I wasn’t going to go this year.
After all, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Ohio State is going to beat Michigan. The Wolverines have lost eight games and the Buckeyes can pretty much name any final score they want to.
Then I thought of last year’s Stanford-USC game. And that got me to thinking about the 1969 version of The Game when Ohio State was unbeaten in 22 games and got upset by a first-year Michigan head coach.
So I got in my car like I always do during the week before the Ohio State-Michigan game and again drove past the simple two-story, white house on Cardiff Road. It’s only a couple of miles west of Ohio Stadium, tucked onto a little side street off Lane Avenue. After going past the house, I drove another mile north on Olentangy River Road and headed into Union Cemetery.
It was cold and windy and I very nearly didn’t get out of the car. But I figured as long as I was there, I might as well make my annual pilgrimage to Section 12, Lot 37, Space 4. There are pine trees around a black granite marker, and I stood beneath one of those tall trees to shield me from the wind.
I stood there, gloved hands jammed in my coat pockets, and stared at the monument. The only sound was the wind whistling through what leaves remained on the nearby maple trees. Suddenly, I was startled by a familiar voice.
I whirled around to see the same stocky man I had seen a couple of years ago, standing in the same spot about 10 feet away. He wore a plain, red windbreaker – the kind men stopped wearing in the 1970s – and he had both hands shoved in the pockets. He had gray hair, wore silver, horn-rimmed glasses and scrunched his face into the kind of grimace where the lips seemed to almost disappear.
“Uh, yeah,” I stammered.
“You’re that sportswriter that was hanging around here a couple of years ago, aren’t you?”
I nodded my head, and then eager to change the subject, I offered, “How’re you doing?”
“How am I doing?” he said as he stared at the gravestone. “I’m not doing so well. I don’t like the tone of things around here. We’re playing the greatest rivalry game in all of sports this week and people in this town think it’s going to be a cakewalk. Trust me. There’s no such thing in this game.”
“Well,” I said. “Michigan … um, the other team is certainly having their problems, especially on offense. They’ve lost more games this season than they ever have.”
“That’s about what I’d expect from a sportswriter. Listen, son, I don’t give a damn how many games they’ve lost. Let me tell you something: This is a game where records don’t mean a damn thing.”
“I think they do this year. Have you seen them play? They’re really not very good.”
The old man rolled his eyes and shook his head. “I’m glad you’re not playing on Saturday. That kind of attitude will get you beat.”
“Do you honestly think Michigan has a chance?” I asked. “After all, it seems like Jim Tressel has their number. He’s won four in a row and six of seven against them.”
“You’re giving me a history lesson? I know a thing or two about history and I can tell you that we have never beaten them six times in a row. Never. And do you know why we have never beaten them six times in a row?”
“Because it’s goddamned hard, that’s why. I had some great teams in the late Fifties and early Sixties and couldn’t do it.”
“You had some great teams?”
“We had some great teams. I meant we had some great teams. Look, you can never go into any football game against any opponent and expect to win. You always have to expect the unexpected. That way you can adapt. You always have to adapt in this game. You start taking things for granted and pretty soon you’re through.
“There were some times earlier this season when I didn’t like what I was seeing. I didn’t see the kind of effort game in and game out that it takes to be a champion. But they got things straightened out and now we’re playing for another championship and maybe a Rose Bowl. That’s what it’s all about.
“But they have to take this thing seriously. They have to understand that this game is the greatest game they will ever play in. Everyone in that locker room, especially those seniors, will remember this game for the rest of their lives. I don’t care where they go later in life or how much money they make – this game and how they perform will be a defining moment in their lives. If you can’t understand that, you ought to get out of the way and make room for someone who does.”
I just shook my head. “I don’t know,” I said. “I think it’ll be tough to get up for a game when you so hopelessly outclass your opponent.”
“Tough?” the man said. “Son, if you think it’s tough to get yourself ready to play in the greatest rivalry in the history of college football, you might as well go put a skirt on. This game is for men. It’s not a tea party.”
Off in the distance, I heard a church bell chime the hour.
“Well,” the man sighed. “I gotta be getting back.”
As he turned to leave, I noticed for the first time that he was wearing a black baseball cap with a Block “O.” As he walked away, I called out, “Nice seeing you again, Sir.”
He stopped, turned and just glared at me.
“Sorry,” I said. “Nice seeing you again, Coach.”
And for the first time, I thought I saw the faint crack of a smile.
OHIO STATE-MICHIGAN MINUTIAE
** Ohio State and Michigan will buckle it up Saturday for the 105th renewal of what is known around these parts 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 57-41-6 margin, including a 27-22-2 advantage in Columbus.
