ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The letters "BCS" or the words "national championship" barely entered the air during Ohio State's postgame press conference on Saturday. The Iron Bowl might as well have been taking place on another planet. All that mattered was that the Buckeyes had just defeated Michigan 42-41 in one of the most thrilling contests in the 110-year history of their rivalry. Even the fact that Urban Meyer's team just earned its 24th consecutive victory took a back seat to The Game itself.
Three hours later, Ohio State coaches and players were on buses about 10 miles north of Delaware, Ohio, when Auburn's Chris Davis returned a missed Alabama field goal 109 yards for a touchdown as time expired to knock off the top-ranked Crimson Tide. The Tigers' 34-28 victory likely lifted the Buckeyes to the No. 2 spot in Sunday's BCS standings. Now is it time to talk about the BCS?
"Nothing to say at this time," Meyer texted SI.com from the bus.
The Buckeyes needed their own last-second drama on Saturday to even remain in the conversation, as an anticipated blowout turned into a high-scoring thriller. Redshirt freshman nickelback Tyvis Powell intercepted Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner's potential game-winning two-point conversion attempt with 32 seconds remaining.
"We were in there taking a shower ... that's when it really hit me," Powell said. "That was our season on the line -- 12-0, gold pants, chance at the national championship. Wow, I really kind of just saved our season."
Most assumed this would be an uneventful prelude to the third-ranked Buckeyes' Big Ten title game against Michigan State next weekend. After all, it seemed a mismatch given the 7-4 Wolverines' offensive ineptitude since the beginning of November. But rivalry games have a way of producing wholly unexpected events -- be it the second-quarter brawl that resulted in three players' ejections (Ohio State running back/return man Dontre Wilson and offensive lineman Marcus Hall; Michigan linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone) or Michigan's unexpected offensive outburst.
VIDEO: Ohio State and Michigan players get into fight; three ejected from game
"We got knocked down a couple times this year ... We could have easily rolled over and died against the number three team in the country," said Wolverines tackle Taylor Lewan "We kept going, kept fighting, kept moving every time."
In a transcendent performance unlike any he'd recently delivered, Gardner thoroughly flummoxed Ohio State's defense. He completed 32-of-45 passes for 451 yards with four touchdowns. The Wolverines needed every bit of it to keep pace with the powerful rushing attack of Buckeyes stars Carlos Hyde (27 carries, 226 yards, one touchdown) and Braxton Miller (16 carries, 153 yards, three touchdowns). The turnover-prone Gardner even managed to avoid an interception -- until his final throw.
After Hyde scored the go-ahead touchdown with 2:20 remaining, Gardner marched toward the end zone and threw a two-yard touchdown to Devin Funchess with 32 seconds left. Facing the prospect of overtime without its regular kicker, Brendan Gibbons (injured in practice this week), and with an opportunity to ruin his rival's perfect season, Hoke sent his offense back on the field.
"We weren't doing a good job slowing them down," said Hoke. "We wanted to go win the football game."
Ohio State counterpart Meyer called a timeout because, "We were blown out on defense," he said. "I wanted to give them a breath." Sometime during that break, Powell said, his position coach, Kerry Coombs, predicted the exact play Michigan would run -- a curl route by receiver Drew Dileo from the back of a triple-stack formation on the right side. Powell promptly jumped it.
"It was such a crazy ending, everyone's head's still spinning," said tight end Jeff Heuerman, who caught a 22-yard touchdown in the third quarter. "A win's a win. We'll take it any way we can get it."
Still, even hours after the ending, it was hard to comprehend exactly how these teams wound up in a 42-41 shootout -- especially given the state of Michigan's offense coming into Saturday. In the Wolverines' previous four games -- losses to Michigan State (29-6) and Nebraska (17-13), an overtime win at Northwestern (27-19) and a loss to Iowa (24-21) -- they managed a combined five offensive touchdowns. Gardner, repeatedly battered by opposing defenses exploiting Michigan's inexperienced offensive line, looked like a shell of his former self.
ELLIS: Ohio State escapes Michigan to remain perfect; early Snap Judgments
A week ago, Michigan managed just 158 total yards against the Hawkeyes. Yet against Ohio State, the Wolverines eclipsed that total in the first quarter (208). Offensive coordinator Al Borges, a recent punching bag for Michigan fans, poured open the playbook by calling reverses, flip passes and more. The Wolverines jumped to a 21-14 second-quarter lead. Order seemed restored when Ohio State came roaring back to take a 35-21 advantage in the third. But Gardner led his team on an 11-play, 83-yard touchdown drive, and then he cashed in on Hyde's lone mistake of the night, a fumble at his own 41-yard line, to tie it up.
At that point, trickery no longer fueled Michigan's attack, unless one counts the repeated throwback passes, including a two-yard touchdown toss to tight end Jake Butt (five catches, 85 yards) on third-and-goal. Gardner stood tall amid pressure and fired darts to his receivers, most notably Jeremy Gallon (nine catches, 175 yards, one touchdown). The Wolverines finished with a rivalry-record 603 total yards.
"They kind of looked like a different team," said Ohio State All-America linebacker Ryan Shazier. "But we kind of expected that."
Offensively, Ohio State looked like the same juggernaut it has all season. Hyde, who would be a surefire Heisman finalist had he not served a three-game suspension to open the year, made mincemeat of a defense that came into the day ranked 13th nationally against the run. He broke Beanie Wells' school record for rushing yards in a Michigan game. While Miller did not turn in his finest passing performance (6-of-15 for 133 yards with an interception), he threw a 53-yard touchdown to Devin Smith and broke scoring runs of 53 and 21 yards, respectively.
But the Buckeyes' Achilles heel -- and the reason they will continue to be mentioned a notch below Florida State -- was its pass defense, which came in ranked 52nd nationally (in efficiency rating) and will sag further now.
"We didn't get the normal pressure we usually have, and Gardner is an excellent thrower," said Meyer. "We've got to fix some things."
They'll need to get that issue fixed quickly, because an even tougher test looms next week in Indianapolis. Even with a school-record 24-game winning streak to begin the Meyer era -- consecutive 12-0 marks, a staggering accomplishment no matter the conference -- the Buckeyes don't yet have a trophy to show for it. That opportunity will finally come against the 11-1 Spartans, a team that already figured to be their toughest opponent in two years. Now, after Saturday's escape, the threat feels even greater.
If Ohio State posts win No. 25, there will be no shortage of fury from Buckeye Nation in the event Meyer's team is still excluded from the BCS title game at the expense of a one-loss SEC champion. In reality, the defense that facilitated Gardner's career day on Saturday might be better off accepting the Jan. 1 undercard in Pasadena rather than dealing with the likes of the Seminoles' Jameis Winston.
But that's hardly on anyone's mind in Columbus. Much like Saturday's surprise shootout victory, they'll take a trip to the title game any way they can get it.