Catharsis in Ann Arbor, for a program and fanbase that needed it


They were running through the hallways, like the Wolverines through the Buckeyes. They were screaming as they went, prisoners of a moment but freed from the past. They were punching the air and high-fiving the heavens, and this was before David Ojabo sacked C.J. Stroud, before Cade McNamara took a knee on the block 'M', before the clock ran out and Michigan beat Ohio State for the first time in 10 years. And then they kept on running, onto the field, through the snow, a herd of happiness with an eye on Indy.

“We just whooped their ass!” one fan screamed.

They did. They really, truly did. The Wolverines welcomed the Buckeyes into their home and then pushed them out the door, one punishing snap at a time. Ohio State has owned this rivalry with its speed, with its electric five-star talent. Michigan regained control of it Saturday with its strength. Not to discredit its own talent, which shined through stars like Aidan Hutchinson, who bullied the Buckeyes' offensive line for three sacks, and Hassan Haskins, the former three-star recruit who ripped through Ohio State's defense for five touchdowns.

The Buckeyes were stunned. So was the fan who turned to his friend as they left the stadium and said, "Never in a million years did I think I'd see this."

This was dominant. This was emphatic. This left no doubt, at the end of a season that began with more doubt than ever. This was a long time coming, for Jim Harbaugh, for Michigan, for its fans. They had been tortured by Ohio State. Most outsiders -- plenty of fans included -- thought they'd be tortured again. It was grueling in 2016, and then it became cruel, a beatdown in 2018, another in 2019. No game at all in 2020, only accusations of a surrender. Why should this year be different?

"We knew we were going to bounce back," Hutchinson said. "I don’t think anybody else did outside Schembechler Hall. But in our building, we all believed we can make a run at something. It just goes to show our cohesiveness and our unity. We all know what we are, despite what anyone says about us."

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Last time the Buckeyes came here, they cruised to a 56-27 win. Afterward, QB Justin Fields said they owned the rivalry "because it just means more at Ohio State." He said everything they do, from the first day of the season to the last, is geared toward beating Michigan. This January, Michigan had a new sign on the wall in Schembechler Hall: 'What are you doing today to beat Ohio State?' On the first day of spring practice, they dubbed a pads-popping seven-on-seven drill the 'Beat Ohio' drill. They ran that drill for four straight quarters on Saturday, plowing through their rivals at the line of scrimmage.

"It's something we changed this offseason, just staring them in the face and not fearing them," said Hutchinson. "And addressing them always. Everything we did in the offseason, when it comes to training and practicing, was to beat Ohio State."

Finally, it came to fruition. Hutchinson said he could sense it when Haskins scored his fourth touchdown to put Michigan up 35-20 with about nine minutes to play. The Big House was rocking and the Buckeyes were reeling, rattled by their rivals' resilience. They had dominated the second half in their last three games against Michigan. This time, Michigan won the second half by 14. It turned all four of its drives into touchdowns, each one capped off by Haskins, who told himself before the game, "I'm not going down."

Haskins took his final carry of the day into the end zone. As the stadium exploded, a fan almost melted. This couldn't be true. He clutched the arm of the fan standing next to him, caught his bearings and shouted, "It's happening!" The Wolverines' next two snaps came in the victory formation, knocking them below 300 yards rushing. They settled for 299.

"It was a big emphasis to be able to run the ball this week," said offensive lineman Andrew Stueber. "We thought that a lot of teams came out and played a little scared against them, played a little timid. And that’s just not Michigan football."

Under Harbaugh, Michigan football has been defined by its shortcomings. Several good teams, even a couple great ones, have been erased by Ohio State. There was no erasing this, except for the fans who spilled down the aisles and erased the field, catharsis that covered the turf. They grabbed each other and screamed, and Hutchinson cried in the mayhem. He said it was an "insane atmosphere," the "loudest I've ever heard the Big House," everything he'd been visualizing for the better part of a year. Eventually he ran off the field and the fans left the stadium, and only the snow showed their feet touch the ground.