Niyo: Ohio State dominance doesn’t change dynamic of rivalry with Michigan
Ann Arbor — Nothing else matters now. Everyone can agree on that, at least, whether they’re seeing red or feeling blue, suffering silently or speaking loudly, chasing perfection or trying to set the record straight by settling a score.
Ohio State and Michigan come to "The Game" from very different places and each in their own way every November. And Saturday’s 116th meeting of one of college football’s greatest rivalries will be no different, in that respect.
The Buckeyes are undefeated and No. 1 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, with a spot in next week’s Big Ten championship game already reserved. The 10th-ranked Wolverines are 9-2 and surging after some early-season stumbles, yet they’re also searching for an elusive win in this series, losers of seven in a row and 14 of the last 15 against Ohio State.
But on a more visceral level, what we’ve heard again this week in the run-up to Saturday’s clash at Michigan Stadium is a subtle reminder the rivalry is treated with slightly more religious fervor in Columbus.
“To see what this means to the people of Ohio, the Buckeye Nation, that is, to me, where it really hits home,” said Ryan Day, Ohio State’s first-year head coach who hasn't lost a game but also hasn’t beaten Michigan as the man in charge, either. “I just know the Ohio State football team means everything to the people of Ohio. It runs deep in their blood, it's who they are, it's their identity, their pride.”
Those same blanket statements don’t quite apply on the other side of this border war. Mark Dantonio and his Michigan State teams spent the better part of a decade reminding folks of that here recently, and the Wolverines did claim other bigger rivals prior to the “Ten Year War” that began 50 years ago this week when Bo Schembechler’s 1969 team stunned Woody Hayes' defending national champs.
That’s not to suggest there aren’t deep-seated feelings about Ohio State in Ann Arbor, of course. Jim Harbaugh, immersed in the rivalry from a young age, once guaranteed a win over his archrival as Michigan’s starting quarterback and now craves a breakthrough win over the Buckeyes in his fifth season as the Wolverines’ head coach. He just isn’t all that eager to advertise any desperation about it ahead of Saturday’s noon kickoff.
“My feelings?” Harbaugh said this week as he stonewalled reporters looking for headlines. “I'm excited for the game. Excited, up for it, and ready for the challenge."
As challenges go, they don’t get much more difficult than this, either. Ohio State leads the nation in both scoring offense (49.4) and scoring defense (10.5), among other statistical categories. And while Day was quick to say Michigan “will be the most talented group we’ve seen by far,” Saturday marks the third time in four years that Michigan will carry a top-10 national ranking into the final game of the regular season. Yet only once under Harbaugh have the Wolverines come away with something other than a double-digit loss.
Everyone knows how last year’s game went, too. Michigan rolled into Columbus on a 10-game winning streak — and favored by the oddsmakers for just the second time in the rivalry since 2004 — only to see Ohio State set a single-game scoring record against the Wolverines in a 62-39 runaway romp.
Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson says his lasting memory from that game wasn’t of any particular play. Instead, it was standing on the visitors’ sideline next to receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones after “things got out of hand in the fourth quarter,” and telling him “that we were going to get another shot at 'em — at a different place.”
There is a time and place for everything. And before preseason camp this year, Harbaugh gave his players motivational T-shirts with the scores of the games they lost in 2018 printed on the back.
“And that 62,” senior defensive end Kwity Paye noted, "was right at the top."
Not that they needed the reminder, necessarily.
“We know what happened, they know what happened,” senior co-captain Ben Bredeson said. “Last year’s score isn’t going to affect the game this year.”
Rationally speaking, that’s true. What’ll affect Saturday’s game — beyond the rain and snow in the forecast — are the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline. Can Michigan’s offensive line keep Ohio State’s star defensive end, Chase Young, from wrecking another game? Can Michigan’s defense hold its ground against a dominant — and dynamic — Ohio State rushing attack? Can the Wolverines’ big-play receivers grab the spotlight in the biggest game of the season?
All fair questions. But since when has college football relied solely on rational behavior? Especially when it comes to a rivalry like this, where passion and preparation go hand in hand.
In an interview with WBNS-TV in Columbus this week, former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who’ll be on-site Saturday working for Fox’s pregame show, said he’d rank his 7-0 record against Michigan above anything else he accomplished in a coaching career that includes three national championships.
