‘The Game’ lacking luster of usual OSU-Michigan rivalry

Published 1:10 am Monday, November 16, 2009

COLUMBUS — For years, the annual showdown between rivals Ohio State and Michigan has been called “The Game.”

Maybe this year it should be referred to as The “Just Another” Game.

No. 9 Ohio State (9-2, 6-1) has already assured itself of its first spot in the Rose Bowl in 13 years after clinching at least a share of the Big Ten title and the conference’s Bowl Championship Series automatic berth with Saturday’s 27-24 overtime victory over 15th-ranked Iowa.

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“We told our guys they could have three hours to savor that, but when the clock strikes 12 o’clock, we know what week it is,” coach Jim Tressel said.

In other words, it’s time for the contest with the Buckeyes’ biggest rival, Michigan.

The Wolverines (5-6, 1-6) have lost four in a row and six of the last seven and remain tied for last in the Big Ten after Saturday’s 45-24 beating at the hands of Wisconsin.

“There’s no question we’ve got one more chance,” embattled Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said in Madison, Wis. “I’ve asked the team to be extra focused. We’ve been focused all year, but this is the biggest game of the year. Our guys know that.”

What used to be the red-letter day on the calendar for each team has become one of relatively minor rewards.

In addition to sticking it to their nemesis, the Buckeyes would like to win an outright conference title. But it’s hard to imagine anyone rallying to the battle cry of “Avoid a co-championship!”

Asked if the teams’ vastly different fortunes and the Buckeyes’ recent accomplishments would make it difficult to get up for Michigan, Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman said, “It’s not tough at all. We want to win the championship outright and to beat Michigan. That’s a lot of motivation to play well.”

The Buckeyes have beaten two top-15 teams in as many weeks, knocking off then-No. 11 Penn State 24-7 in Happy Valley two weeks ago. Those two wins gave them the Rose Bowl bid — and a Jan. 1 date against the Pac-10 winner. No. 11 Oregon (8-2, 6-1) currently leads that race, with Stanford (7-3, 6-2), Oregon State (7-3, 5-2) and Arizona (6-3, 4-2) hot on the webbed feet of the Ducks.

“We’re not worried about the bowl game right now, we’re just worried about Michigan,” Ohio State defensive end Lawrence Wilson said. “Michigan is a good team and it’s a huge rivalry. It’s the biggest rivalry in sports.”

Besides, it’s not as if Ohio State is steamrolling teams. The offense remains a question mark, with quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the rest of the Buckeyes playing adequately but not much better. Backs Brandon Saine (103 yards on 11 carries) and Dan Herron (97 on 32) combining for 200 yards rushing and three touchdowns. But Pryor totaled just 93 yards on his 14 completions. And Tressel showed little faith in his offense by basically killing time until the overtime and then using three plunges into the line to set up Devin Barclay’s 39-yard game-winning field goal.

“We’re going to have to get better for next week,” Tressel said. “And we’re going on the road in the big one.”

Michigan needs a win to salvage its season, but that’s sort of like putting lipstick on a pig. A victory would give the Wolverines, who are coming off a 3-9 season a year ago in Rich Rodriguez’s debut in Ann Arbor, the minimum requirement for playing in a bowl game — a non-losing record. The Wolverines could also avoid the Big Ten cellar, hardly a blood-boiling bit of motivation, in addition to knocking their neighbors to the south down a peg or two.

Rodriguez believes the game is still, well, The Game.

“It’s not going to be a game that either team needs to get fired up for,” he said. “It’s Michigan and Ohio State. We got a lot at stake. It’s at our place and it’s our seniors’ last game. The focus this week should be great, I just hope the play is great.”

One other incentive for Rodriguez and his players might be securing the coach’s job. It seems unimaginable that Michigan would pull the plug on RichRod and his acclaimed spread attack after only two seasons, but then again the Wolverines hadn’t missed a bowl game in 33 years before missing a year ago.

The man who brought Rodriguez to Michigan, athletic director Bill Martin, has announced he is retiring effective Sept. 4, 2010. Is it possible that the new AD might want to mollify many unhappy fans and ex-players and tear the whole program up to start over with a new head coach?

Usually the Ohio State-Michigan game is the ultimate winner-take-all contest in the Big Ten. Focus has never been a problem. It has been simple: See rival, beat rival, celebrate.

But this year, the Buckeyes have accomplished so much already — and the Wolverines have struggled so much — it’s not surprising that the focus might not be there.

“We’ve worked so hard for this and I’m so relieved,” Coleman said in the din of the postgame celebration. “I think we still have some unfinished business up in Michigan, but right now we’re on top of the world. (This week) we’ve got to get back to work and get ready for Michigan.”

For once that might be hard to do.