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Revisiting five Buckeyes wins that have heightened importance of The Game

Spencer Holbrook11/24/22
Earle Bruce by Getty Images
Earle Bruce and Ohio State beat Michigan in 1987. (Tony Tomsic/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

COLUMBUS — This edition of The Game, between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Michigan, has a chance to be one of the all-time classics in the historic rivalry.

The Buckeyes have won their share of important games that have helped shape the rivalry into what it is: the greatest rivalry in all of sport.

But before the ball is kicked off in the 118th version of The Game, Lettermen Row is looking back at five Ohio State victories over Michigan that have made the border rivalry such an important game for so many people.

Let’s dive in.

1973: Ohio State ties Michigan in The Game, wins Rose Bowl tiebreaker

Let’s dive in right in the middle of the Ten Year War between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, which really stoked the rivalry to become what it is today. In the famous 1973 game, the actually on-field product ended in a 10-10 tie between the No. 1 Buckeyes and No. 4 Wolverines. Ohio State blew a 10-point lead. Michigan missed two field goals for the win late in the fourth quarter. Tie game. Who goes to the Rose Bowl? Ohio State was sent to Pasadena instead of Michigan, despite the Buckeyes going the year before. Schembechler called the decision to send the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl ‘an embarrassment to the Big Ten Conference.’ Ohio State went on to beat USC in the Rose Bowl, but the Buckeyes weren’t voted national champions by the AP (Notre Dame was its No. 1) or the coaches (Alabama won it). Still, it was the height of the rivalry, and even in a tie, Ohio State won.

1987: Buckeyes upset Michigan, win one for Earle Bruce

Earle Bruce carried an 80-26-1 record into the week of the rivalry game against Michigan in 1987. His team was 5-4-1. Michigan was 7-4 and was favored to beat the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor. And then Bruce was fired the Monday before Ohio State headed north to face its rival, although he was given permission to finish out the season before packing his bags. Ohio State rallied around its coach, wearing headbands that had Bruce’s name on them, stunning a ranked Michigan team 23-20, winning one final game for Earle Bruce and handing a brutal upset win over Schembechler in one of his final games against the Buckeyes.

2001: Jim Tressel delivers in first rivalry game, turns tide in Buckeyes favor

The John Cooper era at Ohio State was defined by one key: the Buckeyes couldn’t beat Michigan. Following the firing of Bruce, Cooper and the Buckeyes went 2-10-1 against the Wolverines, even though they were better than Michigan in most of those years. Cooper was let go after the 2000 season, and Ohio State turned to Youngstown State head coach Jim Tressel. When he was introduced at a basketball game shortly after being hired, he spoke one of the most famous sentences in Buckeyes history: “I can assure you that you will be proud of your young people in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field.”

Tressel was right. Ohio State went into the Big House and dominated the first half, hanging on late for a 26-20 win over Michigan and completely flipping the rivalry. The next year, Tressel led the Buckeyes to an undefeated season and a national title, their first since 1970. Tressel finished his career with an 8-1 record over Michigan, including a win that will forever be remembered in his first edition of The Game — and another one just a few years later.

2006: Ohio State beats Michigan in ‘The Game of the Century’

Ohio State and Michigan met in the last week of the regular season both undefeated. Quarterback Troy Smith, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner, and the Buckeyes against Doak Walker Award winning running back Mike Hart and the Wolverines. Ohio State was No. 1. Michigan was No. 2. The Big Ten title was up for grabs. So was the top spot in the BCS standings and a trip to the national championship game. The stakes couldn’t have been any higher. Sound familiar? Then the day before the game, legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler died, adding another layer to this historic rivalry game that was set to be played in Columbus.

Once Ohio State took the lead in the first half, it kept its distance from Michigan nearly all game. Every time Michigan cut the lead to single digits, Ohio State found a way to respond. The Buckeyes won 42-39 in ‘The Game of the Century,’ sending them to a national title matchup against Florida. Both Ohio State and Michigan lost in their respective postseason games, but the Buckeyes secured the bragging rights of winning in a 1 vs. 2 thriller.

2016: Curtis Samuel’s walk-off winner keeps Ohio State on top of rivalry

Just 10 years after these rivals met as the top two teams in the country, they met again as top teams, this time as No. 2 against No. 3. Urban Meyer entered the game with a perfect record against the Wolverines. Jim Harbaugh was 0-1 against the Buckeyes, but this was a chance to show he could top Meyer and bring the rivalry back to prominence, especially after Michigan was coming off a dreadful decade of football.

The Game delivered. Michigan jumped out to a 17-7 lead and was dominating. Ohio State stormed back with 17 unanswered points to tie the game as time expired, sending this rivalry to overtime for the first time ever. The teams traded touchdowns in the first overtime period, but the Wolverines flinched in the second overtime, settling for a field goal. Ohio State got the ball and, on a fourth-and-1 play, converted on a controversial spot. The next play, Curtis Samuel sprinted around the left side and found the end zone to give the Buckeyes a 30-27 win. After the game, Harbaugh was furious, saying he was ‘bitterly disappointed with the officiating.’ Ohio State celebrated by winning the Big Ten title a week later and heading to the College Football Playoff.