Andy Gottesman / The Lantern
Roses might have been the only things on the Buckeyes’ mind for a few hours Saturday after a game-winning kick in overtime vanquished Iowa and clinched a share of the Big Ten title.
But after the 27-24 thriller, the mood quickly went from joyful to serious as OSU began preparation for its game against Michigan.
“Someone described this month as tough, tougher and toughest,” coach Jim Tressel said Monday at his weekly press conference. “We’ve battled through the tough and the tougher, and now we’re excited about the toughest and there’s just a special feeling about this week.”
Tressel’s Buckeyes have locked up at least a share of the Big Ten crown with back-to-back victories over Penn State and Iowa.
Michigan week, however, is about a fierce rivalry and tradition that goes deeper than any conference championship, season record or bowl berth.
Still plenty at stake
Although the Buckeyes have already clinched a share of the Big Ten title, a win over Michigan would make that title outright.
A win by OSU would also keep Michigan at home this postseason, as the Wolverines need a win over the Buckeyes to become bowl eligible.
“It’s exciting for a lot of reasons. One is it’s Ohio State-Michigan and there’s nothing like it,” Tressel said about the rivalry. “Two, it’s your last regular season game and you’d like to think that you’re going to be playing your best football in all phases, offensively, defensively, special teams, and we’ve certainly got a lot of work to do for that to be the case, but we’re looking forward to a great week of preparation. Our kids are excited.”
Senior captain Kurt Coleman said regardless of records, the Buckeyes have just as much to play for because a loss would diminish everything they have worked hard for this season.
A loss for the Wolverines would mean a second-straight season in which Michigan watches the rest of the Big Ten play in bowls, while the team sits at home.
“Playing Michigan is always important to us,” senior defensive lineman Doug Worthington said. “It is the biggest game of the season for us, just like it is for them. Just putting the added pressure that this is what it will take for them to get to a bowl game and knowing that we can stop them is big, it’s huge. We definitely want the victory, and if that keeps them from going to a bowl game, that’s just a little added sugar on top.”
Since Tressel took over at Ohio State, the rivalry has been dominated by the man in the sweater vest.
At 7-1 since taking the helm at OSU, Tressel has turned a rivalry that used to be dominated by the Wolverines into an annual victory for the Scarlet and Gray.
Even when OSU isn’t favored, Tressel seems to find the necessary ingredients to upset the school up north.
Tressel said that to an outsider, the rivalry might have lost some of its luster, but to those involved, OSU-Michigan is always the most important game of the year.
“Well, not if you’re a part of it. If you’re an observer, perhaps,” Tressel said, responding to a question about the rivalry losing steam. “But if you’re a part of it and you’ve felt those feelings and had those experiences and just know what it means to both schools and so forth, that would never occur to the participants.”
The players also feel no different toward their rival regardless of their unimpressive record. Beating Michigan every season is still a goal, no matter what has happened in the first 11 games.
“You can’t be worried about the success we have had the last few years,” Worthington said. “This year is a different year and they are definitely a different team. They are very capable, and what’s up for the bowl game for them is huge. We’ve already been blessed with a bid to the Rose Bowl but I was telling the team to get that out of their head, and make sure we take this game like we have every other game, one at a time because that’s how they’re going to take it.”
In victories against Penn State and Iowa, the Buckeyes unveiled a new wrinkle on offense.
The Wildcat formation has swept through college and pro football, and the Buckeyes have joined the party.
“I think the first discussion of it came up when Terrelle was a little banged and our tailbacks were a little healthy,” Tressel said.
Sophomore running back Dan Herron has taken most of the direct snaps, and on Saturday he scored on an 11-yard run. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor lines up at wide receiver during the formation, and is still lobbying to make a play.
“He’s hoping for us to throw it to him. You know how that is. He thinks he’s a great route runner,” Tressel joked. “I said, well, you’ve got to have somebody who can throw it. So I think he’s reminiscing about when Todd [Boeckman] was throwing to him. Todd’s not here, so any little thing we can have to add preparation time for people to add pressure to our opposing defenses we think is good.”
Throwing tradition out the window with “throwbacks”
While some teams embrace changes, OSU has built its history on tradition.
The Buckeye uniforms have sported mostly the same look for the last several decades, but on Saturday, for one day only, OSU will look drastically different.
The Buckeyes will wear a throwback uniform designed by honoring the 1954 National Championship team.
The new Nike Pro Combat uniform design will offer several technologically advanced features, while also being designed in a scheme to pay tribute to Buckeye legends from decades ago.
“I’m excited,” junior receiver Dane Sanzenbacher said. “Obviously it’s something different, change it up a little bit, so it will be fun.”
The most drastic change will be the helmets. The silver and traditional stripe will be replaced with an all-white helmet and numbers on the side, a single red stripe will also run down the middle.
Coleman expressed satisfaction with the new throwbacks, but said he doesn’t think it will have any effect once the ball is snapped.
Worthington said he and the rest of the linemen will look their best in the slender-fitting new digs.
“We’re going to look great, fantastic. I’ve been doing some extra curls and stuff, getting my wristbands ready,” Worthington said. “I got my Vaseline so I can look shiny and big. … It is a great thing to be able to represent the 1954 team and being serious about it. They are great uniforms and Nike did a wonderful job of creating a replica throwback.
“It’s just going to be great to go out and play with those uniforms on, but at the end of the day, when the ball’s snapped, it doesn’t matter what we have on, we have to get after the Wolverines,” Worthington said.