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!