ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The pass sailed into the fading light of a late Saturday afternoon at The Big House.
Ohio State receiver DeVier Posey had broken free down the sideline. A third-and-four play from Ohio States 24 with just more than 1:20 left could give the Buckeyes one of their most memorable wins in a memorable rivalry between the Buckeyes and Michigan.
So much rode on this pass -- down six, Ohio State had its third chance of the game to hit a big play in a passing game that this season had been, at best, pedestrian. This play, though, was the most important because it was the last. A freshman quarterback threw it to a senior receiver who had been suspended for the seasons first 10 games.
On the sideline, Luke Fickell watched the throw. He had brought his team to this point where a decided underdog had stood with Michigan, rattled the Wolverines, fought with every ounce of sweat and desire it had. Even if he wasnt staying as the Buckeyes coach, Fickell could remember this pass, this play, this win that raced down the sidelines with Posey well ahead of any Michigan defenders.
I was like, This is over, Posey said.
Except instead of landing in Poseys hands, the ball sailed long. Five plays later, after an ill-advised third down spike brought on by freshman nerves, Braxton Miller threw an interception that ended the game. Michigan had beaten the Buckeyes for the first time since 2003.
The play and this 40-34 loss were a microcosm of Ohio States season. The Buckeyes fought. They challenged. They worked. And they gave their all. But they came up short, hampered mainly by inexperience and youth. Miller did so much right, but in the end he also overthrew three open receivers and missed touchdowns, and he spiked the ball on third down on the Buckeyes last possession, costing his offense a precious down. Hard to fault him given all hed done, but
Fickell now goes back to Columbus, knowing full well that everyone is talking about Urban Meyer taking his job. Its been reported in many places, and is considered as much a fait accompli as is possible in sports. An official announcement seems as certain as the police shockingly discovering there was indeed gambling going on in Ricks Cabaret in Casablanca.
But Fickell wanted no part of it. As emotions poured over and through and out of him, he referred only to one thing.
Well talk about the Ohio State-Michigan game out of respect for the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, Fickell said.
Asked if he had been informed of his future, Fickell grew more emotional (note: not agitated).
Like I said, its about the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry; its been about that since Monday, he said, slamming a fist on the table. Its going to be about that always.
Spoken like a kid from Columbus who grew up selling popcorn in concession stands, who played at Ohio State and spent 10 years as an assistant coach at Ohio State before being thrust into the head coaching job following the forced resignation of Jim Tressel.
Fickell stared right into his dream job, and now he seems to understand it will be taken from him -- given to a coach who won two national titles in Florida and who will be paid handsomely. Fickell did not even want to discuss the possibility of staying as an assistant coach under Meyer. Not this day at least.
Its about the game, he said. It will always be about the game.
And what a game it was. Michigans Dennard Robinson and Ohio States Miller kept turns making plays, leading drives, scoring touchdowns. Miller had 335 total yards and three touchdowns (one rushing, two passing), Robinson had 337 and five TDs (two rushing, three passing). Both led their teams in rushing, Miller with 100 yards, Robinson with 170. Miller came out throwing and had a season-high 235 yards. Robinson was relentless, dicing and slicing an Ohio State defense that could not stop him or the Wolverines running game, which racked up 277 yards.
When it all was over and six points separated the teams, the missed plays stood out -- especially the last one to Posey that sailed long. Complete it and the pair are part of Ohio State legend. Instead it fell incomplete, and now many at Ohio State are pondering whats next.
If I were on the Board of Trustees, I would answer that, Posey said when asked if Fickell should stay as coach. I love coach Fickell. Hes a great guy, hes a great coach, and a great leader. But I cant make that call. All I know is I loved playing for him.
One day before the Buckeyes season of challenges ended at 6-6, the team even received a visit from its deposed coach, as Tressel stopped by to give a brief talk to the players in Columbus.
It was like he didnt skip a beat, center Mike Brewster said. It was like you blinked, and youre like, Was everything just a nightmare?
Outside, Michigans fans had taken the field. But there was no damage or tearing down goalposts, merely a celebration of unbridled joy. Students, parents, players all gathered to dance and sing to songs as varied as Build Me Up Buttercup and Sweet Caroline -- of course after everyone had sang Hail to the Victors.
The scene, the loss, sent Buckeyes freshman cornerback to Twitter, where he posted: I will never lose to those scrubs again.
Buckeyes offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said it best: Its been a long time since 2003.