Focus Turns Towards 'The Game'

There is usually a lot to play for when Ohio State and Michigan get together, and this year is no different. The Big Ten championship and a BCS bowl bid are on the line, and OSU head coach Jim Tressel has a chance to go 4-1 against UM. We have comments from several Buckeye players and Tressel on the matchup.

As soon as Ohio State's 48-7 victory over Northwestern ended, focus turned towards the Michigan game next Saturday in Ann Arbor.

While the Buckeyes appear to have the better team this year, OSU is just 1-7 over the last eight meetings at Michigan Stadium, including 1-1 under head coach Jim Tressel.

As usual, there is a lot riding on "The Game." The Buckeyes (8-2, 6-1) can clinch at least a share of the Big Ten championship with a win. An OSU win, coupled with a Penn State loss at Michigan State, and the Buckeyes will own their first outright conference title since 1984.

Michigan (7-3, 5-2) can also earn a share of the Big Ten crown with a win and a Penn State loss.

Ohio State's players understand that, no matter the records, both teams will come to play.

"We're going to get their best shot, just like we do with everybody else," senior linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "I'm sure they remember what happened last year (a 37-21 OSU win). It's going to be a big game. The Michigan game, every year, regardless of what the records are, is going to come down to who is going to play better on that day."

Tressel owns a 3-1 record over the Wolverines. Hawk was asked what Tressel told his players following the Northwestern win about the Michigan game.

"He said it doesn't matter what's going on with the bowls or the rankings; it just seems like every year it comes down to Ohio State and Michigan," Hawk said. "This year is no different, regardless of the records. Both teams will play hard."

Sophomore tailback Antonio Pittman played late in the fourth quarter in last year's contest, but this will be his first time facing UM as a starter.

"It's going to be a big one," Pittman said. "It's going to be my first time ever going to the Big House. I'm fired up for it; I'm ready for it. Think it's going to be a good game. Just going there and being able to play in that stadium and just compete against some more Big Ten running backs. Just to come out there and prove myself and we can run the ball and I've got a great offensive line in front of me and we've got a great team."

Pittman knows that establishing a running game will be a huge key for OSU. But he also knows the Buckeyes need to make big play in the passing game.

"We've ran the ball very well lately, but we've got to come out and do it next week against Michigan and keep it going," Pittman said. "It's very important. That could make or break the game. But we can't just be one-dimensional in a big game like that. You've got to be able to run the ball and throw the ball. You've got to be able to mix it up a lot."

Pittman was asked if he's expecting to be a workhorse next week. Could he log 25 or 30 carries?

"Just got to let it flow," he said. "Just hopefully we can go out there and keep the running game going. If they need me to catch the ball, block, whatever, I'm up for it."

Pittman wants to make sure he sends OSU's seniors out with another pair of gold pants. He also wants to make Buckeye fans proud.

"I know how important it is for the team and just to Columbus in general and all Ohio State fans," Pittman said. "It's going a big one and this is the seniors last one. It's away this year, but just go out and give it all I've got for them."

Following the Northwestern game, OSU's four senior captains – Hawk, Rob Sims, Nick Mangold and Nate Salley – were asked when they started thinking about the Michigan game. "I think we're going to go out and enjoy this victory – especially being a senior," Sims said. "But it kind of started for me when I got taken out of the game. We know here that the Ohio State-Michigan game, that's really all that matters come this time of the year. So, we're thinking about it right now."

Added Mangold: "I think for me it was as soon as that clock struck zero and this game was over with, your mind just goes straight to Michigan. It's always in the back of your mind throughout the season, and now it's finally in the front of your mind. Excited to get back in, study up and get after them."

Salley echoed those comments.

"Once the clock struck zero and got ready to head to the locker room, (Tressel) talked about it," he said. "The Michigan game is huge. We know how much it means and we know what happened last time we went up there (a 35-21 UM win in 2003) and we definitely want to change that up some. It's a huge game for us."

Added Hawk: "Once the game is over – just like any other game we play – you go straight to the next game and this week it happens to be Michigan. We're going there and last time we went there things didn't turn out the way we would have liked. So, we know we have to get ready for that."

Even the young kids say they understand the gravity of The Game.

"Yeah, definitely," freshman tailback Maurice Wells said. "It's one of the greatest rivalries in college history. Michigan, they're a great team. They started off kind of slow, but they're really picking it up now. They beat Penn State on a great last-second victory and I'm looking forward to it. Can't wait to get to the challenge."

Junior cornerback Ashton Youboty played very well in last year's contest – containing former Michigan All-American receiver Braylon Edwards. Edwards is now doing his thing for the Cleveland Browns, but Youboty knows that UM still has a good group of receivers, led by Jason Avant and Steve Breaston.

"Michigan will be ready," Youboty said. "It's the Ohio State-Michigan game, so they're players will be ready and looking forward to it. They've been doing good on special teams and their receivers are good. So, I'm looking forward to the competition."

