COLUMBUS: Once upon a time, “The Game” was just another game.
When Michigan and Ohio State played, sure, it was important. After all, the schools put it at the end of their schedules in 1935 in recognition of that fact.
But it never really was an epic battle until two longtime friends ended up on opposite sides and transformed it into an over-the-top grudge match.
“The Bo Schembechler/Woody Hayes era, when college football began to explode on a national level — that’s what made this such a visual rivalry for the country to see,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
Now, more than 40 years later, two coaches steeped in the rivalry — each more than willing to toss a little disrespect toward the other side — will be prowling the sidelines in the 109th meeting on Saturday.
Is this the second coming of the “Ten Year War”?
“It’s a new face for the rivalry, of course, but the rivalry is bigger than any one individual,” Michigan offensive lineman Patrick Omameh said.
Just like Schembechler and Hayes, Meyer and Michigan’s Brady Hoke are ultra-competitive Ohio natives who don’t hide the fact that they can barely abide their chief rival.
Hoke refers to Ohio State as just “Ohio,” which makes Buckeyes fans’ blood boil. Meyer has taken a page from Hayes and refuses to utter the “M-word,” instead calling it “That Team Up North.”
A chippiness has returned to this staid old annual showdown. It was already evident a year ago when the sides traded shoves, obscenities and taunts in Hoke’s first game (a 40-34 victory) as a head coach in the series.
It’s even more palpable this year with Meyer joining the fray, 25 years after he was a graduate assistant on Earle Bruce’s staff and learned firsthand from Hayes, Bruce and the others to despise the Wolverines.
Hoke is not sold on the theory that the head coaches, at least since the last of the 10 Schembechler-Hayes battles in 1978, have much influence on the rivalry. But he does agree that it doesn’t hurt when both “get” what the game means to so many.
“There’s a lot of passion on both sides,” he said. “When you’ve kind of grown up in the rivalry — either in the state of Ohio or in the state of Michigan — you understand it’s the most important game of the year.”
Adding to the enmity this year — so often the case — is both sides having a lot riding on the outcome.
The fourth-ranked Buckeyes (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten) want to complete a perfect season — if perfection is even possible without going to a bowl. NCAA sanctions have sidelined Ohio State from the national championship conversation.
The No. 20 Wolverines (8-3, 6-1) are shooting to upgrade to an even better bowl. No one in maize and blue is saying it, but upsetting the Buckeyes’ dreams of an unbeaten, untied season wouldn’t be so bad, either.
Michigan’s hopes rise and fall on a defense that leads the nation against the pass but is considerably less stout against the run — which happens to be Ohio State’s strength.
The Buckeyes depend on quarterback Braxton Miller’s legs, whether on set plays or when a pass play breaks down and he sprints past lunging linemen through the heart of the field for big yardage.
The Wolverines also rely on their quarterback. Now they just have to figure out who their quarterback is.
Devin Gardner has started the past three games, accounting for at least three touchdowns in each, since four-year star Denard Robinson hurt a nerve in his throwing elbow. Now Robinson might see time at tailback, in the slot, out wide or even under center. It’s the biggest mystery in a game where there are few unknowns.
“I’m here and I’m ready for Ohio,” Robinson said.
Hayes once co-wrote a book titled, You Win With People. He believed that it was the coach’s domain to stockpile talent and then put players in the best position to win, but that the athletes did the rest.
Meyer believes coaches handle the preparation and set the tone.
“Getting your guys prepared up to the kickoff, getting the team mentally and physically ready to go,” he said of his role. “Ultimately it is the players who win or lose games.”
Spoken just like his iconic predecessors.