Big Ten power shift: Michigan routs Ohio State in The Game, 45-23

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Michigan hired Jim Harbaugh as head coach at his alma mater, expectations were set firmly on getting the program to the College Football Playoff and getting back on equal footing in The Game against Ohio State.

It took slightly longer than many expected, but the former Wolverines quarterback can confidently tick both boxes after delivering a coaching masterpiece under clear skies at the Horseshoe — upsetting the Buckeyes 45-23 on Saturday to give the Wolverines their first win streak over their rivals in 22 years.

In the process, the maize and blue locked up the Big Ten East for the second straight season, advanced to Indianapolis for the conference title game, and likely made plans for a semifinal berth at the end of December.

“Couldn’t be more proud,” Harbaugh said. “Know the team was focused and determined as they have been all season. This is a locker room of heroes.”

The Buckeyes’ opening script belied the final score, however, and looked as though it had gone through an offseason’s worth of revisions to arrive at the perfect set of plays to set the tone early. CJ Stroud (31-for-48, 349 yards, two TDs, two INTs) threw his first pass directly into the Wolverines bench, but rebounded with pinpoint accuracy the rest of the way, finding Marvin Harrison Jr. along the sideline for a tight rope catch before that later set up Emeka Egbuka hauling in a touchdown in the back of the end zone to cap the 12 play, 81-yard effort.

CJ Stroud strikes!

CJ Stroud strikes!

Ohio State’s CJ Stroud finds Emeka Egbuka for the 4-yard TD to give the Buckeyes’ the early 7-0 lead.

Injury concerns were top of mind as Michigan responded with a 10-play opening drive that eventually ended with a 49-yard field goal from Jake Moody. Tailback Blake Corum started the game and recorded two yards on his first carry, but the Heisman contender was clearly not 100% after injuring his left knee against Illinois last week and did not play the rest of the way. The junior wore a bulky brace on his leg while backup Donovan Edwards sported a hefty wrap on his injured left hand — something that didn’t seem to stop Edwards much on the way to 216 yards and a long touchdown run to ice the game in the fourth.

Noah Ruggles later added a field goal to help extend the lead just as both defenses started to clamp down in the first half. But McCarthy responded just when things seemingly wavered midway through the second quarter, avoiding an all-out blitz to deliver a strike on the outside to Cornelius Johnson, who looped around corner Cameron Brown and avoided another tackle to scamper 69 yards for a game-tying touchdown that delighted the pockets of maize and blue at Ohio Stadium.

JJ McCarthy hits Cornelius Johnson for a 75-yard TD to take the first lead of the game

JJ McCarthy hits Cornelius Johnson for a 75-yard TD to take the first lead of the game

Michigan Wolverines QB JJ McCarthy hits Cornelius Johnson for a 75-yard TD to take the first lead of the game against the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Ruggles chipped in a 47-yarder on the next drive, but Johnson and McCarthy were back at it in response, with the former running wide open without a man in sight for a 75-yard trip to the end zone and Michigan’s first lead with just over five minutes before half.

Unfortunately for Harbaugh’s side, it lasted all of 91 seconds. Stroud started to cook up a response, dinking and dunking his way down the field before finding Harrison along the right sideline for a 42-yard touchdown pass which got the 106,787 in attendance at the Horseshoe back on their feet and fired up.

Michigan ended up bungling its final drive of the first half, but corrected things nicely during the break, beginning the third quarter with a seven-play, 75-yard scoring effort that almost entirely came down to McCarthy’s legs and arm. The Wolverines quarterback found Colston Loveland with a drop-in touchdown from 45 yards out to retake the lead.

“We knew [McCarthy] could make some throws under pressure,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles remarked. “He played well when he had to.”

“He was just on fire in every way — throwing the ball, running the ball,” Harbaugh said. “So focused and determined. It was a team that was focused and determined.”

The sequence in the middle eight minutes fully encapsulated how the game had flipped into maize momentum. The Buckeyes, who began the game 4-for-4 on third down, did not convert another until the final quarter while McCarthy, who initially was 3-of-10 for 48 yards on the day, proceeded to hit seven of his next eight passes and notched the three long touchdown throws, too.

The signal-caller, who was initially part of a battle under center at the beginning of the year but was handed the job to win games just like this one, later put on the exclamation point with a dive into the end zone. That capped a 15-play, 80-yard touchdown march that silenced the ‘Shoe and took 7:58 off the clock as the scoreboard ticked down in the final frame amid the setting winter sun. Edwards added two more on long TD runs to help twist the knife.

Michigan’s JJ McCarthy rushes in a 3-yard touchdown

Michigan's JJ McCarthy rushes in a 3-yard touchdown

Michigan’s JJ McCarthy rushes in a 3-yard touchdown to extend the Wolverines’ lead.

“It was a tough loss,” OSU defensive lineman JT Tuimoloau said. “We hurt ourselves out there today.”

The fallout from the contest may be as intriguing for the losers as it is for the winners.

Ohio State does not figure to drop too far in the eyes of the Selection Committee but will still need some help if the Buckeyes want a repeat of 2016, when they lost the Big Ten East yet still made the Playoff. No. 8 Clemson fell to South Carolina in a result that helps the Big Ten’s case for getting two teams in, but No. 6 USC remains a threat to make the four-team field ahead of the Trojans’ closing stretch against Notre Dame and in the Pac-12 Championship game.

Should No. 1 Georgia ended up beating No. 5 LSU in the SEC title game, however, things could get interesting on Selection Sunday no matter what No. 4 TCU does the rest of the way in the Big 12.

Regardless of the larger machinations surrounding the postseason picture, the way things played out on Saturday will have far more repercussions locally in Columbus.

Does the Big Ten go through Ann Arbor instead of Columbus after Michigan’s win over Ohio State?

Does the Big Ten go through Ann Arbor instead of Columbus after Michigan's win over Ohio State?

RJ Young, Mike Weber Jr. and Chris Howard on the “Live Tailgate brought to you by Wendy’s” debated if the Big Ten should go through Ann Arbor now.

Not only has Michigan bested its rivals consecutively for the first time in over two decades, but the in-game decisions and lopsided final scores of the past two years are bound to heap added pressure on head coach Ryan Day.

He and the coaching staff had all offseason to stew over comments made by Harbaugh that Day was born on third base in taking over the Buckeyes program when he did, and Day seemingly didn’t have an answer on the field as the Wolverines won in Columbus for the first time since 2000.

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Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.


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