Enjoying The Day After

There’s something magical about the day after the Ohio State-Michigan game — when your team wins, that is.

michigan-fans-2015This year, the Buckeyes crushed the Wolverines, 56-27.  And, they did it at the Big House, in a game where Michigan came in playing their best football, with a chance to ruin Ohio State’s season and atone for years of losses.  For a time, Michigan looked like it could play with the Buckeyes . . . but eventually the Michigan mistakes piled up, the Wolverine defense had no answer for the multi-dimensional Ohio State offense, and before you knew it Ohio State had sprinted to a 20-point lead and the game was effectively out of hand.  By the end of the game, the camera was showing sad Michigan fan faces, and the “OH – IO” chant was reverberating around Michigan Stadium thanks to the hardy members of Buckeye Nation who went to support their team in enemy territory.

For Michigan, it’s the kind of brutal loss that sticks with a team and a program and a fan base, and leaves them searching for a way forward and wondering when — if ever — the pain will end.  For Ohio State fans who spent their own time in the desert during the ’90s, those shots of sad Michigan faces, and the message board and YouTube rants of disappointed Michigan fans, will always be sweet.

As I watched The Game with Russell, I mentioned how different the rivalry is now from when I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s.  In those days, the Ohio State-Michigan game was typically a tough defensive struggle between two evenly matched teams.  In the last two years, in contrast, Ohio State has scored 118 points and beaten Michigan by more than three touchdowns each year.  Ohio State has now triumphed over the Wolverines eight years in a row and 15 out of 16.  It’s amazing.

I’ll take it.

Let The True Season Now Begin

Kudos to the Penn State Nittany Lions for playing a very tough, gutty game today in cold, rainy Columbus.  Fortunately, for Buckeye Nation, Ohio State was able to overcome lots of turnovers and sloppy play and continue their quest for a slot in this year’s College Football Playoff.

osu-michigan-banner-1024x700But that’s for another day.  As the seconds ticked down this afternoon, all true Ohio State fans felt a little shiver in their spines and a quickening of their pulses.  With the Penn State game behind us and a W secured, we knew deep in our guts that the greatest rivalry week in college football — really, in all of sports — is now upon us.  And we also know that this year The Game is set up to be an absolute classic.  Ohio State hopes to continue its march to the National Championship, and Michigan — which has an excellent team — knows that it can derail those hopes, and break the hearts of Buckeye fans everywhere, if they can just win this year’s edition of The Game.

Next week Ohio State will head to That State Up North to take on the Maize and Blue.  The teams and their fans despise, but somehow respect, one another.  Players who have taken the field in The Game say that it is one of the hardest-hitting, but cleanest, games they’ve ever experienced.  Both teams want to win, but they want to win the right way.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Michigan Week.  Brace yourselves!

Celebrating Gold Pants Day

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Today members of the 2017 Ohio State Buckeyes football team received their treasured gold pants.  For members of Buckeye Nation, it’s a day worth celebrating.

In 1934, after years of Michigan gridiron dominance over the Buckeyes, legendary Ohio State coach Francis (“Close the Gates of Mercy”) Schmidt told the Men of the Scarlet and Gray that the Wolverine players put their pants on one leg at a time, like everyone else.  In short, the players on That Team Up North were human and could be beaten.  Ever since, players on an Ohio State team that beats the Wolverines in The Game receive an old-fashioned “gold pants” charm.  It’s one of the cooler traditions in the tradition-soaked world of  Ohio State football.

If you click on the link above, you can watch a video that Ohio State football released about the distribution of the gold pants, including comments from J.T. Barrett and some other recent Buckeyes about The Game — and how many pairs of gold pants they’ve earned during their Ohio State careers.

The 17-Year Turning Point

Seventeen years ago today, I was at an Ohio State-Michigan basketball game.  It was the middle of another bleak winter, but there was a little bit of a buzz because the Buckeyes had just named a new head football coach and the rumor was that he might be at the game, where members of Buckeye Nation could get a good look at him.

His name was Jim Tressel.  He’d had good success coaching at Youngstown State, and there was hope that he might be more successful at Ohio State than his predecessor, John Cooper.  Cooper seemed like a nice enough guy, but his record at Ohio State in the games that really counted — that is, the annual fight to the death against Michigan, and then bowl games — was abysmal.  The Cooper era left Ohio State fans feeling beat down and forlorn, like we were in a hole that we could never really dig our way out of.

