COLUMBUS — A lot has happened in the two years since players from Ohio State and Michigan — the Buckeyes with their heads down, the Wolverines wildly celebrating — left the field at Michigan Stadium.
After beating their rivals seven years in a row, the Buckeyes lost that 2011 game 40-34. At the time, it seemed as if the game might mark a tectonic shift for the two teams.
Those were dark days for Ohio State, which had seven losses that season, its most since 1897. And the NCAA was about to levy sanctions that would rock the program.
Michigan, under first-year coach Brady Hoke, captured its 10th win and appeared to have recaptured its national prominence after the woeful era of Rich Rodriguez.
That one game appeared to have marked a sea change for both of the storied programs. Or did it?
The third-ranked Buckeyes have won almost every game since and are in the thick of the national championship chase under coach Urban Meyer, who has not lost on their sideline.
“It is completely different. We were reeling my freshman year,” defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “Then you have where we are — a really strong team that is getting better every week. The confidence is through the roof.”
Meanwhile, Hoke is dealing with yet another late-season swoon and the maize and blue have more doubters than believers.
Will Saturday’s 110th edition of The Game flip things yet again?
It was a nadir for Ohio State back in 2011. A season of innuendo, defections and investigations had resulted in the forced departure of coach Jim Tressel earlier that season. He was dismissed for failing to disclose that several of his players had most likely received improper benefits from the subject of a federal drug probe.
Defensive assistant Luke Fickell took over a team that was weakened further when three-year starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor jumped to the NFL.
The rudderless Buckeyes were hanging on, winners of six of their 11 games, heading into the annual joust with the Wolverines. Freshman quarterback Braxton Miller overthrew a wide-open DeVier Posey in the final minute for what could have been a game-winning 76-yard touchdown.
“It was heartbreaking,” safety C.J. Barnett said. “We let the great state of Ohio down.”
A month later, Ohio State hired Meyer, an Ohio native who had spent a year as an ESPN analyst after winning two national titles at Florida. He didn’t coach in the bowl game, which Ohio State lost in a final bit of irony to Florida 24-17.
Since then, Meyer and the Buckeyes (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten) have played 23 games and won them all — a school record.
Meanwhile, Michigan has fallen off its perch.
“This is a big game for us and for this program,” Michigan senior defensive tackle Mike Martin had said after the signature victory against the Buckeyes in 2011. “For us to take this step as a team is huge and it’s something we’re never going to forget, these fans, and this fan base is never going to forget.”
If not forgotten, that victory certainly has faded.
Soon after the Ohio State win, Hoke’s club beat No. 17 Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, but has gone 15-9 since. That includes a 26-21 loss to the Buckeyes a year ago.
This year, the Wolverines (7-4, 3-4) climbed to No. 11 after opening with five wins. Since then, they’ve had dramatic upticks and lulls in production on offense. They’ve offered up yards and points on defense and, unlike almost Michigan teams in memory, have been unable to run for positive yardage.
The fans are restless. There are murmurs that Hoke isn’t recruiting or coaching up to the stratospheric standards set by the likes of Bo Schembechler, Fielding Yost and Fritz Crisler.
Some of the Michigan players remember what it was like not so long ago.
“Really, what I loved was seeing the look on those seniors’ faces as they walked off, how excited they were and happy they were to beat Ohio that year,” said cornerback Courtney Avery, who sealed the 2011 victory with an interception of Miller with 39 seconds left. “I’m just hoping and working so our senior class can walk off with the same excitement.”
The Wolverines will send 18 seniors out for the final time at The Big House on Saturday. Might they do something to stop Ohio State’s juggernaut and create another shift?
Maybe. But Ohio State’s Bennett likes where his team is this time around.
“It’s a good feeling to know we are going back there and we have some momentum behind us,” he said. “I’m not going to say anything to get in trouble. But it will be a fun game to get a W at their place.”