Michigan’s ‘entire season on the line’ against Ohio State

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Jim Harbaugh and Jake Butt

Ann Arbor – The Michigan players know the recent history and all about the Ohio State dominance.

Michigan has lost four straight to its arch rival and 11 of the last 12 games, including last year’s 42-13 blowout in Michigan Stadium.

But for the first time in 10 years, since the monumental 2006 showdown of No. 1 Ohio State versus No. 2 Michigan, The Game feels like The Game, with plenty on the line to be decided in the final regular-season matchup.

The Buckeyes are 10-1 and ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, and the Wolverines are 10-1 and ranked No. 3, as they prepare for Saturday’s game at Ohio Stadium. If Michigan wins, it will earn the Big Ten East title and a berth in the Big Ten championship, and potentially a spot in the four-team national playoff. The Buckeyes need to beat Michigan and need Penn State to lose to clinch the East and play for the Big Ten title.

“Even if you weren’t an Ohio State-Michigan fan you were tuning in to watch that game,” Michigan tight end and co-captain Jake Butt, who grew up in Pickerington, just outside of Columbus, said of the 2006 game. “I think that will be pretty similar this week, No. 2 versus No. 3, (with) really everything on the line for both teams.

“It’s an absolute must-win game so it’s going to be a great atmosphere. Everyone is going to be tuning in to watch this.”

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The rivalry has been desperate for a return to something close to the “Ten Year War,” those magical Woody and Bo days, and perhaps it is getting closer with Urban Meyer coaching Ohio State and Jim Harbaugh coaching Michigan.

Harbaugh has not been to Ohio Stadium in 30 years, since he famously guaranteed a victory over the Buckeyes and delivered, and he tends to deflect and rarely wants to share much about that experience or from his Michigan playing days. While it could be dubbed, “Urban versus Harbaugh,” this game, even with Woody and Bo stalking the sidelines, ultimately has always been about the players.

They’ve felt the hype building for weeks with reporters asking since midseason if they’ve been keeping an eye on the Buckeyes. The focus even then was that the two teams were on a collision course to reach this moment.

Chris Wormley

“I think going through the season from Week 1 to Week 13 now, we’ve seen them playing very well and we’ve been playing very well, so the hype has been building up for so long,” Michigan defensive lineman and co-captain Chris Wormley said. “Once the (College Football) Playoff rankings came out and now they’re 2 and we’re 3, it’s been building up for a while. It’s pretty cool to be in the position.”

After the Wolverines beat Indiana last Saturday to go 8-0 at home, the snow was falling and the “Beat Ohio!” chants could be heard inside and outside Michigan Stadium.

“How romantic was that?” right tackle Erik Magnuson said. “It was snowing. The field is white. The crowd is yelling ‘Beat Ohio.’ We’re sitting there puffing our chest up just like, ‘Man, we run this place.’ Pretty cool. It’s a lot different feeling than the past.”

Magnuson explained that in the past, they felt like, OK, Ohio State is good and maybe they could pull off an upset. Last season’s loss at Michigan Stadium in Harbaugh’s coaching debut in the rivalry game stung.

“They basically took away our will, took away our pride,” Magnuson said. “We felt we were in it to start the game. I felt like they took it away from us, as if we gave up. It’s like we felt like we didn’t have a chance to come back when they got a good lead. I feel like this year it won’t be the case.”

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Cornerback Jourdan Lewis, like Butt, had an opportunity to leave for the NFL last season. They came back for an experience like this, they said, and the season has far surpassed what they had imagined.

“I didn’t expect the path we’re on right now,” Lewis said. “I wanted to come back and go to a Big Ten championship and I didn’t know it would be as special as it was. I’ve never been through this on a collegiate level and it’s very special, and I’m glad I came back.”

The Wolverines are not thinking that a victory on Saturday would alleviate more than a decade of angst for their program in this rivalry. They are thinking about what’s immediate and taking the lose-and-you’re-out playoff approach.

“It’s not as important to win this game for what’s been going on in the past,” Butt said. “Really, we just need to win this game for what we have right in front of us right now. That’s all we’re focused on. We have an unbelievable opportunity to go on the road, compete against a really good team, and we know our whole entire season is on the line. We need to win the game for that reason.

“This rivalry is going to be relevant. It never won’t be relevant. We’re not thinking about losing. It’s a must-win game. We understand that we have to win this game and we’re going to do everything we can to do that. We’re not thinking about losing.”