Most of you know about my ritual the week before the Ohio State-Michigan game.
I always swear this will be the year I don’t do it and somehow my car always seems to wind up driving past that simple two-story white house on Cardiff Road anyway. Then since it’s only a mile or so farther north, I head up Olentangy River Road to Union Cemetery.
Most years it’s cold and windy or spitting snow but this year was a little different. The ground was wet from intermittent rain all day, and there was a cool breeze blowing from the north, but all in all not bad for a mid-November evening in Columbus. So, I made my annual pilgrimage to Section 12, Lot 37, Space 4 and parked the car near one of the pine trees that shade a simple black granite marker.
I stood there, hands in my coat pockets, staring at the monument and listening to the wind as it rustled through what leaves remained on the nearby maple trees. I looked around at the darkening sky and waited … and waited … and waited.
I’d been there almost a half-hour and nothing. Maybe who or what I had seen before – or what I thought I had seen before – was a figment of my imagination. I looked around again and found no one in that cemetery but me. I shook my head, smiled and shrugged my shoulders.
Then as I was walking back to my car, I saw a figure walking along the roadway. But this wasn’t who I expected. It certainly wasn’t who I had come to see. This was an older gentleman, dressed in a full-length gray overcoat with the collar turned up. I could make out an old-style, pinstripe suit under the overcoat as he shuffled along with his head down. He looked small and frail but still walked at a brisk pace.
Despite the fact he wore a brown fedora, I could make out hollow cheeks, thin lips and horn-rimmed glasses perched upon a thin nose. He was older, probably in his mid- to late 70s, I guessed, and was probably taking an evening stroll perhaps to visit a loved one who had passed on.
“Good evening,” I said as we passed.
He stopped abruptly, straightened up and looked at me with squinted eyes. Then he looked past me at the gravesite I had been visiting.
“Great man,” he offered in a rather high-pitched, scratchy voice. “Never met him but I would have liked to. Are you a relative?”
I shook my head. “No, just a fan. I come here every year about this time.”
The old man’s eyes narrowed. “About this time? What’s so special about this time of year?”
“Oh, you know. It’s Ohio State-Michigan week.”
“Oh, yes,” the man replied. “I always seem to forget they moved the game to late November.”
I laughed. “Forgot they moved it to late November? They only did that in 1935.”
“Yes, well, we used to play them in late October. Of course, that was a long, long time ago.”
I’m a sucker for Ohio State football history, so by now I was getting more and more intrigued by the little old man. “Sounds like you know your Buckeyes,” I said.
“A little,” he said with a chuckle. “Not so much the past few years but I know a little bit about the early days. Ohio Field. Coach Wilce. Mr. St. John. Those were the days. I’d give anything just to be able to … If I could have just one more … Well, we played because we loved it.”
I did some quick addition in my head. Ohio Field was demolished 87 years ago. John W. Wilce resigned as head coach of the Buckeyes following the 1928 season. And Lynn St. John served as AD longer than any other man – but he has been dead since 1950. The little man in the overcoat I had originally pegged to be about 75 years old had to have been much older.
“How long has it been now?” he continued. “Ninety years? Yes, the year was 19-and-19. Ninety years ago this very year when we first beat Michigan. And, oh, let me tell you that was quite a game. Took the train up there to Ferry Field and thought we were ready and ol’ Pete fumbled the opening kickoff.”
“Ol’ Pete?” I asked.
“Pete Stinchcomb,” he said as his eyes began to twinkle. “Gaylord Roscoe Stinchcomb. Greatest guy you’d ever want to meet and a better teammate you could never hope to have.”
I leaned in closer toward the old man with a puzzled look on my face. Stinchcomb played for the Buckeyes in the early 1920s and died in 1974 at the age of 78. I started to ask how in the world he could have possibly known so much about Stinchcomb when he cleared his throat and said, “That’s what the old-timers always said about him anyway.”
