Moments of lore: Four scenes that defined Ohio State’s epic win over Michigan
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A drafty storage hallway on the third floor of Ohio State’s football facility serves as a game day pathway between the Ohio State locker room and the media area. There’s cracked white paint, eight tables leaning against a wall and more than a dozen folding chairs stacked one on top of another.
On Saturday evening after No. 2 Ohio State’s improbable 30–27 double-overtime victory over No. 3 Michigan, quarterback J.T. Barrett and coach Urban Meyer crossed paths there.
They locked in a long embrace that melted into a hearty laugh, immediately recalling the tensest moment of a day full of them. On a fourth-and-one play in double overtime with Ohio State trailing by a field goal, Barrett lunged forward awkwardly on a quarterback keeper and officials spotted the ball generously, just far enough to signal for a first down.
“They told me on the headset, ‘They’re buzzing for a review,’” Meyer told Barrett. “My knees started shaking.”
Barrett laughed heartily and shot back: “My knees started shaking, too! I wasn’t sure that we got it!”
After a long lingering silence among the record crowd of 110,045 at Ohio Stadium, the officials upheld the call. On the next play, Curtis Samuel dashed 15 yards untouched around the left end and into Ohio State lore. He clinched an epic victory and secured a likely spot in the College Football Playoff for the Buckeyes and a spot near the top of the pantheon of great games in the 113-year history of this rivalry.
The Game offered enough turning points, frozen moments and momentum shifts to comprise its own Netflix series—Samuel’s game-winning dash, kicker Tyler Durbin tying the score with one second left in regulation and an opportunistic defense keeping Ohio State in the game for three quarters. Combine that with the playoff stakes and one of college football’s most ferocious rivalries, and a timeless legacy is born.
As Meyer retreated to the locker room after meeting with the media, he was asked if this was one of the best games he’d ever been a part of. He stopped on the drafty stairwell, pondered for a second and said three words that best summed up an unforgettable afternoon. “Maybe the best.”
The best moment to start with is the finish. On the first-and-10 after the eternal delay to review Barrett’s first down, Curtis Samuel high-stepped 15 yards around the left end for a touchdown. The play is called 29 Lead, and it will run on highlight loops from Akron to Zanesville for decades.
It prompted a spontaneous party, as thousands of red-clad fans stormed the field and bobbed merrily in a mosh pit of the most unexpected joy. They took selfies in the end zone. They spoke of which College Football Playoff games they could travel to. They collected confetti, stashing it in their pockets as if each piece were a $100 bill. “I don’t know who I was hugging and who I was high-fiving,” Ohio State senior linebacker Joe Burger said. “But I hope they remember that. We’ll certainly remember that for the rest of our lives.”
The sing-song anthem, “Sweet Caroline” blared over the speakers. The masses lingered and chanted, “SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!” They didn’t want to leave.
When asked later what he’ll remember most about the game years from now, Barrett mentioned his seven-yard touchdown run in the first overtime. He’d never seen anything like the entire stadium rising in unison when he wriggled through a hole in the Michigan defensive front and dashed in for the score. But his defining memory, he said, will be watching Samuel turn the Ohio Stadium field into a bash more crowded than a fraternity basement.
“I have never been a part of that before,” Barrett told Sports Illustrated. “I always watched it in college basketball. I’m happy for our fans, man. I was trying to find my way through. There was a lot of touching. I like people, I really do. I like Buckeye nation, I really do. But I was touched more than I wanted to in some places I didn’t like.” Barrett said that with a hearty laugh, as everyone joined in the fun.
Senior lineman Pat Elflien darted to the family section and lifted his mother Lisa, brother Matt and sister Heather onto the field from the stands. He spoke to his grandfather, who hadn’t made a lot of games this season but couldn’t miss this one. Meyer collapsed to the turf after the score and faceplanted with overwhelming relief. “I remember that Neil Diamond song,” he said with a delirious smile. “That was great. Weird life, man.”
It was also a weird game, unfolding amid a dense smog of a day that could be considered a quintessentially Big Ten environment.
For a majority of the first three quarters, Ohio State’s offense couldn’t do anything right. The Buckeyes failed to score on their first eight offensive possessions and punted with a frequency that would have alarmed even Jim Tressel, the program’s consummate advocate of field-position football.
There are no statistics to fully quantify the hopelessness. Ohio State trailed 17–7 late in the third quarter, but considering the feeble offensive performance it felt like 177–7.
The Buckeyes’ offensive line got mauled all day, yielding eight sacks and 13 tackles for loss. Ohio State’s offense began the day with a solid 72-yard drive that ended with Durbin’s first field goal miss of the day, from 37 yards out. From that point on, the Buckeyes endured a Tour De Impotence, cobbling together just 99 yards on 39 plays.
Those seven drives exposed Ohio State as so overmatched that Meyer called a fake punt early in the third quarter on the Buckeyes’ own 16-yard line to try to corral any morsel of momentum he could. It backfired spectacularly, and Michigan scored five plays after taking over at the Ohio State 22 to build a 10-point lead.
