ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Ohio State more than likely will not play for the national championship. A shocking loss to unranked Illinois a week ago saw to that.
But on a cold, gray Saturday in Michigan, the Buckeyes received the only acceptable consolation - a victory over the archrival Wolverines and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
With its defense bouncing back with a stifling effort after a disappointing performance in the loss to the Illini, and Chris Wells enjoying a monster game, No. 7 Ohio State dispatched No. 23 Michigan with relative ease in a 14-3 victory in front of the second-largest crowd (111,941) ever at the Big House.
The Buckeyes reaped plenty of rewards for the victory, the biggest being another outright Big Ten title - their third straight - which secured at least a trip to Pasadena (Ohio State`s first since 1997). It marks the first time OSU has won back-to-back outright conference championships since 1954-55.
It was Ohio State`s fourth straight victory over Michigan, just the third time in school history that it`s happened during the 104 years of the annual bitter rivalry.
"It`s a miracle," said OSU left tackle Alex Boone. "They`re a tough team. You never expect to win four straight. I just want to cry and scream, but I can`t."
That would be reserved for the Wolverines and their coach Lloyd Carr, who received the same unfavorable result they have in six of the last seven meetings against Ohio State.
Carr, who has been criticized mightily for his inability to beat OSU, has scheduled a news conference for Monday, when he is expected to step down as Wolverine coach. He will bow out with a 6-7 record against OSU - 1-6 against Jim Tressel - after his team entered the season with national title hopes.
"This is really disappointing," Carr said. "We had an opportunity to do something real special here for us, winning this game and everything that goes with it. When you fail to do that, the disappointment is very difficult."
Ohio State`s defense, ranked second overall to LSU and first in scoring, was exposed in the loss to Illinois, but rose to the occasion in the regular-season finale.
The Buckeyes (11-1, 7-1 Big Ten) held Michigan (8-4, 6-2) under 100 yards (91) in total offense, limiting the Wolverines to just eight first downs - three in the second half (two on pass interference penalties).
OSU shut down Michigan`s senior offensive duo of quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart, both of whom came in nursing injuries but started and were on the field for the majority of the game.
Hart, who offered up some inflammatory comments after a loss in Columbus last year and entered the game as the conference`s leading rusher (third in the nation), ran for just 52 yards on 18 carries, averaging 2.4 yards.
"Our defense was not going to allow them to control the game with the run," Tressel said. "I wish we would have scored some more, but 14 points today was good enough to win the Big Ten."
"We didn`t think we were going to be this bad off," Hart said. "We made a lot of mistakes out there. Give credit to their defense. They came up with a great game and had a good scheme against us."
Henne played with an injured throwing shoulder and was harassed all day by OSU`s defensive line, especially junior defensive end Vernon Gholston, a Detroit native who accounted for three of his team`s four sacks.
Henne completed just 11 of 34 attempts for 68 yards and was off the mark much of the day, with plenty of drops from his receivers contributing to his dismal statistics.
Michigan`s only points came on a 33-yard field goal with under two minutes left in the opening quarter. After that, the Wolverines amassed just 42 net yards, mustering a miniscule 14 in the second half.
The defensive stand came at an opportune time, with OSU`s offense unimpressive outside of Wells, who rushed for a whopping 222 yards and both Buckeye TDs on 39 carries.
"We just looked at it like we had to do our jobs, no matter what the offense did," said linebacker James Laurinaitis. "I think we just said, â€˜Let`s get back to the basics.`"
Hart, Henne and offensive lineman Jake Long all made it known that they were bypassing the NFL to return for a chance to beat Ohio State this year. Instead, the seniors will leave Michigan 0-4 against the Buckeyes.
"There was a lot of talk about those three guys coming back and not going to the NFL so they could beat us and ride off into the sunset," said OSU senior tackle and co-captain Kirk Barton. "But I guess something funny happened on the way to the sunset."
With their defense and the rainy conditions on the field dictating as much, the Buckeyes turned to Wells to carry the load.
He obliged, accounting for all but 50 of Ohio State`s total yardage, with just 7 yards coming on the ground with the ball not in Wells` capable hands. OSU attempted just two passes in the second half.
"He carried us today," said Buckeye quarterback Todd Boeckman, who had his second straight subpar performance, completing just seven passes for 50 yards. "He did some great things out there."
"Right from the beginning, I knew we were going to run the ball right down their throat," Boone said.
Defense dominated early, with K.C. Lopata`s 33-yard field goal at 1:37 of the opening quarter providing the first points of the game and a 3-0 Wolverine lead.
Ohio State answered quickly to take a 7-3 lead, marching 44 yards in eight plays and scoring on a 1-yard plunge from Wells shortly into the second quarter.
The second half began poorly for Michigan, which went three-and-out on its opening possession and saw OSU`s Ray Small return a punt 65 yards for a TD.
The score was nullified on an illegal block, but it was a short reprieve for Michigan. On the first play of the Buckeyes` ensuing drive, Wells got loose again, breaking a tackle at the line and another in the secondary before outracing Wolverine defenders 62 yards to the end zone.
Wells` run that put OSU in front by the final count was reminiscent of his 52-yard run in a 42-39 victory over Michigan last year.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Buckeye fans took over Michigan Stadium to produce an audible "O-H, I-O" chant to touch off another scarlet and gray celebration.
The margin of victory could have been larger had Ohio State not chosen to take a knee at the Wolverines` 5-yard line.
A win over Michigan, which brought an outright Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl, was enough.
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Wells, Ohio State RB
The sophomore (above) rushed for 222 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries, putting the Buckeye offense on his back and carrying it to another win over archrival Michigan. The yardage, attempts and his 62-yard TD run were all career highs.
Chad Henne, Michigan QB
The senior was banged up ... and he played like it, leading the Wolverines to just three points, while completing 11 of 34 passes for 68 yards. His receivers dropped balls, but Henne is in charge of the offense, and Michigan`s was non-existent on this day.
Despite being outplayed for much of the game, Michigan needed just a touchdown to take the lead to start the second half. That`s when Wells got loose on the 62-yard run that came with 13:40 in the third quarter and sealed the deal for the Buckeyes.