Michigan sets sights on ‘Beating Ohio’

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Big Ten added Rutgers and Maryland this week.

Michigan doesn’t care.

Ohio State has a perfect season going.

Michigan doesn’t care.

With the Buckeyes on probation, they can’t play in a postseason game.

Michigan doesn’t care.

The school in Columbus prefers to be called “THE Ohio State University.”

Michigan really doesn’t care.

All season, the Wolverines start their meetings with “Beat Ohio,” and now the time has come. Until Saturday evening, nothing matters to the Michigan football program other than finding a way for the team in maize-and-blue to beat the team in scarlet-and-gray.

“You can’t put into words how much this game means,” quarterback Devin Gardner said. “It doesn’t matter that they are undefeated, or that this might be their bowl game. This game is all about the rivalry. No matter what else is happening, this is THE game.”

Detroit native Will Campbell agrees, saying even though he grew up watching the game every year, he didn’t understand the intensity until he arrived in Ann Arbor.

“I grew up seeing the blue and the red, and you always watched the Michigan-Ohio game,” he said. “But when I got here, and I saw the seniors killing themselves to make sure they were ready for this game, I really realized how much it meant. It doesn’t matter that they are 11-0 — we’d feel the exact same way if they were 0-11.”

Center Elliott Mealer is another player who was brought up in the midst of the rivalry, but from the other side. Growing up in Ohio, he had always planned on playing in the game as a Buckeye, not a Wolverine.

“I dreamed about playing against Michigan since I went to my first game at Ohio Stadium, when I was in the third grade,” he said. “Coming here meant that I changed sides, obviously, but I’ve always known how awesome this rivalry is.”

For Mealer, Michigan-Ohio State was practically a religious holiday.

“When I was a kid, we would all go to my uncle’s house and watch the game in his basement — everyone would be yelling and screaming — so that’s how I got introduced,” he said. “Later, when I was playing basketball, we’d always have a Saturday-morning scrimmage somewhere, and as soon as we got onto the floor, the ref would be hurrying us up. Everyone wanted to make sure that we got out of there in time to get home for the game.”

This isn’t how college football normally works. The players are conditioned to not say anything interesting, to talk about how every game is a championship game and they treat every week the same. But during “Ohio Week,” it is different. They’ve spent the entire season walking by the clock in Schembechler Hall that counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds to the Ohio State game. And for once, they are allowed to talk about what a game really means.

Gardner knew it as a high-school junior. He was recruited by schools all over the country, including Urban Meyer’s Florida, but wasn’t offered a scholarship by the Buckeyes. After he had decided to attend Michigan, he got a letter from Ohio State, expressing their interest.

He burned it.

“This rivalry is bigger than any of us and bigger than just a football game,” said offensive lineman Patrick Omameh, a Columbus native. “I’ve always been aware of what it meant, and even though this wasn’t the side I expected to be on, I’ve fully embraced it.

“Last year, when the clock hit zero and we were on top — that was a moment that will always be very significant in my life.”

All this emotion from his players is why this is Brady Hoke’s favorite week of the year.

“This is a fun week, because any time you have a rivalry that is this intense, it is going to be fun,” he said. “I know we aren’t well-liked down there, but it is a great environment, and we have a lot of respect for that program. They have great football players and their fans are passionate about their team and their school. That’s what makes college football.”

Until Hoke’s arrival last season, the rivalry was threatening to get stale. The Wolverines couldn’t beat the Buckeyes, and didn’t even come close more than once. But then Denard Robinson took over last year’s game, rushing for 170 yards, throwing for 167 and accounting for five touchdowns in the 40-34 win.

This year, with Robinson still recovering from an elbow injury, he might not throw a single pass against Ohio State — he didn’t throw one last week against Iowa.

Or maybe he will. Hoke insists that Robinson can throw the ball again, but Robinson was more mysterious on the subject.

“You’ll see on Saturday,” he said with his trademark smile. “Got to keep them ready.”

As the Iowa game showed, Robinson doesn’t need to be throwing to be extremely effective. He lined up all over the field, playing quarterback, running back and slot receiver, and Iowa was focused on him before every snap. He hurt them, too, rushing for almost 100 yards, but he also let Gardner put six touchdowns on the board while the Hawkeyes were distracted.

The new double-threat offense won’t be any easier for Ohio State to defend. They will be expecting it, of course, but their week of film study will be balanced by offensive coordinator Al Borges having seven days to add new tweaks to the system.

And, of course, the first time Robinson throws a pass, everything changes again.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan will have to stop Braxton Miller. Miller nearly matched Robinson play-for-play a year ago, and this season Ohio State will have home-field advantage. Like Robinson, Miller is a true two-threat quarterback, having rushed for 1,214 yards this season and thrown for 1,850 more.

“I don’t know if you can expect to stop a player like Miller 100 percent of the time, but you have to plan to do it,” Hoke said. “With his speed, you have to make sure you are keeping your leverage and you have to be winning the battles on the edges. If you can’t get off a block, it could be a serious problem.”

Miller will have running support from Carlos Hyde, who averages over 90 yards a game and has scored 15 touchdowns, while Devin Smith is Miller’s top deep threat. Smith, a track star, got the Urban Meyer era off to a memorable start with his highlight-reel one-handed touchdown grab in the season-opener against Miami (Ohio). He doesn’t get the ball much, averaging fewer than three catches a game, but the ones he does get tend to turn into big plays.

So Michigan knows exactly what they are going to be facing. An 11-0 team with an incredible amount at stake. The Buckeyes desperately want to avenge last season’s defeat, and they know they need a big showing to impress voters in the Associated Press poll. They are still eligible in that one, unlike the BCS-related polls, so a 12-0 record with a big win over Michigan could leave them with an outside shot at a national title, depending on what happens in conference-championship games and the bowls.

Knowing that, and understanding the rivalry, is why Hoke didn’t see the glowing profile 60 Minutes did on the Michigan football program Sunday night.

“I was watching Ohio.”