"I was raised you could lose all games but never lose that game," Meyer said. "Obviously, that’s not true anymore. That’s really never been true. But I was brainwashed. I was in that Woody Hayes era, where that was the enemy."
That belief was passed down from Hayes to Earle Bruce, the assistant who succeeded him in 1979. And after John Cooper's torturous tenure in the 1990s, it was brought back unambiguously with Jim Tressel and later Meyer, who’d both coached under Bruce in Columbus.
'Very serious' rivalry
Day, for his part, grew up an hour north of Boston, raised on the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and as a small-college quarterback at the University of New Hampshire he used to battle the Maine Black Bears for the Brice-Cowell Musket. But it didn’t take long after he arrived at Ohio State as an assistant coach in 2017 to understand what The Game was all about.
“You get here, you start to live it every day and you understand it,” said Day, who tells a story of his son, Ryan Jr., “getting into it” with a kid wearing a blue shirt at the bus stop on his first day of school. “Coach Meyer certainly talked about it all the time, and I’ve learned that way.”
Harbaugh learned it long before that, growing up around the Michigan program while his father, Jack, was an assistant on Schembechler’s staff in the 1970s. He later played quarterback for Schembechler, and Harbaugh won both games he started against Ohio State. There was the 77-yard bomb to John Kolesar in 1985 and then the bombshell — “I guarantee you we'll beat Ohio State and be in Pasadena,” he told reporters before the ’86 game — that he backed up with a win in Columbus as a senior.
Players who come to the rivalry as outsiders today soon find out where the lines are drawn, however.
Ohio State’s Wyatt Davis, a redshirt sophomore guard, recalled the time he wore a blue tank top while visiting the Woody Hayes Athletic Center as one of the nation’s top recruits. His host scrambled to find him a jacket to wear over it, but it was too late. When he met Meyer, the coach made him unzip the jacket to see if he “had that ugly color on.”
“And he was, like, ‘Don’t ever do that again,’” Davis said. “That made me realize that this is real. This (rivalry) is very historic, and we take that very serious around here.”
They do in Ann Arbor as well. Paye laughed Tuesday night as he told a similar story about the time he showed up for an early-season walkthrough practice as a freshman wearing a red long-sleeve shirt.
“Everyone was looking at me, and I didn’t know why,” he said.
But teammates on the defensive line, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich, soon explained his transgression — “You can’t wear red (here), year-round,” Paye said — and “they made me take it off and do the walkthrough shirtless.”
It’s just that in Columbus they take it several steps further than that.
“It’s ingrained in you, the moment you walk on campus,” junior linebacker Tuf Borland said.
No one speaks the word “Michigan” around Ohio State’s football building. Instead, it’s that “Team Up North.” Every ‘M’ on every sign is replaced with a red ‘X’ and it’s not just the clocks that are counting down the days. Sophomore receiver Chris Olave remembers his first offseason workout as a freshman “we had to do Team Up North abs” — one crunch for every day left before The Game.
Michigan’s recruiting board is displayed in the coaches’ offices — “Part of how you live this rivalry is you compare yourselves every day against them,” Day says — and not a week goes by that a practice period doesn’t focus on the Wolverines.
And this week? When Meyer was the coach, he'd insist on blasting LL Cool J’s “It’s Time for War” over the loudspeakers on a loop every day before the Michigan game. Asked if that was still the case under day, captain Jordan Fuller laughed and said, "I've heard it it a couple times." What else would you expect?
“This game means everything to us,” Day said. “Nothing matters if we don't win this game.”
On that count, he’ll get no argument from his opponent. Harbaugh has made significant changes to his staff after each season, due at least in part to those Ohio State losses. He schedules practice time with his rivals in mind throughout the year as well. And chances are, there'll be some mention of that '69 game inside Schembechler Hall before Saturday's game.
Just don't expect to hear much noise about it until after they finally end this skid.
“For us, we take each game one week at a time,” Patterson said. “But in the back of our minds, each week leading up to this one is for this week. ... We slowly, and silently, prepare for them all year.”
Now they just have to figure out a way to beat them.
Ohio State at Michigan
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Records: Ohio State 11-0, 8-0 Big Ten; Michigan 9-2, 6-2
Line: Ohio State by 8.5