The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry has defined Big Ten football for several decades. The Ten-Year War of 1969-78, fought by legendary head coaches Bo Schembecler for Michigan and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes, is its most famous era. But it’s most renowned game was in 2006.
Ohio State was ranked #1 in the country and Michigan #2. A trip to the BCS National Championship Game was on the line, along with the traditional prize of the Big Ten title. Let’s look back on how the 2006 Michigan-Ohio State game came about, and how it unfolded.
The Buckeyes were coming off a year where they shared the Big Ten crown with Penn State and then beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. 2006 was a year of great expectation in Columbus and Oho State was ranked #1 to open the season.
On September 9, Ohio State visited Texas, a revenge game, as UT had come north the previous year and gotten a win that set the tone for a national championship run. Now the Buckeyes wanted to return the favor. OSU quarterback Troy Smith got his Heisman campaign rolling with 269 yards passing, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Smith repeatedly targeted wideouts Anthony Gonzalez and Ted Ginn, and the Longhorns were exposed as a rebuilding team in Ohio State’s 24-7 win.
The Buckeyes then began steamrolling through the rest of the schedule. They had two good running backs in Antonio Pittman and Chris “Beanie” Wells, along with All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis. Smith ended up winning the Heisman Trophy, while Laurinaitis got the Bronko Nagurski Award, as the nation’s top defensive player.
Ohio State was only tested once, a 17-10 win at Illinois on November 4, and their #1 ranking remained intact as they awaited the season-ending visit from Michigan.
The Wolverines weren’t highly touted coming into the year, ranked #14. On September 16 they made their statement when they visited #2 Notre Dame and came home with a 47-21 win. The Michigan defense intercepted Brady Quinn three times, and linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Prescott Burges each scored defensive touchdowns. The vertical passing game of Chad Henne going to Mario Manningham was making big plays, and Michigan jumped to #6 in the polls.
Six straight Big Ten wins were highlighted by a 27-13 win over Wisconsin, a game that was the Badgers’ only loss (UW did not play Ohio State). And Michigan’s defense put on a show for the nation in a 17-10 prime-time win at Penn State, holding the Nittany Lions to (-14) rushing yards.
Michigan was getting consistent, tough running from Mike Hart and had All-American offensive tackle Jake Long to go with all their other weapons. They got a surprise test from Ball State in November. The Cardinals were then coached by current Wolverine boss Brady Hoke and Michigan had to make a last defensive stand to preserve a 34-26 win. All that was left was to go to Columbus.
The day before the game, Schembecler passed away after a heart attack. With Hayes having been gone since 1987, the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry’s biggest game would take place with both of its legends gone, though hopefully being permitted a view from the Eternal Press Box.
Michigan got on the board first with a Hart touchdown run. Ohio State put the ball in Smith’s hands. The ensuing drive took 14 plays and every one was a pass—one can only imagine what Bo & Woody had to say about that. But it worked, and the drive ended with a game-tying touchdown. The Buckeyes then got rolling with a 52-yard touchdown run from Wells and a 39-yard scoring pass to Ginn.
The teams traded touchdowns and it was 28-14 at the half, with Ohio State firmly in command. Michigan was able to take back momentum in the third quarter and cut the lead to 28-24, but the Buckeyes immediately answered with a 56-yard touchdown run from Pittman.
Michigan responded by cutting the lead to 35-31 in the fourth quarter. On third-and-15 a Smith pass fell incomplete, but linebacker Shawn Crable was whistled for helmet-to-helmet contact. It was an automatic first down, and Ohio State ended up on the Michigan 23-yard-line. Smith took advantage of the break and hit Brian Robiskie for a TD that stretched the lead back to 11.
The Wolverines had another offensive answer, and cut it to 42-39 with 2:16 left, but they would never get the football back. As competitive as the score looked through the second half, Michigan never actually got the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead at any point after midway through the second quarter. It was a good game, but not quite as dramatic as the score might make it sound.
No one could deny there was some serious offensive firepower, as the teams combined for over 900 total yards. Smith finished 29/41 for 316 yards. Pittman rushed for 139 yards, while Hart rolled up 142. There was a consensus view that these two teams had clearly separated themselves from the rest of the country and that Michigan should be granted a rematch in the BCS National Championship Game.
In light of what has happened in national championship games from 2006-12, it seems almost silly that an SEC champion had to argue its way in over a Big Ten runner-up, but that’s what happened. After USC was upset by UCLA, the debate focused on Florida and Michigan. Common sense prevailed and the Gators were sent to Tempe, presumably to be cannon fodder for Ohio State.
The bowl season didn’t go well for either Big Ten power. Michigan lost the Rose Bowl decisively to USC, and Ohio State looked completely unprepared for Florida’s speed in a 41-14 national championship game defeat.
But whatever the national implications, the Big Ten in general and this rivalry in particular, has always been parochial. The 2006 Michigan-Ohio State game didn’t end up ultimately settling a national championship, but it riveted Columbus, Ann Arbor, the Midwest and the entire nation in a way no previous game had.