Being an underdog can favor OSU
Anthony Gonzalez has more important things to do than reminisce about a college football game in 2004. The former Ohio State wide receiver recently was elected to serve the state’s 16th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But I figured what the heck, give him a call and leave a message. You never know.
One minute later, my phone rang.
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Gonzo: “Yes, I remember the 2004 game. I’m not someone who has a photographic memory, but Michigan always sticks out in my mind.”
The Republican congressman-elect was happy to talk Buckeyes vs. Wolverines.
“I grew up (in northeastern Ohio) obsessed with that rivalry, so to have the opportunity to finally play in it was incredibly special,” he said, recalling his first Ohio State-Michigan game as a freshman.
The 2004 game was incredibly rare, too, because the Buckeyes entered as home underdogs for the first time since 1994.
Seldom are the Wolverines favored in the Horseshoe — it has not happened since 2004 — but such is the case Saturday when they are 4½-point favorites, based largely on having the No. 1 defense in the nation and Ohio State having struggled on offense and/or defense in wins against Maryland, Michigan State and Nebraska.
History has not been kind to Michigan, however, when oddsmakers set the Wolverines as betting favorites in Ohio Stadium. In 1994, the Wolverines were ranked No. 15 by the Associated Press but lost 22-6 to the No. 22 Buckeyes. In 2004, Michigan was No. 7 but lost 37-21 to unranked Ohio State.
Favored or not, winning in Columbus has proved challenging for the maize and blue, who have not won here since 2000, dropping eight straight road games in the series.
Gonzalez shrugs at talk of favorites and underdogs, pointing out that “if you’re the underdog in a game, there’s usually a reason for it. Vegas does what they do. The goal is to find a way to do things that ultimately wins these games. Win in the trenches. Don’t turn the ball over. Special teams. At the end of the day, football is a very simple game.”
Players look at the favorite/underdog thing differently than fans and media do, Gonzalez said.
“Honestly, I can’t think of a single game where a coach brought it up, or who was favored or who was the underdog,” he said. “I’m sure it happened, but maybe only when we were the heavy favorite and coaches tried to keep us focused. You know, ‘Hey, don’t look at that, because they’re still a good team and can beat you.’”
What Gonzalez vividly remembers is Ohio State making big plays in 2004 to upset Michigan. Gonzo had one of the biggest, catching a 68-yard touchdown pass from Troy Smith to give the Buckeyes a 7-0 lead early in the first quarter.
“It was third-and-long, and they had a little busted coverage, and I broke deep, and Troy had time and made a perfect throw,” Gonzalez recalled, adding that Smith always had an extra gear against the Wolverines, going 3-0 against them as a starter.
“Certain players, in all sports, when the lights shine the brightest, are at their best. Whether it’s Michigan-Ohio State, Red Sox vs. Yankees — David Ortiz comes to mind — certain people turn it up a little bit,” he said.
Ted Ginn Jr. was another player who peaked for the Michigan game. With Ohio Sate leading 20-14 early in the third quarter, the Buckeyes receiver and special-teams player returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown that turned out to be the backbreaker.
Michigan, sitting fourth in the College Football Playoff rankings this year, could use a few of those elevated moments to end its six-game losing streak to the Buckeyes, who are ranked 10th and always seem to make a few more big plays.
Even recently, the games mostly have been nip and tuck. In 2012, Michigan led in the third quarter. In 2013, the Wolverines led by seven points with five minutes left and lost 42-41 when coach Brady Hoke opted to go for two rather than play for overtime. In 2014, Michigan led in the second quarter, and the score was tied 21-21 late in the third quarter.
In 2016, Michigan led until OSU kicked a field goal with one second left to tie the score at 17. Then, with Michigan leading by a field goal in overtime, J.T. Barrett gained a first down on a controversial fourth-and-1 spot.
Last season, the Buckeyes trailed 20-14 in the third quarter when Barrett left because of an injury, and Dwayne Haskins helped rally the team.
“Candidly, I haven’t had as much time to watch the Buckeyes as I normally would, but Ohio State has a lot of talent,” Gonzalez said. “Do we have folks on our squad who can rise to the occasion, who can kick it into third gear?”
We’re about to find out.