“We were trying,” Meyer said. “We needed sparks. But then our defense kept hanging in there and hanging in there, and they provided the sparks.”
The first spark came late in the first half when Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan hit Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight while Speight attempted to throw out of his own end zone. The tipped ball floated into the hands of sophomore safety Malik Hooker, who strolled into the end zone from 16 yards out.
Overall, Speight played well for Michigan. He’d come into the game as a question mark with a reported collarbone injury but completed 23 of 36 passes for 219 yards with two touchdowns. By most metrics, he outplayed his counterpart Barrett (15 for 32, one touchdown).
Speight’s mistakes ultimately undermined his performance. He threw the pick-six to Hooker. He fumbled on the Ohio State two-yard line in the third quarter. He invited Ohio State back in the game when Jerome Baker leapt into the air for an athletic interception late in the third quarter. Baker ran 22 yards with the ball, and the gasp in the crowd at the Shoe hinted at the reality of the game to that point: if he didn’t get in the end zone, Ohio State may never score.
Baker only got to the 13-yard line, which led to some good-natured sideline needling. Ohio State has returned a school-record seven touchdowns this season, which leads the nation. “We thought you were the All-State Mr. Ohio tailback,” co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell teased Baker, “and you couldn’t quite find the end zone.”
A pair of penalties on Michigan, including Jim Harbaugh’s dramatic unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, made the ensuing drive essentially a two-play, four-yard stroll for Ohio State. Just what an ailing offense needed. Mike Weber capped it with a one-yard touchdown run to cut the Michigan lead to 17–14. “That was our mentality here,” Fickell said. “We need to make something happen here. We need to change the momentum of the game.”
After sputtering all day on offense, Ohio State’s second-to-last drive epitomized the day’s violent momentum swings. The Buckeyes finally solved Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown’s defense, which entered the game ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense and scoring defense. Soon after Ohio State got the ball with 10 minutes remaining in the game, J.T. Barrett dashed up the middle for 41 yards, and the Buckeye faithful let out a cathartic cheer. But a 10-play, 61-yard drive stalled in the red zone when Barrett came up two yards short of the end zone.
This is where Durbin officially became a looming presence in this game, hooking a 20-yard field goal with just over seven minutes remaining. He had entered the game 16 for 17 on the year, but his second miss on the game would re-define the term deafening silence.
After Durbin failed to execute the easiest of kicks, Barrett found him on the sideline for a pep talk. “That’s in the past, and we’ve got to move on,” Barrett told the kicker. “We believe in you. You go right out there and you put it right through the pipes.”
Sure enough, Ohio State mustered one more offensive drive, reaching the Michigan five-yard line with the clock ticking down. Durbin, of course, made the field goal. It didn’t count. Meyer had called time out just before the snap, as the field goal unit rushed on the field to get the kick off.
But Durbin pushed the real kick through—this one from 23 yards—to tie the game, 17–17, with one second left and force overtime. Then the real fun began. “I think that’s why you play the game of football,” Barrett said. “For moments like this…. for moments like this against your rivals and a great atmosphere.”
When discussed on bar stools and tee boxes across Columbus in future decades, Ohio State’s victory in The Game in 2016 can be boiled down to three essential, pivotal and consecutive plays. They swung emotions in incalculable ways and sealed this game as an instant classic.
The first came on third-and-9 from the Michigan 24-yard line in double overtime. Ohio State trailed 27–24 after Michigan’s possession ended with a 37-yard field goal. The Buckeyes called a swing pass to Samuel, arguably the fastest and most explosive player in the country. The play began on the left hash, and Samuel caught the ball on the right hash on the 29-yard line. Michigan’s Heisman Trophy candidate Jabrill Peppers snuffed out the play, forcing Samuel to cut back across the field.
He retreated as far as the 32-yard line, and Meyer saw the game flash before his eyes. “I was worried we were going to get knocked out of field goal range and lose the game,” he said. “But things happen.”
Instead of fourth-and-infinity and a play call second-guessed to eternity, Samuel sprinted from the numbers on far side of the field and danced back to the hash. There, he nearly ran into left tackle Jamarco Jones, which spun him in the complete opposite direction all the way to the sideline the play began on. Only then did Samuel finally begin moving forward, forging past the line of scrimmage for an eight-yard gain on a play in which he ran more than 70 yards. “We all though that was dead,” Burger said of the play. Meyer added: “He’s one of the best players I’ve ever been around.”
That set up the second play, Ohio State’s fourth-and-one that Barrett got by a sliver of dental floss. “I wasn’t sure if I got it,” he said. “I fell on some bodies. I was 30% sure I got it.”
But on the final play, Samuel left no doubt. Jones sealed the edge from his left tackle position, and Samuel burst through the line untouched. When he broke the plane, the argument of where this game stood in the Ohio State-Michigan lexicon began. “That is one of the classic games of this rivalry that will forever be,” Meyer said with a Shakespearean touch to cap off a surreal day.