Stakes are higher for this Michigan-Ohio State game, but the hostility never left
ANN ARBOR -- One word more than any other has been used to characterize The Game this week, and it's of little surprise to no one.
"That's about it," Michigan senior defensive end Craig Roh said. "There's a mutual respect between the two teams. I don't think there will be a lot of jawing at each other. There won't be a lot of flags. Just good, hard hits -- good, hard football playing.
"But I think there definitely is an undertone of hostility. There always is."
Michigan and Ohio State will tangle for the 109th time on Saturday (noon, ABC), and, just like old times, there will be a lot at stake.
The No. 20 Wolverines (8-3, 6-1) remain in the hunt for a Big Ten title with one game remaining, although needs some help from Iowa on Friday against Nebraska to secure a trip to Indianapolis. They also are trying to win in Columbus for the first time since 2000.
The No. 4 Buckeyes (11-0, 7-0) are ineligible for the postseason, but still have a shot at winning an Associated Press national title. They also are trying to avenge a loss last year against Michigan.
Michigan refers to them as Ohio. Ohio State refers to them as The Team Up North.
There's respect between the two programs, but that doesn't mean they have to like each other. And they don't, really.
Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs learned that lesson from an early age, attending games at Ohio Stadium in 2000, '02 and '04. The Clay, Ohio native grew up a Wolverines fan burrowed behind enemy lines.
"I was wearing a lot of maize and blue -- which, there's some pretty intense (Ohio State) fans," he said. "They're ruthless down there. I think it was at that point I decided, 'You know what? I can't wait to come down here as a Michigan player. I can't wait.'
"Couldn't do much as a 10-year-old kid. But now I can."
Michigan-Ohio State is one of the nation's preeminent rivalries, and Midwest kids know it well. But Roh, a Scottsdale, Ariz., native, didn't know much about it when he arrived on campus.
He learned quickly.
Roh dropped his first game against Ohio State 21-10, a dispiriting end to a 5-7 season. It went worse the next year, a 37-7 drubbing in Columbus.
He played an integral role in last year's 40-34 win at Michigan Stadium, a triumph that snapped a seven-game skid in the series. But as he prepares to make his return to the Horseshoe, he isn't thinking about the thrill of last year's victory.
He's still agonizing over that 2010 defeat in Columbus.
He recalls the the welcome the team bus received as it neared the stadium.
"There's certain gestures that were being shown, all the way from 4-year-olds to 50-year-olds," he said. "I won't say specifically what they were, but certain hand gestures and signs. Somewhere on the hand.
"I think it's really funny, to tell you the truth. It's something that gets me ready to play because I know what kind of environment I'm going to be in."
Quarterback Denard Robinson saw the same thing.
"One thing I do remember is coming into the stadium," he said. "You see the fans, they’re doing some things I won’t talk about. But they get a little rowdy down there.
"You can tell you’re not in your territory anymore. You’re far away from home."
Michigan and Ohio State are two of the most accomplished football programs in the country, so it's unsurprising that the series intensified over the years with so much at stake.
That luster wore off just a bit the past few years, as Michigan endured Rich Rodriguez's rocky three-year tenure, then Ohio State lost coach Jim Tressel amid an NCAA scandal and floundered to a 6-7 mark last year under interim coach Luke Fickell.
Either Michigan or Ohio State went on to play in a BCS bowl after The Game every season since 2001, so it wasn't irrelevent.
But every season since 2008, either Michigan or Ohio State was struggling entering rivalry week. Michigan was 3-8 in 2008, 5-6 in 2009 and 7-4 (with losses in four of its previous six games) in 2010.
Ohio State was 6-5 last year.
This year, though, it's back.
Michigan is 8-3 and gunning for a league title. Ohio State is 11-0 and gunning for an AP title -- and, without a bowl game, this is all it has left to play for.
There's expected to be a renewed sense of, well, hostility.
“I think it’s bringing back that rivalry that people are used to," OSU safety Orhian Johnson told reporters this week. "Just being that those guys have a team team up there, and we have a great team down here, just going out there and competing. I feel like it brings out the rivalry.
“Every hit, man, you’re trying to give everything that you got. There’s nothing left for it. Everything that you go out there and do for that weekend and for that game is just for that. Words can’t explain it unless you’re out there on the field. There’s no other way for you to experience it.”
Michigan coach Brady Hoke is 1-0 in the series, and has focused on it ever since he pounded a podium seven times on the day he was hired 22 months ago, declaring this game "The. Most. Important. Game. On. That. Schedule."
That message has trickled through his program.
"This is as big as it gets," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "There's no other game in college football, in my mind, like this one. If you aren't at your best and you aren't into this one, then there's something wrong.
"You'd better get checked."