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'A weird look': In a year where nothing is normal, Michigan vs. Ohio State moves to October

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The Big Ten schedule was released Wednesday with the disclaimer that doesn’t mean the season will be played this fall. So with that as a starting point during this COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is, very little these days is what anyone would call normal.

Michigan playing Ohio State in late October is not normal. But it is the new normal. For now, at least. In a 10-game schedule that may or may not happen.

A game that since 1942 traditionally is played the last game of the regular season with a couple exceptions — Michigan has twice played at Hawaii after facing OSU — is scheduled Oct. 24 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. 

Jon Runyan Jr. battles against Chase Young during the 2019 Michigan vs. Ohio State game.

For those who have played in the Michigan-Ohio State game, while it is odd seeing The Game in October, it is an understandable decision considering all of the uncertainty.

“I think the Big Ten under the leadership of (Big Ten commissioner) Kevin Warren has been forward-thinking about all of this from the start,” Desmond Howard, Michigan’s 1991 Heisman Trophy winner now part of ESPN’s College GameDay, told The Detroit News in a message. “From being the first to announce conference-only schedules to creating a collapsible schedule that would allow the best chance for two teams to make up a postponed game, they are being cautious, practical and flexible, which is absolutely required during an unprecedented time like this.

“While players and fans of both teams have come to expect The Game to be the grand finale of the college football regular season, this is just a minor and temporary annoyance in a year full of much bigger problems.”

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Former Michigan players would prefer The Game to remain at the end of the season, but they’re just happy it may be played.

“Nobody wants it to be played in October if you could help it, but this is a whole new world and we’ve got to adjust,” said former quarterback John Wangler. “If that’s what it takes to get it done, then that’s what we’ve gotta do.

“As long as we can play it, hell, I think we’re willing to play them anytime, anywhere, but obviously, playing at the end of the year sets the stage and you hope that’s when the title is riding on the game. But this is a brave new world with what we’re going through, and if we can get it in with those guys in October and it allows us to get an East division champion, great. Everybody’s got to adjust. The key thing is if we can get football for this year. As long as we can play safely, that’s the key and get an Ohio State game in this year, that’s a big bonus.”

Michigan running back Hassan Haskins runs during last year's game against Ohio State in Ann Arbor.

Doug Skene, an offensive lineman in the early ‘90s, said under normal circumstances, moving the Michigan-Ohio State game from its traditional spot would really be strange.

“But because of the big asterisk on this season, nothing surprises me anymore,” Skene said. “Quite frankly, I thought it would be earlier just to get it in. I’m surprised they waited until the third week in October.”

Ohio State has dominated the rivalry with Michigan in recent years having won 15 of the last 16 meetings. Still, there always has been a buildup for The Game at the end of the season and it often has played a significant role in determining a champion.

“It’s weird and seems out of place,” Chris Howard, running back on the 1997 Michigan national title team, said. “It’s the last game of the season that usually has major implications for college football. Feels like we’re losing our, ‘This-is-for-all-the-marbles’ moment. But whether you play Ohio State the first game of the season, middle of the season or end of the season, the goal is still the same: Beat Ohio.”

Chris Wormley was a defensive lineman on Michigan’s team that lost at Ohio State in the thrilling 2016 double-overtime game involving a late controversial 4th-and-1 play with OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett that ultimately set up the Buckeyes' victory.

“It’s still Michigan versus OSU but to not have it be the last game of the regular season takes some of the pizazz away,” Wormley said in a text message. “Only having 10 games this year makes each and every game you play that much more important. I think back to 2006 or 2016 when that game determined so much for both teams (JT was short). To make it to the playoffs this year, you’ll have to be undefeated, so having that game in the middle of the season will make or break both teams’ year.”

For Jarrett Irons, a linebacker and two-time captain who last played in 1996, seeing the schedule this morning and seeing Michigan and OSU playing in October was a shock.

“No matter when we play them we’re going play our hearts out, and I want to win. I hate those guys,” Irons said. “At the end of the year, there’s so much you’ve been through to get to that point that there’s nothing left to give. It’s the last part of the year that you can give everything you have, so I love that aspect of playing them at the end of the season.

“To get them in October, it’s a weird look, but (if I were playing) I would adjust because that’s my favorite game to play in no matter what. I love that game, because there’s so much hatred between both programs. I would play them anytime, but it’s weird to see it in the middle of the schedule like that. October? We’re still working the kinks out then. You’re in the beginning of fall. It’s not even cold.”

Former receiver Ron Bellamy, now the West Bloomfield coach, said Michigan-Ohio State will still be the “marquee game” of this fall. Jamie Morris, the former running back in the late ‘80s, said they’d have played The Game even if it was in September. Bottom line, Michigan players can’t imagine not playing Ohio State.

“I would be OK with playing them on Good Friday if we still had the game this year,” said All-American defensive lineman and captain Chris Hutchinson, whose son, Aidan, is currently on the Michigan team.

Jon Jansen, a captain from the 1997 team, was on the last team in 1998 that played at Hawaii after facing Ohio State. He said how the game falls this season will be a challenge for players as they prepare for it and in the weeks after.

Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins is chased by Ohio State players during the 2019 game in Ann Arbor.

“That was the only season I had lost to Ohio State, so I do understand the challenge of trying to recover from a game like that and then play the next week,” Jansen said. “If (other teams) play their rival or they play a big game in the middle of the year, if it goes well, you have to learn how to handle success. If it doesn’t go well, you have to learn how to handle failure and pick up and move on. It’s a great opportunity for these kids to hopefully do the former than the latter. It’s a life lesson that they’re going to have to learn that you may have a huge moment in the middle of whatever is going on, and you’ve got to turn the page.

“As a traditionalist, yeah, I’d love to see it at end of the year, but I understand why they put it in the middle of October in the hopes those five or six games in the middle of October and beginning of November, that those are the games we have the best chance of getting in. Everybody is making sacrifices right now. I can’t say this is unreasonable, I just want to see the game played.”

The toughest part for the current players might not be adjusting to facing OSU in the middle of the season, he said, but finding a rhythm. 

"I always go back to that ‘97 season where we didn’t have a bye week," Jansen said. "You start your prep on Sunday, you’ve got Monday off, Tuesday, Wednesday you hit, Thursday it goes lighter, Friday you either travel to the hotel or the opposing team’s facilities, Saturday you play. You repeat on Sunday. There’s a rhythm to your life. This year, I find it hard to believe that we’re going to have any rhythm. No one week is going to look like the week that just happened or the week ahead. That’s going to be a huge challenge for these kids and the coaches to keep some type of rhythm and answer questions they have no answers for.”

The Game will be The Game regardless of its position in the schedule. Skene said fans will be happy to have college football this fall if it happens, but no one wants this to happen again.

“Regardless what happens, as fans we’re going to want to forget this season and get back to what we perceive as normal,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to change anybody’s outlook on the (Michigan-Ohio State) game. We’ll all look forward to watching it if we even get to that point that we’re still playing.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis