For running back Jonathan Wells, Tressel was almost two years late.
While Tressel's comments made for enough motivation for a Buckeyes team that had gone a lowly 2-10-1 against the Wolverines during the 13 years John Cooper was head coach, Wells had his own fuel to finish his career with a win in Ann Arbor.
"I kind of carried a burden since we played in Michigan two years earlier," Wells told BSB. "I felt like if I would have scored on the 76-yard run my sophomore year at Michigan, we would have beaten them that year. So for those two years until we got back there, I felt like I let the team down and I let the university down by not scoring."
The Buckeyes lost the 1999 version of The Game to Michigan, 24-17, and the Buckeyes missed a bowl game for the first time since 1988, Cooper's first year at Ohio State.
Sporting a seven-point lead in the third quarter, Ohio State handed the ball to Wells, who broke loose for 76 yards before being tackled at the Michigan 6. However, the Wolverines' defense held the Buckeyes out of the end zone on the first three plays inside the 10 before kicker Dan Stultz missed a 30-yard field-goal attempt.
"I think about that play right now and I hate myself for that play still," Wells said. "Had I continued to go to the pylon and stayed straight, I would have scored. It was basically an inexperienced run, and we didn't end up scoring on that drive. We would have gone up 14, and the game would have been completely different."
Then there was the 2001 game, Wells' chance at redemption, and he didn't disappoint. There was a combination of emotions for the running back heading into the contest. Of course, there was the six-game losing streak at Michigan the Buckeyes were facing, a streak Wells felt personally responsible for allowing to remain intact.
But then there were Tressel's words from his speech 310 days before, the fact unranked Ohio State (6-4 at the time) was a heavy underdog with quarterback Craig Krenzel making his first career start, and Michigan – which was 8-2 at the time – still had a chance at achieving the Big Ten championship.
"There was no way I was leaving Michigan Stadium that day without a win," Wells said. "It meant too much to me not to get it done."
Ohio State made good on Tressel's promise, knocking off the then-No. 11 Wolverines by a 26-20 final due in large part to perhaps the best game of Wells' football career.
"They've really been disrespecting us and saying we're not their rivalry team," said Wells following his 129-yard, three-touchdown performance. "If it wasn't a rivalry before, it is now."
The Buckeyes started the game off quickly as safety Mike Doss intercepted a John Navarre pass and returned it inside the Wolverines' 5-yard line. Two plays later, Wells took a handoff, bounced outside and strolled into the Michigan end zone to give the Buckeyes the early 7-0 lead.
Early in the second quarter, still clinging to a 7-0 lead, Ohio State was near midfield facing a fourth-and-1 situation. Unlike what we came to learn about Tressel and his admiration for playing the field-position game, the head coach opted to go for it and knew exactly where to go.
Wells took the handoff, made one tackler miss in the backfield and exploded for a 46-yard touchdown run to give Ohio State a 14-point advantage.
"It was one of the most beautifully blocked plays I have ever taken part in," Wells recalled. "LeCharles Bentley and Ben Hartsock and all those guys on the right side, and Jamar Martin – they pretty much blocked the power play to perfection.
"I learned my lesson from the past. I kept running hard and looking straight and took it all the way. That goes down as the top play of my career because even though I had runs that were longer, they didn't mean as much because we really needed that victory there."
Wells scored one more time in the first half on an 11-yard scamper to give the Buckeyes a 21-0 lead, but the running back suffered severe leg cramps that kept him out of the game for the majority of the second half.
A safety gave Ohio State a 23-0 halftime lead, but Navarre rallied his team by throwing a pair of second-half touchdown passes to Marquise Walker to make the score close. However, the U-M quarterback also threw four interceptions and the Wolverines simply couldn't overcome the Buckeyes' early lead.
With Wells out of the game in the second half, Ohio State's offense couldn't get anything going. To this day, despite his three-touchdown performance, he regrets not being able to finish off what he started.
"It was the worst experience of my life," Wells said of missing the second half. "That game is the best game I have played, yet the worst game because I felt like not being out there for the second half, that game was able to get a lot closer than it would have been had I played. "It would have haunted me a lot more if they would have somehow come back to win, though."
Wells cramped up because of a pregame understanding with Tressel that he'd take the game on his back. With Krenzel making his first start, Wells said the head coach trusted him to carry the load for the eager Buckeyes.
"The look that me and Coach Tressel gave each other, it was kind of like, ‘Give me the ball every time. Put it on me. You can win or lose with me today,' " Wells said. "I felt as a senior running back with a quarterback making his first start, it was all on me. I put all of the pressure totally on myself.
"I just wish I had been out there in the second half to continue it. I was on my way to six touchdowns and probably a 300-yard game to be honest because there was nobody out there that could have tackled me that day and I proved that in the first half. I was looking forward to keeping that going, but it didn't happen."
Wells believes the 2001 team is somewhat overlooked given what was to follow. Tressel, who posted a 9-1 record against the Wolverines during his decade as the head coach, led Ohio State to the national championship the following year.
Tressel brought a whole new culture to the way Ohio State prepared for the Michigan game. Wells doesn't feel as if Cooper was at fault for his Michigan woes, saying the players ultimately need to be the ones to win games, but the running back did acknowledge the difference under Tressel.
"The big difference was that we started preparing for Michigan in the spring of that season," Wells said. "We would watch Michigan film all year around and we had never done that before. We would always make special time to watch something about Michigan or talk about Michigan.
"Coach Tressel kind of made it really important year-round. That was the big difference. We talked about it in the spring when he got hired and we never stopped talking about it. We still don't stop talking about it. I fed off that all year."
Wells may feel somewhat overlooked, but whether he realizes it or not, his performance against the Wolverines started an unprecedented run toward a national title the following year and dominance in the rivalry game that meant everything to him.
"I think it altered it a lot," Wells said of the 2001 game's effect on the future. "We have been able to take over that series for the last 10 years. I can't tell you how much that means to me."
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