It’s farfetched to think that for a player to understand what The Game is about, he has to be from Ohio or Michigan.
Ohio State would be in big trouble if statehood was a requisite for playing in it. Of the Buckeyes’ nine captains, four are from out of state: quarterback J.T. Barrett (Texas), receiver Terry McLaurin (Indiana), and defensive ends Jalyn Holmes (Virginia) and Tyquan Lewis (North Carolina).
They are proof that a fervent desire to beat “the team up north,” as they are required to refer to Michigan by coach Urban Meyer, can be sparked anywhere.
“When I committed, I already could tell,” Holmes said. “I’m all about confrontation anyway. It was drilled into me real early, so it didn’t take me long to understand that this game is real serious, even for me coming from Virginia. You could tell just watching as a little kid (on television) they really hate each other.”
Barrett had an idea about it, but a week after he committed to the Buckeyes in April 2012, he said it ramped up when he watched a video on social media of a Michigan commitment burning his recruiting letters from Ohio State.
“Immediately, I just had this hate, this deep hatred that just kind of flared up inside me,” said Barrett, who on Saturday could become the first Ohio State starting quarterback to beat Michigan four times. He thought the action by a Michigan-bound player “was kind of whack.”
It’s a series, headed toward the 123rd renewal, in which sides are clearly drawn. Ohio State senior offensive left tackle Jamarco Jones could see that growing up in Chicago.
“It’s the biggest rivalry in college football,” Jones said. “There’s a lot of trash talk between two states, not even just the teams. There’s a lot of bragging rights on the line. Being from the Midwest, I know all about this rivalry. It means a lot to a lot of people.”
Just to make sure his players get it, Meyer and his staff emphasize it. Ohio State has won five straight in the series and 14 of the past 16.
“When you first walk in the door here, you learn what it’s all about, from the countdown clock (toward the next kickoff of The Game). We do workouts (through the season emphasizing) ‘the team up north’ game, so you find out pretty quickly this is the best rivalry in college football,” McLaurin said. “You learn to embrace it and accept everything that comes with it.”
It’s pretty much the same with the Wolverines under third-year coach Jim Harbaugh, a UM quarterback in the mid-1980s who famously guaranteed a Michigan win before the 1986 game. As he pointed out Tuesday, he was born in Ohio and learned about the rivalry while his father, Jack, was an assistant under Bo Schembechler.
“I think the more they’re in it, the more they get it,” Harbaugh said.
Playing in it, he said, enhances the feeling.
“The more experience you have with it, the more you understand the excitement of it, you understand the intensity of it, and you understand just how important it is, how immense the stage is, and you come to embrace that,” Harbaugh said.
“I would even say, having experienced this, players who’ve played in it, after they’re done with their playing career their appreciation for it and their understanding of how big it is grows even more after they’ve played.”