Ten years ago, Ohio State and Michigan met in Ohio Stadium in a showdown of No. 1 and No. 2. The capacity crowd inside the walls of the ‘Shoe witnessed the nail-biting conclusion to a season-long buildup, and helped propel the Buckeyes into the national championship.
In those days, Lloyd Carr was the man directing the Wolverines’ attack, while Jim Tressel picked the plays for the Buckeyes. Now, a decade later, OSU has Urban Meyer, the only other Buckeyes coach since The Game of the Century. Michigan, on the other hand, is on Carr’s third replacement with Jim Harbaugh.
Meyer and Harbaugh are two names with a history of winning behind them. While both men went through different paths to coaching stardom, each has the ability to push their respective teams to a potential playoff spot.
While both Michigan and OSU are ranked in playoff spots with just one week left this season, each team’s lone loss for the year has come in varied fashions.
The Buckeyes dropped a tough one on a cold, blustery night in State College, Pennsylvania, to Penn State. Meyer was scrutinized for not getting the ball to junior H-back Curtis Samuel, and blamed for conservative play-calling.
For Michigan, the Wolverines’ offense sputtered against Iowa on a cold, windy night in Iowa City. Michigan redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight struggled to produce anything through the air while senior running back De’Veon Smith was a non-factor.
“Every little thing doesn’t always go our way, and to win, you’ve got to make it that way,” Harbaugh said following the loss.
Meyer and Harbaugh met for the first time in 2015, when the Buckeyes embarrassed Michigan at home, 42-13. The dominant performance against the Wolverines gave the Buckeyes momentum for a playoff run, but OSU’s season was ruined by a loss to Michigan State.
This time, the implications rival that of the 2006 edition of The Game, which saw both the Buckeyes and the Wolverines as the top spots in the nation. Even though many of the players on the team might remember this game as their first OSU football experience versus Michigan, Meyer has a different time in mind.
“In the ’70s, Bo, Woody,” he said, referencing past OSU eras. “My mother, for some reason, I still to this day don’t know why, grabbed me and said we have to go run an errand. What the hell you talking about? You don’t leave that game. In Ashtabula, Ohio, outdoor mall walking down, and over the loud speakers, I just kept stopping and listening to the game. In the ’70s, the Ten-Year War. I remember that.”
Harbaugh’s experience comes from playing in the biggest rivalry game in the nation back in 1986. At the time, Meyer was a graduate assistant with OSU, while his counterpart on Saturday was slingin passes downfield. Most Buckeyes fans from the 1980s might remember Harbaugh for a different reason.
Famously, Harbaugh guaranteed a victory in the 1986 edition of The Game. It was a bold statement from a quarterback then-Michigan coach Bo Schembechler called one of the cockiest quarterbacks he had ever met. The statement still strikes a nerve with many OSU faithful.
For Meyer, he still remembers the promise by Harbaugh that he kept. More surprisingly, he remembers something that came after the 26-24 loss that most fans forget today.
“Vince Workman had a touchdown, and we missed a field goal right at the end and went to the Cotton Bowl and won that,” he said. “So I remember it very well.”
Now, the matchup between the two college football icons has come full circle. With so much riding on this game, it would be easy to buy into the hype of the dynamic ability of Michigan junior linebacker Jabrill Peppers or the cool poise of OSU redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett.
But it’s Meyer vs. Harbaugh round two, with playoff implications in the minds of both teams. With such an important game coming Saturday, players could resort to bashing their opponents and downplay the accomplishments of the coaches.
Instead, players like redshirt junior guard Billy Price has nothing but respect for the opposition’s leader. He had one word to describe Harbaugh.
“Iconic,” Price said.
The entire premise of The Game is a bitter rivalry, filled with hatred for a team from a state that shares a border. The tradition of the game — from OSU players tearing down the “M” banner in 1973 at Michigan Stadium to Wolverines’ safety Charles Woodson fighting OSU wide receiver David Boston on the field — is drenched in bad attitudes and feelings of disdain for the other side.
However, from the coaching side, Meyer has different feelings about the man he is facing off against on Saturday, and it comes from two coaching icons.
“I didn’t say like, but there’s a mutual respect,” Meyer said. “And I learned it from (Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler), two of the greatest coaches of all time.”
While it’s No. 2 OSU vs No. 3 Michigan in the final week of the regular season, the chess match between coaches is the more compelling matchup.