ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Maybe in other rivalries, in other parts of the country, the focus of the biggest of games would be on a different kind of player – the swift receiver, the speedy tailback, the golden-armed quarterback. You know, skill guys.
But this is Michigan. This is Ohio State. And this is November, when a blue-gray college football sky descends over the Midwest, and two ancient rivals match up for, once again, not just a Big Ten title, not just a Rose Bowl, but a lifetime of bragging rights.
Naturally Saturday's 100th meeting between these two powerhouse programs, both currently ranked in the top five, will be determined in the trenches. Two of the nation's best big uglies, UM's Tony Pape and OSU's Will Smith, will wage hand-to-hand combat for 60 cloud-of-dust minutes.
For these two teams with these two traditions that is just how it ought to be.
"It's going to be won on the line," says Pape, the Wolverines' All-America candidate at right tackle. "[It is] whether our offensive line can move them out."
Forget the pretty people on Saturday. This isn't going to be about them. Ohio State is 10-1, and three of those victories came without scoring an offensive touchdown. And as much as Michigan (9-2) has flashy receiver Braylon Edwards and 1,400-yard tailback Chris Perry, neither is going to do anything if Smith is able to set up camp in the backfield.
"This is a huge game for me," he says. "It's a defining moment for me, facing a player like Will Smith."
Smith is OSU's man-eating senior defensive end. The 6-foot, 4-inch, 265-pounder out of Utica, N.Y. has recorded 20 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks already this season. He anchors a near-impenetrable Buckeye defense that is allowing just 53 rushing yards a game.
"That is one of the best (statistics) in modern football history at the college level," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr says.
Here in the Big Ten, establishing the run is everything. It is no wonder Ohio State is again at the top of the conference, again harboring national title dreams.
"I think we are probably going to have to throw every time," the conservative Carr says with a facetious smile. "You'll probably see us with no backs in the backfield; we'll just throw it."
That will happen right after Carr dots the "i" in Ohio. Despite the talk about Michigan QB John Navarre needing a big game through the air, Michigan has no alternative if it can't control the line of scrimmage. Just like the previous 99 times against OSU, the Wolverines will try to run it down the Buckeyes' throats.
Every coach will tell you games are won in the trenches, but few programs spend as much time celebrating their trench workers as these two. Smith is one of the biggest stars in Columbus despite playing defense. While offensive tackles don't often hold press conferences, each week Michigan trots Pape out for the media.
It is all you need to know about the priorities of both programs, not to mention the key to the game. Pape vs. Smith. Smith vs. Pape. Two future play-on-Sunday guys in their final regular-season college games.
"Anyone who is going to block Will Smith is going to have his hands full," Carr says. "He is truly a great football player. He is going to present a tough matchup."
No problem for Pape, a 6-foot, 6-inch, 311-pound Illinois native. He dreams of this. He wants this. He has been waiting for this since Ohio State's victory in Columbus 51 weeks ago. He can't envision losing to the Bucks a final and third consecutive time. He relishes a last crack at Smith.
"He's a difference maker on that defense, and I think that I'm a difference maker on this offense"
In game 100 between these two, in front of a six-figure crowd and in the midst of all the hype and hysteria that college football can provide, it may just be that simple. Two difference makers – neither one pretty, neither one of whom carries the ball – could be the difference between glory and gloom.
"It's Michigan and Ohio State," Pape says with a smile.
In the trenches. Right where it ought to be.