Six years ago, the Ohio State Buckeyes were at the end of arguably their most disappointing season under coach Jim Tressel. Heading into the last week of the regular season, the Buckeyes were 6-4 and looking ahead to what would be the first non-January bowl game of the Tressel era.
Then one game changed the outlook of not only the entire season, but also the entire OSU football program.
On Nov. 20, 2004, the Buckeyes stunned the No. 7 Michigan Wolverines in Ohio Stadium behind 391 yards of total offense from quarterback Troy Smith. In one game, the Buckeyes went from a disappointing team that lacked an identity to a team with a quarterback of the future who provided them with just that.
It was also the start of a streak of domination in the rivalry for the Buckeyes, who have won six straight contests against the Wolverines, outscoring them 181-101 in that stretch.
Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez is hopeful that a win Saturday against the Buckeyes will provide a similar reversal of fortunes for the Wolverines.
“It’d mean an awful lot, certainly for our fans and for our university, but more importantly for our seniors and our players because they haven’t had the chance to win that,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve got to perform better and get some wins to make us feel better and make our fans feel better.”
In his first two seasons as Michigan’s coach, Rodriguez’s teams have lost 42-7 and 21-10 to the Buckeyes. This year’s Wolverine team is the most formidable — at least offensively — that Rodriguez will bring into “The Game.”
Unlike Rodriguez’s first two seasons, Michigan’s offensive personnel now fit its spread scheme. The Wolverines have found success behind dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson, an early-season Heisman candidate who fell out of contention because of injuries and a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season.
Robinson has rushed for 1,538 yards and 14 touchdowns and has thrown for 2,229 yards, 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, leading the Wolverines to a 7-4 record that will land them in their first bowl game under Rodriguez.
Tressel said Robinson’s ability to both run and throw the ball makes him difficult to prepare for.
“It’s impossible to simulate him because there’s no one like him,” Tressel said. “It’s a tremendous challenge because it gives you all of the problems that a Wildcat offense gives you with a great running back back there. But along with it, it has all of the passing problems.”
Robinson has played a critical role in Michigan’s offense, which is ranked 10th in the nation in rushing, with 257.4 yards per game, and 15th in the nation in points scored, with 36.8 points per game.
Michigan’s defense has failed to find the same success that its offense has, as it is ranked 99th in the country in scoring, giving up 33.5 points per game.
Despite the statistics, Robinson said he hasn’t lost confidence in his team’s defense.
“I think our defense is one of the best defenses in the nation,” Robinson said. “I don’t care what nobody say. We play against them every day, and they help us get better.”
Tressel agreed that the statistics don’t necessarily tell the tale of the Michigan defense.
“They’ve given up too many big plays, but the thing I love about them is I see them flying around and I see a lot of young guys who aren’t young anymore,” Tressel said.
The longest streak in the rivalry thus far came from 1901-1909, when the Wolverines got the better of the Buckeyes for nine straight years. A win on Saturday would move OSU two games away from matching that streak.
“There’s been pressure every year. It’s something that comes with it,” OSU wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said. “Nobody wants to be the team that breaks the streak.”
With a share of the Big Ten title and a potential sixth straight trip to a BCS bowl game still within grasp, the Buckeyes have more than just pride to play for. OSU defensive end Cameron Heyward said the Buckeyes understand the high stakes.
“A lot. A share of the Big Ten title and our biggest rival,” Heyward said. “Michigan is always going to play their best against us. We wouldn’t have it any other way to go out against a quality opponent. It’ll be a rough one, but we’re ready for it.”
Regardless of bowl game implications, the Buckeyes remain focused on extending their winning streak over the Wolverines to a lucky No. 7.
“The Ohio State-Michigan game is the focus,” Tressel said. “There are tons of by-products for everybody, but the single most one everyone knows that’s ever coached or played at Ohio State is that you’re defined by your Ohio State-Michigan games.”