The week before the Michigan game is full of traditions. Senior Tackle, the Mirror Lake jump, crossing out the Ms on every sign on campus, and players and coaches from both sides of the rivalry talking about how physical the upcoming Saturday will be.
They talk about winning the battle in the trenches. They talk about the importance of being able to run the ball, and also to stop their opponent’s running game.
Old coaches come back and reminisce about how running the ball and controlling the line of scrimmage was the most important thing back when they coached in The Game, too.
It happens every year, to an almost eye-rolling degree. It happened this week as well.
“It’s physical as can be, going against a team like The Team Up North and having those big guys up front,” said Ohio State C Billy Price.
“They try and out-tough you – that’s what they do. That’s their M.O.,” said OSU DE Sam Hubbard. “They’re not going to change anything.”
“It is definitely a physical game and there is a lot of emotion behind it,” said Buckeye QB J.T. Barrett. “I think getting (RBs Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins) going early is going to be critical for us.”
But this cliche is an annual tradition for a reason. For the past 15 years, when a team averaged more yards per rush in The Game, it won The Game. Every time. No exceptions.
Ohio State’s recent dominance in the series has come on the backs of the offensive linemen who have controlled the line of scrimmage. They know that will be the case again this weekend.
“I think the running game period is primary right now. Whoever wins the line of scrimmage and wins the trenches tends to win the game itself,” said Price. “If we get the run game going and eliminate penalties and eliminate turnovers we’re going to put ourselves in good position to win.”
Michigan’s defensive front will almost certainly be the best that the Buckeyes have faced all season, thanks to standouts like Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary. But Price said that doesn’t change what the Buckeyes have to do.
“They’re known for disruption and attacking the ball and being very aggressive up front. Put a man on a man on the front seven, and whoever wins the line of scrimmage is usually the people who win the game,” he said.
Barrett’s legs have been a key piece of the Buckeye attack against Michigan in his three previous starts. He ran for 89 yards and two touchdowns before leaving with a broken leg in 2014, then 139 yards and three scores in 2015, and a team-high 125 yards and a touchdown in 2016.
He expects that to be a part of the game plan on Saturday as well.
“When it comes to games, not just this game but games before this, that’s just a part of our game plan and that’s something that they have to defend,” said Barrett. “I think it just makes it difficult on their part as far as the quarterback run.“
On the other side of the ball, the key is the same.
“It’s the number one priority,” said Hubbard. “When you go into someone’s house, you gotta run the ball and stop the run, especially in this game. Historically, it’s been run the ball downhill, whoever’s tougher, and who can stop the opponent from running the ball is going to have the upper hand.”
Michigan’s offense comes in with several key players injured. Any of three quarterbacks – John O’Korn, Wilton Speight, or Brandon Peters – could play on Saturday, and the running game is up in the air because of injuries to Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac. Speedy Chris Evans and former OSU commit Kareem Walker will also get carries.
“They’ve got two really good running backs,” said OSU DL Jalyn Holmes. “I feel like they read their holes pretty well and they run pretty hard, and they’re running behind a good, physical O-line. We’ve got to play physical and we’ve got to match that intensity every play and try to dominate the run.”
Lewis said it doesn’t really matter which quarterback or running back is in on any given play.
“Playing football, playing defensive line, your job is to dominate the offensive lineman and then make the tackle. There are some good running backs out there but at the end of the day you have to hold your gap, defend your gap and destroy a blocker and then make the tackle.”