“There’s no Michigan State wall now,” Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman added with a laugh during Monday’s sessions at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago, referencing the display (and accompanying countdown clock) celebrating The Game that is found in the WHAC.
And Urban Meyer used no uncertain terms when discussing the relationship of the rivalry between Ohio State and Michigan State.
“You’ve got to be clear – there’s one rival and that will never change,” Meyer said, and he surely meant the Maize and Blue, not the Green and White.
Heuerman definitely remembers his missed block on a failed fourth-and-2 last year that concluded Ohio State’s last best threat in the Big Ten Championship Game loss to the Spartans, ending the Buckeyes’ 24-game winning streak and their shot at a national championship.
And Michael Bennett remembers how he made a disappointing total of just two tackles – none for loss – as Michigan State’s inconsistent offense shredded OSU first by air and then by land.
And Braxton Miller remembers how the Buckeyes’ school-record-setting offense managed just 24 points in the title game loss.
And all three want to make amends.
“When that time comes, I’m going to make sure I dissect that defense in and out,” Miller told BuckeyeSports.com. “I’m going to make sure (with) my players around me, we’re going to make plays that weren’t made in the game last year.”
Miller wasn’t done there.
“It does feel like a little rivalry,” he said of the MSU game. “Ever since my freshman year, I’m like, wow, we have two rivalry games. But this is a night game and night games are my deal, so it’s gonna be show time, go time.”
His opposite number, Michigan State quarterback and Ohio native Connor Cook, wasn’t quite as loquacious but has noticed the rivalry gain steam in recent years. Ohio State won seven straight games in the matchup from 2000-08 before a two-year hiatus that has led to a spirited set of battles the past couple of seasons.
In 2011, Michigan State invaded Ohio Stadium and held the Buckeyes without a touchdown until the final minutes, pulling out a 10-7 victory in former OSU defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio’s first win as a head coach against his former school.
Then Meyer arrived in 2012 and Ohio State opened Big Ten play with a physical 17-16 win in East Lansing that the two-time national title-winning coach points to as the game that brought the Buckeyes together under his leadership.
Last year, the teams didn’t play in the regular season, but the Big Ten title game matchup had storylines galore. Dantonio, OSU’s defensive coordinator for the 2002 national title season, added the offensive coordinator from that team in Jim Bollman to his offensive staff before the campaign, and the atmosphere was charged in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Everyone knows what happened next as Michigan State scored the first 17 points and the last 17 points of the 34-24 victory on the way to a Rose Bowl victory that announced Dantonio’s program as a potentially elite outfit in college football.
“I feel like it’s getting there,” Cook said of the rivalry. “Obviously we have Michigan, and that’s been the rivalry for however long the teams have existed, but from playing Ohio State in 2011, we beat them in their place. And then in 2012 they came to Spartan Stadium and beat us, and then we beat them this past year in the Big Ten Championship Game. The games have always been so close, but we respect them. I think they respect us and we respect them.”
That’s the thing – everyone seems to agree that Michigan is the main rivalry for both teams. Even Miller agreed as such, saying, “Even before I got here, it’s tradition, so it’s the rivalry game.”
But there’s clearly room for other rivalries, too, and Ohio State has had a few over the past few decades. OSU couldn’t beat Illinois in the early throes of John Cooper’s tenure, and then Penn State jumped to the fore in the 1990s and 2000s as the battles seesawed back and forth and the Nittany Lions were matched up as an annual rivalry partner for the Buckeyes.
Wisconsin was also a heated rivalry in the early 2000s as the Badgers posted big wins against unbeaten OSU teams in 2003 and ’10 in Madison, but the Ohio State-Michigan State contest could be the next big thing as the teams are now matched up every year in the Big Ten East Division.
It’s not Michigan – for either side. But it might be close.
“I think to a certain extent it already has (become a rivalry),” Heuerman said. “Obviously our goal is to get back to Indianapolis, and last year they kept us from winning that, so I think anytime you lost to a team or lose a championship game like that, it heightens the rivalry a little bit.”