Wolverines, Buckeyes don#039;t want to hear #039;what happened?#039;

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 22, 2002

COLUMBUS -- B.J. Askew had to relive last year's loss to Ohio State over and over and over again.

Everytime the Michigan tailback returned home, he was confronted with the same question.

''I'm an Ohio guy,'' the Cincinnati native said. ''Man, when we lost to Ohio State, I'd go home and hear guys talking, 'Hey, what happened?'''

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Earle Bruce, Ohio State's coach from 1979 to 1987, knows the feeling.

''It is the game, it is the big game and sometimes people say it is the only game,'' said Bruce, now a radio analyst on Buckeyes football. ''It lets you walk the main streets of Columbus, Ohio. Or if you lose, you go to the alleys, buddy.''

In addition to a No. 2 ranking, a 12-0 record, a shot at the national championship and a share of a Big Ten title, that's what current Ohio State coach Jim Tressel has riding on the outcome of Saturday's showdown with No. 12 Michigan: the ability to be seen in public for a year.

In his first game against the Wolverines as Ohio State's head coach, Jim Tressel won 26-20 a year ago. That victory brightened the winter for the Buckeyes' fans, who preferred to recall the win in Ann Arbor instead of a 7-5 record, a bowl defeat and a third-place finish in the conference.

Tressel got to walk on main street. But he knows the adulation he's getting from Ohio State's fans only lasts until the first time he loses to the hated Wolverines.

''We can't worry about what's going to happen if we win or if we don't,'' Tressel said. ''We've got to focus on the game.''

The teams are meeting for the 99th time. Both sides carry a lot of baggage from the past.

Asked what separates ''The Game'' from other rivalries, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said, ''There are a lot of guys that played at Michigan that watch that game every year, and I am sure it is the same for Ohio State. They go to the games because it is a way for them to relive the opportunities that they had to play in the game.''

Ohio State does not want to relive the games in 1969, '95 and '96. Each time the Buckeyes came into the Michigan game with a perfect record and left with their season in tatters.

And a year in the alleys.

With their first back-to-back wins over Michigan since 1981 and 1982, the Buckeyes can assure themselves a spot in the national championship game on Jan. 3 at the Fiesta Bowl. The Buckeyes have survived several close games, including last week's overtime win at Illinois.

''Anyone is beatable,'' Michigan safety Charles Drake said. ''I think there is a lot of competition around the nation and that is why the games are so close. They have been finding ways to win and that is all that counts at the end of the day.''

Ohio State strong safety Donnie Nickey said the Buckeyes can't be taken in by their ranking or record.

''The danger lies in getting caught up in it,'' he said. ''But I don't think that's going to happen. ''

Michigan (9-2, 6-1) can possibly pick off a BCS bid, in addition to ruining Ohio State's hopes once again. The Wolverines have won three in a row since losing at home to Big Ten leader Iowa.

Defense will likely rule the day, since neither team is ranked in the top six in the conference in total offense. The Buckeyes have difficulty running the ball without Maurice Clarett -- who hasn't played a full game in more than a month because of a shoulder injury. And Michigan quarterback John Navarre always seems to save his worst for the biggest games, throwing four interceptions a year ago against Ohio State.

Still, just like Ohio State, Michigan has won five games decided by seven or fewer points. And Carr has a 10-2 record against teams ranked in the top 10.

''Everyone's looking for the right answer right now and trying to see what's going to happen,'' two-time Ohio State All-American strong safety Michael Doss said. ''But you really won't know until 12:15 kickoff on Saturday. Once the game gets going, that's when it all counts.''