Ohio State might not get a chance to defend the national championship this year, but the Buckeyes’ 42-13 win at Michigan was still significant for reasons beyond getting another victory over a their long-time rival.
The Buckeyes needed to prove — to themselves and those on the outside — they are still, well, Ohio State.
“If you would’ve had a chance to be in the locker room last Saturday (after a 17-14 loss to Michigan State) you would’ve felt how fragile the team was in terms of how somber it was, some of the attitudes," linebacker Joshua Perry said in Ann Arbor.
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Perry and his fellow fourth-year seniors had never lost a regular season game to a Big Ten opponent before the Spartans won at Ohio Stadium on a last-second field goal Nov. 21.
The setback not only gave control of the Big Ten East race to the Spartans, who clinched the division title Saturday with a win over Penn State, but led to widespread criticism of the Buckeyes, who hadn’t looked as dominant as expected even while opening the season 10-0.
Perry, whose class is 49-4 with a national championship, Big Ten championship and multiple 20-game winning streaks, admitted there were players in the locker room "just trying to figure it out" and that facing a resurgent Michigan team offered a chance to clear their heads.
"I would say the one thing that holds true no matter what is that as we got back to where you could tell that guys genuinely enjoyed being around each other, so it just makes it easier to work," Perry said. "It makes it easier to put it out there for one another. And then guys were just competitors, so we wanted to come out here on the big stage the way it is in the greatest rivalry game there is and show everybody what we have.”
Head coach Urban Meyer, who built an empire at Florida that won two national championships but began to crumble before he left, admitted his program would have faced "dire straits" if it ended the regular season with losses to Michigan State and Michigan.
The Spartans have been their biggest challengers for Big Ten supremacy in recent years, and the Wolverines hope they are headed in that direction under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh.
A win over an Ohio State team that entered the season with hopes of winning consecutive national championships would have offered more validation the progress the Wolverines made in their first year under his direction — not to mention be a major feather in Harbaugh’s cap when he hits the recruiting trail this winter.
The Buckeyes, Spartans and Wolverines appear to be set for more confrontations on the field and the recruiting trail in the immediate future, and Meyer has spoken often about the importance of momentum in college football.
"I don’t want to go where you were headed, ‘What if we didn’t do that?’" Meyer said when asked what beating Michigan meant for the direction of his program. "Because it would be dire straights right now. You can win a million games in a row and you lose two games in a row and you’re back to square one.”
The three-time national champion head coach agreed the loss to the Spartans created "one of the hollowest feelings" he could remember after a game and described the response he got from his team as perhaps the best he has seen in his coaching career.
"To come out and navigate a storm against an excellent team that we have a lot of respect for… to come out and do that against them that shows you this is one of the best groups if kids I’ve ever been around," Meyer said. "And (I’m) extremely grateful to be around them. I think Buckeye Nation should be very proud of those guys to do that after this week.”