“OK,” I said, that look of puzzlement still on my face. “You were talking about ol’ Pete fumbling the opening kickoff.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, we dodged that bullet and then blocked a punt at the end of the first quarter for a touchdown. Then I ran for … I mean we got another touchdown in the second half and I had … we had four interceptions and we wound up beating those guys 13-3. What a great feeling that was. Beating Michigan for the first time? Nothing quite like it. Well, I guess that kind of broke the spell so to speak. They weren’t so invincible after that. We beat ’em again the next couple of years and the rivalry has been pretty close ever since.”
“You sure know a lot about the early days,” I said. “What do you think about the rivalry today?”
“Anyone who has ever played in that game loves it. I know I still do. I don’t much care for the people who try to say that it doesn’t mean as much because Michigan hasn’t played very well the last couple of years. So what? You have to respect this rivalry because it’s the greatest one in all of sports. And just because we won last year doesn’t mean we’ll win this year. Every game is different, and winning this game means everything. Ask the senior players if you don’t believe me. They know it. The last thing you ever want to do is lose that game, especially if it’s the last one of your career. It’ll haunt you forever if you do. I can attest to that. Never, ever, take this game for granted.”
The wind began to pick up and he said slowly, “Well, I’d better be getting on my way. It’s been a nice little visit with you.”
He offered a cold, bony hand and I shook it.
“My name is Mark,” I said, “and it was a pleasure, Sir.”
“The pleasure was all mine,” he replied.
He started to walk away and I called out, “I’m sorry. I didn’t get your name.”
He turned and smiled. “It’s Charles,” he said, “but all my friends just call me Chic.”
** Ohio State and Michigan will buckle it up tomorrow for the 106th renewal of what is known simply as The Game. The teams first met in 1897 and have played every season since 1918. The Wolverines lead the overall series by a 57-42-6 margin, including a 30-19-4 advantage in Ann Arbor.
** The Buckeyes have won three of their last four trips to Michigan Stadium. They haven’t enjoyed that kind of streak in Ann Arbor since winning four of five between 1973 and ’81.
** Ohio State has won seven of the last eight games in the series for the first time ever. The Buckeyes are also gunning for an unprecedented sixth straight victory over Michigan.
** Since 1925, the overall series is dead even at 41-41-3.
** OSU head coach Jim Tressel is currently 7-1 against Michigan, and he is one of only four Ohio State head coaches in history with a winning record against the Wolverines. The others: Woody Hayes (1951-78) at 16-11-1, Earle Bruce (1979-87) at 5-4 and Francis A. Schmidt (1934-40) at 4-3. Hayes, Bruce and Schmidt are all members of the College Football Hall of Fame.
** Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez is experiencing his second game in the rivalry. Last year, Rodriguez became the first U-M head coach to lose his first game against Ohio State since Harry Kipke’s team dropped a 7-0 decision to the Buckeyes in 1929. No Michigan head coach has ever lost his first two games in the series against Ohio State.
** Tressel is 35-13 in his OSU career against ranked opponents. Rodriguez is 13-18 lifetime against top-25 competition, including 2-5 with the Wolverines.
** Tressel is 25-4 with the Buckeyes in November. Rodriguez is 1-5 with the Wolverines in November.
** With a victory over the Wolverines, Ohio State would win the outright Big Ten championship for the third time in the last four seasons. It would give the Buckeyes their 18th outright title, more than any other team in conference history. Michigan has 16 outright championships and Illinois is third with eight.
** If Ohio State captures its third outright title in four years, it would be the best streak of undisputed Big Ten championships since Michigan won four in the five-year span between 1988 and 1992.
** The Buckeyes have already clinched a share of their fifth consecutive Big Ten title, marking the eighth straight season in which either OSU or Michigan has won or shared the conference crown. The last time neither team had at least a share of the trophy was in 2001 when Illinois took home the outright championship.
** Tressel has locked up his sixth Big Ten championship, placing him eighth on the conference all-time coaching list. Woody Hayes of Ohio State (1951-78) and Bo Schembechler of Michigan (1969-89) share the career record with 13 championships each. Fielding Yost of Michigan (1901-23, ’25-26) had 10, Henry Williams of Minnesota (1900-21) had eight, and Amos Alonzo Stagg (1896-1932) of Chicago, Robert Zuppke of Illinois (1913-41) and Bernie Biermann of Minnesota (1932-41, ’45-50) each had seven.
