On Saturday, for the first time since Ohio State coach Urban Meyer first stood on the Buckeyes’ sideline in the 2012 season, the Buckeyes lost a regular-season game against a Big Ten team.
The 17-14 loss at Ohio Stadium to the Michigan State Spartans snapped a national-record 30-game conference streak for the Buckeyes and left the team likely on the outside looking in of the College Football Playoff picture when the four-team bracket is released in two weeks.
Regardless, Meyer said the team’s sights are solely fixed on the same thing it is throughout the year: its annual meeting with its archrival, Michigan.
“Obviously, we’ve got to move past a very, very tough loss, and big game this week, so the rivalry game’s, on the horizon, one that we all take extremely serious around here, and one that we cherish to be a part of,” Meyer said.
Senior defensive tackle Tommy Schutt said the timing of The Game could be ideal for the Buckeyes, as the focus that automatically comes with Michigan week was a help in snapping the team back to form in practice.
“I would say it’s a little bit easier (to bounce back) than it would be if it was a different game,” Schutt said. “It’s not like we need any extra motivation for this game. We know what’s at stake, we know the rivalry and how important it is to everyone.”
The Wolverines (9-2, 6-1) have been one of the more surprising teams in the country under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. After opening the season with only two votes in the AP Poll, the Maize and Blue are likely to move into the top 10 in the newest CFP rankings.
Still, for Schutt and other members of OSU (10-1, 6-1), the turnaround of the winningest program in college football history comes as little surprise.
“I thought they would come out and have a great year, like just how they are,” Schutt said. “They have a great coach there, and he’s done a great job of turning that program around after the past couple of seasons. They’re a completely different team than they have been the past couple of years.”
The Wolverines have been anchored by their defense, which has allowed the second-fewest yards per game in the country (263.1). One of the standouts on the defense has been redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, a do-it-all player.
That “all” includes roles on the other side of the ball, as well, as Peppers has added 11 carries and six receptions to 2015 performance and also returns kicks and punts.
“We have to be on high alert, because they’re going to use him one way or another,” OSU senior linebacker Joshua Perry said about the East Orange, New Jersey, product. “Anytime you see a special formation or somebody come in who’s generally not in the offensive formation, you have to be on high alert for something.”
Schutt said Peppers’ Swiss Army knife-like role on the team is reflective of the entire roster, which has the stability to dictate the game in any style it wants.
“It’s a pretty balanced attack this week,” Schutt said. “The quarterback can stand back there and move the ball to some good receivers, big offensive linemen and a good running attack. We have to prepare for both the run game and the pass game and be able to play both of those things consistently.”
The rivalry, as it always does, sits very much on the minds of the Scarlet and Gray. But more than anything, the Buckeyes are trying to keep their season on track before the postseason begins and not let the disappointment from the Michigan State game trickle north to Ann Arbor.
“It would definitely be tough to go out losing your last few games at Ohio State,” Schutt said. “We come to Ohio State not to lose any games, and losing this one this past Saturday was tough for us and obviously very disappointing and something we’re not going to let happen this weekend.”
Kickoff against Michigan is set for noon on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Attempting a class sweep
The four-year seniors on the Buckeyes have a chance to complete a sweep of the Wolverines on Saturday after taking home the gold pants each of the last three years.
A season ago, OSU scored 21 unanswered points in the second half to pull away and top the Wolverines in Columbus, 42-28, despite losing starting quarterback J.T. Barrett to an ankle injury.
A second-quarter brawl set the tone for the excitement of the game the year before that. Michigan shook off a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to tie the game, only for OSU to take the lead back with 2:20 left.
A quick Michigan march down the field put Michigan back down by a point with 32 seconds left. Then-Michigan coach Brady Hoke opted to go for the win by trying a two-point conversion. The pass was intercepted by OSU safety Tyvis Powell, however, and the Buckeyes held on for a slim lead.
Finally, in the first year for Meyer and seniors like Schutt and Perry, OSU found itself trailing 21-20 at the half, but buckled down defensively in the second half to shut out the Wolverines over the final 30 minutes and grab a 26-21 victory.
Perry said completing his college career without losing The Game would be a defining moment for his time wearing the scarlet and gray.
“It would mean a lot,” Perry said. “That’s what I was saying, talking to my parents after the game, I said the one thing that’s really going to make me feel better is getting that fourth pair of gold pants, and so that’s just the mission for me right now.”
Schutt said taking on Michigan annually is one of the things he most looked forward to when he arrived on campus, and he is going to cherish the opportunity to sweep the four-game series.
“It’s a rivalry that I think is one of the best in sports if not the best in sports, and I think we’re lucky to be a part of it,” he said. “It’s definitely a week we’ll remember and games we’ll remember, and I’m just looking forward to getting out there Saturday.”
What happens next?
OSU and Michigan, as well as Michigan State, are all still alive in the Big Ten East Division after the Spartans topped the Buckeyes on Saturday.
A loss in the ‘Shoe by the Spartans would have eliminated them from Big Ten Championship Game contention, but instead coach Mark Dantonio’s team controls its own destiny.
A win by Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan, over Penn State would clinch the East and seal a trip to Indianapolis to take on Iowa in the conference championship.
However, if the Nittany Lions upset the Spartans, it will be the winner of the OSU-Michigan game winning the division with a 7-1 conference record.
Michigan State would also carry a 7-1 conference record with a win, but it owns the tiebreaker over both OSU and Michigan due to beating each head to head.
The Big Ten Championship Game between Iowa and the team that emerges out of the threesome in the East is set for 8:17 p.m. on Dec. 5.