Ohio State had an idea of where it wanted to be by the time the Michigan game arrived.
With redshirt sophomore Dwayne Haskins at the helm, a quarterback who has beaten Michigan before, and two former 1,000-yard running backs at his disposal, with an All-American at defensive end and a defense that seemed to have depth up front and high expectations everywhere else, the Buckeyes expected to use the Michigan game as a launching point.
It would lead to a conference championship, a College Football Playoff bid and, if lucky, a national championship.
But instead, Michigan, with a former top-rated pro-style quarterback recruit leading the offense, a 1,000-yard rusher and the best defense in college football, is in the spot Ohio State thought it would be in at this point.
The Wolverines lead the Big Ten East and are the No. 4 team in the country with an ability to control its own destiny heading into the playoff.
But this is not what Meyer is focused on. He said all he is focused on is getting players healthy and confident enough to play their best in one of the most important games of the year.
Meyer has been here before. And he knows what it takes to succeed against the Wolverines.
“It’s our seventh one. And like you said, it’s never been, in my opinion, the talent differential,” Meyer said. “It’s always been extremely close. And also when you play Penn State, I think Michigan State’s very close. And you’ve seen it, for me to say how we play, you’ve seen it over the years. We have to do what we need to do at the time to win the game.”
That might be different than anything Meyer and the rest of the Ohio State coaching staff has done this season. He said play-calling has been “a little more conservative when it is a team you’re better than.”
For the first time in 51 games, Ohio State will not be viewed as the better team when it takes the field on Saturday. Michigan is favored by four points, the first time the Wolverines were favored to win this game since 2011.
Heading into what many consider the best rivalry in all of college sports, Meyer is saying the same things he says about every opponent Ohio State faces: He has “absolutely incredible respect” for the Michigan football program.
The way Ohio State shows that respect to the Wolverines does not change either.
“How do you respect — you work so freakin’ hard at it to do your very best,” Meyer said. “How do you show respect for them and the game? You work, which we are. We’re working so damn hard for this.”
And Ohio State will have to work hard against Michigan, especially after its 52-51 overtime win against Maryland, a game in which the Buckeyes defense allowed 535 yards of offense to the Terrapins, the most yards it has allowed this season.
After the game, defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said the Buckeyes view the Maryland win as its own “entity,” that it does not define the defensive performance Ohio State will have against Michigan.
Schiano said there has been some consistency defensively throughout the season and that his unit will be ready for junior quarterback Shea Patterson and senior running back Karan Higdon on Saturday.
“Look, we’re as ready as we’re gonna be,” Schiano said. “We’re gonna put together a good plan, we’re gonna have a good week of practice, and there’ll be two very focused teams show up on Saturday.”
Even with ranked wins against Penn State, TCU and Michigan State this season, Ohio State’s toughest test this season will be Michigan. And with the added pressure of it being “The Game,” which every player and coach in each locker room waits for each season, this one carries more weight.
Ohio State did not think it would be in this position heading into the Michigan game. However, even without being favored to win, without being in the position to control its own destiny in terms of the College Football Playoff, this game defines its season.
This game is what brought players in from all over the country to join Ohio State and Michigan. This game is what convinced coaches to join the Buckeyes and the Wolverines. This game is everything for both programs, no matter the context.
“It’s cold up here, you know,” sophomore running back J.K. Dobbins said. “That’s what I left Texas for.”