After a year absence, The Game returns, and for Ohio State and Michigan, stakes are huge

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

When Ohio State plays at Michigan on Saturday, 728 days will have passed since the archrivals’ last meeting.

That’s a long time for emotions to simmer, though slow boil is probably a more correct term for it. The rivalry never goes away, even last year when a COVID-19 outbreak among the Wolverines caused the teams not to play for the first time since 1917.

But now The Game is back, and much more is at stake beyond the bragging rights that always suffice. After its early loss to Oregon, Ohio State has won nine straight, culminating in a 56-7 annihilation of No. 7 Michigan State last week.

Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison, here tackling Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III, hopes OSU can carry the momentum of a 56-7 win over the Spartans into Saturday's matchup with Michigan.

In the summer at Big Ten media days, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said his team would beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten “or die trying.” Back then, not much was expected of the Wolverines. But they are also 10-1, the only loss against the Spartans after blowing a 16-point second-half lead.

The winner Saturday in Ann Arbor will advance to the Big Ten championship game. Ohio State has won the last four conference titles. Michigan has never been to Indianapolis.

The Big Ten is only a stepping stone to the College Football Playoff. If Saturday’s winner wins next week, it’ll be a lock for the CFP.

So, yeah, kind of a big game.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day had no ties to the rivalry until he was hired as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after the 2016 season. In a hall at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, video of the epic ’16 game, famous for the controversial first-down call on J.T. Barrett’s second-overtime keeper, replayed continuously.

“I just remember thinking to myself, ‘I just want to be a part of this,’ because it meant so much to so many people,” Day said.

"There is a lot of pressure, and that's the way you want it,"  Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of playing Michigan.

Day grew up in New Hampshire, but he fully embraces the rivalry as much as his predecessor and native Ohioan, Urban Meyer.

“We work it year-round,” Day said. “Every day we work it. We work it in the offseason. We work it on Fridays in the weight room. We have our sessions in the preseason and spring. We have meetings about it.

“We just constantly talk about it. And we talk about it in recruiting. The No. 1 goal here at Ohio State is to beat the Team Up North, period.”

The Buckeyes have dominated the rivalry this century, not losing since 2011. But few current players have participated in a victory over the Wolverines.

Seventy-five players on OSU’s roster are freshmen or sophomores. They’ve never even suited up for a Michigan game. Offensive lineman Thayer Munford and wide receiver Chris Olave are the only current Buckeyes who started in OSU’s 56-27 victory in 2019.

Junior defensive end Zach Harrison said the newcomers to the rivalry understand its importance.

“They know,” he said. “The second you walk into the building, you know how big this game is. We train for it every single day of the offseason. Every single day of the year, we've got this game in the back of my mind. Now that it's finally here, the guys who haven't played in the game, they're excited. They get a chance to play the Team Up North.”

Day acknowledged that the pressure of the rivalry can be overwhelming if not handled properly. But that’s what makes this rivalry, and this game in particular, so special.

“There is a lot of pressure, and that's the way you want it,” Day said. “You want this game with everything riding on it. At their place, it's going to be a wild environment. That’s why you come to Ohio State.”

Bill Rabinowitz covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at or on Twitter @brdispatch.

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