Ohio State and Michigan took bettors and bookmakers alike on an emotional roller coaster Saturday morning during “The Game.”
Not surprisingly, when the thrill ride ended, the bookmakers emerged with a big smile on their faces while most bettors felt sick.
After playing dead for most of the 111th meeting of the Big Ten rivals, the No. 7 Buckeyes — who were favored from 20½ to 21½ points — finally came alive in the fourth quarter.
Ezekiel Elliott scored untouched on a 44-yard run on fourth-and-1 with 4:58 left to give Ohio State a 35-21 lead — its largest to that point — and an outside shot at covering the spread.
A minute later, linebacker Darron Lee delivered what appeared to be a Christmas-miracle cover for Buckeyes backers — and a nightmare for Las Vegas sports books — when he returned a fumble by Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner 33 yards for a score and a 42-21 lead with 3:58 left.
All Ohio State bettors needed was a stop, but they didn’t get one. Instead, they watched their winning tickets turn into receipts as Michigan marched 75 yards in nine plays for the dreaded backdoor cover. Gardner found Freddy Canteen for a 3-yard TD with 1:15 left to make the score 42-28.
The Buckeyes recovered the ensuing onside kick near midfield and ran out the clock. So much for coach Urban Meyer running up the score.
“That’s just how it goes, kid,” South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said. “It doesn’t matter which side of the counter you’re on, you’re going to get those kinds of decisions.”
Had the game ended at 42-21, several Las Vegas sports books would have been middled and started their Saturday with a sizable loss.
“We did go to 21½ on the game from 20½,” Vaccaro said. “Make no mistake, the books got lucky on that one in the last few minutes.”
The biggest line move of the day was on the Alabama-Auburn matchup, which also drew the most action, in part, because it didn’t start until 4:45 p.m.
The No. 2 Crimson Tide (11-1), ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, opened as a 7½-point favorite and closed at 10.
“Everything else was good action but not any games that ran two or three points,” Vaccaro said. “There were not a lot of games we could get into a lot of trouble with. Probably the best of the three days’ games so far was UCLA losing to Stanford (31-10). That was a very, very good game for bookmakers. Some wise guys were on the ’dog, but the public was 75 percent on UCLA.”
Alabama trailed Auburn 33-21 early in the second half before outscoring the Tigers 34-11 the rest of the way for a 55-44 win and cover.
Speaking at halftime of the Iron Bowl, Vaccaro said his book needed Auburn but that it would have a winning day regardless of the result.
“We should be OK no matter what happens, but it would make for an above-average day if Auburn can win this game,” he said.
As it turned out, the Tigers blew a prime scoring chance at the end of the first half that might have cost their backers.
Following a Blake Sims interception, Nick Marshall completed a 40-yard pass to Sammie Coates that gave Auburn the ball at the Alabama 1-yard line with 23 seconds left. Instead of calling timeout, Tigers coach Gus Malzahn let the clock tick down and ran a play.
After Cameron Artis-Payne was stopped for a loss of two yards, there were only four seconds left and Auburn settled for a 20-yard field goal instead of a potential touchdown. The extra four points would have been enough to cover the spread.
Moments after Malzahn’s time mismanagement, Vaccaro was incredulous.
“There’s 20-something seconds left. Call timeout and run three plays,” he said. “What are you thinking?”
The books also lost on No. 2 Oregon, which covered the 20-point spread in a 47-19 win over Oregon State, but won on Southern California, a 7-point favorite that crushed Notre Dame 49-14.
“Notre Dame never even showed up in that game,” Vaccaro said. “That was a decent win for us.”
In its sloppiest performance of the season, No. 1 Florida State won but didn’t cover the 7½-point spread in a 24-19 victory over Florida in which it overcame four interceptions by Jameis Winston. The Seminoles erased a 9-0 deficit en route to a 21-16 halftime lead, and the teams traded field goals in the second half, when the Gators missed two potential go-ahead kicks.
“We did OK with the halftime (bets),” Vaccaro said. “In the previous five or six games, Florida State came back after halftime.”
No. 16 Georgia Tech, a 10½-point underdog to No. 8 Georgia, pulled out an outright upset in a wild 30-24 overtime win and will face the Seminoles (12-0) in Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
Vaccaro would love to see Ohio State take Florida State’s spot in the playoffs.
“The playoff system will be very big for us, but I’d rather have Ohio State in the mix than Florida State just because it would draw more attention,” he said. “People are tired of Florida State. Ohio State is a more polarizing team. They’re like Floyd Mayweather. You love them or you hate them.”
Bettors didn’t have much love for the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.