Sunday November 6th, 2016

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Urban Meyer’s five seasons at Ohio State have redefined the paradigms through which the program is viewed. He’s 57–5 over that stretch, including an undefeated season in 2012, a national title in 2014 and a 36–2 record in the Big Ten. He’s created a standard at Ohio State where anything but a trip to the College Football Playoff could be considered a disappointment.

For the first time in Meyer’s five years in Columbus, however, an intimidating foil has emerged in the Big Ten. Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines are not just winning, they are doing so with clinical precision, maniacal abandon and consistently lopsided results. They are another class above the Michigan State teams that have been the biggest nemesis through Meyer’s first four seasons.

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With 16 new starters this season and three weeks of pedestrian performances—relative to the expectations set—the No. 6 Buckeyes found themselves in an odd position against No. 10 Nebraska Saturday night. While facing the Cornhuskers, they were also chasing the standard set this year by the Wolverines, who entered Saturday first in the nation in scoring defense (11.6 points per game) and third in points scored (46.6). An NFL scout who’d been through both schools noted earlier this week that the talent level of the two programs was similar. But there were clear differences: “Michigan plays with a different sense of urgency than Ohio State, and they have a definitive identity on offense.”

With a 62–3 blowout of the Cornhuskers on Saturday night, Ohio State showed enough urgency and identity to set the stage for an epic showdown in Columbus on Nov. 26. “Relief is probably the correct word,” Meyer said of his emotions after Ohio State’s win. The Game, as it’s known in these parts, will be The Game in all of college football this year. And perhaps most years.

Prepare yourself for the most hyped Big Ten game in a decade, as Ohio State and Michigan are on a collision course for a matchup for the ages. It promises to be the biggest game in the conference since the rivals met as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country in 2006. Unless something stunning occurs the next two weeks, Michigan and Ohio State will play for a spot in the Big Ten title game and essentially a spot in the College Football Playoff. This will be the collegiate version of Red Sox-Yankees in an ALCS Game 7, Patriots-Cowboys in the Super Bowl or Celtics-Lakers in a Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The confluence of two of the biggest brands in college sports, two top-flight coaches and two of the elite teams in college football give this all the trappings of a game they’ll be making a 30 for 30 about someday.

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There’s been an undercurrent of unease around Columbus the past month. It’s rooted in the fact that last year’s Ohio State team, with perhaps the most talented roster in college football, squandered a chance at the playoff when Michigan State beat it on a last-second field goal here. Even with a roster considered the youngest in college football this season, the looming notion of an underperforming sequel nagged at the Buckeyes. In Ohio State’s dominant 45–24 victory at Oklahoma on Sept. 17, the Buckeyes flashed enough talent to overcome their youth. But a loss at Penn State—thanks in large part to two special teams blunders—and two flat offensive performances had Buckeye nation uptight. How could they average just 21 points in regulation the past three games? How come electric jitterbug Curtis Samuel isn’t getting more touches? When will the offense find the rhythm it discovered in its dominating performances at Michigan last year and against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl?

Meyer was privately concerned about the state of his team, despite putting on a good face publicly. “I’ve been going to acting school,” he said. “I was a mess.”

Meyer may have been a mess, but the Buckeyes cleaned up well on Saturday night. The urgency showed on the first possession of the game, as safety Damon Webb opened the scoring with a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown. There was a clear and deliberate attempt to feature Samuel, as Ohio State began its first possession by passing to him for nine yards on the first play and picking up 16 yards on a jet sweep on the second. (Samuel finished with 137 yards receiving, 41 rushing and two touchdowns on Saturday, a much different result than ignoring him for long stretches of the Penn State game.) “Curtis was outstanding,” Meyer said. “He’s a giant piece of the puzzle.” 

The identity became clearer, too, as Samuel was featured and quarterback J.T. Barrett got better protection while spraying passes around Ohio Stadium like it was 2014 all over again. He finished the night 26 for 38 with 290 yards and four touchdowns. Barrett put on a show for his high school coach, Jim Garfield, who flew up to Columbus from Texas to see Barrett play here for the first time in his career. (The two shared a long hug on the Buckeyes’ pregame walk into the stadium.) “It was good to get my man up here,” Barrett said. “He’s done so much for me. For him to be able to come up for a game, you know he ate that up.”  

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Barrett’s big night included an enduring symbol of dominant Meyer teams of yesteryear, a jump pass on the final play of the first half where Barrett hit Samuel from one yard out with three seconds left for a touchdown. Somewhere, Tim Tebow smiled at the trademark Meyer play, which gave the Buckeyes a 31–3 halftime lead. Meyer himself smiled broadly when asked if Ohio State had found its identity. “I hope so,” he said. “At least for the next 12 hours.”

It was a night for exhales in Columbus. The biggest and most important came when Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. jogged back to the sideline in the third quarter, a symbol of his improved health. The game’s scariest moment came after Armstrong hit his head on the turf on a hard, but clean, tackle by Ohio State safety Malik Hooker late in the second quarter. He got carted off the field on a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance, but Nebraska soon released a statement saying he’d briefly been knocked unconscious but was moving his extremities and talking. Armstrong’s jog back onto the field, which signified no serious injury, was greeted with cheers and chants by the Ohio State fans.

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The next time the Buckeye faithful return to the Shoe will be in three weeks. Ohio State takes trips to Maryland and Michigan State the next two weeks. Michigan goes to Iowa and hosts Indiana. None of those games should be close.

Steeped in lore, hate and intensity, this edition of The Game will mark the first true chapter of the Meyer-Harbaugh rivalry, as both of their teams are now bona fide national title contenders. Michigan has set the standard for Big Ten play this season. Ohio State showed on Saturday night with a dominating performance over a top 10 team that it’s catching up quickly. “Wow, I didn’t see that coming,” Meyer said. With the Buckeyes’ win Saturday, we can all see the hype ahead for the season-ending showdown that looms in three weeks, as The Game appears set to live up to its name. 

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