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Michigan, Ohio State, and the Fitting Rematch One Year in the Making

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ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Within the confines of Schembechler Hall, the nerve center of Michigan football, a good amount of space is devoted to the Towsley Family Museum. It honors the program’s rich history with a variety of displays, the centerpiece of which is a Win Wall that rises two stories high.

The glass case contains a football for each of Michigan’s 987 victories, with the scores, sites and dates of the games written on the balls. It’s a compelling visual representation of how long the school has been good at football, a meticulously curated pigskin pile of gridiron glory.

In a smaller case at floor level are 12 footballs representing the here and now. Each is emblazoned with the relevant information for this season’s games. Thus far 11 have been played, and 11 footballs have been added to the Win Wall.

What remains now is Ohio State, and that ball would be one of the most cherished additions to the towering display. The undefeated Buckeyes are ranked No. 2, the undefeated Wolverines are ranked No. 3, and a collision anticipated all season comes Saturday.

Win No. 975 on Nov. 27, 2021, was a big one—Michigan 42, Ohio State 27. That was the first ball enshrined on the Win Wall since 2011, ending a painful period of maize-and-blue futility that diminished college football’s greatest rivalry. The Wolverines, their fans and coach Jim Harbaugh desperately needed that after being the Buckeyes' punching bag for years. But there is a difference between a fighting flurry that briefly interrupts being repeatedly pummeled, and a true shift in competitive balance. The latter is what this game in the Horseshoe could be for Michigan. Harbaugh can change the rivalry’s trajectory while applying some pressure to counterpart Ryan Day.

Jim Harbaugh and Ryan Day each coaching along the sidelines for their respective teams.

The trajectories for Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State coach Ryan Day will be changed by the result of Saturday’s clash between the Big Ten rivals. 

Harbaugh is trying to go from the guy who couldn’t beat his archrival to the first Michigan coach to defeat Ohio State twice in a row since Lloyd Carr in 1999 and 2000. The second of those two victories is the last time the Wolverines won in Columbus. The guy on the losing end of those games (and many others in the rivalry) was John Cooper, who was fired after the 2000 season, leaving with the epitaph, “Couldn’t beat Michigan.”

After coaches Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer had great success in the rivalry, Day doesn’t want to be the one who loses the upper hand. He’s 1–1 against Michigan, with an upset loss and a born-on-third-base Harbaugh taunt ringing in his ears. His team is more talented and playing at home. His team is favored again this year. Getting upset twice in a row would not be good, given the sky-high standard of the program.

This season began with national title expectations, and anything less than that will feel like a letdown. A loss Saturday wouldn’t necessarily end national title hopes, but it would jeopardize them—and the sting would go doubly deep if Michigan again is the roadblock to the College Football Playoff. Day made it abundantly clear during the summer that they were appalled by last year’s loss against the Wolverines, and everything that came with it. 

“Maybe, at some places, 11–2 with a Rose Bowl victory is a good year. It isn’t at Ohio State,” Day said in July. “Our three goals are: beat the team up north, win the Big Ten Championship, win the national championship. [Those are] our goals, and those things didn’t happen last year.”

The Buckeyes made changes to address the physical shortcomings that were exposed after being pushed around by the blunt-force Wolverines. Ohio State poached Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles for a massive salary to toughen that unit. It placed an emphasis on being able to run the ball. Those were direct reactions to what the Buckeyes lacked last year in the snow in Ann Arbor.

Defeat is the ultimate motivator in making the changes necessary to improve, but don’t think beating Ohio State once has left Michigan in a relaxed state of satisfaction heading into Saturday.

“It’s currently the most important thing in the world to me,” Michigan defensive back Mike Sainristil said.

“We know they’ve got every motivation to come in and put what we did to rest,” Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith said. “We’ve got every intention and motivation to keep the roll going. … We can’t win this game looking back.”

In fact, the emphasis has been on pressing forward toward this year’s game. In defiance of the one-game-at-a-time canard that coaches repeat ad infinitum, Michigan players said they’ve devoted some time every week of this season toward Ohio State preparation—a practice period here and there, a few plays’ worth of film study. And it actually started long before preseason camp.

“Every day since January, we’ve always had them in the back of our minds,” offensive tackle Ryan Hayes said.

Layering in tactical knowledge and shoveling in motivational fuel for months fully pays off when an 11–0 record is attained. Michigan dared peek ahead, but skipped no steps along the way—though it did get dicey this past Saturday against Illinois. Had Jake Moody not connected on a field goal with nine seconds remaining, a lot of the air would have been taken out of this Wolverines season.

Moody made the kick, and Harbaugh was downright giddy afterward.

“One of the biggest wins ever,” he declared. “I’m going to enjoy this for a few hours, maybe about six. Six hours from now I’ll be thinking about Ohio State.”

Come Monday, I asked Harbaugh if he made it the full six hours before turning his attention to The Game. Nope. “It was actually just a couple hours—not even,” he said. “By the time I got home, I was watching the Ohio State-Maryland game.”

No time to wait, no time to waste in getting to a game that has been looming over the entire season. Game ball No. 988 for the Win Wall, and the first winning streak against the Buckeyes in more than two decades, beckons. If Michigan is good enough to take it.

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