** With a victory, Ohio State would become only the second team in Big Ten history to record five consecutive years with 10 or more wins and the first in more than a century. Michigan had five seasons with 10-plus victories from 1901-05.
** If the Michigan team is searching for something on which to hang its winged helmets, how about this: The Buckeyes have lost to the Wolverines each of the last three times they have gone into The Game having already clinched the Big Ten championship. That occurred in 1986, 1993 and 1996.
** That 1993 game was the last time a ranked OSU team lost to an unranked Michigan squad. The Wolverines rolled to a 28-0 victory in Ann Arbor, and that game marks the most recent shutout in the overall series. The Buckeyes haven’t recorded a shutout over U-M since a 28-0 win in Ann Arbor in 1962.
** During a 13-year span from 1979 to 1992, the record for the team entering this game with the higher ranking was 9-3-1. In the 16 years since, the higher-ranked team has managed only an 8-8 mark.
** Since the two teams met in 1923 for the Ohio Stadium dedication game, a total of 7,527,129 fans have attended The Game. That’s more than any other college football game in America. Fifty-eight of those 86 games have been sold out, including the last 41 in a row.
** Michigan has an overall record of 298-121-20 in November. That’s a .702 winning percentage. Meanwhile, Ohio State in 286-132-19 during the month of November, good for a winning percentage of .676.
** This season will mark the third time in the past five years that a Michigan team will not be ranked in the final Associated Press poll of the season. Before 2005, the Wolverines had appeared in 35 of 36 final AP polls.
** Michigan has lost six straight conference games for the first time since losing six in a row between 1958 and ’59. The Wolverines have not lost seven consecutive Big Ten games since a 10-game league losing streak between 1935 and ’37.
** Here is how the teams stack up against one another in a variety of the national statistical categories:
Rushing offense – Michigan 21st (195.8); Ohio State 22nd (194.2)
Passing offense – Michigan 90th (195.6); Ohio State 102nd (174.9)
Total offense – Michigan 56th (391.4); Ohio State 65th (369.1)
Scoring offense – Michigan 27th (31.3); Ohio State 38th (30.0)
Rushing defense – Ohio State 4th (83.7); Michigan 84th (164.7)
Pass defense – Ohio State 16th (174.6); Michigan 82nd (235.5)
Total defense – Ohio State 5th (258.3); Michigan 89th (400.2)
Scoring defense – Ohio State 6th (12.4); Michigan 84th (28.1)
Net punting – Michigan 2nd (41.3); Ohio State 42nd (36.8)
Turnover margin – Ohio State 7th (plus-12); Michigan 102nd (minus-8)
Punt returns – Michigan 50th (9.9); Ohio State 65th (8.6)
Kickoff returns – Michigan 28th (24.0); Ohio State 35th (23.5)
** Kickoff for tomorrow’s game will be shortly after 12 noon Eastern. The game will be televised nationally by ABC with a broadcast crew that is rapidly becoming familiar to Ohio State fans. For the third week in a row, Sean McDonough will have the play-by-play, Matt Millen will provide color analysis and Holly Rowe will file reports from the sidelines.
** The game is also available on Sirius satellite radio channels 122 (Ohio State) and 155 (Michigan).
THIS WEEK IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL HISTORY
** Twenty-seven years ago, the Pony Express made one of its final rides in Texas. On Nov. 20, 1982, SMU quarterback Lance McIlhenny drove his team 80 yards for a touchdown in the late going to forge a 17-17 tie with ninth-ranked Arkansas. SMU running back Eric Dickerson – who teamed with fellow running back Craig James to form the “Pony Express” aka “The Best Backfield Money Could Buy” – rushed for 81 yards in the contest to break the all-time Southwest Conference career record held by Earl Campbell of Texas. The tie denied SMU a perfect season and the national championship, but the Mustangs still finished the season ranked No. 2 with an 11-0-1 record.
** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Nov. 16, 1872, Yale played its first-ever football game, beating Columbia by a 3-0 score; on Nov. 17, 1906, Kansas took an 8-6 victory over Nebraska, beginning the longest continuous Division I-A series; on Nov. 19, 1983, Oregon and Oregon State battled to a 0-0 tie in Eugene, the last scoreless tie in NCAA history due to the institution of overtime beginning in 1994; on Nov. 21, 1981, BYU tight end Gordon Hudson set an NCAA record for tight ends with 259 receiving yards during a 56-28 win over Utah; and on Nov. 22, 1969, Michigan defensive back Barry Pierson returned a punt for a touchdown and intercepted three passes as the No. 12 Wolverines shocked defending national champion Ohio State with a 24-12 upset in Ann Arbor. It was the opening game in what became known as the legendary “Ten-Year War” between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
** The number of Division I-A undefeated teams remains at six: Alabama, Boise State, Cincinnati, Florida, Texas and TCU.
** Here is this week’s fun fact: TCU has 3,700 male students, meaning roughly 3.2 percent are on the football team. If Ohio State had that same percentage, the Buckeyes would have a football roster exceeding 1,000 players.
** If you think Boise State and its BCS argument are going away after this season, think again. There are only three seniors listed among the 44 players on the Broncos’ depth chart. Among those underclassmen is sophomore quarterback Kellen Moore, who has thrown for 2,558 yards and 32 TDs against only three interceptions.
** Iowa and Minnesota square off tomorrow for one of the most unusual trophies in college football – Floyd of Rosedale. After the Hawkeyes lost the 1935 game, Iowa Gov. Clyde Herring presented Minnesota Gov. Floyd B. Olson with Floyd of Rosedale, a full-blooded champion pig, as the result of a bet made prior to the contest. Olson commissioned a statue to capture Floyd’s image, which resulted in a bronze pig that measures 21 inches long and 15 inches high. The two teams have played for the statue ever since.
** In Pete Carroll’s first 110 games at USC, he had a 94-16 record and those 16 losses were by a combined 68 points, or an average of 4.3 points per game. His team’s recent blowout losses to Oregon and Stanford have come by a combined 61 points, an average of 30.5 per game. The Trojans allowed 93 points all of last season – the Ducks and Cardinal combined for 102.
** Jim Harbaugh obviously hasn’t changed. When he was quarterback at Michigan, Harbaugh got the well-earned reputation for being outspoken and often playing with a chip on his shoulder. Last week, he caused some controversy during his Stanford team’s win over USC by going for a two-point conversion with a 48-21 lead and 6:47 remaining. Harbaugh and Carroll reportedly got into a heated discussion during the postgame handshake, but Harbaugh brushed off the tiff in typical fashion. “I felt like it was the right thing to do, knowing SC would have at least two more possession opportunities, not including onside kicks,” he said. “We wanted to be full throttle all game.”
** Harbaugh is pulling out all the stops for tomorrow’s game against Cal. He has named Tiger Woods as the team’s honorary captain, and Woods will be honored on the field at halftime at which time he will be presented with a plaque signifying his induction into the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame.
** My weekly top five for the Heisman Trophy changed only at the bottom where Pittsburgh QB Bill Stull took over the No. 5 spot for Houston QB Case Keenum. My top five looks like this: 1. Texas QB Colt McCoy; 2. Alabama RB Mark Ingram; 3. Boise State QB Kellen Moore; 4. Florida QB Tim Tebow; 5. Stull. This week’s dark horse: Stanford RB Toby Gerhart.
** Congratulations to Rice, which got its first victory of the season last weekend with a 28-20 win over Tulane. That leaves only Eastern Michigan, Western Kentucky and New Mexico on the Division I-A winless list for 2009. Of those teams, Eastern perhaps has the best shot of winning one of its final two games. The Eagles travel tonight to Toledo (4-6 and losers of four of their last five) and wind up the season Nov. 27 at Akron (2-8 and losers of seven of their last eight).
** If New Mexico wants to get off the schnied, it had better do so this week against a 3-7 Colorado State team that has lost seven in a row following a 3-0 start. The 0-9 Lobos finish their season Nov. 28 at TCU against a team that will be trying to make one final statement for the BCS.
