COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Jim Harbaugh crouched with his hands on his knees as he watched Ohio State's offense set up in the red zone at Ohio Stadium for the final play of the regular season, just as he did two years ago.
Just like two years ago, Harbaugh jogged off the field surrounded by an escort of police officers as Ohio State students pouring onto the turf slowed long enough to remind the visiting coach of his record against the Buckeyes. A few minutes later, Harbaugh settled into a chair in the same crowded interview room in the corner of The Horseshoe where two years earlier he'd said he thought his team should have won.
At the time, the Wolverines' head coach felt that close to closing the gap between his team and the machine Urban Meyer has built in Columbus.
Two years later, Harbaugh and his team could not have felt further away.
Usurping Ohio State seems miles away after an unprecedented 62-39 beatdown Saturday afternoon, and given the vulnerable state in which the Buckeyes entered this year's annual rivalry game, it's hard to imagine how Harbaugh & Co. are ever going to beat them.
"I feel the same," Harbaugh said Saturday evening. "Just motivated to come back and make darn sure it doesn't happen again."
The plan hasn't worked yet. This year's loss dropped Harbaugh to 0-4 against his alma mater's chief rival. It ended No. 4 Michigan's hopes of making its first playoff appearance under the coach it hired to win championships. It ended the Wolverines' chance to play for a Big Ten title for the first time in more than a decade. It ended any doubt of Urban Meyer's supremacy in the Big Ten and Harbaugh's position as, at best, second fiddle.
The first three rounds of what many had hoped would be a return to the glory days of one of college football's best rivalries left reasons to believe Harbaugh could eventually pull Michigan even with Ohio State. In those games, the talent gap was pronounced, which left room to think that once that closed the Wolverines would compete. The 2016 game was a coin flip. Michigan remained competitive at home in 2017, despite playing with a backup quarterback.
This time around, Michigan had the better team on paper. The Wolverines have a difference-maker at quarterback. They have an improved offensive line. They have a mature and athletic defense -- the No. 1 unit in the nation in total yards allowed coming into this week.
The Buckeyes' defense struggled against explosive plays throughout the 2018 season. They squeaked past Maryland a week ago and lost to Purdue just a few weeks before that. Meyer looked beaten down and disengaged at times during a frustrating November. And despite all that, Ohio State embarrassed Michigan in all three phases of a record-setting showing; mentally, physically and strategically, Meyer's team got the better of Harbaugh's.
"We didn't know we'd have to go through that much pain throughout the game," Michigan captain Tyree Kinnel said. "It was tough to go through."
Part of the problem was that sense of things being the same. Michigan's offense attempted to pound its way through the Buckeyes' defense the same way it had against the rest of the conference en route to a 10-1 record. It didn't attempt to exploit a young secondary that has allowed as many long, broken plays as any team in the league this season. Even as the Buckeyes' lead grew and the Wolverines pounding their way through the defense proved unsuccessful, Michigan didn't change course.
Ohio State, on the other hand, didn't stand still. It carved up Michigan's defense on its opening drive with crossing routes. When Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown adjusted to stop those plays, Meyer and assistant Ryan Day moved on to something else.
"We made an adjustment at halftime," Kinnel said. "We addressed the issues that we had in the first half, and then they came out and beat us with something else in the second half."
Kinnel, an Ohio native, has been around for all four of the losses to Ohio State in the Harbaugh era. He said he was taken aback by today's result. This year felt different after Michigan's wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. He said he and his teammates felt as if they were destined to be on their way to Indianapolis for a Big Ten title shot. Ohio State and Meyer reminded them Saturday that the biggest hurdle for Michigan will always be at the end of the regular-season road.
Minutes before Harbaugh arrived to speak to reporters Saturday evening, running back Chris Evans and wide receiver Nico Collins sat to field questions. They were asked how they would put into words what happened on the field. Several seconds of awkward silence followed before Evans leaned forward, exhaled into the microphone and shook his head.
Answers were hard to come by for Michigan this weekend. It's hard to say why things went so poorly for the Wolverines in Columbus. It's harder to say when -- or if -- those answers might come. Near the end of a season that seemed like it would culminate in something different, everything felt the same.