The message from Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer was clear: The Buckeyes game this weekend against archrival Michigan holds more weight than any other.
“It’s not just another game. It’s not,” Meyer said Monday during his weekly press conference.
The Buckeyes (11-0, 7-0) look to complete their second straight undefeated regular season Saturday when they pay a visit to Ann Arbor, Mich., to take on the Wolverines (7-4, 3-4) at 12 p.m.
Meyer said he didn’t realize how big of a game the yearly contest with Michigan is until he was named a graduate assistant at OSU in 1986, but did learn early on how much the rivalry meant.
“I grew up in the ‘Ten Year War,’ and I learned to dislike Michigan at a very young age,” Meyer said. “But, no, you never really truly appreciate it until you’re behind the walls here and find out how serious it is.”
After muttering the word “Michigan” and being told by a reporter he had done so, Meyer, perplexed, excused himself quickly.
“Did I really?” Meyer asked. “Wow. I apologize.”
The “Ten Year War” was a decade of games between OSU and Michigan between 1969-78, where legendary coaches Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler stood toe to toe in 10 games largely considered the best of the rivalry.
“That rivalry’s been stimulated a long time ago, and we need to carry it on and make it stronger,” Meyer said.
With such a great rivalry comes great memories, and for Meyer there is no exception.
“I was driving to work on a Monday morning, I was a 21-year-old graduate assistant, and I look up on those twin towers by the stadium, and it says ‘Muck Fichigan’ in sheets hanging off,” Meyer said. “I said ‘That is really cool right there.’ And then they switched the ‘M’ and the ‘F’ and someone made them take it down.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke has seen his team struggle lately, losing three out of its last four games including a 24-21 decision at Iowa last week. The rivalry with OSU puts that on the back burner though.
“It’s just such a great rivalry that we’re very fortunate to be able to play in, to be able to coach in,” Hoke said during a Monday press conference. “It’s the game that’s talked about, and it’s going to be a lot of fun on Saturday to play football.”
Pulling the upset at home would put an end to OSU’s perfect season. It would also hurt the Buckeyes’ chances at a national title as they find themselves ranked third in the BCS, but Hoke said that’s something that isn’t discussed.
“We don’t talk about that. We talk about ourselves. We focus on what we have to do. We’ve never, ever mentioned it and I won’t,” Hoke said. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s about us playing our best football for our seniors, and in the greatest rivalry in sport, that’s what it is.”
It would appear that Meyer’s players understand the gravity of the final game of the regular season as well, many of whom still have a bad taste in their mouths from falling to the Wolverines 40-34 at Michigan Stadium in 2011. OSU is 23-1 since that game, though.
“It’s a good feeling to know that we’re going back there and we got some momentum behind us,” junior defensive lineman Michael Bennett said Monday. “It’s a hard place to play … but it’ll be a fun game to get a W at their place.”
The Buckeyes clinched the Big Ten Leaders Division Title against Indiana last Saturday, earning a spot in the conference title game against No. 11 Michigan State Dec. 7. Don’t expect them to be looking past Michigan with the date with the Spartans on the horizon, though.
“We’re focused on this week like we are every year, regardless of our record or their record. It doesn’t matter,” Bennett said. “Whatever’s after this, it doesn’t matter. You have to win this game.”
Junior linebacker Ryan Shazier agreed.
“At the end of the year, it’s always to make sure you beat them guys. And that’s the main focus right now, to beat The Team Up North,” Shazier said Monday. “We’re not even focused on what’s ahead right now.”
The Buckeyes currently rank top in the Big Ten scoring an average 48.7 points per game, amassing a total of 221 over their past four contests. Redshirt-senior center Corey Linsley said all the high praise the offense is receiving goes out the window when it’s Michigan week.
“We got to beat them. We’re going to put as many points as we need to beat them,” Linsley said Monday. “Defense is going to keep them to as little points as they can and I mean, it’s all about winning The Game this week.”
The Game brings an added intensity to both the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and to Meyer, Shazier said.
“You can just tell that when you walk into the hallways all you hear is ‘it’s time for war,’” Shazier said. “When we go through drills and everything, you can just look, just see the look in (Meyer’s) eyes. Just the rage that he wants to so win (this game) so bad.”
The rage of their coach allows the rest of the players to stay focused on the only thing that matters: the game at hand.
“It’s a one game season for us right now. All we’re worried about is the one in front of us. It’s The Game and that’s all we’re focused on right now,” redshirt-senior offensive lineman Jack Mewhort said. “We’ll handle the other stuff when we get there, but for right now, like I said, there’s only one that matters.”