Buckeyes put everything into Michigan game, and now it's gone

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State linebackers Justin Hilliard, left, and Pete Werner combine to tackle Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet in last season's meeting in Ann Arbor. Michigan's cancellation of this year's game because of COVID-19 cases likely means the teams won't meet for the first time since the 1918 season.

Justin Hilliard did not want to believe the news.

The sixth-year senior linebacker for Ohio State was on a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon when word broke that Michigan had canceled its football game against the Buckeyes.

Told that the game was off, Hilliard replied, “What game has been canceled?”

Hilliard has endured a lot in his Ohio State career, including multiple injuries that could have ended his career. Tuesday's news might have hurt as much as any of those.

To those not immersed in the rivalry, Michigan calling off the game because of its COVID-19 cases might not seem a big deal. Ohio State was a 30-point favorite, after all, as it hoped to continue its domination this century of The Game.

But to those who are part of the rivalry, it was devastating. The teams have played every year starting in 1918 and it has been Ohio State’s regular-season finale since 1935. For many players, especially for Ohio State, it is a season all its own.

The gold trinkets the Buckeyes earn for beating Michigan are perhaps their most coveted and prized possession. They measure their careers by how many victories they have against the Wolverines.

Woody Hayes may have popularized calling Michigan “That Team Up North,” but Urban Meyer made it verboten for his team to refer to its arch-rivals by its actual name. Ryan Day has continued it, once chiding a reporter for saying “Michigan.”

What outsiders might consider overboard is deemed by the Buckeyes as reverence for the rivalry and a solemn duty to win that game.

The Ohio natives on the team innately understand the rivalry. Non-Ohioans are quickly brought to speed. Day tells recruits that the Buckeyes’ primary goal every year is to beat Michigan.

Quarterback Justin Fields didn’t know much about the rivalry growing up in Georgia. When he transferred to Ohio State, he quickly learned.

“We take this rivalry very seriously around here,” Fields said. “It's definitely the most important game of the year.”

Right guard Wyatt Davis came to Ohio State from California. As a freshman walking around campus during Michigan week, he looked curiously at all the red Xs that crossed out the letter “M” on signs.

“I was trying to figure out if it was vandalism at first,” he said. “It definitely told me a lot about what's going into this game. As years went on, I truly understood how serious this is.”

Ohio State has countdown clocks to the Michigan game in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. A wall is devoted to the rivalry. The Buckeyes have Michigan segments in practice throughout the year.

Senior linebacker Pete Werner wasn’t an Ohio State fan growing up in Indianapolis. Like all Buckeyes, he quickly was educated.

“Everything that goes into it, it’s just insane,” Werner said. “It’s just really, really crazy to think about everything that we do every single day, all the work that's put in (for the game). My freshman year, I was overwhelmed. But now I kind of live about it. I'm ‘about that,’ you could say.”

Given all the Buckeyes put into The Game, it would be an understatement to say there’s a hollow feeling around the facility. What do you do when you’re deprived of the game that matters most?

Now the Buckeyes wait for whatever’s next. Will they get a substitute opponent this week? Will the Big Ten waive its requirement that teams must play six games to be eligible for next week's conference title game? That seems more likely.

Those questions will be answered soon. The Buckeyes still have much to play for. They remain in solid position to make the College Football Playoff. But even if they win the national title, their resume won’t be complete. They didn’t play Michigan.