Could Tressel turn things around, and actually win a few games against the hated Team Up North?  Even more fundamentally, could we be sure he actually understood how important that game was?  There was always a lingering suspicion that Coach Cooper was baffled that, every year, his performance was judged on the basis of that one game.  Of course, native Ohioans and members of Buckeye Nation understood why that was the case — understood it intuitively, in their bones and their blood and their sinew, understood it with a depth of feeling that some might find maniacal but that every true sports fan recognizes.

And then, at halftime of that basketball game 17 years ago, Coach Tressel walked out and made a short little speech that was one of the single most electrifying moments I’ve witnessed in person.  He said:  “I can assure you that you will be proud of our young people in the classroom, in the community and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the football field.”  It wasn’t quite a guarantee of a win, of course, but it was an Ohio State coach speaking confidently about okaying Michigan.  It was thrilling!  The crowd erupted, and the video of Tressel’s remarks that I’ve posted above really doesn’t capture the explosion of cheers.  Here was a man who clearly . . . understood.  He understood the importance of The Game, and the importance of pride.

And he was right.  Coach Tressel changed things, forever.  The Buckeyes went on a tear against Michigan, and other teams, and they haven’t looked back.  And while Coach Tressel’s career at Ohio State didn’t end the way he hoped, members of Buckeye Nation will never forget him.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 17 years.  Coach Tressel, thank you for that speech!

Epic

Look, there have been a lot of incredible Ohio State-Michigan games over the years.  Virtually every game between the two fierce rivals during the ’70s was a tough, hard-hitting advertisement for why college football is the greatest sport there is.  There was the Snow Bowl, and the 2006 match-up between two teams ranked no. 1 and no.2, and — giving the devil its due — Michigan’s legendary 1969 upset of an Ohio State team that many at the time considered to be the best college football team ever.

So I’m not going to say that yesterday’s double-overtime thriller was the best Ohio State-Michigan game ever played — but I am going to say that it was an epic contest that was simply one of the best college football games I’ve ever seen.  Two strong teams with shutdown defenses.  Wild emotional swings.  Missed field goals and turnovers.  Officiating controversy.  A gutsy call that blew up in the coach’s face, and then a gutsy call that produced the game-winning touchdown.  It’s the stuff of legend; an instant classic that people will remember and talk about for years to come.  No one who watched it, in the stands or on TV, will forget the 2016 edition of The Game.

And in the end, Ohio State won, and Michigan went home crushed.  Michigan’s head coach, Jim Harbaugh, blames the referees for the loss, saying they missed a spot and blew some pass interference calls.  His disappointment is understandable, because his team played a great game and seemed to have The Game in hand until Ohio State’s defense ground the Michigan offense down and the Buckeyes’ offense finally woke up.  Still, it’s too bad that such a great game should end with such sour grapes.  Coach Harbaugh’s comments seem to cheapen The Game, and that’s too bad.

Ohio State’s unfortunate mishaps against Penn State mean that the Buckeyes once again won’t play in the Big Ten championship game.   Instead, they will have to wait to see whether they are selected for this year’s college football playoff, and Ohio State fans will keep their fingers crossed that the selection committee recognizes that the Buckeyes are one of the four best teams in the land.

For now, though, we can just savor an epic win against the Wolverines, and reflect on the fact that beating That Team from Up North never gets old.

The Week Of The Game

In most of America, people woke up this morning, rubbed their hands over their sleep-filled eyes, and wondered aloud that it could be Thanksgiving Week already.

Not so in Buckeye Nation.  Sure, we know there is some minor holiday on Thursday featuring turkey, stuffing, family arguments about politics, and appalling overeating — but our real focus is on next Saturday, when Ohio State takes on That Team from Up North in the latest annual incarnation of The Game.

This year’s version of The Game promises to be a humdinger.  Both Ohio State and Michigan have ten wins, both are ranked in the top five nationally, and both harbor hopes of being selected to be one of the four teams in the College Football Playoffs.  The Buckeyes have had an up-and-down season that has seen them crush some teams and squeak by others.  Yesterday’s nail-biter against a rugged Michigan State squad fell into the latter category.  That Team from Up North, on the other hand, has been a lot more consistent in thrashing just about everyone they’ve faced.  Both teams have one loss, but Ohio State’s defeat, to Penn State, means the Buckeyes don’t control their own destiny in their bid to win the Big Ten championship.  Michigan can get to the Big Ten title game by beating the Buckeyes, but if Ohio State wins it has to hope that those same Michigan State Spartans who gave the Buckeyes such a tough time yesterday can beat Penn State.

