Coach's Corner: A Rivalry Unlike Any Other

Former OSU assistant football coach Bill Conley discusses the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry and also looks at this Saturday's match-up in Ann Arbor. He discusses the stakes for this huge showdown at The Big House.

In 1999, ESPN took a survey to determine the greatest rivalry in sports.

After it was all said and done, and the votes were counted, the annual Ohio State-Michigan battle won out not just beating out other great college rivalries such as Texas-Oklahoma, Army-Navy, Alabama-Auburn, but the great November classic also beat out the Ali-Frazier duels and the Palmer-Nicklaus head-to-head matches on the links.

How could such a regional contest capture the hearts and minds of the world? This is tough to understand and tough to explain, unless you have been a part of it. As a player and as a coach, the concentration, the intensity and the magnitude steadily grows as the day, the hours, the minutes and the seconds tick down to kickoff. You are on the verge of an emotional and physical eruption that is tough to explain but easy to be consumed by.

It's understandable that Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler brought the great rivalry to the next level. Their fiery passion to compete, especially against each other, had an electrifying affect on the fans, the media and to football fanatics around the country.

Adding to the intensity was the fact that Bo had played and coached for Woody at Miami (Ohio). The mutual respect between the two was apparent, but the desire to beat the other guy was what made these two great field generals think.

The 2005 battle between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines has all the making of a classic in itself. Two teams that had high expectations as the season began, but lost their momentum early with devastating defeats. As November approached, both programs seemed to gain new life and are, without a doubt, playing their best football of the season.

In the last four games the Wolverines have been averaging 31 points per game. For a team that had a case of the injury bug mid-season, they have steadily increased their offensive production and have averaged just under 400 yards per game. Last year's Big Ten freshman of the year, running back Mike Hart, has only played in six of 10 games so far this season, but running backs Kevin Grady and Jerome Jackson have more than picked up the slack.

The biggest shot in the arm for the Wolverines has been the improvement of quarterback Chad Henne. For the year, he has thrown for over 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns. His number one target is Jason Avant, who will try to surpass the 1,000-yard receiving mark this Saturday.

The Buckeyes, even more than the Wolverines, have had an offensive resurgence the latter part of 2005. Averaging over 43 points starting with the Indiana game, the Ohio State offensive has been rolling up rushing yards like the "good old days". Antonio Pittman has surpassed the 1,000 yard mark and is showing power, speed and vision like a veteran tailback.

Troy Smith is now playing solid football. Much like Henne, he has shown steady improvement and is nationally ranked in passing efficiency. Even though Troy has thrown for six less touchdowns, he has rushed for 10 compared to none for Henne. There is no doubt Troy Smith is the best quarterback in terms of overall production going into Ann Arbor.

Led by Santonio Holmes, the Buckeye receiving corps has shown remarkable big play potential. The receiving units of both teams are practically equal statistically – it should be a great match-up.

The biggest difference between the 2005 Buckeyes and the 2005 Wolverines is on the defensive side of the ball. Check out the comparisons:

* Scoring Defense -- Ohio State, 14.2 points per game; Michigan, 18.7.

* Total Defense -- Ohio State, 277.3 yards per game; Michigan, 340.6.

* Sacks -- Ohio State, 38; Michigan, 18.

* Tackles For Loss -- Ohio State, 71; Michigan, 67.

The only area the Wolverines hold an advantage is in turnovers. Michigan has recovered nine fumbles to Ohio State's six, and leads in interceptions 10 to six.

There is no doubt Josh Huston will be the superior kicker on the field Saturday. He is more consistent on field goals and unreturnable kick-offs. Even though both return games are similar – the Wolverines, hopefully, won't have much of a chance to show it. And don't be surprised if the game comes down to the foot of Huston.

Now that we've seen the Buckeyes have the statistical advantage in all three phases of the game -- offense, defense, and kicking -- forget it!

The Ohio State-Michigan game is played and coached by human beings, not numbers. All great players play great in this game. During the week, players don't need to be motivated, they don't have to be told to watch extra film, and they don't have to be told to get in early at night. The pride of being a Buckeye and being a Wolverine takes over. Playing in this game is why great high school athletes come to each school.

There's little doubt why football fans have named this the greatest rivalry in sports. They know that this Saturday they'll see two teams, two great programs and two great football traditions leave it all on the field after 60 minutes – Woody and Bo will be very proud.

The stakes are high, certainly. If Ohio State wins, the Buckeyes are assured of at least a share of the Big Ten championship. If Michigan wins and Michigan State somehow upsets Big Ten co-leader Penn State, unbelievably Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State would share the conference crown.

I can tell you that in my career at Ohio State I played on three Big Ten championship teams (1968-70) and I was an assistant coach when we won or shared six conference titles (1984, '86, '93, '96, '98 and 2002). Those were all nice accomplishments, certainly.

However, winning the Ohio State-Michigan game is an achievement unto itself. It is tough to understand, but when you play the Ohio State-Michigan game all of that other stuff is secondary.

Winning a Big Ten championship is never the motivation to beat the University of Michigan. Beat Michigan in itself is the motivation.

I know it is more important for the fans and the media to talk about conference championships and bowl bids and all of those things.

But to the players and coaches those things are completely irrelevant when this week rolls around. You go out and beat Michigan – and then you hope those other things will take care of themselves.

I know this: When you beat Michigan, you've got bragging rights for a full year.

Above, I tallied my Big Ten championships. I was also on the winning side of the OSU-Michigan game twice as a player (1968 and '70) and six times as an assistant coach (1984, '87, '94, '98, 2001 and '02).

For each one of those games, OSU players and coaches are awarded a miniature pendant – a pair of gold pants. That is one of the great traditions of this rivalry, at least on the Ohio State side. Pictured below are a few of the gold pants I was lucky to win during my time at Ohio State.


Some of the pairs of gold pants claimed by Bill Conley over the years.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Bill Conley was an assistant football coach at Ohio State for 17 years. He is in his second year of providing expert analysis on OSU football for Bucknuts.com. He will conduct a Chat and answer questions on the Michigan game at 1 p.m. Mon., Nov. 21.


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