When it comes to football, mental blocks don't do as much damage
as crackbacks or an Orlando Pace pancake. But try telling that
to Ohio State. Somehow the Buckeyes' old archrivals, the
Michigan Wolverines, have put such a whammy on the fragile
psyches underneath the scarlet-and-gray helmets that Ohio State
might have to call in the guys in the white jackets.
How else to explain what took place last Saturday in Columbus?
For the second straight year Michigan ruined No. 2 Ohio State's
hopes for a perfect season and a national championship, with an
upset that only the most die-hard Wolverines fan could have
"I know we prepared for them," said Ohio State safety Rob Kelly
after Michigan, a 17-point underdog, pulled out a gritty 13-9
victory. "We had one of the best weeks of practice all year."
Next year the Buckeyes might want to skip the practices and head
right to Dr. Frasier Crane.
Ohio State coach John Cooper has a 1-7-1 record against Michigan
since taking over in Columbus in 1988. So obsessed was Cooper
with breaking the Michigan hex this year that he allowed only
four of his players to speak to reporters before the game, and
even then he limited them to a one-hour session six days before
kickoff. "I don't want you guys interrogating my players this
week," Cooper told reporters. Before last season's Michigan game
the Wolverines were inspired by a remark made by Terry Glenn,
then an Ohio State wideout. When asked about the Buckeyes'
rivalry with the Wolverines, Glenn had replied, "Michigan's
nothing." The resulting articles naturally wound up on a
bulletin board in the Michigan locker room, and the Wolverines
wound up with a 31-23 upset victory.
It's probably a good thing that Glenn is with the New England
Patriots this fall. If Michigan struck him as unworthy last
season, imagine what he would have thought of the '96
Wolverines. Not only were they coming off successive losses to
Purdue and Penn State, but they had also committed 10 turnovers
in those games. "For the first time," said Michigan placekicker
Remy Hamilton, "we were having some doubts."
Those doubts seemed well founded late in the first half, when
the Wolverines' starting quarterback, Scott Dreisbach, went out
with a concussion after being turned into a grass stain by
Buckeyes linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer. Ohio State was leading 3-0
at the time, and Michigan's offense was stuck in neutral.
But Michigan coach Lloyd Carr had been telling his players all
week that if they kept Ohio State from breaking the game open,
the Buckeyes were ripe for the picking, and the message seemed
to get through at halftime, when Ohio State led only 9-0. After
emerging from the locker room, the Wolverines outscored the
Buckeyes 13-0 and outgained them 237 yards to 84. "All last
week, last night and even this morning, Coach was telling us
we'd win if we kept it close," said cornerback Charles Woodson,
who along with strong safety Marcus Ray helped limit the
Buckeyes' speedy receivers to one pass reception longer than 14
yards through the first 3 1/2 quarters. "I guess he was right."
Nonetheless, the Wolverines needed a few breaks. Early in the
third quarter Brian Griese, filling in for Dreisbach, hit
receiver Tai Streets on the most important play of the game, a
slant pass into single-man coverage. Ohio State defender Shawn
Springs slipped, and Streets ran untouched for a 68-yard
touchdown that pulled Michigan to 9-7. "After we scored that
touchdown," Woodson said, "you could see it in their eyes. They
were starting to feel the pressure."
Throughout the day, in fact, the Buckeyes seemed to get tighter
and tighter, as if they were being squeezed in a vise. While
Michigan gambled repeatedly--attempting a fake field goal in the
second quarter and, with only a minute left in the half, passing
on two out of three downs with the ball deep in its own
territory--Ohio State got increasingly conservative.
The Buckeyes never got their vaunted ground game going in the
second half, even with the mammoth Pace leading the way. Time
and again, running back Pepe Pearson tried to find a hole in the
belly of the Michigan defense, only to be repelled by nosetackle
William Carr, linebacker Jarrett Irons and the rest of what was
routinely a wall of white jerseys.
Cooper's decision to start quarterback Joe Germaine in place of
Stanley Jackson proved similarly questionable. Before Saturday,
Jackson had started every game this season for the Buckeyes
while sharing playing time with Germaine, but he had played
poorly the past three weeks. Jackson might still have seen
substantial minutes against Michigan, but in the second quarter
he misfired on two critical passes. "We had some receivers open,
but he didn't get the ball to them," Cooper said in explaining
his decision to keep Jackson on the bench for all but two
series. But Germaine, a transfer who was playing in his first
Michigan-Ohio State game, had his own problems. Woodson and the
rest of the Michigan secondary limited him to 12 completions in
31 attempts for 148 yards.
In the final minutes the Buckeyes seemed helpless while Michigan
drove methodically downfield to seal its victory. As Hamilton's
39-yard field goal with 1:19 remaining sailed through the
uprights, several Ohio State starters sat on the bench, towels
over their heads, unable to look.
When it was over, several Wolverines stood outside their locker
room, trying to explain their hold on Ohio State. Woodson, ever
the opportunist, sensed a chance to get a head start on next
year. "I don't think it's a mental block," he said with a sly
smile. "I just think we're a better team."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Irons (37) and the rest of the Wolverines' defense held Pearson (with ball) to 10 yards on eight second-half carries. [Pepe Pearson being tackled by Jarrett Irons]