Youboty was asked what Tressel said to his players following the NU game.

"He just said, ‘Get ready.' Every week he says, ‘Get better and better.' This week is the point and time that we need to show that we've progressed throughout the season."

Ohio State has played well lately, but Youboty believes that the Buckeyes have yet to reach their peak.

"We have never had a complete game," he said. "After every week, Coach Tressel talks about getting better. This next week should be the week where we show the progress throughout the season."

Youboty knows that last year's decisive win means nothing this year.

"I don't think that gives us an edge at all," he said. "It's a different year. It's at their home. It will be a completely different game."

In what will probably be his final regular season game in college, junior wide receiver Santonio Holmes would like nothing more than to go out with a win.

"It's a very different focus (from a usual game) because it's not only going to determine whether we're Big Ten champs, or whether we get a BCS bowl game, but it's just the game against Michigan," Holmes said. "It's Ohio State-Michigan."

Holmes says the veteran players will soak up the convincing win over the Wildcats, but not for long.

"You enjoy this victory, but you come in next week with your head focused and just ready to get after Michigan," he said.

Senior middle linebacker Anthony Schlegel wants his teammates to forget about conference championships, or BCS bowl games this week. The only thing that matters is beating Michigan.

"(Tressel) talked about in the locker room that it's not necessarily about the Big Ten championship or what bowl game you're going to. It's about the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry," Schlegel said. "It's crucial that you understand the importance of this game.

"Last time we went up there, we got beat with a lot at stake. We're just going to have a great week of practice and get ready for them. They're going to be ready for us. They've got a great ballclub. They're playing real well right now. Everybody is rising up and we're meeting in the Ohio State-Michigan game. That's what it's all about."

Schlegel thinks that the Buckeyes are hitting their stride at the right time.

"The offense has been clicking and the defense has been playing lights out and flying around," he said. "You can see it in practice with how we compete against each other and try and make each other better. It's fun. Everybody has that swagger about them."

Schlegel has never made the trip to Ann Arbor. He redshirted in 2003 after transferring from the Air Force Academy.

"I've never been there," he said. "We're all excited to go up there and play. There is a lot at stake. We'll do everything we can – watch a lot of film and practice really hard. It's a huge test up there. It will come down to intensity, everybody on the sideline picking each other up and playing with heart and passion."

Senior defensive end Mike Kudla is also looking forward to the challenge.

"That's a game in itself," Kudla said. "It will be a 60-minute battle. We have to go into this week and be really focused. All 11 guys on the field – offense, defense and special teams – have to be locked in and focused. It's for everything there."

Junior defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock is a man of few words, but he understands what The Game is all about.

"We just know it's a big game," Pitcock said. "Records don't matter. It comes down to heart and who wants it more. We'll get prepared for it."

Junior quarterback Troy Smith had his coming out party against the Wolverines last year with nearly 400 yards of total offense. A repeat performance is not likely against an improved UM defense, but Smith just wants a win.

"It means everything," Smith said. "As a youngster, I kind of took the rivalry for granted. But as soon as I took my first hit in the game, I understood what it was all about. This is a huge one. Any time you face that team up north, you've got to come out with a win.

"If you do have a great game against that team, everything is going to be A-OK for the next year."

Smith knows that each and every play is big when OSU and UM get together.

"Every yard is gold – one yard is worth two," he said. "Two yards are worth four. It goes on and on. That game is probably the highest scaled game of the year, regardless of who else we play in the year."

As for Tressel, he has embraced The Game and what it means to OSU fans. That's part of the reason he's been so successful against the Wolverines.

"It's what you dream about when you're coaching at Ohio State or playing at Ohio State and coaching at Michigan and playing at Michigan," Tressel said. "You dream of the weeks you get to play and what has been clearly defined as the greatest game in college football."

Bowl picture coming into focus

With Iowa upsetting Wisconsin 20-10 on Saturday, Ohio State is all but guaranteed a Jan. 2 bowl game.

If Penn State beats Michigan State next week, the Nittany Lions will lock up at least a share of the Big Ten championship and a BCS bowl bid.

Ohio State can clinch a share of the Big Ten title with a win over Michigan and would have to wait and see about a possible BCS bid.

If Michigan State beats Penn State, and OSU beats Michigan, OSU wins the outright Big Ten title and gets the automatic BCS bid.

If OSU and PSU each win, the Buckeyes would still have a good chance of receiving a BCS bowl (likely the Orange or Fiesta), but it would not be guaranteed.

If MSU beats PSU, and Michigan beats OSU, then Michigan would be the BCS representative from the Big Ten on head-to-head wins over both PSU and OSU. And get this: Ohio State would still get a share of the conference title at 6-2.

And the situation couldn't work out better for the television viewing audience. Ohio State-Michigan will kick off at 1 p.m. on ABC, and PSU-MSU will follow at 4 p.m. on ESPN.


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