** Michigan’s advantage in Columbus is a little misleading. Eight of those games were played at old Ohio Field. Since the Buckeyes moved into Ohio Stadium, the series is deadlocked at 21-21-1 The Buckeyes have won three in a row and four of the last five games played in the Horseshoe.
** Ohio State has won six of the last seven games in the series, the first time the Buckeyes have enjoyed such a streak since winning six of seven between 1957 and ’63. OSU has never beaten Michigan seven times over an eight-year span.
** Since 1928, the overall series is dead even at 38-38-4.
** OSU head coach Jim Tressel is currently 6-1 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.
** This year marks the 75th anniversary of Schmidt’s famous quote about Michigan: “They put their pants on one leg at a time, same as us.” Ever since, Ohio State players and coaches have been awarded gold pants charms for every victory over the Wolverines. The series record since Schmidt’s 1934 pronouncement is 35-35-4.
** Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez is experiencing his first game in the rivalry. No first-year U-M head coach has lost to Ohio State since Harry Kipke’s team dropped a 7-0 decision to the Buckeyes in 1929.
** Only four Michigan head coaches who faced Ohio State more than one time compiled winning records against the Buckeyes. They were Fielding Yost (1902-23, ’25-26) at 16-3-1, Herbert O. “Fritz” Crisler (1938-47) at 7-2-1, Glenn E. “Bo” Schembechler (1969-89) at 11-9-1 and Gary Moeller (1990-94) at 3-1-1.
** While Michigan coaches are typically successful in their first game against OSU, the same cannot be said in their final contest against the Buckeyes. Four of the last five – Bennie Oosterbaan in 1958, Chalmers W. “Bump” Elliott in 1968, Moeller in 1994 and Lloyd Carr in 2007 – have lost their finale to Ohio State. Only Schembechler bucked that trend, taking a 28-18 triumph in his final game at Michigan Stadium in 1989.
** Rodriguez has a career record of 12-14 against ranked teams. That includes a streak of four wins in his last five contests against top-25 teams, including a 27-25 win earlier this season over then ninth-ranked Wisconsin.
** Tressel is 50-7 against unranked teams during his tenure so far in Columbus.
** With a victory, Ohio State would clinch a share of the Big Ten championship. It would mark the fourth consecutive title or co-title for the Buckeyes and mark the seventh 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.
** 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 15 years since, the higher-ranked team has managed only a 7-8 mark.
** Since the two teams met in 1923 for the Ohio Stadium dedication game, a total of 7,421,565 fans have attended The Game. That’s more than any other college football game in America. Fifty-seven of those 85 games have been sold out, including the last 40 in a row.
** Michigan has an overall record of 298-118-20 in November. That’s a .706 winning percentage. Meanwhile, Ohio State in 283-132-19 during the month of November, good for a winning percentage of .674.
** Before this season, Michigan had never in program history lost more than seven games in a single season. The Wolverines posted 1-7 records in 1934 and ’36 and were 2-7 in 1962. Interestingly, in each of those seven-loss seasons, U-M experienced a shutout loss at Ohio State – 34-0 in ’34, 21-0 in ’36 and 28-0 in ’62.
** The Wolverines will not be making a trip to the postseason this season, marking the first time in 34 years they will not go to a bowl. The last time Michigan didn’t go bowling was after the 1974 season when Big Ten rules prohibited any team from going to any bowl other than the Rose Bowl. Ohio State and U-M tied for the conference title in ’74, but by virtue of their 12-10 victory over the Wolverines, the Buckeyes got the Rose Bowl invitation and Michigan stayed home. Beginning with the 1975 season, the Big Ten changed its stance toward other bowl games. Michigan accepted an invitation to play in the Orange Bowl and began a streak of playing in 33 consecutive bowls.
** This season will also mark the second time in the past four years when 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.
** Terrelle Pryor will be trying to become the first freshman quarterback ever to lead Ohio State to victory over Michigan. The last OSU freshman to start under center against the Wolverines was Art Schlichter in 1978. U-M took a 14-3 victory in Columbus that year.
** Pryor has another something going for him as he makes his first start against the Wolverines. Over the past quarter-century, five Ohio State quarterbacks have beaten Michigan in their first season as a starter and three of the five had a first name that began with the letter T – Tom Tupa in 1987, Troy Smith in 2004 and Todd Boeckman in 2007. If you wanted to include last names, you could add a fourth – Mike Tomczak in 1982. The fifth QB on the list is Craig Krenzel in 2002.
