Niyo: Wolverines eager to make their own impact on rivalry

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Chris Wormley, left, and the Wolverines hope to win in Columbus Saturday for the first time since 2000.

Columbus, Ohio — One of the great things about college football — maybe the best thing — is the way it takes you back.

It goes beyond what you see and hear on a day like today inside Ohio Stadium, the clash of colors and the cacophony of the crowds that will amplify this season’s biggest game to date: No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan adding another chapter to this storied rivalry.

No, it’s what you feel, in spite of the cold, and where that carries you, often to a different time in this same place. A college story shared countless times. Childhood memories that prove indelible. And everyone who cares enough about one team or the other gets to share in that.

If Michigan is your school, then surely you recall where you were in 1997 when Charles Woodson returned that punt 78 yards for a touchdown to lock up the Heisman Trophy and so much more — running left, then cutting sharply upfield and racing the last 50 yards down the visitors’ sideline at the Big House, eventually getting buried under a pile of Michigan teammates in the back of the end zone.

If you’re born a Buckeye, well, there’s that Will Allen last-second interception en route to the national title in 2002, or the fourth-quarter drama in 1975 — “Our greatest comeback,” Woody Hayes called it. And how can you forget what it felt like at the end of the “Game of the Century” in 2006, after No. 1 Ohio State had escaped, 42-39, setting off a wild celebration inside the Horseshoe, that sea of scarlet surrounding the goalposts?

Yet the truly lucky ones are the athletes, the ones who really felt it, the ones who watch and then participate, the ones who see and then do.

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“It’s cool thinking about when you were 12 years old or whatever, how much that game meant to guys, especially here in the Midwest and Michigan and Ohio,” said linebacker Ben Gedeon, a senior linebacker and one of eight starters on Michigan’s roster who come from Ohio. “And now we’re a part of it. It’s pretty special.”

It’s special because of the stakes, obviously. A win for Michigan would offer more than rivalry redemption, having lost 11 of the last 12 in the series. It’d send the Wolverines to their first Big Ten championship game and bolster their hopes for a national playoff berth. For the Buckeyes, though the Big Ten title chase is out of their control, the playoffs are on the line as well. There’s a reason it’s the highest-priced ticket in college football this season.

“Does it feel differently? This is No. 2 vs. No. 3!” Michigan center Erik Magnuson said, smiling. “We’ve never been in this position before. This is unreal.”

Past games unforgettable

It is real, though, and the memories in this rivalry go way back, through the Ten-Year War and to the “Snow Bowl” for some. But for today’s players, it’s about making some of their own now, and even as last week’s games ended, that was all they could think about. As the Wolverines seniors wrapped up their final home game in Ann Arbor — a 20-10 victory in the snow over Indiana — the crowd even serenaded them with a “Beat Ohio!” chant inside Michigan Stadium.

Tight end Jake Butt has 43 receptions for 518 yards and four touchdowns.

“I mean, come on, how romantic was that?” senior lineman Erik Magnuson gushed. “It was snowing, just perfect, field of white, crowd yelling, ‘Beat Ohio,’ we’re sitting there puffing our chests out, like, ‘Man, we run this place.’ It was pretty cool.”

They all tried to play it cool this week. Coaches demand it. Seniors do, too. They understand how the emotions can get the better of you during rivalry week, and they understand that the things that are said get remembered, too.

Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s not. But as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh quipped this week, when asked again about that famous victory guarantee of his in 1986, 30 years ago this week, “Having done it, I don’t recommend it.”

But for those who grew up with the rivalry, it’s impossible not to think about the past. Michigan defensive end Chris Wormley was raised in Toledo, the city in the middle of this Michigan-Ohio State border war. His father was a die-hard Michigan fan, while his grandparents were Buckeyes, and the tug-of-war over the youngster’s wardrobe was fought (mostly) in jest.

“So it’s something that’s been with me for a while,” Wormley laughs.

His first vivid memory of the rivalry was from the early 2000s, as the ringbearer in his uncle’s wedding, huddling around a 13-inch TV screen trying to watch the game before the ceremony. Saturday, Wormley will be in the huddle leading his teammates as the fifth-year senior co-captain of the Wolverines.

“There’s two different sides: There’s the player’s side, and there’s the fan side,” he said. “Growing up, I was a fan. Now I’m a player. The fan side wants me to read all the articles and be all about it and wear my Michigan gear to junior high and things like that. But then there’s the player side that has to watch film and has to practice and has to stay mentally focused and not let those things distract you.”

Still, he adds, “I was a Michigan fan growing up. I’m here now. So it’s pretty cool.”

Jake Butt, Michigan’s All-America tight end, was an Ohio State fan growing up in Pickerington, Ohio, just outside of Columbus. But he’s here, too, at least in part because the Buckeyes didn’t offer him a scholarship coming out of high school at Pickerington North.

“I was a Buckeye fan growing up, so I was on the other side of the rivalry,” said Butt, who remembers exactly where he was for that 2006 rivalry showdown.

Pregame reunion

He was at his best friend Alex Butler’s house, and the Butlers were Michigan fans, of all things.

“We were all huddled around one TV, and there were probably 60 or 70 people that were just locked into that game,” Butt recalled. “I don’t even really remember anybody eating, it was such a back-and-forth game.”

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Smiling, he added, “I’m sure it’ll be pretty similar for a lot of people this week.”

But for some people — the lucky ones — they’ll be more than just spectators today. Take the captains who’ll meet on the field for the pregame coin toss. Butt and Wormley — the two kids from Ohio — will be out there representing Michigan. And from Ohio State’s side, one of the Buckeyes will be All-America center Pat Elflein, a former teammate and close friend of Butt’s from Pickerington.

Back in January, when Elflein — a fifth-year senior — was named one of the Ohio State captains, Butt was among the first to congratulate him.

“And I was like, ‘Hey, how cool would that be if we met at the 50-yard line before The Game?’ ” he said. “Sure enough, that’s gonna happen this week.” @JohnNiyo