Growing up in Washington, Emeka Egbuka openly admits that he “really knew nothing” about the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry before the Buckeyes started recruiting him out of high school.
He’s not the only one.
Many of the Buckeyes preparing to put their bodies on the line for the sake of The Game this weekend weren’t truly indoctrinated into the lore until arriving in Columbus. But as far-reaching as Ohio State’s recruiting efforts have become over the years, there are still many Buckeye State natives on the roster whose relationship to the rivalry predates their time playing it.
“I feel the pain not only of the loss, I feel the pain of the state facing a year in which we failed. And I think this kind of fuel fuels us day after day.— Xavier Johnson on loss to Michigan
Zach Harrison, a native of Lewis Center, Ohio, recalls watching The Game with friends in elementary school and then “listen to all the fans of the northern team, they would be bullied, they would be teased, they would be laughed at by fans of the Ohio State”. Obviously, the Michigan fans in Buckeye country were vastly outnumbered, but Harrison said “there’s always one in every class.”
It was then that Harrison came to a realization.
“Oh, this is serious. … This is more than just a football match,” she said. “That means a lot.”
If any member of the Ohio State program was unaware of this fact, it surely became clear following last year’s 42-27 loss to the Wolverines, the Buckeyes’ first in 10 years. Those who grew up Ohio State fans, like fifth-year and Cincinnati native Xavier Johnson, hardly needed a reminder.
“The rivalry, the story, everything is rich behind it. So we work so hard on that game, we work on it every day. And so having failed, it hurts,” Johnson said. kind of fuel you feed us day to day. I think we have a lot of Ohio guys on the team. And so just having the understanding of that rivalry, even how to pre-play it, I think that’s kind of something that allowed us to take it so seriously.
Paris Johnson Jr., another Cincinnati native, said he never saw The Game as a child. But speaking with former Buckeye players before his first start in the rivalry last year, he was imbued with a sense of responsibility.
He had one such talk with former Buckeye offensive lineman Michael Jordan, who told him that before his first start against Michigan in 2016, Orlando Pace gave him a nod that symbolized the importance of the job from carry out.
“Throughout the game he was like, ‘I don’t want to let him down.’ And for him, it was a great moment” said Paris Johnson.
But while Jordan’s debut rivalry ended in a double-overtime victory in Columbus, Johnson’s was far less celebratory. Johnson said he “took that loss very hard” and still remembers his emotions immediately after in Ann Arbor.
“At that moment when we lost, just like looking at the scoreboard, I personally thought in my mind that not only did we fail our number one goal of when you sign here to be a Buckeye, but I felt like all the people in the past who kept the tradition of beating them – home or away – I felt like I let them down in that match,” said Paris Johnson. “So I felt, for me, how I felt at the time, I’ve been holding it up to this point.”
There’s no doubt Johnson feels he owes it to his teammates and himself to right last year’s wrong, but he also doesn’t want to disappoint those who came before him again.
“I feel like I’ve bonded with a lot of past Buckeyes here to the point where I know all the work they’ve done. To the banners up here during the Big Ten championships. And you can’t get there without beating (Michigan),” Paris Johnson said. “So there’s all these guys on the poster that I’m thinking that they’ve done before. I have to keep doing it myself.”
Ryan Day’s efforts to make up for last year’s loss were evident, outwardly speaking. The Buckeye coach overhauled his defensive coaching staff during the offseason, with the exception of defensive line coach Larry Johnson, and also replaced his offensive line coach.
“Everyone has changed, from Coach Day down to the equipment guys, there has been a change. And the players included in this.— Xavier Johnson
Internally, Xavier Johnson said the changes were even more tangible.
“Everyone has changed, from Coach Day down to the equipment guys, there has been a change. And the players included in that,” Xavier Johnson said. “I think there was a little bit of laxity that happened, and I think that laxity came back to bite us. everything, whether it was our off-season workouts, whether it was the set-up, the players – we had to look in the mirror and we really had to understand that this is a matchup game.
“They’re an excellent team, they have an excellent infrastructure up there. And so when we play against them, we play against someone who is very – the playing fields are level. So we have to bring our A-game, and that really starts from the first practice in the winter and it continues through this season. Then all 11 games and up to the 12th. And so I think the way that has changed has been to think back and understand that if we don’t play this game every day, if we don’t improve every day, then we are susceptible to what happened last year.
Whether the Buckeyes understood the gravity of The Game before they hit the schedule, right after, or just after their 2021 loss, there seems to be no lack of urgency going into Saturday’s showdown. They’ll be at the forefront of college football’s biggest rivalry game this weekend when their supposed change in attitude towards archrival Ohio State is truly put to the test.