The first taste of Ohio State-Michigan week went down like a spoonful of plain oatmeal: It might be good for what ails anyone tired of seeing the Buckeyes repeatedly flick over a row of defenseless dominoes, but it still seemed a little bland.
This could be attributable to many things. The Buckeyes have won 10 of the past 12 games in the series. The Wolverines are 7-4 and appear to be listing toward 7-6. OSU and Michigan State already have clinched spots in the Big Ten championship game, the Buckeyes’ first experience with a conference game after the rivalry game since 1934.
Everybody on the Ohio side said all the right things — if you haven’t heard, let me be first to tell you that you can throw out the record books in a huge rivalry game such as this — but the expected answers were mostly delivered devoid of any emotion. The Wolverines didn’t seem so much like an army of vicious beasts threatening to destroy the Buckeyes’ beautiful dreams of an unbeaten season and a national championship; more like a small squadron of moles that are digging up the yard.
There hasn’t been a moment since Urban Meyer became OSU’s coach that the Ohio native isn’t properly respectful or appreciative of the annual regular season-ending game with the school’s northern rival, but there were times yesterday when a nurse might have had a difficult time detecting a pulse during his monotone delivery. He warned after the win over Indiana on Saturday not to expect much in the way of controversy this week, and he delivered on that promise during his lone meeting of the week with the local media.
Meyer might feel as different during Michigan week as he said he did, but his low-key manner seemed more appropriate for a man who had just been handed a rake and pointed toward a leaf-covered lawn.
But his words did have some weight to them.
“I grew up in the Ten-Year War (1968-78), and I learned to dislike Michigan at a very young age,” Meyer said. “But you never really appreciate it until you’re behind the walls here and find out how serious it is.”
Meyer first dipped his toe in these OSU-Michigan waters in 1986, when he was a graduate assistant on Earle Bruce’s staff. The Ten-Year War between Michigan’s Bo Schembechler and OSU’s Woody Hayes that is generally regarded as the peak of the rivalry had ended just eight years before. Bruce had cut his college teeth on Hayes’ coaching staff, so Meyer was close enough to that intensity to absorb it.
Meyer didn’t have any trouble remembering the moment he understood how big the rivalry was.
“Yeah, it was kind of funny,” he said. “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” (on the) sheets hanging off. I said, ‘That is really cool right there.’ … Someone made them take it down. That was in 1986, so there is some old student now that is laughing their tail off, saying, ‘Yeah, that was my room.’ ”
Those were the days before the long runs of series dominance (OSU has won 10 of the past 12, Michigan won 10 of 13 before that), during an era when both teams were good and there was no league championship game afterward. From 1979 to 1987, OSU held a 5-4 edge.
So it’s interesting to hear Meyer say that despite all of the changes, he believes the rivalry has every bit as much intensity as it did on the day he landed on Bruce’s staff.
“Absolutely I do,” Meyer said.
In this case, three words make a mouthful. The last time Meyer coached in Ann Arbor was in 1987, a game he remembered as “Coach Bruce’s last game.”
The 5-4-1 Buckeyes upset Michigan 23-20 that year, one of many times when that “throw out the record books” junk actually was true.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for the Dispatch.