The Game is back – and so is controversy

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The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is one of the nation’s best. In fact, in 2000, ESPN viewers voted Michigan-Ohio State the best rivalry in the country – pro or college, any sport.

But for all the great games between them, which started back in 1897, the two teams never entered The Game ranked first and second, until 2006 — The Game of the Century. And despite the fact that the century was only six years old, the game actually delivered, with Ohio State winning a 42-39 classic.

But since 2003, Michigan has beaten Ohio State exactly once, and that was against interim coach Luke Fickel’s bumbling 6-5 squad. Even the Buckeyes were becoming bored, many openly wishing for Michigan to field a better team to “hold up its end of the deal,” as Ohio State legend Chris Spielman said.

Well, be careful what you wish for. This year, for only the second time in the , both teams entered The Game ranked in the top three. The winner was all but guaranteed a spot in the four-team national playoff, while the loser would likely be left on the outside looking in. The Game of the Century II was on.

And once again, it delivered. When you watch The Rivalry at its best, see the effort and feel the tension, all other rivalries look like powder-puff football.

Michigan dominated most of the first three quarters, but the Wolverines couldn’t put the Buckeyes away. Why? They made a lot of mistakes, including a goal-line fumble, and two interceptions that the Buckeyes quickly converted into touchdowns – a 21-point swing, in itself. You could also point to Michigan’s anemic fourth quarter, when its offense couldn’t muster more than five yards, total.

You could also point to the officiating, which was awful even by Big Ten standards. The refs repeatedly penalized the Wolverines for things they were letting Ohio State do all day, like holding and pass interference. Add it up, and the refs charged Michigan for seven penalties totaling 59 yards, while they called Ohio State for two penalties for six yards. Either the Buckeyes played the cleanest big game in the history of college football, or the refs missed a few things.

Making matters worse, it turns out one of the refs had already been fired by the Big Ten back in 2002 for incompetence, while another had been banned from reffing the Michigan-Ohio State game ten years ago due to his apparent bias toward the Buckeyes. Why these guys were allowed to ref the year’s biggest game is a mystery.

Which brings us to a bigger point: while Big Ten schools spend millions on athletic directors, coaches, scholarships, and facilities, the league spends peanuts for part-time officials, and gives them the power to settle the scores on these multi-million dollar contests. You don’t have to wear a tinfoil hat to think that’s kind of crazy.

After Ohio State tied Michigan in the waning minutes, the game went into overtime, the first ever between these two titans – thus guaranteeing that the loser would suffer Maximum Anguish Level 30, out of a possible 10.

In the second overtime, when the Buckeyes needed a first down to avoid losing, the refs ruled that they’d made it by a whisker. It was a hard call to make, and even harder to overturn. Photos of that spot have been broken down from more angles than the Zapruder film. On the next play, Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel carried the ball 15 yards to the endzone, to win the game.

Just a few minutes after the fans rushed the field, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh faced the press. He said he was “bitterly disappointed” in the officiating. This echoed the famous line of his mentor, Bo Schembechler, who said he was “Bitterly resentful” after the Big Ten’s athletic directors voted to send Ohio State instead of Michigan to the Rose Bowl – back in 1973. In this rivalry, the big quotes have the half-life of uranium.

Harbaugh’s response has been characterized as a “rant,” and he was typically intense, but he was also measured, calmly breaking down four missed calls. In the process, he vented his spleen, took the pressure off his players, and changed the headline of the game.

So why did the Wolverines lose: their mistakes, or the refs’? The answer is, “Yes.” In a game that close, subtract just one major mistake from Michigan, or the officials, and Michigan wins.

The committee that will select the four playoff teams released its penultimate poll this week. It ranked Ohio State second, and Michigan fifth – so the Buckeyes are almost assuredly in, as they should be, and even Michigan might sneak in if third-ranked Clemson or fourth-ranked Washington stumbles in their conference title games this weekend. When committee chair Kirby Hocutt mentioned that the margin between fourth-ranked Washington and fifth-ranked Michigan is “razor thin,” it’s easy to conclude that the committee apparently agreed with Harbaugh’s assessment, that Michigan suffered a loss, of course, but one with an asterisk.

The selection committee might also have been influenced by the record TV ratings the Michigan-Ohio State game earned last week, especially in light of the abysmal marks the college football playoff games earned last year. What doesn’t seem to matter much any more is winning your conference. Likely league champs Oklahoma, Penn State or Wisconsin will probably not make the cut, and might be joined by others. No matter whom the committee picks, you can count on fans of the fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-ranked teams to feel like they were screwed, and not without reason – and they’ll be happy to tell you all about it.

We won’t know who will be in the Final Four until Sunday, but we do know this: The Game is back — big time. That’s good for the rivalry, the Big Ten, and college football. So long as Harbaugh and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer keep coaching, this could be the Game’s greatest era since the Hayes-Schembechler Ten Year War.

Whenever these two teams play again, the nation will be watching – whether it’s in Ann Arbor next fall, or in the playoffs this winter.


* * * * *

Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their FULL name. 

My latest book, “ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” debuted at #6 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, and is still going very strong.


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12 comments Leave a comment  

  • George Clark December 2, 2016 at 8:14 am

    Harbaugh was “measured” enough to draw a $10,000.00 fine. Your reaction suggests the Big Ten stacked the deck against the Wolverines, from the crew on the field up to the replay booth. Really, Mr. Bacon? Not very classy IMO.

