Urban Meyer knows OSU's clash with Michigan State isn't just another game
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Urban Meyer is a man who believes in the power of process but even he couldn't help himself late Saturday, as Ohio State was waxing Illinois 55-14 in a lopsided, low-key affair. It ran Meyer's Big Ten regular season record to 20-0 and like most of the others it was really never in doubt, just another ho-hum blowout of an inferior foe.
So, yes, Meyer admits to thinking ahead. The fourth-quarter clock was still running when he summoned his program's longtime strength coach and right hand man, Mickey Mariotti, to discuss preparation for this week, where an opponent more than capable of matching the Buckeyes awaits up in East Lansing.
"The focus has to be at 8 o'clock [Saturday]," Meyer said he told Mariotti, reiterating the program's commitment to preparation, in this case using the early week for a slow build, via nutrition and physical therapy. "That's when our job is to have them ready. Not Monday at 2 o'clock. Not Tuesday at 3:30."
For all the abundance Meyer has brought since taking over Ohio State in 2012, this is something that's been lacking: big-game week.
And across the program nobody is pretending that the anticipation, the excitement, the possibilities at Michigan State aren't meaningful.
Meyer is 31-3 overall as Ohio State's coach but one of those defeats, the most painful of those defeats, came at the hands of the Spartans in last year's Big Ten championship game. It ended OSU's 24-game win streak and knocked them out of contention for a chance to play for the BCS title.
It still haunts this place.
"I'd lie to you if I said there's not frustration," Meyer told Yahoo Sports on Monday morning. "We're here to compete for championships … that's one of our jobs. We didn't seal the job last year.
"Got close," he continued. "We were down 17-nothing. Took that darn lead 24-17 and we gave that up."
– – – – – – – – –
The truth is Meyer isn't here to just compete for championships. He's here to win them. Big Ten. National. You name it. He's just learned to accept losses better he said, after he broke down physically and mentally trying to chase perfection back at Florida. So he uses the term "compete." It's a little bit empty.
"Our guys are trying as hard as they possibly can and I think I've learned to live with that better than in the days when that would get me in a bad deal," he said.
Which doesn't mean the Buckeyes (7-1, 4-0) haven't been waiting for another chance at the Spartans (7-1, 4-0).
"To not say it ripped you apart would be not true," Meyer said. "I don't want to experience it again."
Meyer won't call this a rivalry because he believes Ohio State has but one rival, Michigan, or that Team Up North. Saying anyone else is a rival would be an insult to the history of that series, he figures.
So there's a countdown clock here to the Wolverine game, but whereas Michigan hasn't been very good lately, the game of the year has become Michigan State – or "The Team Up North State," as linebacker Joshua Perry dubbed them.
This is a chance at revenge. Perhaps most of all, this is a chance at relevance. Where so much of the conference has collapsed around the 16th-ranked Buckeyes and expansion has thus far only brought in more opponents to hang half a hundred on, No. 7 Michigan State offers a challenge, a spotlight, a reason to make it personal.
"Ohio State is a premier program, we need to win on the big stage and last year we didn't win on the big stage," Meyer said.
Unfinished business. So that's why Meyer started the business early with Mariotti, trying to drill down on maximizing every minute between the end of Illinois and the start of Michigan State.
On Sunday, was Meyer into the office early?
"A little bit," he said with a smile.
How long does Meyer usually give the team to enjoy a victory?
"Twenty-four hours," lineman Taylor Decker.
How long did Meyer give you this week?
"Less than 24 hours," Decker said with a laugh.
That, of course, is how they want it. Ohio State – from the coaches to the players – is too disciplined and too sportsmanlike to rip the rest of the Big Ten, but as much fun as it is rolling teams by 35 week after week, this is a competitive bunch. And everyone knows the lack of opportunities to make a statement to the playoff selection committee isn't a good thing.
"It does feel a little different and I think that's good," offensive coordinator Tom Herman said. "This isn't just another game. It would be foolish for us with the world these young guys live in for us to say, 'Hey, this is just another game and everybody cares about this game the way they care when you line up and play Kent State.'
"That's not true," Hermon continued. "We all know it's not true. And we all know that at midnight Saturday night someone is going to have a big-time advantage in the Big Ten East."
So now here's the chance and it comes with some extra fun, such as looking up in the rankings at MSU, being a 3 1/2-point underdog in Vegas, having so many pundits picking against them, using a game to prove their worth, not just avoid upset.
"We do have a lot of respect for them and I don't want to discredit them for anything they've done, because they do have a great body of work, but I'll never feel like an underdog here," Decker said. "This is our biggest game of the season … they are a top-10 team. We want to play them, we want to beat them just to show how good of a team we are."
– – – – – – – – –
So big-game week is here and Meyer was racing around on Monday reminding everyone to win Monday – get that treatment, get hydrated, get video downloaded onto their iPads – because that will lead to winning Tuesday and then Wednesday and eventually Saturday.
That's the plan and that's the plan that has worked for him through so many big games across his career. And that's what made him pull Mariotti aside late Saturday and what will make him do it again this Saturday in a quiet minute ahead of the kickoff.
This entire spectacle and build-up is the fun part after all.
"The older I get, the more I try to appreciate it," Meyer, 50, said. "I remember at the Big Ten championship game last year, just a moment before the game, I just said [to Mariotti] 'This is why we do what we do.'
"Maybe take some time to appreciate it," Meyer continued, "because maybe I haven't always done that."
Maybe one day the Big Ten will produce a gauntlet of these kinds of challenges, these kinds of "sledgehammer" games, as Meyer put it. Maybe.
Right now this is what there is, Ohio State-Michigan State, primetime on Saturday, the game for the league to remind the rest of the country it's still here and still can produce some elite-level play.
"Two good teams," Meyer said.
And a coach who is hungry once again.