** Tarleton State (Texas) led a charmed existence last week in its Division II playoff game against Texas A&M-Kingsville. Tarleton won a 57-56 decision in double overtime after gambling successfully on a two-point conversion. The game went into overtime when Tarleton kicker Garrett Lindholm kicked a 64-yard field goal as time expired. Lindholm’s three-pointer was the second-longest in Division II history. Tom Odle of Fort Hays State (Kan.) holds the record. He booted a 67-yarder in 1988 during his team’s 22-14 win over instate rival Washburn.
** First-round Division III playoff games begin tomorrow, and not surprisingly defending champion Mount Union (Ohio) is the No. 1 seed. The Purple Raiders have won a record 10 national championships under head coach Larry Kehres, who has a career mark of 285-21-3 (a winning percentage of .925). Since 1993 when Mount Union won its first national title, Kehres’ record is an almost unbelievable 215-8. That computes to a .964 winning percentage.
** Hanover College (Ind.) didn’t make the Division III playoffs with a 3-7 record, but the Panthers still made news last week during their 42-28 loss to instate rival Franklin. Hanover sophomore receiver Daniel Passafiume set a new NCAA single-game record with 25 receptions in the game. That broke the old mark of 24 established in 1983 by NFL Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice when he was at Mississippi Valley State, and equaled in 2002 by Chas Gessner of Brown.
It’s been a pretty good last couple of weeks with the straight-up picks. We missed last week’s Upset Special (thanks, Arizona) but that was one of only two misses on a 10-2 slate. The yearly SU total is now 85-22.
Another 5-7 week against the spread makes us 42-52-2 for the season and the prospects of breaking even this year more and more unlikely. Nevertheless, we’ll hang with it and try to get back to respectability with an expanded slate of games this week. Be forewarned, though – there really is only one meaningful game in college football and it will occur in Ann Arbor. That’s why we’ll keep our comments on the rest of the games short and sweet.
No. 6 Boise State at Utah State: The Broncos have beaten the Aggies eight times in a row. Look for Boise QB Kellen Moore to pad his already Heisman-worthy stats … Boise State 48, Utah State 10. (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Minnesota at No. 13 Iowa: If several teams ahead of them lose, the Hawkeyes could still get into a BCS bowl. Incentive enough for Senior Day at Kinnick … Iowa 24, Minnesota 13. (12 noon ET, ESPN)
No. 20 Miami (Fla.) at Duke: The Hurricanes are up and down this season, but they should have enough to take a fifth straight victory in this series … Miami 37, Duke 23. (12 noon ET, ESPNU)
Chattanooga at No. 2 Alabama: These two schools have met 10 times over the years with the Crimson Tide winning all 10 by a combined score of 369-88. It’s Senior Day in Tuscaloosa and statement time for Bama … Alabama 47, Chattanooga 3. (12:20 p.m. ET, SEC GamePlan)
Florida International at No. 1 Florida: The Gators haven’t had the spectacular run everyone envisioned, but they remain undefeated. Meanwhile, FIU has never finished with a winning record since starting the program in 2002 … Florida 49, Florida International 10. (12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN GamePlan)
Memphis at No. 24 Houston: The Cougars spit the bit last week against Central Florida. Look for them to get back on track this week against the Tigers, who have already fired head coach Tommy West … Houston 48, Memphis 34. (1 p.m. ET, CSS)
No. 4 TCU at Wyoming: The Horned Frogs, arguably the best team in the nation, will likely not get a chance to play for the national championship. Look for them to keep making a statement on why they should get that chance … TCU 51, Wyoming 10. (2 p.m. ET, The Mtn.)
