Ohio State defensive lineman Noah Spence is from Harrisburg, Pa.
He wasn’t steeped in the enmity that grips fans of the Buckeyes and Wolverines about this time every year.
But in his second season in the heart of Ohio, he has a good grasp of it now.
”It’s a huge rivalry even if you’re a guy from out of state like me,” he said.
Then he added, ”It’s everything.”
Ohio State and Michigan clash for the 110th time Saturday, at Michigan Stadium. It’s already been a long, grueling season. But, as it should be, the best and biggest game has been saved for last.
Ohio State (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten), which moved up to No. 3 in all major rankings Sunday, won its school-record 23rd straight game and earned a spot in the Big Ten championship game with a 42-14 victory over Indiana in snow-globe conditions at Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
Almost immediately, the Buckeyes’ thoughts turned to Michigan (7-4, 3-4).
From a distance, it might look like a trap game: The Buckeyes have little to play for beyond holding on to what they’ve already got - an unbeaten season and conference and national title aspirations. On top of that, the Wolverines have been struggling mightily.
Michigan, ranked as high as 11th in the nation during a 5-0 start to the season, was held scoreless in the second half of its 24-21 loss Saturday at Iowa, its third defeat in four games. The Wolverines scored nine points the previous week in regulation before going on to beat Northwestern in triple overtime; they were limited to six and 13 points in losses to Michigan State and Nebraska.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke says he’s confident Michigan will be consistent for a change on offense against Ohio State.
“This game has always been different in some ways,” Hoke said. “Are they a good football team? Yeah. They’re a very good football team. Do we have to play better than we’ve played? I don’t think there’s any doubt.”
That’s because they’ll need to keep pace with an Ohio State offense that has averaged 55.3 points and 597.0 yards in its last four games.
Quarterback Braxton Miller and running back Carlos Hyde lead an offense that is powered by a ground attack that ranks fifth in the FBS at 314.7 yards per game.
Miller ran for 144 yards last Saturday after rushing for 184 at Illinois the week before. Hyde has put up eye-popping numbers over his last six games, with 938 rushing yards and 14 TDs while averaging 8.1 yards per attempt.
”It’s just striving for the best,” Miller said. ”We ended the season 12-0 last year and we weren’t able to play in a bowl game or the Big Ten championship game (because of NCAA sanctions). That’s what we were striving for. (We want to) accomplish that and keep going forward, keep winning games and just make Ohio State proud.”
Devin Gardner has broken Michigan marks this season, accounting for 584 yards of offense and 503 yards passing against Indiana on Oct. 19. In four games since, however, he has averaged 182.5 yards passing and lost a total of 47 yards rushing.
“He’s had some really good moments and some moments that he would rather redo if he could,” Hoke said. “I think we all have that; I do as a head coach. There are always moments that you think about and say, ‘Maybe we should’ve done this.’ He’s been pretty resilient. He’s a guy who comes to work every day to get ready to play.”
Urban Meyer won his first Michigan-Ohio State game as a head coach a year ago, 26-21, by shutting out the Wolverines in the second half and edging past them on two field goals by Drew Basil. It avenged a loss to Michigan the year before and marked the Buckeyes’ eighth win in the last nine meetings.
”I have great respect for this rivalry - it almost makes me in awe,” Meyer said. ”The respect we have comes with incredible responsibility that sometimes can be overwhelming (when it comes) to what we have to do next week. So we take it very seriously.”
Jack Mewhort, one of Ohio State’s captains and a starter on the offensive line, disregarded Michigan’s recent hard times.
”That makes no difference because of the tradition and history that go into this rivalry,” he said. ”It’s always a tough, smash-mouth game. We’re prepared to get their best shot, and they’re going to get ours, too. The records aren’t really a big deal this week.”
The Buckeyes have been on a roll, but all of that doesn’t mean a whole lot if they can’t win the game that’s most important to their fans.
”This is the whole season, really,” safety C.J. Barnett said. ”Everything is out the window, records, everything we’ve done, haven’t done - it’s all about this week.”