COLUMBUS, Ohio ? Mike Hart finally had a big game against Ohio State.
Michigan's defense made it moot.
Hart ran for 142 yards and three touchdowns, but the top-ranked Buckeyes scored easily in a 42-39 victory Saturday over the second-ranked Wolverines to earn a spot in the national championship.
Michigan's supposed vise-like defense gave up 28 points in the first half, more than it had in any of its previous 11 games.
"I never expected that to happen," Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley said.
The Wolverines gave up 187 yards rushing - six times the average they were allowing to lead the nation against the run - and more than 100 of those yards came on two scoring runs.
Antonio Pittman's 56-yard run midway through the third quarter was Ohio State's fifth play of at least 20 yards, matching the number of 20-yard plays Michigan allowed in any game this season.
"Big plays simply were the biggest factor in the game," Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr said.
If Michigan is fortunate enough to get a rematch on Jan. 8 in Arizona with the national title at stake, Hart guaranteed it would be a different game.
"Because the defense gave up big plays, they don't usually," he said.
Hart failed to make many plays in the previous two losses to Ohio State, which limited him to 76 yards on 27 carries.
He entered the game averaging 124.8 yards per game - sixth in the nation - and surpassed that on 23 carries against the Buckeyes' defense that was geared to stop him.
The shifty running back got Michigan off the mat with a 2-yard score early in the third quarter to make it 28-21 and scored his third TD early in the fourth to make it 35-31.
"Their defense played good, but they're not as good as people thought," Hart said. "We didn't put enough points on the board. There's nothing special about that defense."
It looked like Hart was going to have another frustrating game early, when he was held to just 17 yards in the first quarter. He finished the first half with 56 yards, then got loose for a 33-yard gain in the third quarter, giving the Wolverines a shot.
"Hart was the best back we faced all year," Ohio State defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock said.
Like junior quarterback Chad Henne, Hart has had a fabulous career at Michigan, but both juniors are 0-3 against Ohio State and that, ultimately, is how great players are measured at college football's winningest program.
"You know it hurts," Hart said. "You want to beat Ohio State. I got one more year left. I'm going to get them next year."
A follow-up question led to Hart's guarantee, which will ring hollow if Michigan's defense fails to slow down Troy Smith in a possible fourth matchup.
The Wolverines' new-look defense - led by first-year coordinator Ron English - witnessed the same-old story because Smith seemed to do whatever he wanted, when he wanted.
In the previous two wins against Michigan, Smith accounted for 700-plus yards and five TDs.
Michigan tried everything against the Heisman Trophy contender, sending linebackers and a safety on blitzes at times and rushing four linemen while dropping into zones.
"We were just a second off from getting back there a few times," Woodley said. "And then a few times, some of our plays didn't work."
The Wolverines managed to sack Smith only once and hit him numerous times after passes, only to see him get up and make another play to solidify his status as one of the best players to take part in one of college football's most storied rivalries.
Bo Schembechler, who died Friday, said earlier in the week that no player - not even two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin - impressed him more in consecutive Ohio State-Michigan games.