Regardless of the Big Ten title game implications, this will be the most eagerly anticipated Ohio-State-Michigan showdown since 2006, when the Buckeyes and Wolverines were ranked 1 and 2 going into The Game.  Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh may be quirky — OK, downright weird — but the guy obviously can coach.  In two years, he’s turned around the Michigan program and has Wolverines playing with swagger and toughness, especially on defense.  Ohio State, on the other hand, has to figure out which team will show up on Saturday — the one that has been almost unstoppable offensively, or the one that struggles to score and finds itself trying to hang on by its fingernails come the fourth quarter.  Members of Buckeye Nation are hoping it’s the former.

So bring on The Game.  Oh, and on Thursday throw me a turkey leg, willya?

The Game, 2015 Edition

Today football fans the world over get to watch, once again, the greatest rivalry game in college sports.  In a few hours Ohio State and Michigan will square off at the Big House for The Game.

IMG_1835Don’t believe those who say this contest has lost some of its luster after Ohio State’s stunning loss to Michigan State last week.  If anything, that makes The Game even more important.  Ohio State does not want to end its season with two soul-crushing losses — and the Wolverines would like nothing more but to send Ohio State back to Columbus, whipped and beaten and clearly knocked off the top of the Big Ten pedestal.

I have no idea what to expect from this match-up — other than that it will be hard-hitting and hard-fought, because The Game always is.  Jim Harbaugh has turned Michigan around quickly, and made them a tough, power team with a good defense.  His old coach, Bo Schembechler, would be proud.

As for Ohio State, you wonder where the Buckeyes are, mentally.  Are they still reeling from a bad game, or are they primed to go out and show the world that last week’s dismal offensive showing was a rain-soaked fluke?  This is a week where Urban Meyer earns his paycheck.

Go Bucks!

Good Football Weather

When I stepped outside for my walk on this morning of the Ohio State-Michigan game, I immediately thought of my father.

IMG_1875It was because of the weather — crisp and clear, with the stars sharply outlined and the steam from breath rising upward into the chill.  Those are the kind of conditions that would cause my father to lean back, sniff the air, nod approvingly, and say:  “Good football weather.”

Every Midwestern football fan knows exactly what that phrase means.  It means dry conditions, because no one wants to watch football or play football in a downpour.  It means a day that is not too windy and where there is a significant difference between being in the sunshine and being in the shade.  It means a temperature that is cold, but not too cold; in the 30s or 40s, where you can bundle up and layer against the chill and a few hours outside will bring color to everyone’s cheeks.  The kind of day when you enjoy having your core warmed by a well-prepared toddy, or Bloody Mary, or Irish Coffee at a tailgate and can hear the crack of the pads echoing through the stadium as the crowd roars.

Yes, it’s good football weather today for The Game.  Go Bucks!

Woody Week

Ohio State has viewed Michigan as its great opponent for more than a century, but the modern rivalry really took its shape when Wayne Woodrow Hayes became the head football coach at Ohio State in 1951.  It was Woody Hayes who schemed all year for the game against That Team Up North, Woody Hayes who purportedly pushed his car back to Ohio rather than buying a tank of gas in Michigan, Woody Hayes who attempted a two-point conversion rather than an extra point in a beat-down of the Wolverines and, when asked why he went for two, responded “Because I couldn’t go for three.”

That’s why, for members of Buckeye Nation who are my generation or older, Michigan Week really is Woody Week.  From the Ohio State side, Coach Hayes is the inescapable colossus who helped to define what the ultimate rivalry in sports was really all about.  You can’t help but think about him as The Game draws near.

But there is more to the story than that.  Woody Hayes was always a complex figure — professorial and intellectual, a student of military history who was likely to quote Emerson, yet possessed of a volcanic temper that propelled him into embarrassing sideline outbursts, including the furious punch that cost him his job.  A man who was the iconic face of Ohio State football but didn’t insist on large contracts and happily lived in the same tidy Upper Arlington house for years, who was gracious to the timid students who knocked on the door of his office and asked if the Coach might sign a football for their father or uncle, who mentored his players and hectored them into getting their degrees and pursuing post-football careers as doctors, politicians, and lawyers.  Living in Columbus, you inevitably encounter people who were touched by the generosity and decency of Woody Hayes, whether it involved an unpublicized hospital visit to a sick child or an encouraging word to a struggling young person.

Over the years, my perception of Coach Hayes changed, and I think I’m not alone in that.  For me he began as a too-conservative football coach whose temper-fueled antics often made Ohio State the butt of jokes, then became the modern Greek dramatic hero whose passion led inexorably to his downfall.  Now, as the stories of what he did are told and retold, he has become a venerated figure whose failings are forgiven, if not forgotten, because his strength of character and good deeds vastly outweighed them.

