Neither Desmond Howard nor Ted Ginn Jr. realized the impact at the time, but the return has lasted forever in the Michigan-Ohio State lore.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Howard’s signature moment – a 93-yard punt return in a 31-3 blowout on November 23, 1991, which the former Michigan legend put the finishing touches on with the Heisman position at Michigan Stadium.
On November 24, 2004, Ginn provided the answer to the Buckeyes. He weaved through defenders and accelerated down the sideline with an 82-yard return in an Ohio State 37-21 victory at Ohio Stadium.
“The only thing I thought about at the time was crossing the pylon and getting six,” Ginn told Sporting News. “When you really stop and turn around and think, ‘I really did,’ you have six or eight players in your face. That’s the split second you remember.”
These two plays are must-have clips in the montage for The Game, which will be renewed Saturday when No. 2 Ohio State faces No. 5 Michigan in the latest top-10 chapter of college football’s most notorious rivalry.
MORE: Elections to Ohio State-Michigan and more
It is also a reminder that the point itself can be the decisive game in the history of rivalry. After all, in the famous Snow Bowl on November 25, 1950, the teams merged to 45 points, and Michigan’s Tony Momsen fell on a blocked point to give the Wolverines a 9-3 victory.
The ten-year war between coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler started in earnest with Michigan’s 24-12 upset on November 22, 1969. It was, of course, started with the help of Barry Pierson’s point return to the 3-yard line, which set up a touchdown.
MORE: Betting Trends to Know for Michigan-Ohio State
Nearly 50 years later, on November 24, 2018, Ohio State’s Sevyn Banks returned a blocked punt 33 yards in a 62-39 victory over Michigan that marked the final act of Urban Meyer’s seven-year dominance of the Wolverines.
Yet there are no two returns that resonate more than Howard and Ginn, a couple of Cleveland natives connected by these incredible moments. Howard knows that the importance of how a special team plays can change everything now.
“At the time, you would never have imagined it. You are just in the moment,” Howard told SN. “You’re trying to make something happen. I was in the game and trying to do something to help my team.”
Howard enjoyed an incredible season in 1991. He made “The Catch” against Notre Dame. Wolverines sought to win a Big Ten championship, and Howard’s flair for the big moment made him the overwhelming Heisman favorite.
Howard also had plans for an end zone celebration against the Buckeyes.
MORE: SN’s coverage of Howard’s magical 1991 season
“I had actually wanted to do a backflip,” he said. “That was what I practiced in. I dated a gymnast and she taught me how to do a backflip. I thought, ‘If I ever get out in the open field and there’s no one within eight to 10 yards from me, I’m going to stop at the finish line and make a backflip into the goal zone. ”
Michigan led Ohio State 17-3 in the first half of that game in 1991, and Howard stood on the 10-yard line, waiting for a point from Tim Williams. Howard told SN he was not even meant to play points.
MORE: It’s a two-man race for Heisman
“It was one of those games that I could play an effective game in,” Howard said. “I threw the dice and took the chance.”
Howard hit a defender, split two more and then shuffled to the sideline before sprinting to the goal zone. Of course, the decision in a split second to take the “Heisman position” is what everyone on both sides of the rivalry remembers most.
It was a call at the last second from Howard, who told the SN that he was considering making a backwards, which he had practiced up to The Game.
“I had this conversation with myself on the way down,” Howard said. “I reached maybe the 12 or 11 yard line, I said, ‘You know what. I’m doing this and messing around, I’m at SportsCenter for the wrong thing, I crossed the finish line and did it spontaneously. It was like, ‘Bom.’ ”
Howard made the right decision. The “Heisman pose” has remained in sync with legendary television station Keith Jackson’s call for more than three decades.
“You could not have written it better,” Howard said. “The timing of everything. Keith Jackson goes through the movements I make, then he lays out and just lets the moment build up. Then, while I cross the finish line, he hits you with” Hi Heisman! “Come on man. Choose an instructor or producer. No one could have written the script better than the way it turned out that afternoon. ”
The nearly identical successor would come on November 22, 1997, when Michigan’s Charles Woodson returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown in Wolverines’ 20-14 victory. Woodson also won the Heisman Trophy, and Michigan won the AP National Championship.
