice was served in shades of maize and blue.
In one season-defining, fourth-quarter drive yesterday, No.5 Michigan spared college football a potential BCS debacle and sentenced No.4 Ohio State to a 35-21 defeat.
The Drive began with 11:48 remaining in the 100th meeting between the Big Ten behemoths and Michigan clinging to a tenuous 28-21 lead that once had been a very comfy 28-7.
Displaying the resilience that has defined the Buckeyes in the Jim Tressel era, Ohio State (10-2, 6-2 Big Ten) weathered a Michigan assault that produced touchdowns on four of its first five possessions and clawed back into contention.
The Buckeyes, ranked two spots behind Southern California in both polls but somehow ahead of the Trojans in the latest BCS standings, had all the momentum and must have sensed that a berth in the Sugar Bowl was just a big play away. No doubt, every one of the NCAA-record 112,118 folks in attendance was intimately aware of Ohio State’s mind-numbing success in thrillers: 9-0 in games decided by less than a touchdown since the start of 2002. And as Michigan (10-2, 7-1) took possession at its 12, you could sense a 10th scene coming in that luck-laden script.
On first down, Michigan senior Chris Perry was swallowed up at the line by defensive end Simon Fraser. Perry, the Big Ten’s premier tailback and a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate, was sensational over the game’s first 35 minutes. But Ohio State All-American Will Smith wrenched Perry’s leg during a pileup midway through the third quarter. And with Perry limping noticeably between plays afterward, the sudden slump in the Michigan offense corresponded.
“I was too busy barking at Smitty about how I got injured to focus on the pain,” Perry said of the seemingly dirty play. “If that’s what it looked like, cameras don’t lie.”
In fact, it wasn’t the first suspect play in a pile by the Buckeyes. On Michigan’s first drive of the game, Ohio State linebacker Robert Reynolds hit Michigan wideout Jason Avant after a short completion and continued twisting the receiver’s body well after the whistle sounded.
Reynolds is the same player who infamously jabbed Wisconsin’s Jim Sorgi in the Adam’s apple at the bottom of a pile earlier this year. Like Sorgi, Avant had to leave the game and was later carted to the locker room with his left leg encased in ice.
In spite of his condition, Michigan turned once again to Perry. On second down, quarterback John Navarre found him on a screen pass that netted 15 yards and a new set of downs. Michigan assistants tried waving the gassed tailback to the sideline for a rest. But Perry returned to the huddle and answered his coaches by making a brilliant cut off left tackle and rambling for 13 yards to the Michigan 40.
“Honestly, I was hurting a lot,” said Perry, a 6-foot-1, 218-pounder who entering this season was being criticized by Michigan fans as a pedestrian blip in the Wolverines’ tailback lineage. “But it was one of those games that’s going to be remembered and talked about a lot. I want to be remembered, so there was no way I was going to be held out.”
After a pair of short gains set up a third-and-4 at the Michigan 46, the Wolverines then put the game in the hands of Navarre, one of the more maligned players in the school’s history. Despite a 30-10 career mark as a starter and a slew of school passing records, Navarre was 0-2 against Ohio State and had never led the Wolverines to the Big Ten title.
With his reputation at stake on third down, Navarre lofted a perfect ball to tight end Tyler Ecker on a deep out with Ohio State’s Donte Whitner seemingly Velcroed to Ecker’s back. Despite the tight coverage, Ecker hardly had to move his hands to make the catch. The 30-yard completion gave the Wolverines a first down at the Ohio State 24, where the spotlight once again shifted back to Perry.
Improving his Heisman stock with every step, the shifty back from Advance, N.C., burst over right guard for 9 yards on first down. He hobbled back to the huddle. And with everyone in the Big House expecting him to get a break, Perry took the second-down handoff, cut left in the Ohio State secondary and sprinted 15 yards for a touchdown that staked the Wolverines to a 14-point lead and drove a stake in Ohio State’s title hopes.
Perry touched the ball six times on the eight-play, 88-yard Drive, chewing up 43 yards on little more than one leg and a steel will. For the game, Perry totaled 209 yards (154 rushing) and two scores on 36 touches, becoming the first player all season to break the 100-yard barrier against an Ohio State defense that came in leading the nation against the run (50.5 yards a game).
And as the final seconds ticked off the clock yesterday on an epic performance that netted a Big Ten championship and a BCS berth (likely in the Rose Bowl), the tailback was carried around Michigan Stadium by a wave of students while the entire Big House chanted his name.
“I think our fans were rougher out there than OSU’s defense. I was more worried I was going to get injured with them celebrating,” said Perry, who has 1,589 rushing yards on his Heisman resume. “Everybody in there was yelling for us, and I just looked around at the other guys [on the team] and told them to enjoy, soak it all in. Because it isn’t every day 110,000 people give you an ovation … This game was some kind of special.”