For those of us who have made mistakes in our lives — a population that includes me and most of the billions of people on planet Earth — the story of Woody Hayes is a warming and ultimately encouraging human story of the possibility of redemption and how good deeds can live on as blunders fade away.  It’s a good story to remember each year during Michigan Week.

One For The Ages

In a rivalry filled with memorable games, this year’s version of The Game has to be one of the greatest ever.  Back and forth, with the game ending on a thwarted effort by Michigan to get a two-point conversion and spring a stunning upset.  But Ohio State’s defense, which had been gashed repeatedly during the day, finally made a play, Tyvis Powell knocked down the pass, and the Buckeyes hung on to win.

IMG_1829This was the kind of game that makes the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry the greatest rivalry in college sports.  Michigan ran just about every play in their playbook, their much-maligned offensive line held up, and Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner was a warrior who played a virtually flawless game.  He never quit, and neither did the Wolverine coaching staff.  Michigan just kept coming, and coming, and coming.  They gained more than 600 yards — 600 yards! — and were clicking on all cylinders.  I give great credit to the Michigan team, from the head coach on down, for developing a near-perfect game plan and showing what this rivalry is all about.

Fortunately for me and other Pepto-Bismol-guzzling members of Buckeye Nation, the Wolverines had no answer for the Ohio State offense.  For the Buckeyes, the accolades must start with the offensive line.  The Buckeyes front wall pushed the Michigan defensive line around like a precision lawnmowing team, and Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller took full advantage.  The Buckeyes ran for 393 yards — 393 yards! — and Carlos Hyde rumbled for the most yards ever by an OSU running back against the Wolverines.  I was especially glad to see Carlos Hyde, who has been a monster, bounce back from his fumble to score the winning touchdown.

So, the Buckeyes’ winning streak continues.  The pundits can talk all they want about style points, and we can worry about that porous defense next week.  For tonight, Columbus and Ohio and Buckeye lovers everywhere will breathe a sigh of relief and crack open a cold one.  The Buckeyes won against their great rival, stay in the hunt for a BCS title game spot, and move on to the Big Ten championship game next weekend.  That’s good enough for me.

It’s Michigan Week! (IV)

We’re less than 24 hours away from The Game.  It will be a noon start tomorrow, which is the way it should be, because it’s the way it has always been.

The Game will be at the Big House in Ann Arbor.  Like the Horseshoe in Columbus, Michigan Stadium is one of college football’s most fabled venues, a huge, cavernous bowl dug out of the ground.  It’s where Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler prowled the sidelines during the 10-Year War.  It’s where the Buckeyes tore down the “M Club” banner in the early ’70s, sending the Michigan radio announcer into a frenzy.  The field is thick with memories and legends.  Tomorrow the members of Buckeye Nation will try to fill a significant part of that colossal edifice, cheering on the Men of the Scarlet and Gray.  Michigan fans have experienced a tough and disappointing season, and many of them have put their tickets up for sale.  Ohio State fans have been very willing buyers.

What will happen?  The Wolverines have struggled this year, while the Buckeyes have won every game.  The statistics and records will tell you that Ohio State clearly has the better team and should win the game . . . but in The Game, records and statistics often don’t matter.  Fans of both teams who have watched The Game will remember surprising triumphs and devastating losses.  The shocks and upsets are what have made The Game the greatest rivalry game in college football.

Casual fans can be overconfident, but I don’t know of any true member of Buckeye Nation who is expecting an easy game tomorrow.  We know that it will be a tough, brutal battle, filled with bone-jarring hits and hard runs to pick up crucial first downs, and we’re starting to feel that surge of adrenalin as The Game draws nearer.

Let’s go, Bucks!

It’s Michigan Week! (III)

No Ohio State will fan ever take The Game against Michigan for granted — at least, no Ohio State fan who lived through the ’90s.  For Ohio State fans, the ’90s were the long, dark night of the soul.

Ohio State was coached by a cordial, good-humored gentleman named John Cooper.  Coop wasn’t an Ohio native, but he could recruit great athletes and get them ready for early season games.  His record at Ohio State was 111-43-4.  He beat Notre Dame twice, and won a Rose Bowl and a Sugar Bowl.  But when it came to The Game, Coop turned into a fingernail-chewing, watery-eyed wreck.  His teams were 2-10-1 against That Team Up North, and it got so bad that the Ohio State President described the tie as one of the greatest victories in Ohio State history.

During the Cooper era, Ohio State played Michigan as the favorite and as the underdog.  It played the Wolverines at home and away.  It played Michigan when the Buckeyes were highly ranked and when they were struggling.  And all of that made no difference, because the result — inevitably — was another soul-crushing loss.  Whether it was a record-setting performance by a previously unknown running back or a slip and fall by a defensive back or some other disaster, Michigan always found a way to win.  Eventually, the Buckeye Nation had had enough, and Coop was gone and Jim Tressel was in.

