Buckeyes Reach BCS Points of No Return

Times Staff Writer

Michigan can tell you one thing about winning Big Ten football titles: It never gets old.

No. 5 Michigan defeated No. 4 Ohio State, 35-21, on Saturday in the 100th meeting of the fabled programs before an NCAA-record crowd of 112,118 at Michigan Stadium.

It was the 41st conference title for Michigan -- the New York Yankees of this league -- yet Wolverine fans still stormed the field and players wept.

This series extends beyond statistics and benchmarks.

If you're from Michigan, what could be better than this? And, if you're from Ohio State, what could be worse?

"You are in the eye of the storm," Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr said of the emotions in this annual passion play. "You know you're going to be as disappointed as you can be in losing and you know the euphoria you will experience if you win."

Saturday was all a Michigan-Ohio State matchup could be -- helmet on helmet, heritage against history, with everything at stake.

Michigan (10-2) not only clinched a likely Rose Bowl bid with the victory, it knocked Ohio State (10-2) out of the Sugar Bowl race and ended all hope for the Buckeyes' repeating as national champions.

The Buckeyes now may freefall to the Capital One Bowl, and the Wolverines will rejoice that they were responsible.

Michigan was the better team but could not have met a better match.

The Wolverines threatened to make the game a blowout after taking a 28-7 third-quarter lead on Chris Perry's 30-yard touchdown run, but that would hardly be the end of it.

Ohio State, which has scratched its way to victories for two years now, mounted a serious threat.

"They fought back," Carr said of the Buckeyes, "they did not go away."

After Ohio State closed the gap to 28-21 on Lydell Ross' two-yard run early in the fourth quarter -- capping a drive directed by backup quarterback Scott McMullen, who'd replaced an injured Craig Krenzel -- it appeared the Buckeyes, a team that had won 12 games the last two years by seven points or fewer, might squeak out another win.

On Michigan's next possession, Buckeye cornerback Chris Gamble stepped in front of receiver Braylon Edwards and intercepted a John Navarre pass.

Suddenly, Ohio State had the ball at its own 36 with a chance to drive to a game-tying touchdown.

From there, though, the Michigan defense stopped McMullen and the Buckeyes on three downs and forced a punt.

"That was the turning point, going three and out after the interception," said Krenzel, who was replaced by McMullen after separating his left shoulder in the third quarter and struggled when he returned late in the game.

Michigan escaped another near disaster when Steve Breaston fumbled the punt near his own end zone. Luckily for him, teammate Leon Hall jumped on the loose ball.

Michigan then drove 88 yards in eight plays to take a two-touchdown lead, Perry scoring on a 15-yard run around left end with 7:55 left.

When the game ended, Perry ran off the field with a rose between his teeth, even though the team's official passage to Pasadena can't be booked yet because there is a remote chance Michigan could play for the national title in the Sugar Bowl.

Perry finished with 154 yards in 34 carries, a five-yard-per-carry average against a run defense that had been allowing opposing teams only 55 yards rushing per game.

Perry, who also earned his way back into the Heisman Trophy race with his effort, battled through a painful leg injury.

"I had some problems, but I was not going to come out," he said.

When he was unable to get off the ground after one play, Michigan fans started to chant Perry's name.

"I heard them," Perry said. "When fans in the stadium chant your name, that's a dream. It's almost surreal at times."

Perry, a senior, has had his share of tough times at Michigan; at one point he even considered a transfer because he felt he wasn't getting enough carries.

He wasn't the only Michigan player who went out of Ann Arbor in a blaze.

After the game, quarterback Navarre choked back tears as he wrapped his hands around the Big Ten trophy.

Not always a fan favorite and the occasional target of media criticism, Navarre made his last home game a resounding victory, completing 21 of 32 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns.

"I'm more proud of the team I play on than any other thing in my life," Navarre said.

Michigan seemed miles away from winning a Big Ten title after falling to 4-2 with a defeat at Iowa. But the next week, the Wolverines staged a furious rally to defeat Minnesota and start a six-game winning streak.

After Saturday's game, Carr credited seniors such as Navarre and Perry for keeping the team together.

"The test of leadership always comes when things go poorly," Carr said. "These guys stood the test."

Ohio State stood the test for two years.

Saturday, though, the Buckeyes' reign as national champions officially ended.

"Michigan earned it," Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel said. "They did things champions need to do. We did not come out and do things champions need to do."

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