'Die trying?' Michigan finally realizing what it takes to compete with Buckeyes

Spencer Holbrookabout 2 months
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Jim Harbaugh and Michigan are finally emphasizing the rivalry game with Ohio State. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

INDIANAPOLIS — Welcome to the greatest rivalry in sport, Michigan.

It’s been nearly two decades since it seemed like the Wolverines cared enough to pay attention to Ohio State, despite the Buckeyes repeated beatdowns, daily countdown clocks and Team Up North practice periods.

While they were away, the Buckeyes have won two national titles, made the annual trip to Indianapolis to collect a Big Ten title trophy and made easy work of their biggest rival — and once biggest competition.

After the near-20-year hiatus from caring about The Game more than just lining up on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and playing for 60 minutes, it seems as though Michigan has finally realized prioritizing the rivalry is what makes it so special.

The pictures from inside Schembechler Hall surfaced on social media this spring. Michigan had a simple question posted in the weight room: What are you doing to beat Ohio State today?

The short answer for the last 3,525 days: Not enough.

But that sentiment of treating every Ohio State game like every other game on the schedule appears to be receding in Ann Arbor. Maybe with this new approach — one Ohio State has been using for the last 20 years — the Wolverines will at last embrace the rivalry and make it competitive again.

“Ohio State is on our mind every day,” said Josh Ross, a Wolverines linebacker who is yet to beat the Buckeyes. “Every. Day.”

Michigan may think about the rivalry every day, but Ohio State seems to live it every day. The Woody Hayes Athletic Center rarely allows blue to be worn — ever. Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and Ryan Day have all addressed the importance of the rivalry ad nauseam, and it has shown on the field. Ohio State hasn’t lost to its rival since 2011 and has only lost twice this century.

When Jim Harbaugh was hired at Michigan, he was expected to change the tone of the Wolverines program and emphasize the importance of The Game, a game he won as a player. But Harbaugh is winless as a coach against the Buckeyes, he was an historic underdog a year ago before a Covid cancellation gave Michigan a reprieve — and his next try doesn’t appear to be in his favor, either.

But at least even Harbaugh has decided to focus a little more energy on taking down Ohio State.

“They’re on top, and we gotta knock them off their perch,” Harbaugh said at Big Ten Media Days on Thursday afternoon. “That’s on our mind every day.”

Justin Fields-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State has owned the rivalry game against Michigan. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

That sentiment certainly is shared among others in the Michigan program. But is it too little, too late?

Ohio State has focused like a laser on beating Michigan before winning the Big Ten and making the College Football Playoff for years. Michigan is stuck playing catch-up now that the mindset on both sides of the state border is mutual.

“I never felt we were behind,” Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we just now realized Ohio State is our rival. We’ve always thought of Ohio State, we always can’t wait for that game at the end of November. It’s not like because they have their stuff in their facilities, it makes them want it more than us. It’s not the case. However, this season, we’re putting a little bit more into it. Visually and mentally, we’re emphasizing it. It’s not like we haven’t recognized this rivalry until this year. We’ve always recognized it. We’ve always emphasized it.

“We always can’t wait to play the Scarlet and Gray in November.”

Maybe this is the perfect time for Hutchinson, Harbaugh and Michigan to embrace their share of The Game. As Ohio State continues its relentless pursuit of Alabama as the king of college football, maybe the Buckeyes have taken a little emphasis off the Wolverines and the last weekend of November — although that’s not at all likely.

Ohio State is also just more talented, and that could easily lead to another decade of Buckeyes dominance.

Either way, Michigan is finally putting a focus on its rival. Ohio State has only been beating them down and lapping them for 20 years in the process.