COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – To say that Ohio State has been waiting for this one would be a gross understatement.
The Buckeyes NEED this one, the way a desert wanderer needs their thirst quenched. Even though it happened nearly a year ago, the sting of a 42-27 defeat at the hands of hated rival Michigan is still fresh.
Whether it’s the necessary motivation to turn the tide back to the Buckeyes remains to be seen, but if the victory goes to the hungrier team then Ohio State could well be in a good mood by midday Saturday.
The No. 2, undefeated Buckeyes take on the No. 3 and undefeated Wolverines Saturday at Ohio Stadium, where the visitors haven’t won since 2000. UM has just three victories total since that victory in Columbus – 2003, 2011 and last year’s upset.
Front And Center In The Memory Bank
Ohio State thought it had righted the ship and done enough to go into Ann Arbor last season and come out with a win.
Instead, it found itself on the short end of a 42-27 contest that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. The Wolverines bullied the Buckeyes, rushing for nearly 300 yards and scoring all six of their touchdowns on the ground. Ohio State was constantly pushed off the line of scrimmage and missed a slew of tackles, allowing Hassan Haskins to run wild, to the tune of 169 yards and five touchdowns.
It hammered home the thought that the Buckeyes were “soft,” and though steps were taken in the offseason by Ryan Day to alleviate that notion, it doesn’t erase the pain of the defeat.
“We have scars and it motivated us all of the season.” Day said, “We’ll find out where we’re at on Saturday.”
Rivalry week can go one of two ways – a team can win and hold bragging rights for 364 days, or it can lose and be haunted by that memory for those same 364 days. The Buckeyes are in the latter camp but have done everything possible to reverse the outcome and climb back to the top of the Big Ten mountain.
“When you lose this game, it’s a tough year. There’s no hiding from that.” Day said. “Up until this moment, we’ve done everything we can to get to this moment right here. They felt the pain last year. They let that simmer, and we had to chew on that. I know you’re gonna get an excited team.
The stakes in this one are massive – Big Ten East championship and berth in the league title game the least among them. Getting over on your rival is a close second to continuing on a path to a College Football Playoff berth, which the winner is all but guaranteed.
“You need to be reminded of what happened in the past, but the focus is on this team. Nothing else matters but that,” Day said.
This is the 13th meeting between the teams when both are ranked in the top five. Ohio State is 7-4-1 in those contests, including 2-0 with rankings of 2 and 3. OSU is 2-1 against the Wolverines when ranked No. 2 nationally.
The eyes of the nation will be trained on Columbus when the game kicks off, and if it’s anything like the recent editions fans can expect a lot of points. The last time the winner scored fewer than 30 points was in 2012 when the Buckeyes won 26-21 in Urban Meyer’s first season as head coach.
The visitors are not oblivious to what’s on the line.
“I think you got two teams that are like two superheroes going at each other,” UM boss Jim Harbaugh said. “And that’s why we’re so excited about being tested. Find out what we’re made of.”
Running With A Limp
Both the Buckeyes and Wolverines are among the nation’s top rushing teams – Ohio State 10th (5.53 YPC, 29 TDs) and Michigan 12th (5.51, 32 TD) but come into the game with serious questions around their ground attack.
Michigan standout and Heisman Trophy candidate Blake Corum was injured in last week’s 19-17 victory over Illinois, exiting shortly before halftime with what appeared to be a knee injury. He couldn’t play in the second half and there have been rumblings that the injury was significant enough to keep him out of Saturday’s game. The Wolverines were already missing backup Donovan Edwards, so if Corum cannot go it puts a severe strain on their run game.
“Blake could definitely be a factor in the game. Or he may not be,” Harbaugh said coyly when asked about his star’s status. “We don’t have any updates at the moment.”
For their part, Ohio State is approaching the contest with the mindset that Corum will play.
The Buckeyes are nursing a couple of running back injuries of their own but are secure in the knowledge that they have a guy, if needed, who can carry the load in Dallan Hayden.
Hayden rumbled for 146 yards and three scores last weekend in a win over Maryland and showed a willingness to run through contact and hit the hole with alacrity.
Whether Hayden starts will be up to Day, and the health of veterans TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams. Henderson started against Maryland and had a nifty 32-yard touchdown reception but seemed to be favoring a foot injury suffered against Penn State. He didn’t play in the second half.
Williams didn’t make the trip to Maryland after injuring himself a week prior against Indiana.
Day wouldn’t provide any updates to the status of either back but did say the team was prepared to put them through some work during the week.
“We’d like for them to practice and plan on them practicing,” Day said. “If they miss here or there to get healthy to play in the game, we’ll adjust accordingly. These are veteran football players.”
If neither Henderson nor Williams can go, the Buckeyes have faith in their freshman.
“To see the way he stepped up last week was tremendous and encouraging as we move into this rivalry week,” Day said. “It was great to see him taking care of the football. He has to have a good week of practice now and prepare hard to play in this game.”
Day was asked whether Hayden could get the start even if Henderson and/or Williams are cleared to play.
“It’s definitely worth a conversation,” Day said. “When you put it on film, and the film speaks for itself, you have to have that conversation – in this moment – who is the best guy to put on the field.”
Coaches Provide Juicy Subplot
The on-field action will be front and center for the players and fans, but there is another storyline that merits a little bit of attention – the back and forth between Day and Harbaugh.
Michigan canceled the 2020 contest due to COVID, though there was talk that it could have played but simply decided not to. That didn’t sit well with the Buckeyes, who wanted the win and needed the Big Ten to agree to a rule change in conference championship game representation because of The Game not being played.
Day had threatened to “hang a hundred” on the Wolverines prior to the contest being scuttled, so after the Wolverines came away with last year’s decisive victory Harbaugh had a chance to crow about it.
“Some people who were born on third base think they hit a triple, but they didn’t,” Harbaugh famously said.
While the meaning was a bit cryptic, the intent was not – it was a shot at Day and the Buckeyes.
“It was definitely a counterpunch by me, to the comment that they were going to hang 100 on us, etcetera. Kind of like Sugar Ray Robinson,” Harbaugh said during a radio spot in Michigan a few days before the game.
“But the fact is I think Ryan Day’s a great coach. I think he is a tremendous football coach, truth be known, that’s how I feel. You can see it week after week, you can see it with his team, as good a coach as there is in football.”
Day wouldn’t be drawn into the drama during his weekly press conference.
“I’m not going to talk about it right now,” he said. “There might be another time I’ll hit on that. There’s a time and a place to talk about that, but it’s not now.”
On the comments from Michigan coaches last year, Day says “there’s always gonna be back and forth and things said in a rivalry game. Sometimes it matters who says it, too. We certainly don’t get caught up in other peoples’ opinions.”