If this were another opponent and a different rivalry, Saturday’s game would be considered the least important of the three games Ohio State has remaining.
The Buckeyes will play Michigan State for the Big Ten championship on Dec. 7. They then will play in a marquee January bowl game and hold out hope that it will be for the national championship.
But it would be apostasy even to suggest to them that Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor is at all diminished by Michigan’s disappointing season or by what’s ahead.
The Buckeyes would rather utter the name of their archrival than suggest otherwise. In fact, when coach Urban Meyer slipped up while talking about his boyhood dislike for the Wolverines and referred to the team as “Michigan,” he was horrified when that was pointed out to him.
“Did I really?” he said. “Wow. I apologize.”
On signs around campus, the letter “M” has been blocked out. The poster of the OSU schedule in the team meeting room was papered over so that only the game against “THAT TEAM UP NORTH” was visible.
Everything is amped up.
“When you walk in the hallways, all you hear is, ‘It’s time for war,’ ” junior linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “The players, you can just tell that we’re intense when we go through our drills, and you can just see the look in (Meyer’s) eyes — you can tell that he wants to win this game so bad.”
For Meyer, who grew up in Ashtabula with an Archie Griffin poster in his bedroom, his natural intensity is stoked beyond normal.
“It is different,” he said. “It’s not just another game. … Our players know that. Does that mean we put less value on Indiana or less value on the following week coming up? I didn’t say that.
“But there is an extra pep in the step. We officially started working the game a day earlier than we normally do, and they get it. Our players get it. A new coach doesn’t come in here and try to stimulate that rivalry. That rivalry has been stimulated a long time ago, and we need to carry it on and make it stronger.”
Ohio State has dominated the series since Jim Tressel took over as coach in 2001, losing only twice in that span. One of those came the last time the teams met in Ann Arbor two years ago.
But the programs have gone in different directions since then. The Wolverines went 11-2 in Brady Hoke’s first year as coach in 2011 but lost five games last year and are an unimpressive 7-4 this year. Hoke’s honeymoon in Ann Arbor is clearly over.
The Buckeyes, of course, haven’t lost in two seasons under Meyer. They are determined not to allow their school-record 23-game winning streak to end in Ann Arbor.
They also know that Michigan can make its season with a victory. Trite as the cliché might be, Meyer believes this is one of those rivalries in which records don’t matter.
“We’ll get their best game,” he said.
So Michigan State can wait. The bowl game can wait.
“It’s a one-game season for us right now,” offensive tackle Jack Mewhort said. “All we’re worried about is the one in front of us. It’s ‘The Game.’ That’s all we’re focused on. We’ll handle the other stuff when we get there.
“For now, there’s only one that matters.”