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November 17, 2007

Ohio State beats Michigan, claims Big Ten title

» MORE: Ahern: One last loss to Ohio State for Carr? | Box score

ANN ARBOR, Mich. When you're shivering in a misty rain and low-40 temperatures, a trip to southern California sounds really good.

A sunny sky. A warm beach. Not a bad way to spend a week or two in winter.

That's the approach the Ohio State Buckeyes were taking Saturday after they used tailback Chris Wells, who rushed for 222 yards and a pair of touchdowns, as a bludgeon to pound out a 14-3 victory over archrival Michigan, win the Big Ten championship and secure a trip to the Rose Bowl.

"We're excited and we're going to enjoy this win," linebacker James Laurinaitis said in a jubilant post-game locker room. "We're going to enjoy the Big Ten championship. Today, that's all we're going to focus on."

But sometime between Saturday night's celebration and the game in January, the focus will be different. At some point, the Buckeyes will realize that unless the BCS dominoes fall just right in the next two weeks, they only got the consolation prize.

Beating Michigan in the game many observers rate the most intense rivalry in college football and maybe sports in general always is huge. So is going to the Rose Bowl.

But because the once-beaten Buckeyes were upset at home by Illinois last week, those accomplishments are like getting only five numbers in the lottery or a date with the second girl you asked to the big dance.

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel didn't let details sully the moment in which he became the first Buckeyes coach to notch six wins in seven tries against Michigan. In addition, Ohio State posted consecutive outright Big Ten titles for the first time since 1954-55.

Player of the game
No doubt about it, Ohio State sophomore tailback Chris Wells was by far the most valuable player. He rushed for a career-high 222 yards on 39 carries; he scored both Buckeyes touchdowns, on runs of 1 and 62 yards.
Turning point, part I
The Buckeyes appeared to increase a 7-3 lead when Ray Small returned a punt 65 yards for an apparent touchdown early in the third quarter. Nope. An illegal block nullified the score and moved the Buckeyes back to their 38. No problem. On the next play, Wells blasted over left tackle, cut back on Michigan safety Brandent Englemon and rambled 62 yards for a touchdown.
Turning point, part II
Michigan opened the fourth quarter by taking possession at Ohio State 46 following a punt. But the short field was of no help. Three plays produced minus-3 yards and the Wolverines were forced to punt. They did not cross midfield again.
Best coaching move
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel opted to rely on his running game and defense to protect the lead in the second half. The Buckeyes attempted just two passes in the second half both incomplete while Wells rushed for 155 yards. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes' defense allowed Michigan just 14 yards in the second half.
Surprise performance
OK, it's no surprise that Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston produced three sacks. He got four in a game earlier this year. But to get three against Michigan, which had allowed just 21 coming in, was a surprise. Even more surprising, Gholston posted the first sack allowed this season by Michigan All-American tackle Jake Long.
What this means for Ohio State
The Buckeyes (11-1) claim their third consecutive Big Ten title (second outright) and clinch a Rose Bowl berth. And they still have an outside shot at reaching the BCS national championship game if LSU and West Virginia lose any of their remaining games.
What this means for Michigan
The Wolverines (8-4) will wait to learn their bowl future and are bound for either the Capital One, Outback or Alamo bowls. They also appear to have played their final game under coach Lloyd Carr, who has scheduled a Monday news conference to discuss his future.
Wells moved into second place among all-time Ohio State sophomore rushers with 1,463 yards. In the bowl, he'll have a good chance to pass two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, who rushed for 1,577 yards as a sophomore in 1973. . Michigan's Mike Hart was held to 44 rushing yards, a season low. The announced attendance was 111,941, the second-largest crowd in Michigan Stadium history. Michigan lost its first two games of the regular season and its last two.
"You know, that's special to be able to win the outright Big Ten championship two years in a row and three years in a row being a part of it," Tressel said. "We're the first ones to do that since Penn State joined the league (in 1990), so I'm pretty proud of these guys for, you know, being able to do that away from home after a tough loss a week ago."

Ohio State's performance Saturday compared with last week's 28-21 loss to Illinois was as different as, well, night and day. The Buckeyes did all the things in the win they did not do in the loss to Illinois. Against the Illini, they allowed 260 rushing yards, managed just one sack, gave up four touchdown passes to Illini quarterback Juice Williams, failed to sustain their running game and could not make the key stop when it mattered most.

Saturday, they suffocated Michigan's running game, allowing a mere 15 rushing yards to the Wolverines. They held tailback Mike Hart to just 44 yards, the first time he has failed to reach 100 this season. And led by defensive end Vernon Gholston the Buckeyes posted four sacks for 26 yards. Gholston had three of them, including the first of the season allowed by Michigan tackle Jake Long. Michigan quarterback Chad Henne, obviously struggling with a strained shoulder that has limited him the last month, finished 11-of-34, with no completion longer than 10 yards.

"You could tell in warm-ups that he was not throwing the ball like he was two weeks ago," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said of Henne. "He said he felt good. We had a deep pass to Mario (Manningham) in the second half early where Mario had them beat, but the ball was a little underthrown because I just don't think (Henne) had enough on it."

A week ago, Ohio State rushed for 180 yards and Wells managed just 76, failing to reach 100 yards for the first time since Oct. 13. But he was nearly an unstoppable force against Michigan, especially in the second half, when he rushed for 155 yards on 19 carries. His 62-yard touchdown run staked the Buckeyes to a 14-3 lead early in the third quarter.

The defense, which could not hold a lead a week ago, made it stand up by allowing just 91 total yards and only three conversions in 18 third-down situations.

Had the Buckeyes done those things a week ago, they would be undefeated, ranked No. 1 and heading to New Orleans to play in the BCS national championship game for the second consecutive season.

"It's disheartening," junior safety Jamario O'Neal said. "It's also a learning experience in that you've got to come out and fight every quarter and every down. Last week we didn't do that. That was definitely disheartening, but maybe things will work out for us."

Maybe they will. The Buckeyes were seventh in the latest BCS standings. But No. 2 Oregon lost Thursday night and two teams from the Big 12 Oklahoma, Kansas or Missouri will be eliminated in the next two weeks.

If LSU and West Virginia lose one of their remaining games, the Buckeyes could be back in the national-championship picture.

"We'd love to be get in the national championship," Ohio State sophomore cornerback Donald Washington said. "But the Rose Bowl is not a bad place to be."

Not when you're shivering on a cold day in Michigan -- and not if you don't think about being a consolation prize.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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