Jackie Storer / Managing editor of design
For the 95th consecutive year, The Game endures – as strong as it ever has.
The Ohio State and Michigan football teams are prepping for their 109th meeting on Saturday at Ohio Stadium and the series, known to many simply as “The Game,” is far from stale. It’s a matter that’s as salient for first-year OSU coach Urban Meyer and players up and down his roster as it likely was for the renowned Buckeyes coaches and players of yesteryear.
Recognized by the United States Congress as the greatest rivalry in sports, the OSU-UM rivalry dates back to 1897, and an air of hatred for “that team up north” still pervades the OSU football facilities. Letter “M’s” visible on campus signage were covered with red tape and the name of the state that borders Ohio to the north might as well have been a four-letter word for OSU players during Monday press conferences at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
Media availability began with Meyer, who, with a glint in his eyes, recounted his memories of The Game by rattling off names like Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes, Pete Johnson and Archie Griffin.
Meyer recalled the OSU’s 1987 win at Michigan Stadium. It was the final game for Meyer’s mentor, former OSU coach Earle Bruce, who was informed of his firing prior to the contest.
“I can tell you (about) walking into coach Bruce’s office right here,” said Meyer, who was an assistant on Bruce’s staff at the time of the incident. “I saw a bunch of coaches with their arms on the table, with their face in their arms, and tears and the whole deal. I was like the last guy to walk in, and he said that coach Bruce will no longer be the coach after this game … Just an incredible moment in Ohio State history.”
OSU went to Ann Arbor, Mich., the following Saturday where Bruce’s Buckeyes defeated UM, 23-20. Bruce was carried off the field on the shoulders of his players.
To understand how deep The Game still permeates the sporting culture at OSU in modern times, look no further than athletic director Gene Smith’s Monday press conference at the Fawcett Center.
Smith was made available to discuss the University of Maryland’s move to the Big Ten Conference, and Smith found himself fielding questions about OSU’s current bowl ban and whether he could or should have administered a self-imposed ban during the 2011 season. His focus? Beating Michigan.
Smith said he wasn’t worried about hypotheticals. In the midst of the historic addition of Maryland to the Big Ten, Smith said his aim was to help the Buckeyes beat the Wolverines.
“I’m worried about making sure that we position our football staff, our student-athletes – everything we can to have the opportunity to beat that team up north,” Smith said. “That’s my mission right now.”
The teams have taken turns dominating the rivalry for years at a time. From 2004-2009, OSU won six consecutive times. The Buckeyes also won in 2010, but the game was later vacated due to NCAA violations for which OSU is also currently serving an NCAA-imposed postseason ban. Those penalties came as a result of the “Tattoo-Gate” scandal in which players received extra impermissible benefits in exchange for OSU football memorabilia.
OSU’s dominance in the mid-2000s caused some to forget about the rivalry, said Buckeyes senior wide receiver Taylor Rice.
“To be honest, people felt like the rivalry was dying down because it had been so many years since they beat us,” Rice said.
Both teams come into this year’s game ranked nationally, making the game relevant to both sides and the rest of the country.
OSU enters this year’s grand finale with an unblemished, 11-0 record, which is complimented by the Associated Press‘ No. 4 ranking. The Buckeyes are also playing for the sixth undefeated season in program history and the first since 2002. UM didn’t quite fulfill expectations this season – it began its 2012 campaign with a 41-14 loss to then-No. 1-ranked Alabama in its opening game, followed by later losses to Notre Dame, America’s current No. 1-ranked team, and Nebraska. The Wolverines have managed to claw their way to an 8-3 overall record and the No. 20 ranking in the AP poll – they still have a meaningful bowl game to play for.
The Buckeyes are coming off a loss in Ann Arbor last year, too. While frustrating for OSU, the defeat, Rice said, was for the good of the rivalry.
“Honestly, I think that reality check helped us,” Rice said. “It let people know that this is a rivalry and there’s nothing like it. This game alone will make or break your season.”
Several OSU players, and scores of Buckeyes before them, have echoed that sentiment – The Game is all that counts.
In 2012, OSU players likened the OSU-UM game to “their Super Bowl” and “their national championship.”
The superlatives change, but the message is consistent – The Game is still The Game, and it’s as strong as it’s ever been.
“This is what it all comes down to – playing Michigan,” Rice said. “Winning or losing. This is what determines the outcome of our season … It’s been a great season but this is what really counts. This is what our season comes down to. This is our Super Bowl.”
This year’s installment of The Game will is scheduled for a noon start at Ohio Stadium.