Thirty years ago this week, Urban Meyer learned the cruel realities of college coaching and how unpredictable the Ohio State-Michigan game can be.
Meyer was a 23-year-old graduate assistant in 1987 when he and the rest of the coaching staff were summoned into an office that he now occupies. There, athletic director Rick Bay informed them that coach Earle Bruce had been fired and that the Michigan game would be his finale.
“Coach had his face down on his arm,” Meyer said on Monday, “and I was like, ‘Oh my God, is this really happening?’ ”
Meyer recalled planes flying above Ohio State practice that week and the marching band playing outside Bruce’s house. Michigan was heavily favored, but the Buckeyes, famously wearing “EARLE” headbands, summoned an emotional performance in a 23-20 victory in Ann Arbor.
“He taught me the intensity of it, and no one respected the rivalry more than him,” Meyer said of Bruce.
Now Meyer is the caretaker of the rivalry, and his Buckeyes are double-digit favorites against Michigan. Meyer knows from history, including the 1987 game, that in such a heated rivalry nothing is a sure thing.
That’s why even though this is Michigan week, the Buckeyes really prepare 365 days a year for the Wolverines.
“This rivalry is not a one-week deal,” Meyer said. “I learned that from Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, Jim Tressel. It's in your blood. It's in your DNA.”
The Big Ten East is too competitive now for the Buckeyes to hold back plays or wrinkles just for Michigan as the teams could when they dominated the conference. But their showdown is always on their minds.
“I would say darn near every day you're here you get reminded of the game,” Meyer said. “From (strength) coach Mick (Marotti) in the offseason to myself in spring ball and training camp, we have periods devoted to this game during practice. You would have to have something wrong with you not to figure this one out.”
Meyer is 5-0 against Michigan, the last two against Jim Harbaugh. A year ago, the teams played an epic double-overtime game in which No. 3 Michigan dominated the second-ranked Buckeyes for most of regulation. Ohio State won 30-27 after a controversial first-down spot on a fourth-down J.T. Barrett keeper set up Curtis Samuel’s game-winning run.
That 2016 game served as a College Football Playoff elimination game. This year, the Buckeyes (9-2, 7-1 Big Ten) need to win to keep alive their playoff hopes heading into next week’s conference championship game against undefeated Wisconsin.
For Michigan (8-3, 5-3), Saturday’s game is about restoring pride and making a breakthrough in a big game that has eluded Wolverines under Harbaugh. Michigan has a stout defense, but its offense, particularly the passing game, has struggled badly.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters was progressing, but he was knocked out of last week’s loss to Wisconsin and is in concussion protocol. If Peters can’t make a quick recovery, John O’Korn would probably take over.
Ohio State is coming off dominating victories over Michigan State and Illinois after its stunning loss at Iowa. A week ago, Meyer shunned all talk about anything but focus on the next opponent. That is a non-issue this week.
“You talk about laser focus now — everything you've got going,” Meyer said. “Not that it doesn't in other games, but (now it’s) laser focus.”