Ann Arbor — For the Michigan players who grew up in Ohio, the annual Michigan-Ohio State game generates deep emotions.
After all, they left their home state to play for the Buckeyes’ biggest rival and that adds a different layer to one of the biggest rivalry games in all of sport.
Michigan and Ohio State meet on Saturday at Michigan Stadium in the regular-season finale. The 12th-ranked Wolverines are 9-2, 6-1 Big Ten, while Ohio State is ranked No. 8 and is 10-1, 6-1 and coming off a loss to Michigan State. For the Wolverines, it’s a chance at a 10-win regular season after going 5-7 last year and missing out on a bowl game.
The defending national champion Buckeyes have dominated the series with Michigan, winning 10 of the last 11. Michigan last won in 2011, and came close to upsetting the Buckeyes in 2013, falling short on a two-point conversion attempt, 42-41.
Michigan offensive guard Kyle Kalis, from Lakewood, near Cleveland, said he endured some “conflict” after leaving the state for Michigan.
“But it’s all good,” he said Monday at Michigan’s weekly news conference. “It is the best rivalry game in college football, no doubt in my mind. I know I’m not the only one who thinks that.
Ohio native Jake Butt, a Michigan tight end, talks about the UM-OSU rivalry.
“It’s going to be fun. We’ve all been waiting for it, the team’s been waiting for it. Both teams are going to come out hard, guns a-blazin’, not holding anything back. It’s going to be a good one.”
Tight end Jake Butt, who grew up in the Columbus suburb of Pickerington, was not offered a scholarship by the Buckeyes. Butt is a semifinalist for the Mackey Award given to the nation’s top tight end. He is the sixth tight end in school history to reach 1,000 yards (1,012).
“I didn’t forget that, for sure, but at the same time it worked out for the best,” Butt said of not getting an OSU offer. “I’m happy here, I love it here and with coach (Jim) Harbaugh I don’t think it could have gotten any better for me.”
Year after year, Michigan players have said they have a great respect for Ohio State, but of course, there’s more to it than just that.
“There’s definitely a level of respect, but it’s a rivalry for a reason,” said Butt, who added he grew up dreaming about playing in this game. “When you step on the field, you’re not friends with these guys. But there’s a level of respect. They’re two respected, really great, historic programs. Probably a little bit of hatred, but there is a lot of respect in this game.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh discusses Ohio State during his Monday press conference.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh played quarterback for the Wolverines, even guaranteed victory over Ohio State in 1986, but he wouldn’t bite on any questions Monday about the specifics of the rivalry. He kept things vanilla, throwing out his oft-used phrase, “We’re trying to be better today than we were yesterday, better tomorrow than we were today,” and deflected any attempts to get him to open up about what the rivalry means.
He did, however, respectfully praise Ohio State.
“Tremendous football team, probably not going out on a limb by saying that,” Harbaugh said. “This is a remarkable team. What they’ve accomplished, the rate at which they’ve won with numbing repetition. Tremendous coaching, tremendous program, tremendous players. Multiple obstacles and tasks for our football team to face this week. That being said, we’re very excited to face them.”
Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden, from Cincinnati, will play in his final Michigan-Ohio State game. He’s been waiting for this for a while.
Michigan offensive lineman Kyle Kalis, an Ohio native, talks about this week's game.
“Four years you could say, since I committed,” he said.
For Kalis, everything, beyond the potential of a 10-win regular season, comes down to this game
“It’s a big game and when it comes, it’s time to let loose and it’s time to play,” he said. “There are a lot of emotions that go through you when you play a big rivalry game like this. That’s why you play, to experience those types of things and experience these types of games.”
Butt, a junior, said he will step on the field, look across the field at Ohio State and take in a deep breath and allow the moment to crystalize.
“You want to come to Michigan to win these games,” Butt said. “You don’t want to leave saying you never beat these guys. It does mean a lot to everybody on this team. We are going to go out there and lay it on the line for these seniors because they deserve it.”
Peppers on offense
Redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, a three-way player for the Wolverines, might be more of a feature in the offense on Saturday.
Peppers had five carries for 19 yards against Penn State on Saturday, not to mention three pass breakups and three tackles. He also returned two punts.
Harbaugh on Monday sounded like a guy who wants Peppers to get some offensive snaps against the Buckeyes.
“What’s your question, is he a good running back?” Harbaugh asked a reporter. “Yeah, yeah, I think so. He’s a darn good running back. Year 2 may get a little crazy. May be one of the things we look at.”
Last week, Peppers was named a finalist for the Hornung Award, given to the most versatile player in major college football. According to the release from Michigan, Peppers had played 809 snaps entering the Penn State game, with 635 on defense, 150 on special teams and 24 on offense.
His primary role is at safety, but Penn State had only 54 offensive plays, so that, essentially, offered Peppers a breather. He participated in 95 plays at Minnesota on Oct. 31.
Not a big deal
While some could characterize OSU running back Ezekiel Elliott’s comments criticizing the coaching and play-calling after the loss to MSU as a sign of dissension in the team, Butt didn’t see it that way.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told reporters on Monday he didn’t disagree with what Elliott said but did think it was an improper forum.
“I did see the (postgame) comments, it’s been blowing up pretty much everywhere, but I think you see a bunch of guys who are passionate about winning over there,” Butt said. “They’re going to get that squared away. I don’t think it’s anything to look too far into. They’re going to come out here guns blazing on Saturday, and they’re going to give us their best game.”
Receiver Jehu Chesson has “been working through something,” Harbaugh said after being asked about a photograph on the Michigan Twitter page Sunday featuring Chesson.
In the photo, Chesson, who was slow to get up after a hit in the Penn State game and later got up grabbing for his right shoulder, appears to have his right arm out of his shirt’s sleeve.
Harbaugh said he expects Chesson to play against OSU.
“Yeah, I do,” he said, adding he will rely on the medical staff and input from Chesson.
... Running back Derrick Green also has been “working through something” since the Rutgers game and has missed the last two games.
“We’ll evaluate that today,” Harbaugh said.
Vigilant on safety
UM Police Chief Robert Neumann followed up a Sunday release by the UM athletic department reassuring that safety measures are in place for the Michigan-Ohio State game and again encouraging fans to arrive early because of additional screening.
This is in response to recent terrorist activity abroad.
“We don’t have any specific information about any threats,” Neumann said Monday. “We continuously assess, evaluate and regularly make changes to our security operations. We are going to be doing different screening and ask fans to arrive earlier to make sure they get into the event on time.”
He said as is typical, officers will be all around the stadium and fans should report any suspicious behavior to the officers.
Fans will be asked to open their coats as part of the increased screening, and that will increase delays getting into the stadium.
Neumann said he is in daily communication with Homeland Security.
“We receive daily intelligence briefings from Homeland Security, the FBI,” he said. “We’re on a first-name basis with them. We sit next to each other in our operations center. Very close cooperation, contact. Not only with Homeland Security and FBI but state police, sheriff’s department, Ann Arbor police and all the surrounding agencies.”