Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo, and Angelique S. Chengelis preview the Michigan-Ohio State game from Schembechler Hall. The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — It never stopped mattering, even when it didn’t matter in the standings or the rankings. Of all the testaments to the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, that’s perhaps the most compelling one.
Oh, it was diminished at times by the Buckeyes’ dominance and the advent of a Big Ten championship game. Occasionally diminished, never extinguished. And now, for the second time in three years, it burns as hot as ever, back to being The Game, where legacies are defined and no one’s bashful discussing how much they despise the other team.
Jim Harbaugh is 0-3 against Urban Meyer and the Wolverines have lost 13 of the past 14 meetings. And yet, one victory in Columbus on Saturday could alter national perceptions and directions. It’s the power of The Game, revisited and renewed, with a pair of 10-1 teams clashing at high noon for a shot at the Big Ten championship against Northwestern, and possibly a spot in the college football playoff.
The fourth-ranked Wolverines have the superior defense, a play-making quarterback and are favored (by four points) in Columbus for the first time since 2004, although they haven’t won there since 2000. The flip side as they prepare to face wounded-but-explosive No. 10 Ohio State — the Wolverines bear the heaviest bulk of pressure, because if not now, when?
Meyer is 6-0 against Michigan, but began the season on suspension for his mishandling of domestic-abuse allegations against assistant coach Zach Smith. He ended the regular season with a battered defense that barely hung on to beat Maryland 52-51. The Buckeyes lost their best defensive player, Nick Bosa, to injury, and were blown out a month ago by Purdue 49-20.
And you know what that all means now? Possibly nothing.
Ohio State still has a dynamic offense with big-play receivers and running backs and a record-setting quarterback in Dwayne Haskins. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in yards and points, which sets up a fascinating collision with Michigan’s defense, which has allowed the fewest yards and points.
“Anything previous, offensively or defensively, it doesn’t matter anymore,” Michigan linebacker Carlo Kemp said. “Because you know when this game is played, you’re gonna get the best shot they’ve ever shown, and we’re gonna give our best shot. … When you wear the M, you gotta despise Ohio State. And if you don’t, I don’t know why you’re at Michigan.”
Michigan’s top-ranked defense will face its toughest challenge, without a doubt. But the Wolverines are experienced and confident and as motivated as ever, winning 10 straight on their self-proclaimed Revenge Tour, after going 8-5 last season. Leading rusher Karan Higdon verbalized that confidence earlier this week, and not just with a tepid “guarantee” of victory that was predictably overblown by media and fans.
It actually was what he said a few minutes earlier, when asked if Michigan is the better team.
“Yeah, that’s a given, of course,” Higdon said. “What would we be to not feel that way?”
This doesn’t qualify as smack-talk, unless we’ve seriously lowered the smack-talk standard. This is the demeanor of a team that was beaten down by disappointment, by losses to rivals, by unmet expectations, and has done everything to build itself back up, physically and emotionally. Harbaugh is 38-12 in four seasons here, but fans naturally and fairly want more, and this is the best chance to deliver it.
He has a free-wheeling team with free-spirited, talented players, from Chase Winovich (who may or may not play with a shoulder injury) to Devin Bush to Rashan Gary to Shea Patterson to Higdon and others. Since losing the opener at Notre Dame 24-17, Don Brown’s punishing defense hasn’t allowed more than 21 points. In fact, Michigan has felt intense late-game pressure only once, rallying to beat Northwestern 20-17.
Every other victory has been by double digits, as the Wolverines have done what has eluded them in the past — driven to the finish. And now the pressure ratchets again, as they aim for their first Big Ten title in 14 years.
“I always look at pressure as life-giving energy,” Harbaugh said. “Fired up about it. Can’t wait to watch our guys compete.”
It’s a strange twist, with Michigan generating positive buzz while Ohio State tries to explain how its defense has been regularly shredded. It’s also a dangerous twist for the Wolverines, whose last victory in the series came in 2011.
Meyer has looked weary and down during games, and has dealt with severe headaches from an arachnoid cyst on his brain. It’s a health issue that has sparked some speculation about his future and added to the season’s turmoil. Asked about being the underdog in a series the Buckeyes have completely controlled, Meyer didn’t unleash a fiery response.
“We don't talk about those things,” he said. “We have a saying around here: The most prepared team will win the game. It's not who's favored and who is not.”
The Buckeyes surely know how this battle is being viewed, and have to be motivated by it. The question is, can it top the motivation of a Michigan team that carries many more haunting memories?
Two years ago, Ohio State pulled out a controversial 30-27 double-overtime victory, denying a 10-1 Michigan team a shot at a championship, leaving Harbaugh “bitterly disappointed” with the officiating. Last season in Ann Arbor, Michigan jumped to a 14-0 lead but collapsed in a 31-20 defeat. The Wolverines repeatedly have come up short, going back to 2006, when the No. 1 Buckeyes edged No. 2 Michigan 42-39.
If not now, when?
“It would mean everything for us,” Bush said. “We haven’t beaten then in a while, that’s what we really want to do, and that’s something we’re gonna do.”
So why could this one be different, after all Michigan’s woes down there? Maybe it won’t be, although odds-makers predict it will.
The Wolverines have gone into the game with great defenses before and not prevailed. Two major factors could be different. Patterson brings a swagger and running element to the quarterback position. And the once-maligned offensive line has been re-energized by new assistant coach Ed Warinner.
No unit personifies the rabid inspiration more than Michigan’s big linemen.
“(Warinner) really just forced us to be good, he simplified everything and built us back up,” captain Ben Bredeson said. “Really it comes down to last year being the weak point of the team, and being at the absolute low. Nobody besides this team believed in us. At that low point, it’s like a crucible, and it brings everybody together.”
They’ll need all that and more when they make the trek into Ohio Stadium, a trek that so often has begun and ended in pain.
“Everybody hates you there, you’re getting flipped off by just about everybody on your way in,” Bredeson said. “With energy like that, positive or negative, it just makes you want to play. I loved it from the get-go. I love this rivalry. I absolutely despise that school, so it’s going to be a good one.”
It’s going to be a memorable one, that’s for sure, one way or another. Still big after all these years, somehow bigger than ever.