** Here is how the teams stack up against one another in a variety of the national statistical categories:
Rushing offense – Ohio State 29th (187.9); Michigan 60th (150.9)
Passing offense – Michigan 106th (148.3); Ohio State 107th (144.8)
Total offense – Ohio State 84th (332.7); Michigan 105th (299.2)
Scoring offense – Ohio State T-53rd (26.9); Michigan T-87th (21.5)
Rushing defense – Ohio State 26th (115.3); Michigan 45th (128.3)
Pass defense – Ohio State 13th (171.4); Michigan 89th (234.2)
Total defense – Ohio State 13th (286.6); Michigan 66th (362.5)
Scoring defense – Ohio State 7th (13.6); Michigan 80th (27.7)
Net punting – Michigan 2nd (41.4); Ohio State 11th (38.5)
Turnover margin – Ohio State 7th (+14); Michigan 105th (-9)
Punt returns – Ohio State 30th (11.3); Michigan 64th (8.9)
Kickoff returns – Michigan 59th (21.6); Ohio State 104th (19.2)
** The current point spread favoring Ohio State by 20 to 21 points is the largest for either team in the rivalry game since they started keeping track of point spreads.
** ABC will telecast the game to a nationwide audience with its announce crew of Brad Nessler (play-by-play), Bob Griese and Paul Maguire (color analysis) and Stacey Dales (sideline reports). Game time is set for 12 noon Eastern, which means the kickoff will be around 12:07 p.m.
AROUND THE COUNTRY
** Disney-owned ESPN confirmed Tuesday that it has closed the agreement to carry the Bowl Championship Series games from 2011-14. The price tag was $125 million annually. That means college football’s national championship game as well as the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls will be broadcast on cable TV for the first time beginning in 2011. Disney already has a separate contract to televise the Rose Bowl on ABC but indicated that game could also move to ESPN in the future.
** Want one stat that underlines just how well Florida is playing right now? The Gators piled up 519 yards and averaged 8.2 yards per play last week in a 56-6 win over South Carolina. That is the same South Carolina team that entered the game ranked third in the country in total defense.
** Just wondering. If Urban Meyer happens to win his second national championship in three years, would he stay at Florida or accept untold millions of dollars to make the jump to the NFL? My guess is that Meyer, who is 44, might think it’s now or never if he wants to take a stab at the pro game. Besides, if he’s a wash-out there, he can always go back to the college ranks like Pete Carroll, Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier.
** Many observers believe Saturday’s contest against Michigan State will mark the final home game in the long career of head coach Joe Paterno. Of course, JoePa doesn’t sound like he’s going anywhere. During his weekly press conference, he told reporters, “Come to the game and enjoy it. It’s a big football game. If we win, a lot of good things can happen to us. But I don’t think (fans) should be coming because they think it’s my last game.”
** There is no doubt that Saturday marks the final game in Purdue head coach Joe Tiller’s long career. Tiller would have rather gone out on a better note, of course, as his Boilermakers host Indiana looking for only their fourth win of the season. Still, Tiller is going to ride off into the sunset as Purdue’s all-time winningest coach. Heading into his final game, he has a career record of 125-92-1 over 18 seasons at Wyoming and Purdue.
** Here are your Big Ten Rose Bowl scenarios: If Penn State beats Michigan State, the Nittany Lions go to Pasadena. If Michigan State beats Penn State, the Spartans would need a Michigan upset win over Ohio State to make their first Rose Bowl since 1988. However, if MSU defeats Penn State and OSU takes down Michigan, the Buckeyes would be headed to Pasadena for the first time in 12 years.
** Here are your Pac-10 Rose Bowl scenarios: If Oregon State wins out, the Beavers will go by virtue of their victory over Southern California. USC will go if the Trojans win out and Oregon State loses to either Arizona or Oregon. And, of course, there remains the outside chance that an 11-1 Trojans team could move up into the BCS National Championship Game, leaving the Rose Bowl to choose from several attractive at-large teams.
** Congratulations to Northwestern. The Wildcats defeated Michigan last week for the first time since the 2000 season and have now reached eight victories for the time since that same year. NU guns for victory No. 9 this week when it hosts Illinois, and the Wildcats haven’t won nine games in a season since 1996.
** Must be something in the water in Texas. Graham Harrell of Texas Tech, Case Keenum of Houston, Colt McCoy of Texas and Chase Clement of Rice rank first, second, ninth and 10th in the country in passing yards. Combined, the quintet has 1,147 completions in 1,625 attempts (70.6 percent) for 14,121 yards and 133 touchdowns. You could also throw in Chase Daniel of Missouri and Todd Reesing of Kansas, each of whom rank in the top 10. Daniels hails from Southlake, Texas, while Reesing grew up in Austin.
** Top-rated Alabama is trying to strike while its iron is hot. The Crimson Tide is experiencing its best season since winning the national championship in 1992, and university officials have proposed an expansion plan to increase the capacity of Bryant-Denny Stadium to 101,000. The stadium currently holds 92,138, while the entire population of Tuscaloosa is only 83,052.
** Gene Stallings, head coach of that ’92 title team at Alabama, has been named to guide the West squad in the 84th annual East-West Shrine Game, set for Jan. 17 in Houston. Stallings, who retired from coaching following the 1996 season, currently serves on the board of regents at his alma mater Texas A&M. Stallings’ opponent in the East-West Shrine Game will be Bobby Ross, who retired in 2007 after 27 seasons as a college and NFL head coach.
** My Heisman Trophy ballot is the same for the second week in a row because none of my top three played last week. I have QB Graham Harrell of Texas Tech on top of the ballot with Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford second and Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer third. All three have big games this weekend – Harrell and Bradford face one another – which should jumble things a bit.
** With so many bowl spots available these days, becoming bowl-eligible likely means you’re going to the postseason. Last week, six more teams notched that all-important sixth victory of the season, but with games dwindling down to a precious few, there are still only 60 bowl-eligible teams for 68 spots in the 34 bowl games. Never fear, though. There are 18 schools with five victories and at least one game remaining on their regular-season schedules.
** One of the schools that became bowl-eligible last week was Vanderbilt. The Commodores took a 31-24 victory over Kentucky and got that illusive sixth win after chasing it since early October. Vandy hasn’t been to a bowl game only three times in its history and not since the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl. That resulted in a 36-28 loss to Air Force. The Commodores last won a bowl game Dec. 31, 1955, when they took a 25-13 victory over Auburn in the Gator Bowl.
** One of football’s oldest sayings is that officials could call holding on every play if they chose to do so. Mull that over in your mind while contemplating the fact that the Texas Tech offensive line hasn’t been called for a holding penalty in its last 118 pass attempts.
** Thirty-two years ago today, the Kentucky football team had reason to celebrate. On Nov. 20, 1976, the Wildcats took a 7-0 victory over Tennessee and marked their first victory in Knoxville in a dozen years. Running back Greg Woods raced 68 yards with a pass from QB Derrick Ramsey for the only score in the game, and clinched Kentucky’s first bowl bid since 1952.
** Also occurring during this week in college football history: On Nov. 17, 1956, Syracuse halfback Jim Brown set an NCAA record for single-game scoring, accounting for 43 points (rushing for six touchdowns and kicking seven PATs) during a 61-7 win over Colgate; on Nov. 18, 1978, Oklahoma running back Billy Sims rushed for 209 yards in a 62-7 win over Oklahoma State and broke the Big 8’s single-season rushing record in the process; on Nov. 21, 1992, Washington State QB Drew Bledsoe threw for 160 yards and two touchdowns during a snowstorm in Pullman, leading the Cougars to a 42-23 upset of fifth-ranked Washington; on Nov. 22, 1875, Harvard took a 4-0 victory over Yale in the first-ever meeting of the Ivy League schools; they will celebrate their 125th meeting on Saturday; and on Nov. 23, 1985, Iowa quarterback Chuck Long became the first player in Big Ten history to throw for more than 10,000 career yards when he led the Hawkeyes to a 31-9 victory over Minnesota.
** This week also featured the so-called “Game of the Century.” On Nov. 19, 1966, top-ranked Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State played to a 10-10 tie in East Lansing. Fighting Irish quarterback Terry Hanratty was knocked out of the game in the first quarter after getting sacked by Spartans defensive lineman Bubba Smith, and starting Notre Dame running back Nick Eddy missed the entire game after hurting his shoulder getting off the train in East Lansing. The Irish had the ball on their own 30-yard line with 1:10 to go in the game, but head coach Ara Parseghian chose to run out the clock, preserving the tie and his team’s No. 1 ranking. Notre Dame went on to win the 1966 national championship while Michigan State finished second.
It was an on-target week for the forecast. In addition to finishing 10-2 in the straight-up picks, we hit the Penn State-Indiana and the Boise State-Idaho final scores right on the nose. That means the SU season total is now 84-30.