No. 14 Penn State at Michigan State: The Nittany Lions, who have not been playing well lately, have lost four of their last six trips to Spartan Stadium. I hate to pick Sparty because he has been so uneven this season. But I need an Upset Special, so here it is … Michigan State 34, Penn State 31. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC Regional/ESPN)
No. 16 Wisconsin at Northwestern: Can the Wildcats slow down the Badgers’ two-pronged attack of QB Scott Tolzien and RB John Clay? Maybe the better question is whether UW can slow down the multifaceted attack led Northwestern QB Mike Kakfa. Upset Special No. 2 … Northwestern 31, Wisconsin 28. (3:30 p.m. ET, BTN)
No. 8 LSU at Mississippi: The Rebels pulled off a huge 31-13 upset in Baton Rouge last year, but they haven’t beaten the Tigers in Oxford since 1998. Ole Miss struggles against good defenses and LSU has a good defense … LSU 20, Mississippi 10. (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Virginia at No. 23 Clemson: Behind Heisman hopeful running back C.J. Spiller, the Tigers have averaged 42.0 points over their last five games. You wonder how the Cavaliers (106th nationally in scoring and 118th in total offense) can keep up. Answer: They can’t … Clemson 37, Virginia 13. (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC Regional/ESPN)
Air Force at No. 22 BYU: Max Hall is one of the best quarterbacks you’ve probably never heard of. The BYU senior has thrown for 2,857 yards and 23 TDs, and he has never lost in his career to the run-oriented Cadets … BYU 35, Air Force 24. (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS College Sports)
North Carolina State at No. 15 Virginia Tech: Good Hokies offense + porous Wolfpack defense = Tech victory … Virginia Tech 38, N.C. State 13. (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
San Diego State at No. 21 Utah: The Utes were manhandled last week by TCU, but they get to try and rebound against the Aztecs who rank 94th nationally in scoring defense. Utah also returns home to play at Rice Eccles Stadium where they have won their last 16 in a row … Utah 41, San Diego State 17. (4 p.m. ET, Versus)
No. 19 Oregon State at Washington State: The Beavers still have a shot at the Rose Bowl and it’s doubtful the punchless Cougars can do anything about that this week … Oregon State 48, Washington State 14. (5 p.m. ET, No TV)
No. 25 California at No. 17 Stanford: The Bears scored a total of six points against Oregon and USC while the Cardinal rolled up 106 points against the Ducks and Trojans. What more do you need to know? … Stanford 44, Cal 27. (7:30 p.m. ET, Versus)
Kansas at No. 3 Texas: The Longhorns are zeroing in on the national championship game while Jayhawks head coach Mark Mangino is suddenly under fire in Lawrence. Colt McCoy becomes the all-time winningest quarterback in NCAA history with a win … Texas 35, Kansas 7. (8 p.m. ET, ABC Regional/ESPN)
No. 11 Oregon at Arizona: The Wildcats couldn’t get it done last week against a Jahvid Best-less Cal, so what makes anyone believe Mike Stoops’ troops can beat the Ducks? … Oregon 48, Arizona 35. (8 p.m. ET, ABC Regional/ESPN)
No. 10 Ohio State at Michigan: Anyone connected with OSU who chalks up this game as an automatic victory should remember what the Wolverines have on the line. They need this win to avoid a second straight losing season. They need this win to avoid staying home during bowl season when they had made 33 straight bowl appearances prior to 2008. They need this win to prevent their head coach from becoming the first Michigan coach in history ever to lose his first two games in this series. I’m also sure that Rich Rodriguez has told his team that this game begins the program’s resurgence. A victory over the Buckeyes would not only send the Wolverines to a bowl but also give them a foundation on which to build. Nothing to play for in Ann Arbor? I think not. It’s still the greatest rivalry game in American sports and if you have a chance to step on the throat of your rival, you do it. Assuming that is the mind-set of the Ohio State players, you get this prediction … Ohio State 45, Michigan 14. (12 noon ET, ABC)
Here are the spreads for the above games: Boise State (-22) at Utah State; Minnesota at Iowa (-9½ ; Miami-FL at Duke (+20); Florida International (+45) at Florida; Memphis (+24) at Houston; TCU (-28) at Wyoming; Penn State at Michigan State (+3); Wisconsin at Northwestern (+7); LSU (+4½) at Mississippi; Virginia at Clemson (-20½); Air Force at BYU (-9½); N.C. State at Virginia Tech (-21); San Diego State at Utah (-20); Oregon State (-29) at Washington State; Cal at Stanford (-7); Kansas at Texas (-27½); Oregon (-4½) at Arizona; Ohio State (-11½) at Michigan.