  • Your name (Required) December 2, 2016 at 8:32 am

    Michigan lost a game they could have won in spite of some questionable officiating. They still lack the mental toughness that will come in time. It was obvious that they quit on the15 yard touchdown run, and that should not be the mark of a Harbaugh team. Today’s football environment is more tuned to celebration than grit with
    fragile personalities the rule rather than the exception. Mental toughness is acquired on the field of battle and
    some will gain it and some will not.

    When Lou Holtz was asked to comment on Woody Hayes’ one punch fight at the Gator Bowl, he said “it’s not one of the ten most important things I remember about Woody, only that he was emotionally incapable of losing.” Jim Harbaugh knows that the difference between a winner and a loser is between his ears, and that Vince Lombardi had it right when he said that “fatigue doth make cowards of us all.”


  • Frank Vaydik December 2, 2016 at 8:34 am

    Question: Coach Harbaugh was escorted by Michigan State Police during the game. Who pays for their salary and expenses, the NCAA, U of M or tax payers?

  • Missy Caulk December 2, 2016 at 9:25 am

    Zapruder film…laughing but true. I’ve probably watched all the one’s out there. As you mentioned in your post, “Why these guys were allowed to ref the year’s biggest game is a mystery.” Yes, it is.

    But the bigger question to me is WHY can’t it be fixed? Why should we use ref’s at ANY school they are related to or have a conflict of interest? I read somewhere that the refs were not wanting to drive that far. Not sure IF that was true or not but what is a few hundred dollars more to have a fair called game?

    As a mom of three boys in sports, I rarely get upset with ref’s but I guess you could say this was the exception.

    My question to you is in your opinion, why did they not measure that play? I’ve seen less close calls measured ALL my life.

  • johnubacon December 2, 2016 at 9:39 am

    George, thanks for your note. When it comes to Big Ten fines about refs, it doesn’t matter how measured you are. If you criticize them, no matter how calmly or accurately, you’ll get fined.

    And no, I am not suggesting the Big Ten is stacking the deck against Michigan, rather that they should have considered more carefully which refs to call this game. Likewise, you invoke the replay booth, while I was not criticizing the first down call, only pointing out that it will be sliced and diced to the molecular level for years to come.

    Hope this clears those things up.


  • johnubacon December 2, 2016 at 9:40 am

    The two U-M police officers who escort Michigan’s head coach — friends of mine — are paid by UM.

  • Frank Vaydik December 2, 2016 at 12:28 pm

    That makes sense. I could not read the shoulder emblem detail from the TV screen and thought they looked like MSP.

  • Gerald Wassum December 2, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    Another well reasoned, logical, measured article, John U., on a very sensitive subject. The officiating in the B1G has been notoriously bad for a long time, but this game was one of the worst. Is it time for the conference to pay professional referees to insure that competence and impartiality are always present in ALL conference games, especially the really big ones. I remember a blatant clock mismanagement game we (UM) played vs. MSU 12- 15 years ago that, in the wake of that game, moved the conference to employ their own clock operators replacing the home team operator in future games. Is there any hope that this terrible experience will be ta similar motivation for a change in the officiating?
    Further, in this age of high technology, why are we still depending upon the officials line of sight to determine whether the ball passed a loosely-marked spot on the field. Something like RFID chips or lasers could easily be used to electronically determine that fact, eliminating the human eye from the issue. Cost to implement? … A ridiculous argument when we are talking millions of dollars at stake in each game and a conference budget in the hundreds of millions! It is time for some real change!

  • George Clark December 3, 2016 at 7:42 am

    My point is that no one, least of all me, needed Harbaugh or Bacon to suggest the game was poorly officiated. To whine about it in public is not classy. One must worry about the things over which you have control. BTW, $10,000.00 to Harbaugh is probably like $10.00 to me. Obviously not a deterrent to criticism in the national media, something which ought to be discouraged. If you believe a man who devotes considerable time and effort to officiating at the D1 level, in any sport, makes bad calls on purpose you are way off the mark. This is the clear implication of your remarks. I am a huge Bacon fan and, to a lesser degree, a Michigan fan. Harbaugh’s mystique is lessened somewhat by his postgame rant. Thank you for taking the time to reply.

  • Robert Balson December 3, 2016 at 8:31 pm

    Message (Required)George Clark,
    I dare say you are not a Michigan nor a Harbaugh fan. College football is big business and three elements make up the outcome: the players, the coaches and the officials. As John said, we pay coaches and AD’s $millions but act like any official will do. For a game of this magnitude, the B1G should have had the finest crew going. It’s just disgusting and sad what we Michigan fans had to endure last Saturday. I’m still not over it.

  • Jim Matthews December 23, 2016 at 9:43 am John this is sour grapes! Do you print corrections or retractions? Calls were missed both ways. Had coach Harbaugh not come unglued, M would have won The Game this year! Merry Christmas! Jim Matthews Toledo, Ohio

  • Homer Meeks December 24, 2016 at 9:53 pm

    Classy or not pretty damn accurate. If you watched the game the calls continually killed M drives or extended OSU drives. Last spot would never have happened if officiated fairly. Even BTN come on singing the Buckeye praises. The bias against Michigan is huge and we are going to have to be exponentially better to rise above this. Ashamed it is this way but Delany loves his Buckeyes.


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