Against the spread, you would think we could do better if we can predict exact final scores. The best we could do, however, was 6-5 with a push in the Ohio State-Illinois game. Still, that’s a winning week – barely – and our ATS picks are now 60-50-1 for the season.
We’re going to try to finish the season with a flurry, so here are the games we like this week (and remember that we’re using AP rankings).
Washington at Washington State: The Rotten Apple Cup is what they should call this one. The Huskies and Cougars have combined for just one win in 21 games this season, and that lone victory was Wazzoo’s mid-September win over I-AA Portland State. Since that game, the Cougars have given up an average of 53.4 points per game. That’s right – I said they have averaged giving up more than 50 points a game over the last month and a half. Meanwhile, U-Dub has lost starting quarterback Jake Locker for the year and head coach Tyrone Willingham is out at the end of the season. You would think maybe, just maybe, the Huskies can rise up and grab this one … Washington 38, Washington State 27. (3 p.m. EST, FSN)
No. 17 Michigan State at No. 7 Penn State: The second-most important Big Ten game – at least as far as Ohio State fans are concerned – occurs in a place where Sparty has had trouble. The fact of the matter is that Michigan State has never won in Happy Valley in seven tries since Penn State joined the Big Ten. Will that streak continue? We think it will. The Nittany Lions seemed to finally come out of their funk in the second half of last week’s 34-7 win over Indiana, and they remain a tough team to run the ball against. Besides, if there is any inkling that Saturday truly is Joe Paterno’s final home game, how could Penn State even think about losing? … Penn State 31, Michigan State 14. (3:30 p.m. EST, ABC Regional)
No. 21 Oregon State at Arizona: Will the Beavers succumb to the pressure of trying to get to their first Rose Bowl since 1965? If they do, you wouldn’t think it would happen this week. Oregon State currently enjoys a streak of eight wins in its last nine meetings with the Wildcats, including three in a row in Tucson by an average of two touchdowns apiece. An evening game will give fans a chance to see the Beavers’ brother combination of Jacquizz and James Rodgers, a pair of speedsters who combined for three touchdowns in last week’s 34-21 win over Cal. OSU had better be careful, though. The Wildcats have been scoring points in bunches lately, have won four of five home games this year and they’re favored. Here is Upset Special No. 1 … Oregon State 34, Arizona 31. (7 p.m. EST, Versus)
No. 20 Pittsburgh at No. 19 Cincinnati: There are going to be a lot of attractive job openings out there at the end of the season, and if Bearcats head coach Brian Kelly is the least bit interested in any of them, he might want to think about beating Pitt for a change. The Panthers have taken all seven games in the series. Each team is coming off victories over Louisville – 41-7 two weeks ago for Pitt and 28-20 last week for UC – and both teams are angling for the Big East’s automatic bid to the BCS. The Bearcats are tough to beat at home, but the Panthers have been playing well of late and running back LeSean McCoy should make the difference. Upset Special No. 2 … Pittsburgh 24, Cincinnati 20. (7 p.m. EST, ESPN2)
No. 2 Texas Tech at No. 5 Oklahoma: With all due respect to the SEC, the Big 12 is the best conference in college football this year and these two teams should provide another whale of a game in prime time. You just have to wonder how much is left in Tech’s emotional tank since this is the third straight game billed as the most important in program history. The Raiders passed the first two tests with flying colors, beating Texas 39-33 and then rolling to a 56-20 win over Oklahoma State. But those two games were in Lubbock, and now Double-T has to find a way to beat the Sooners, who are 60-2 at home under Bob Stoops. This should be another hugely entertaining game and we think Tech gets it done. Guns Up! for Upset Special No. 3 … Texas Tech 41, Oklahoma 38. (8 p.m. EST, ABC)
Michigan at No. 10 Ohio State: Just so you know, the upset specials stop right here. It would be ludicrous to say that Michigan has no chance in this game. You need only remember back one year when Stanford went to USC as 44-point underdogs and pulled off the shocker. Still, it’s difficult to believe the Buckeyes could lose this game unless they are so mentally unprepared that they repeatedly turn the ball over in their own territory and give the Wolverines several easy scoring opportunities. Against teams such as Ohio or Troy, mind-sets and the proper level of respect for the opponent was worrisome. It is difficult to see how that could ever be a problem in this game … Ohio State 35, Michigan 10. (12 noon EST, ABC)
Here are the spreads for the aforementioned games: Washington (-7) at Washington State; Michigan State at Penn State (-14); Oregon State (+3) at Arizona; Pittsburgh (+5½) at Cincinnati; Texas Tech (+7) at Oklahoma; Michigan at Ohio State (-20).