One day after each Ohio State football game, beat reporters Bill Rabinowitz and Joey Kaufman discuss the lasting storylines and other key developments. Their latest back-and-forth follows the Buckeyes' 56-27 victory over Michigan in the regular-season finale.
Rabinowitz: The ghost of 1969 hovered over this game all week, but the current Buckeyes team is far more multidimensional than the one 50 years ago, and Jim Harbaugh is no Bo Schembechler when it comes to the OSU-Michigan rivalry. The Wolverines' punches landed early as the Buckeyes' pass defense felt the effects of Shaun Wade's absence and the pass rush was neutralized. But Michigan couldn't stop J.K. Dobbins, and when Justin Fields heated up, the Buckeyes ran away.
Kaufman: As long as we're comparing Harbaugh to previous coaches in this rivalry, there's a case to be made he's Ohio State's version of John Cooper. In his first five games against Michigan, Cooper went 0-4-1, including a 13-13 tie in his fifth game in the series in 1992. Harbaugh has started 0-5 against the Buckeyes. Whether he's facing Urban Meyer or Ryan Day on the opposite sideline, it hasn't mattered, and the trajectory of the rivalry doesn't appear likely to change as long as Ohio State remains amid its historic stretch of dominance and recruits at its current level.
Rabinowitz: The biggest difference between Cooper and Harbaugh is that Cooper's teams weren't consistently inferior to Michigan's as Harbaugh's have been. Yes, the 2016 game could have gone either way, and Michigan led in the fourth quarter in 2017. But Ohio State has torched the Wolverines for 118 points the past two years. In the Ten Year War from '69-78 between Woody Hayes and Schembechler, Ohio State scored a total of 98 points. That's an amazing stat, even acknowledging that it's a different game now. And with Ohio State's recruiting humming along, it's hard to see the trend reversing.
Kaufman: Here's some context to the recruiting differential between the teams at this stage. The Buckeyes have 60 former blue-chip recruits, including five-stars and four-stars, on the roster for this season, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. By comparison, the Wolverines have 40, third most in the Big Ten behind Penn State. For the teams' recruiting class for 2020, Ohio State has 15 verbal commitments from blue-chippers. Michigan has 12. If this series is to become more competitive, Harbaugh is going to need to close the talent gap or come up with a better defensive game plan to slow down the Buckeyes' onslaught. Defensive coordinator Don Brown also merits some criticism as well.
Rabinowitz: It's also about player development. Buckeyes players consistently get better. Jeff Okudah was a very good player last year. The cornerback is an All-America player now. Pete Werner is a markedly better linebacker this year. It goes down the line. If you look at the team's depth chart — actually you can't because Michigan doesn't post its depth chart, which is more silliness — how many Wolverines would start for Ohio State? Not many, especially on defense. When you factor in the fact that the Buckeyes put so much preparation into this game and now have a clear psychological advantage, you start to wonder what it will take for the pendulum to flip back. It eventually will, but how long is "eventually?"
Kaufman: All those factors spell out why the Buckeyes are in an advantageous position, and it's why Michigan had to be mistake-free to beat them. It had no margin for error. I thought a couple of critical moments doomed the Wolverines. Midway through the second quarter, quarterback Shea Patterson fumbled at the Ohio State 12-yard line, trailing 21-13. It cost them a chance to tie the score close to halftime. Then on the following series, the Buckeyes were prompted to punt, but the drive was extended when Khaleke Hudson, a senior linebacker for the Wolverines, was drawn offsides. After the penalty, Ohio State had a first down and scored a touchdown two plays later, building a double-digit lead it never relinquished. Let's not forget another late hit early in the third quarter that awarded the Buckeyes a first down. Ohio State didn't need freebies.
Rabinowitz: There's going to be a lot of soul-searching in Ann Arbor for a while. Last year's OSU win was a shock to their system, especially the 62 points scored on Michigan. This year, I sense it's more acceptance of the separation between the programs. While Ohio State prepares for Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game and the strong likelihood of a spot in the College Football Playoff, Michigan must settle for playing in a second-tier bowl game again. The problem is that whatever frustration Wolverines fans feel about Harbaugh, there's no obvious alternative. He has won a lot of games, just not the one that matters most. Imagine how OSU fans would react if Urban Meyer had lost his first five games to Michigan. Wouldn't be pretty.
Kaufman: The feeling of defeat was clear when Michigan fans started filing toward the exits near the end of the third quarter. To add to the dread was the fact that the latest romp came with Day at the helm. It was one thing to lose to Meyer for seven straight seasons. Meyer is regarded as one of the best coaches in college football history and had won three national championships at two programs. Day is a first-time head coach leading his team in the rivalry for the first time. But he kept the machine humming. From Day's perspective, there is some relief, too. Ohio State fans have become so accustomed to beating the Wolverines this century, a loss would have been tough to swallow. Michigan will beat the Buckeyes at some point in the future, but the programs are too far apart for a defeat to be accepted this season.