Friday, November 25, 2011

REGARDLESS OF RECORDS, 'THE GAME' SHOULD BE A CLASSIC

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Woody Hayes — the late, legendary Ohio State head football coach — always used to refer to rival Michigan as "that school up north."

Michigan first-year head coach Brady Hoke, in his own Hayes-like fashion, refuses to utter the words "Ohio State," choosing instead to refer to the Buckeyes as simply, "Ohio."

Does Hoke mistakingly think he's playing Ohio University? Or is he trying to make a statement in his first meeting as head coach against the hated Buckeyes?

"No," Hoke said. "I just always have (called them Ohio)."

Buckeyes head coach Luke Fickell, whose "Ohio" team hasn't lost to Michigan since 2003, isn't bothered by Hoke's jabbing references.

"We might refer to Michigan in different ways, too," Fickell said.

The Buckeyes have dominated this storied rivalry in the past 10 years, winning nine games — including the last seven. However, that success came under former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, who resigned in May due to withholding player violations from the NCAA.

With Fickell at the helm, the Buckeyes have struggled mightily, just one loss away from having their first non-winning season — and first Big Ten losing campaign — since 1999. It's likely this will be Fickell's last game as head coach of the Buckeyes.

According to Fickell, though, none of that means anything this week. It's all about 'The Game.'

"In a rivalry like this, a lot of those things go out the window and records go out the window, and a lot of things are going to be scrapped," Fickell said. "There's going to be unbelievable passion on both sides of the football because of what this game means.

"I think those are the things that obviously overtake a lot of those."

Hoke agrees with Fickell's sentiments.

"The biggest thing is the respect that the two programs have had for each other for years," Hoke said. "I can remember Bo (Schembechler) always talking and Lloyd (Carr) of the great respect. That's what makes it such a great game because of how both teams will come in prepared, how both teams will play.

"It's a hard-hitting, clean football game. Always has been. You can be the favorite or the underdog, but none of that matters in this football game. It never does."

The Wolverines haven't just lost to the Buckeyes in their last seven outings, they been manhandled by an average score of 31-15. However, none of those losses were on Hoke's watch.

Michigan has improved tremendously this season with Hoke roaming its sideline, just one victory shy of copping their first 10-win season since 2006.

They are led by their dynamic junior quarterback Denard Robinson, a dual-threat player who has recorded a Big Ten-best 2,882 total yards and 29 touchdowns. He had 263 yards and four touchdowns in the Wolverines' 45-17 rout of Nebraska last week.

He is certainly priority No. 1 for the Buckeyes' defense this Saturday in Ann Arbor.

"He poses a lot of problems," Fickell said. "Anytime the quarterback's got the ability to keep plays alive running the football, it makes you struggle a little bit on defense with some of the things you can do and the chances you can take.

"You've got to be aware of those things. Obviously a guy like him, the thing I think that's dynamic about what he does is his ability to handle hits. The guy was the second leading rusher in our league last year. When a quarterback can carry the ball that many times, you know he's tough. He can take hits, he can take a pounding."

The Buckeyes are led by a similar type of talent at quarterback in the multi-dimensional Braxton Miller.

The true freshman has racked up 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns this season, and has done so with an offensive game-plan that essentially has no rhyme or reason, and a pass protection that has seen more leaks this season than the Titanic.

Hoke realizes the young Miller's rare talents, giving him praise when asked how he plans to contain the Buckeyes' signal caller on Saturday.

"It's going to be a tough job," Hoke said. "I've gotten to watch, I think, five games now or four games. He's impressive. He has everything coming out. He's a (Huber Heights) Wayne High School guy. He does a great job for them.

"I think the way he handles himself, I think how under pressure he's played, I think he throws the ball well, has a great, strong arm. I know his percentage isn't what it will be or would like to be, but I think he's done a tremendous job.

"We've got our work cut out."

Bottom Line

As Fickell stated, records mean nothing in this game. Sorry to sound cliche, but this game is all about the passion, desire and the will to win.

Each team has a lot to play for this Saturday. Michigan is looking to snap their long losing streak to Ohio State. They're going to be playing for their seniors who have never tasted victory in this match-up. They are also playing for a possible BCS bowl bid, something that's eluded them for nearly five years.

Ohio State is playing strictly for pride, for their seniors who have never lost to Michigan, and for their head coach who will likely be replaced soon after Saturday's game.

This game has classic written all over it.

After flipping a coin, shaking a magic 8-ball and consulting with a psychic ... I see Fickell and the seniors going out in one last blaze of glory.

I mean, it's about time something goes in Ohio State's favor, right?

Prediction: OSU 34-31