'A lot on the line': Michigan locked in on playing Ohio State in much-anticipated matchup

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — This is what it has come down to, Michigan and Ohio State, both 10-1 and playing for a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game and the College Football Playoff.

The rivals will meet for the 177th time in what has been called, The Game, on Saturday at Michigan Stadium in a noon kickoff.

“They’ve just worked like crazy, daily, weekly, monthly. Just rung everything out,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday at his weekly news conference. “This is everything they’ve been working for, playing for, to put themselves to be in this position.”

Michigan linebacker Josh Ross won't hear any talk of the Wolverines ducking Ohio State last year.

Ohio State has dominated the rivalry the last two decades and won the last eight games. The teams did not play last year after a COVID-19 outbreak within the Michigan team forced the cancellation. The Wolverines were 2-4 last season and in an informal media poll take before this season were picked to finish fourth this fall. The Buckeyes, which boast the nation’s No. 1 overall and scoring offense, have won the last four Big Ten championships.

More: 'We're ready': UM, Ohio State to meet for first time since 2019, with everything on the line

“Both teams have a lot on the line,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a true playoff in that sense, in the college football playoff world. I mean, this is the start of the playoffs. The team that wins will advance. The team that doesn’t, won’t. It is that and it’s also the big game, The Game, the rivalry.”

Harbaugh, who famously guaranteed a win at Ohio State and backed it up when he was the Wolverines’ quarterback in 1986, is 0-5 coaching against the Buckeyes. He was asked how often someone mentions beating Ohio State.

“As often as it is on my own mind,” Harbaugh said.

This game has been on the minds of the Wolverines since the spring when Harbaugh renamed the 9-on-7 drill the “Beat Ohio." Michigan does the run-based drill that builds both sides of the ball each Tuesday.

“It’s who can block a man, who can get off a block,” Harbaugh said, describing the drill in September. “You’re running basically three different types of running plays, playing one or two defensive fronts and it’s something our offensive line and defensive line have really embraced.

“When that period comes up, whether it was practice in the spring or fall camp, that has become a drill of emphasis. Look forward to it. There’s excitement. They wanted music, so we’re playing music during that drill.”

The players have embraced the drill as yet another way to keep their focus on Ohio State.

“Great way to start off our practice as far as energy standpoint,” linebacker Josh Ross said Monday. “We’ve been doing that every single week, and I love it.”

The “Beat Ohio” drill comes into play this week, Harbaugh said, because this game will get down to the basics, blocking and tackling. He said he is impressed with the athleticism of the Ohio State defensive front and that blocking is going to be “paramount."

“It will be channeling Bo and Woody, blocking and tackling,” Harbaugh said. “The game will in large part come down to it.”

Harbaugh, of course, was referencing late Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, and late Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, whose on-field battles have been called "The 10-year War." The competitiveness of that era in terms of both teams sharing wins has not been matched as many thought when Harbaugh took over as his alma mater’s head coach in 2015. There was much on the line in The Game in 2016 and 2018, but Ohio State has won eight straight.

There was some off-field nastiness in the rivalry last year when white flag GIFs and memes circulated on social media after Michigan canceled the game at Ohio State. ESPN "College GameDay" analyst Kirk Herbstreit during a College Football Playoff show before that game suggested the possibility Michigan “waves the white flag” and would duck playing Ohio State.

Those comments drew the ire of Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, who posted a video in which he said he “was infuriated by the insinuation that Michigan would do anything but play a football game.”

Herbstreit issued an apology for his comments later that night.

Ross said Monday the Wolverines are not focused on what transpired last year, but was asked his thoughts when it was circulating that Michigan was essentially ducking the Buckeyes and waving the white flag.

“As far as last year, it’s B.S. to be honest with you,” Ross said. “That’s the game we always have circled on our calendar and always want to play, and as a Michigan Wolverine, that’s a game you’d die for. Honestly, B.S., and it doesn’t matter this year. Right now is what matters.”

This game is what matters, and Ross said it means everything.

“Not only are we playing our rival, we’re playing this big game, but it’s a playoff game, and there’s a lot on the line and we know that,” he said. “It’s gonna come down to how we prepare this week and how we prepare on a day-to-day (basis) and how we approach it and attack it leading to Saturday. That’s what wins games.”

Michigan is an underdog in this game. The Buckeyes lead the nation in offense, averaging 559.9 yards a game and scoring at 47.2 yards. Michigan’s defense is ranked ninth, yielding an average 306.6 yards and seventh in scoring (16.3 points).

“That’s fine. That’s the attitude we’ve had all year, the underdog mentality,” receiver Mike Sainristil said. “We feed off of that energy. It is what it is. If we’re underdogs, we’re underdogs. We’ll gladly take that and use it to our advantage come Saturday.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis