It was the game of the year on Jan. 2
And now that it’s Nov. 8, it’s still the game of the year.
For once, something appears to be living up to the hype.
As soon as Michigan State and Ohio State completed their seasons on different planes – MSU celebrating a New Year’s Day Rose Bowl victory and Ohio State licking its wounds after an Orange Bowl loss, four weeks after the Spartans upset the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game – this upcoming Saturday’s return match in East Lansing has been circled on both sides.
The game is for pole position in the race to represent the new East Division in the Big Ten Championship Game, but it’s more than that. It’s the latest battle in a burgeoning rivalry that will determine who the king of the hill is in the conference. And with Michigan State serving as the defending league champion, for the Buckeyes to be the man, they have to beat the man.
“It hurt a lot,” linebacker Darron Lee said of last year’s loss. “We feel like these guys took something from us. It’s full metal jacket now. We’re trying to go win this game. Everybody is focused on that now that this week is upon us, and we’re just going to get ready to go out and take it.”
All week leading up to the Illinois game Saturday night, the Buckeyes said the right things, that it was all about the Fighting Illini. And Ohio State proved that was more than just lip service, racing out to a 31-0 halftime lead and cruising home to a 55-14 triumph.
But as time ticked down on a chilly central Ohio night and the backups earned the lion’s share of the playing time in the second half, focus started moving to the Green and White.
“It’s a lot on the line,” safety Vonn Bell said. “In November you start chasing championships like coach said. We’re on a mission. This team is on a mission. We have momentum. Everybody has each other’s back. We hold each other accountable. During this game, it started getting out of hand so we started thinking about (MSU at) the end. (Head coach Urban Meyer) said something after the game today. This week is a big week for prep so we’re going to get it going.”
And what was Meyer’s message?
“He just said, ‘This is the week, fellas,’ ” Bell said.
Indeed it is. Both teams enter the game unbeaten in the Big Ten at 4-0 and at 8-1 overall. The winner will remain alive in the chase to represent in the first-ever College Football Playoff, while the loser will see its chances to play for the national title come to an end.
It is also the biggest regular season conference game in OSU’s recent history. The Buckeyes haven’t played a top-10 Big Ten team in the regular season since the 13-6 loss to Penn State in Ohio Stadium in 2008.
Add in the revenge factor, plus the fact former OSU coordinators Mark Dantonio and Jim Bollman are on staff at MSU, and the storylines are there. Everything is on the line. And the Buckeyes want to atone for last year’s loss.
“We've not talked about it much,” Meyer said as far as using the loss as motivation. “In the offseason, our strength coach, Coach (Mickey Marotti), does a little bit of motivational stuff about how that was obviously the dream was ripped away from us, ripped away by a very good team, and we're going to face a very good team that we have a lot of respect for.
“It's all about the most prepared team. That's what's going to win this game. And I don't think there will be a whole lot of necessary we'll do our part about motivation, but this is a motivated team. And I think the most prepared team will win it.”