These are the two hotspots of a 1988-2000 era in which Michigan dominated Ohio State with a record of 10-2-1 during the John Cooper era.
However, Ohio State’s Jim Tressel was hired after the 2000 season, and one of his first valued recruits was a Cleveland native who knew the Howard legend well.
‘This baby is over’
Ted Ginn Jr. was 6 years old when Howard lined up against Ohio State. Like Howard, Ginn grew up on the east side of Cleveland.
When Ginn worked his way up the youth football ranks, the Desmond Howard Saints team was beating.
“Everyone wanted to be Desmond,” Ginn said. “The 21-year-old always stood out. I certainly knew about his point-return as a kid.”
Ginn appeared as a five-star receiver and track star at Cleveland Glenville High School and was part of a busy recruiting class under Tressel in 2004.
At that time, Tressel changed the tone of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry by leading Ohio State to a national championship in 2002. Michigan responded with a Big Ten title the following season and sought to restore order with a victory in Columbus, Ohio, d November 20, 2004
Ohio State led 20-14 in the third quarter and Ginn was still upset by the previous punt return, which he almost scored on, but was stumbled upon.
Like Howard, Ginn was not even sure he would put up with points because Santonio Holmes was also back for return.
“It was in one of the dead areas in the middle of both of us where I did not know if I should say ‘you’ and he did not say ‘me’,” Ginn said. “So if the ball falls, it does. Not hurt us.”
Ginn took the point, bypassed a defender and then ducked through another before taking a familiar route to the sideline. Ginn hit the next gear and Michigan player Adam Finley had no chance. ABC broadcaster Brent Musburger called this time and simply said, “Forget about it. This baby is over, this race.”
“A couple of guys were there, but I just took my step,” Ginn said. “When I got outside, I saw daylight. There was no one who would catch me then.”
It was Ginn’s fourth point return TD of the season, and it was the exclamation point of Ohio State’s 37-21 victory. Howard also remembers seeing the play.
“The fact that he’s a kid from Cleveland, Ohio, and went to Glenville High School; I was also very aware of his accomplishments,” Howard said. “He was such a dynamic player. He was so fast.”
The Buckeyes have dominated The Game ever since. Ginn was a junior during the No. 1 showdown against No. 2, which Ohio State won 42-39 on November 18, 2006. The Buckeyes have been 15-1 against the Wolverines since 2004, and Ginn’s point-return serves as the same focal point.
“We were ‘the funny bunch,'” Ginn said. “We started it. That was what we were at the time. We did nothing but play football. At that time, I did not know how big the rivalry was. I was just playing in a football match.”
Howard and Ginn used their return skills in successful NFL careers.
Howard returned eight points for TDs from 1992-2002 and earned Super Bowl XXXI MVP honors with the Green Bay Packers after a 99-yard kickoff return for a TD. Ginn had seven recurring TDs in a career that stretched from 2007-2020.
Now retired, Ginn Jr. runs the Ginn Elite youth football program in Cleveland. With each passing year, this appreciation of rivalry continues to rise.
“As the years went by, and after I did what I did, I started to understand that this is what it’s all about,” Ginn said.
MORE: A Cincinnati-Ohio State semifinal?
Now the Wolverines and Buckeyes are renewing that rivalry. Would a punt perhaps swing what should be another classic between the ten great rivals?
“All the time,” Ginn said. “Special teams and big games. That’s what you’re looking for in a game like this.”
Ohio State has put star receivers Garrett Wilson and Jackson Smith-Njigba on return this year, and Michigan has returning AJ Henning and maybe Blake Corum if he returns from a leg injury. Henning returned a 81-yard kickoff for a touchdown on a trick game against Maryland in Week 12.
In a match with top-10 teams looking to reach the College Football Playoff, a point-return might make the next turning point.
Howard, who has been an analyst for ESPN’s “College GameDay” since 2005, will relive his Heisman moment this weekend. He can not help but wonder if another special moment is coming.
“I could (see special teams be critical) from the simple fact that field position becomes important if nothing else,” Howard said. “It’s hard to get points in a game of that magnitude between two big teams. I can definitely see special teams playing a significant role in the outcome of the match.”