Less than an hour after No. 9 Ohio State defeated Illinois 52-14 to clinch the Big Ten East, senior left tackle Jamarco Jones smiled and chuckled when asked how the Buckeyes plan to stop the talented defensive lines and linebacker corps of Michigan and Wisconsin.
Jones wasn’t laughing at the competition. He was just taken aback by any question requiring him to think about anything beyond his team’s game against the Wolverines.
Reflecting after Ohio State’s 48-3 victory against Michigan State, defensive end Nick Bosa said the Buckeyes entered their game against Iowa having lacked focus throughout that week of practice. As a result, they lost 55-24. They have worked to make sure that does not happen again, especially versus their chief rival.
Ohio State ingrains hatred for Michigan in the heads of its players from the moment they walk onto campus. The coaching staff raises a win against the Wolverines from a goal to an expectation.
“I would say darned near every day you’re here you get reminded of the game,” head coach Urban Meyer said. “From [strength and conditioning] coach Mick [Marotti] in the offseason to myself in spring ball and training camp, we have periods devoted to this game during practice.”
It does not take much time for players to realize the importance of “The Game.” Often called the greatest rivalry in sports, Ohio State-Michigan transcends the game of football and becomes a battle between good and evil for those involved. To Buckeyes, Michigan’s Maize and Blue are the colors of the enemy. No Wolverine would even think to own anything adorned with Ohio State’s Scarlet and Gray.
For that reason, Ohio State’s Big Ten championship hopes and College Football Playoff chances have taken a backseat to Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Nothing else matters to the Buckeyes right now.
“Whenever we play a game, after that game is over, for the most part [Meyer] gives us our next mission, which is the next team,” redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley said after Saturday’s game. “Make no mistake about it, he definitely put a little more emphasis on that.”
This kind of rivalry, the type that can put postseason games on the backburner, has become more of a rarity each year. The standard of rivalry games has begun to stand out even more with the dissipation of other games.
Nebraska moved from the Big 12 to the Big Ten and no longer takes on Oklahoma every year. West Virginia’s heated rivalry game with Pittsburgh, hailed as the “Backyard Brawl,” ended when the Mountaineers left the decaying Big East for the Big 12. Texas and Texas A&M no longer play annually because the Aggies left the Big 12 for the SEC.
Yet, “The Game” remains intact. And it isn’t going anywhere.
Players on either team don’t have to choose whether they would rather win a conference championship or beat their rival. But if they had to make a decision, make no mistake, they would choose beating their rivals. The Wolverines enter this game with little left to play for while Ohio State’s postseason hopes hang in the balance.
Just a couple weeks ago — after the Hawkeyes shocked the college football landscape by embarrassing the Buckeyes in front of a packed crowd in Iowa City, Iowa — playoff hopes seemed impossible with the Big Ten championship being a consolation prize for a team with a playoff-or-bust attitude.
Now, with the possibility of becoming the first two-loss playoff team increasing, a win against Michigan has added stakes that weren’t apparent just weeks ago. It has become a gateway to the playoff for Ohio State. If it loses, all hope will be eliminated. But if the Buckeyes win, the possibility remains.
No one inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center will publicly entertain the possibilities, though.
During the week leading up to last week’s game against Illinois, Meyer shut down questions of anything beyond the upcoming game. He amped up the classic one-game-at-a-time approach coaches tend to employ.
But just because Ohio State coaches and players will not discuss the high stakes behind the game does not mean they do not exist. Not only do they exist, the stakes are at their peak because the week has arrived.
The playoff chase will continue for Ohio State, but only with a win Saturday against Michigan.