Whenever Ohio State goes to The Game as a favorite, I think of John Cooper and his struggles with the Wolverines.  It’s left me permanently scarred, and I will never forget.  John Cooper taught me to never take The Game for granted.

It’s Michigan Week! (II)

I would call the rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan during the week of The Game a friendly rivalry — except it really isn’t.  Deep down, every Buckeyes fan wants to crush Michigan like a cockroach.  We want to punish them, humiliate them, and leave them wailing forlornly to their misbegotten gods. Michigan fans share this perspective.

But, since we aren’t fighting with broadswords, we need to make do with humor.  When I was a kid, and Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler were fighting the 10-Year War, the battle was waged with bumper stickers.  I remember one of the Michigan bumper stickers said:  “Save Fuel.  Burn Woody!”  And I thought — boy, Michigan fans are about as funny as, say, Jerry Lewis during the MDA telethon.

The Ohio side of the humor equation, however, isn’t appreciably better.  Consider these two representative efforts:

1.  “A University of Michigan fan walks into a doctor’s office and removes his hat to reveal a frog sitting on his head. The doctor asks, ‘How can I help you?’ The frog replies, ‘I was wondering if you could help me get this wart off my butt.'”

2.  “Two University of Michigan grads are laughing it up on their way into a bar.  The bartender asks:  ‘Hey, why are you guys so happy?’  One of the Wolverines says, ‘Well, to be honest with you, we’re proud of ourselves.  We just finished a puzzle in a week, and when we were done we noticed the box said 4 to 6 years.'”

In Ohio, we try to make our statements on the football field.

Let’s Go, Buckeyes!

Let’s go, Buckeyes!  It’s time to win The Game and kick some Maize and Blue butt!  (And enjoy Jocelyn Smallwood dotting the i in Script Ohio.)

Edited to add:  It’s cold here in Columbus on Game Day, with a brisk wind and a few snowflakes drifting down.  Perfect football weather!

Hunting For Wolverine

Tomorrow, Ohio State’s season boils down to one game.  Fittingly, the Michigan Wolverines stand between the Buckeyes and a perfect season.

This scenario has played out before.  Michigan has ruined the season for many otherwise perfect Ohio State squads, and Ohio State has wrecked Michigan dreams of unbeaten seasons.  Going into tomorrow’s game, every Ohio State fan knows that Michigan will do whatever it takes to beat the Buckeyes, smash the Buckeyes’ hope for perfection, and start Urban Meyer’s OSU coaching career off with a losing record against Michigan.  Every Michigan fan knows, too, that the Buckeyes want to crush Michigan, get revenge for last year’s loss, and return to the glory days when Jim Tressel led Ohio State to a 9-1 record against the hated Team Up North.

This will be a great matchup between two pretty good teams in the greatest rivalry game in college football.  In Ohio State-Michigan games, the great players have a way of stepping up — Denard Robinson, for example, probably played the best game of his collegiate career when the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes last year — and otherwise obscure players can achieve lasting gridiron glory by making the hard hit and recovering the crucial turnover.  We can expect a tough, hard-hitting game tomorrow, because that’s just the way The Game is always played.

I think the key to the game is the Ohio State defense.  The Buckeye D played its best game of the year last week against Wisconsin, but Wisconsin played a traditional Big Ten offensive game.  Michigan, on the other hand, has a bit more of a spread mentality, and Ohio State has struggled to defend against the spread.  If Ohio State can contain Robinson, in his new role as multi-purpose offensive sparkplug, and pressure Devin Gardner, that will take them a long way toward winning.  Consistent with my view that The Game sees big players rising to the occasion, I’ll be looking for John Simon, Ryan Shazier, and Bradley Roby to make some big plays if the Buckeyes are going to win.

Offensively, the Braxton Miller Show ground to a halt last week.  Wisconsin had a great plan, executed it to perfection, and kept Miller bottled up and off balance.  Michigan will try to do the same — but it remains to be seen if they can bring the same defensive assets to bear that Wisconsin deployed.  I think the answer for the Buckeyes may be Carlos Hyde, who has run with punch in recent weeks.  If the forecast for tomorrow is accurate — and they are expecting temperatures in the 30s, with some wind — being able to run the ball effectively may be the key.  Beanie Wells killed Michigan during his career; Carlos Hyde would like to do the same.

Columbus is stoked for The Game.  Let’s go, Buckeyes!