Ohio State football Ryan Day has to prove himself against Michigan

Jim Harbaugh is right. Hatred has no place in the Ohio-Michigan state rivalry.

Love your neighbor, right? Even if the guy across the property line complains about living next to corn-fed hayseed. Even if his directions to finding your town say “North ’til you smell it, West ’til you step inside.”

“I’m grateful to be tested against this opponent at this point,” Harbaugh said. “It’s Thanksgiving … there’s no need to hate.”

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Fair enough. The Michigan coach made his point.

As for a little glee? Absolutely. The game is nothing but an opportunity to delight in your opponent’s misery. To embarrass him. To expose him as an overrated scammer. To question his qualifications. To indicate that he was born on third base. Etc.

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That way, Saturday’s game at 100-year-old Ohio Stadium will feature more than two undefeated teams vying to win the Big Ten East and advance to next week’s conference championship game and then the college football playoffs. It’s about proving that what you say you are is what you say you are.

For the state of Ohio, that means putting your macho where your mouth is. The Buckeyes, who were criticized for being too soft after last season’s 42-27 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor, want to show they can both dish out a punch and take a punch. Since that Big House awkwardness in 2021 — their first loss to Michigan since 2011 — OSU coach Ryan Day, his staff and players have preached toughness, which Day loosely defines as “competitive endurance,” meaning staying under pressure when the burner comes set to high heat.

A milder argument is that the Buckeyes didn’t deserve to be called a team built more on pretty finesse than blunt force. That it was just a “day off”.

But Tommy Eichenberg sees that as an excuse.

“We were exposed,” the Ohio State linebacker said this week.

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Ohio State is less likely to be exposed this time, if only because its mistakes are similar, if not as dramatic, to those of a year ago. The Buckeyes are battling mobile quarterbacks (like UM’s JJ McCarthy) who are elite pitchers (not McCarthy), don’t have lockdown cornerbacks, and have sometimes stubbed their toes in the running game.

Michigan has a better chance of being exposed as a fake. The Wolverines are struggling with a weaker schedule, and while their run defense is legitimate, their runner-up is barely above average, meaning OSU quarterback CJ Stroud can make UM look like a cheater if he has his typical target play.

It’s happened before, much to the delight of fans, who love to pat themselves on the back and say, “I told you so.”

Like in 2018, when Michigan brought its No. 1 defense to Columbus, only to see it set on fire by an Ohio State offense that amassed 567 yards in a 62-39 blowout. Buckeye Nation cheered UM’s disgrace: The 62 points was the most ever allowed by a Wolverines defense in regulation.

But turnabout is fair play, which brings us to 1995, when Ohio State showed up at Ann Arbor with a defense that hadn’t allowed rushing more than 209 yards in a game, and the three opponents rushed for 73, 59, and 48 yards ahead of the Wolverines.

No one but UM trainers could have predicted what happened next. Wolverine’s tailback Tim Biakabutuka shredded OSU for 313 yards in a 31-23 win.

To be fair to the Ohio State players who lived to see it, the 1995 debacle was more of a case of the Buckeyes being outcoached than exposed.

“It was a schematic thing, not a physical thing, when they came out and decided to kick us (tails),” recalled former OSU defense attorney Matt Finkes. “And the adjustment we made only made it worse.”

Michigan came out carrying an off-tackle zone OSU hadn’t seen before, and the Buckeyes unsuccessfully tried to defend it. Almost every time Biakabutuka cut back, there was no body clad in scarlet and gray to stop him.

add insult? Biakabutuka gained 209 yards more than Eddie George (104), who left the bench crying afterward, so devastated was the eventual Heisman Trophy winner by another inexplicable loss to Maize and Blue.

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The 1990s were filled with similar heartbreak — say hello to the Shawn Springs blip of 1996 — but the ultimate “What just happened?” was the 1969 Michigan flurry in Ann Arbor, which kept Ohio state from getting its second national winning championship in a row. Many in the media held the No. 1 Buckeyes for one of the most dominant teams in college history, but the 11th-ranked Wolverines pulled off a stunning 24-12 win that exposed OSU’s passing game as something designed by a third-grader. Ohio State threw six interceptions, including five by Rex Kern, and older Michigan fans are still cheering for ruining the Buckeyes’ season.

The 1969 game started the 10-year war between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, and UM’s coach fired the first shot and proved he could win the big one.

Similarly, Day defeated the Wolverines in his first year on the job in 2019, but after losing to UM last November he is in danger of becoming the first Ohio State coach to lose to Michigan back-to-back years since John Cooper.

In this way, the coaches at OSU and UM aren’t so different from their teams that every time the Buckeyes play the Wolverines, they face the challenge of proving their worth — or being shamed. Woody’s reputation quickly went downhill when he lost his last three games to UM (1976-78). Everyone knows Cooper’s 2-10-1 record against the Wolverines. And Michigan fans are trying to forget the combined 2-11 record of Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke and Harbaugh.

Day recalled his first OSU press conference of 2019.

“My first year as a head coach here and one of the first things we started with at the whole press conference was, ‘This game matters and you have to win every game after that,'” he said. “I get it.”

But that doesn’t mean he has to like it. Day seems tired of wondering what it would take to calm disgruntled fans who want perfection. He knows he has to win every game, but The Game is on another level. Victory is demanded, not expected. Some Ohio State fans, mostly older ones so the number is dwindling, would accept a .500 season as long as the Buckeyes beat the Wolverines. Some would even prefer a win in Michigan to a national championship.

No wonder Saturday’s game is something of a public poll into his day’s four-year tenure. He is 30-0 against unranked opponents but is 2-2 in bowl games and 1-1 against Michigan. The New Hampshire native, who angers a minority of fans, has no scarlet blood, can always win the little ones. Can he win the big ones consistently?

Day continues to insist that he loves it in Ohio State and there’s no reason to doubt him. On the other hand, where does he stand on the hate scale with Michigan?

“Every time you fight tooth and nail to win the game, there’s sometimes friction because of what’s at stake,” he said. “That’s how it works.”

Frictions will intensify on Saturday. Which team will prove it? Are you exposed? Anyway, Buckeye Nation and M Go Blue can’t wait to rub it in.

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