Michigan conquers Ohio State again, but the story is far from over for 2023 Wolverines

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Blake Corum
(Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy heard Zak Zinter scream. McCarthy saw tackle Karsen Barnhart holding Zinter's foot in the air. This was a gruesome and heart-wrenching scene at Michigan Stadium on Saturday.

No. 3 Michigan lost their senior All-American guard with 2:19 left in the third quarter of a tie game with No. 2 Ohio State. Zinter was carted off in what could have been a turning point in the other direction given his value on the interior line. 

"It was a sight that I wouldn't wish upon anyone to see," McCarthy said. "At that moment, seeing the look in everyone's eyes, seeing them rally together, it was spiritual, honestly. It was a different drive that hit on everybody." 

On the next play, senior running back Blake Corum finally broke through the line and through the second level of the Buckeyes' defense for a 22-yard go-ahead touchdown. Corum flashed Zinter's number "6-5" with his hands. From there, the Wolverines handled business for a third straight year in The Game in a 30-24 victory.

MORE: Corum gives tribute to teammate after key touchdown

Michigan tops Ohio State again

Michigan (12-0) beat Ohio state (11-1) for the third straight season. Corum, who missed last year's 45-23 victory against the Buckeyes because of a knee injury, could feel Zinter's pain. 

"Zak's my guy," Corum said. "He's another guy that came back for unfinished business. That's why he came back. Seeing him go down and hurt, it was very emotional seeing what he was going through. We came together, and we knew we had to do it for him. The very next play, 'Boom.'"

Boom, indeed. This Michigan story is far from over. 

It will continue at least into the Big Ten championship game against No. 17 Iowa. You know that off-the-field story by now – the one where this team continues to overcome obstacles - self-inflicted and otherwise – while the on-field story is a withering march through everyone in the Big Ten toward a third straight College Football Playoff berth. 

It could have ended with Ohio State. Jim Harbaugh's three-game suspension from the Big Ten as a result of the illegal in-person scouting and sign-stealing operation dominated headlines more then Wolverines dominated the opponents in the second half of the season. Ohio State had not lost three in a row to Michigan since 1995-97. 

The Buckeyes were due, right?

Michigan acting coach Sherrone Moore had other plans. He beat Ohio State coach Ryan Day, and that started after cornerback Will Johnson intercepted Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord with 7:32 left in the first quarter and set the Wolverines up at the 7-yard line. Corum slammed into the line of scrimmage three times before a fourth-and-1. 

Corum heard Moore scream, "Smash." Tight end A.J. Harner did his best Triple H impersonation in the huddle and screamed, "It's time to play the game."

"I gotta score," Corum said. "Run through the hole and I'm about to run somebody over. That makes the hairs on my arm stick up." 

Corum scored on a one-yard touchdown for a 7-0 lead. Michigan never played from behind against the Buckeyes. What was Moore thinking in that situation?

"Let's go," Moore said. "That's it. The players just practiced so well this week, and when you have confidence they are going to execute at a high level, it's just like first down." 

Moore favored a conservative game plan the previous two weeks against No. 11 Penn State and Maryland that amounted to 91 running plays and 31 pass attempts. Yet he was the aggressor in The Game. The Wolverines converted three fourth-down conversions in the first half. McCarthy – who finished 16 of 20 for 148 yards and a TD – threw a 22-yard touchdown to Roman Wilson between two defenders for a 14-3 lead.

Interim coach Sherrone Moore leads Michigan to win

​​"Coach Moore said from the get-go that he was going to the most-aggressive game he's ever called," McCarthy said. "For the big boys, for Blake, for myself, that's music to our ears that he has the confidence in us to go get the extra yard or two yards. That's who we are."

Michigan played to win the game. Ohio State, not so much. The Buckeyes settled for a 52-yard field goal late in the first half, which Jayden Fielding  missed wide left.

Even when Ohio State tied the score at 17-17 with 6:08 left in the third quarter on an up-tempo drive that featured eight straight run plays and a TreVeyon Henderson touchdown, Michigan answered. The Wolverines scored on every drive in the second half – three field goals and a touchdown.

"It goes back back to how they prepare, how they attack things and how they work," Moore said. "I would be doing them a disservice if I went out there and was conservative."

Say what you will about the adults who were involved in the in-person scouting scandal. Staffer Conor Stallions and assistant coach Chris Partridge are gone. Harbaugh was suspended. He addressed the team Friday, and McCarthy listened closely.

"The one thing he said that stuck out, the whole mantra, 'The Team, The Team, The Team,'" McCarthy said. "He said we are at that team. Everything we do from character, being committed and hard working, from his perspective he said we are those guys." 

That is true. This is the most mature player-led Michigan football team on the field since 1997 – when the program beat Ohio State 20-14 in a top-five showdown and split the national championship with Nebraska. 

Since then, the Buckeyes found a way in these high-magnitude games, with 2006 and 2016 the best examples. On a stage that was somewhere in between those classics, the Wolverines pointed the pressure in the other direction. Marvin Harrison Jr. had five catches for 118 yards and a TD, but Michigan ran seven minutes off the clock after that with a field goal. That will be the other point of criticism for Day and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles.

MORE: Will Texas A&M pursue Ryan Day? 

Ohio State had one minute to score in the end, but Michigan safety Rod Moore, a Clayton, Ohio, product, came up with the game-sealing interception in yet another recurring theme from the 1990s. The Wolverines aren't just winning this game now. They expect to win this game. Just like last year, McCarthy and Corum took turns repeating the famous Kobe Bryant mantra in the post-game press conference.

"We've been going through things all year, so we know how to stick together and play for each other and always have our brother's back," Corum said.

"The job is not finished," McCarthy said. "We've been here before." 

They have, and the last two years ended with victories in the Big Ten championship game before losses to Georgia and TCU in the CFP semifinals. The NCAA investigation will continue, but if Saturday proved anything it is that the Wolverines will play the rest of the season on their terms. 

This Michigan story is far from over, and Harbaugh returns Monday. 

Boom, indeed.

Bill Bender Photo

Bill Bender is a national college football writer for The Sporting News.