Andrew Holleran / Photo editor
Ohio State football coach Everett Withers made light of the Buckeyes’ impending Big Ten Conference opener during a Monday press conference.
“Big Ten week, huh?” OSU’s co-defensive coordinator and assistant head coach said with a smile.
Withers’ lightheartedness aside, there’s no mistaking that the No. 14 Buckeyes (4-0) know exactly what time of year it is. There’s also no mistaking whether the Buckeyes have anything to play for either – they do.
The first team to oppose OSU in pursuit of the divisional title is Michigan State.
In a meeting of the conference’s top-ranked teams, OSU will journey to East Lansing, Mich., to face No. 20 MSU (3-1) at Spartan Stadium. Preparation for Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer’s first-ever Big Ten tilt began Sunday with a “state of the union meeting” to address chasing the divisional crown.
The goal of winning the Leaders Division half of the conference was first established for the Buckeyes during that meeting, Meyer said.
“The first time we talked about (winning the Leaders Division) was (Sunday) in our team state of the union meeting we had and this is you have an opportunity to go win your side of the Big Ten,” Meyer said.
Meyer chose to address winning the division because it was not discussed as a goal for any of the Buckeyes’ first four games against Miami (Ohio), Central Florida, California or Alabama Birmingham, he said.
OSU redshirt senior defensive back Orhian Johnson said the team is focused on MSU. Meyer will handle the rest if the Buckeyes take care of business on the field, Johnson said.
“You know, (winning the Leaders Division is) a possibility for us, but regardless of the situation, we’ve got a game,” Johnson said. “As long as we go out there and do what we do against Michigan State.”
Meyer previously claimed to be unaware of OSU eligibility for the Leaders Division title, but some of his players, like redshirt receiver Jake Stoneburner, were aware.
Stoneburner said the state of the union meeting was Meyer’s first mention of winning the division. The opportunity to win a piece of hardware during the 2012 season has given players added motivation, Stoneburner said.
“I think he was finally saying that we have something to play for other than just going undefeated,” Stoneburner said. “We can win our division and I think it gives guys a little bit of hope, not that we didn’t have any in the first place, but it gives guys a little extra incentive.”
Saturday’s meeting will be the teams’ first in East Lansing since 2008. Only two Buckeye players who are reshirt seniors – defensive end Nathan Williams and linebacker Etienne Sabino – played in that game, a 45-7 OSU victory.
A visit to a ranked in-conference opponent is nothing to fear, Johnson said. It’s exactly the reason (players) come to OSU.
“It’s definitely fun to get back in the Big Ten ball. I mean, that’s what you come here for,” Johnson said. “So we just want to come out there and lock in, and playing on the road is definitely fun. Just playing in a different atmosphere.”
Senior fullback Zach Boren agreed, saying the competition is heightened at this time of year because every team understands what is at stake.
“The Big Ten is always a new part of the season. It’s always a new chapter because, you know, this is a tough, physical conference,” Boren said. “The games start to matter that much more because you’re playing for conference championships.”
That’s exactly the position OSU is in. The games matter more because OSU does indeed have something to play for, Meyer said.
“Are we playing for something? You’re darned right we are,” Meyer said. “It’s really important here. Look around. Really important.”
OSU and MSU are scheduled to kickoff their Saturday game at 3:30 p.m.
Grant Gannon and Andrew Holleran contributed to this article.