Ohio State football: Buckeyes’ focus moves to The Game

COLUMBUS — Five of Ohio State’s six challenges for the second half of the season are out of the way.

All that awaits is the toughest: Michigan.

“When we were at the bye week, we talked about a six-week season,” coach Ryan Day said after his team stomped No. 7 Michigan State 56-7 on Saturday. “We knew that week in and week out this was going to be hard, and I got a lot of respect for the teams that we’ve played so far this year. When you look at the way Penn State played us and the way Nebraska played us. Purdue, Michigan State. These are all really good conference teams, and so we knew we had to bring it every week.”

Ohio State played better some weeks than others down the stretch, but the Buckeyes avoided the upset bug that bit other contenders.

Their reward is another edition of The Game with everything on the line: An outright division title, a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game, continued claim to a spot in the College Football Playoff — and of course bragging rights in a series that dates back to 1897 and defines two fanbases throughout the year.

Ohio State has beaten Michigan eight times in a row, a streak the Buckeyes would love to extend and the Wolverines are dying to end.

“Obviously everything gets ramped up this week because of what it is and what’s on the line all the time, but even more this year,” said Day, who is 1-0 against Michigan as a head coach and 2-0 as an Ohio State assistant.

No current Buckeye knows what it is like to lose to the Wolverines, and they would like to keep it that way.

“We’re really excited for this game, and this is what this game is always about,” said senior defensive tackle Haskell Garrett. “There’s always big stakes, the rivalry, and they’re a good team every year. They’re gonna bring it, and we’re excited to play them.”

Although last year’s edition of The Game was canceled because of COVID-19 cases in the Michigan program, Ohio State has kept the Wolverines on their mind with special practice periods and reminders about the rivalry all over the football facility.

It’s a formula that has produced wins in 17 of the last 19 meetings after a 2-10-1 stretch to end the 20th century.

“We just have been preparing for that team all winter, all summer,” senior defensive end Tyreke Smith said. “We just got to have that game always on our mind and in the back of our head so now that it’s here, we have to do what we’ve been doing: Practice hard and go into The Game with a good mindset.”

The Buckeyes are riding high after hamming ranked opponents in back-to-back weeks, but Michigan also appears to be getting hot at the right time.

The Wolverines suffered their only loss of the season Oct. 30, a wild 37-33 shootout at Michigan State.

Coach Jim Harbaugh’s team has since won three since over Indiana, Penn State and Maryland by a combined score of 109-42.

More than half those points came last week as the Wolverines scored five touchdowns to pull away from Maryland 59-18.

Michigan’s offense, defense and special teams all found the end zone against the Terrapins, but their calling card all season has been defense.

The Wolverines are No. 7 in the country in points allowed per game (16.3) and ninth in yards (306.6), and they boast the Big Ten’s leaders in sacks as David Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson have 10 apiece.

They will provide the toughest test yet for Ohio State and redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud, a California native who is about to get his first taste of what is widely regarded as the greatest rivalry in sports.

“He has to stay focused on just having a great night tonight,” Day said Saturday. “Get home, get rest. Wake up in the morning and get started on these guys. Learn from what happened in this game and stay focused.

“I hope he can do that because so far he’s been really steady even though there’s been a lot of ups and downs. Right now we’re on an upswing, so being able to handle that is critically important — almost more important than when things go bad — but I think it’s just putting one week in front of the other preparation-wise and learning from it staying strong and not riding that roller coaster that has allowed him to be in this situation.”


Ohio State at Michigan, Noon, Fox, 1410

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