COLUMBUS — Anytime Ohio State and Michigan meet on the field to end the regular season, there is no shortage of motivation on either sideline. In a rivalry that means so much to both schools — and to the college football landscape in years like the present — winning The Game stands alone when goals are defined in the offseason.
But for Ohio State, Saturday’s clash with the Wolverines has seemingly taken on an entirely different level of importance inside the program given its failures a year ago in Ann Arbor.
Ranked sixth and a win away from a likely Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff, Ohio State was bullied by Michigan all afternoon en route to a stunning 42-27 defeat that shattered dreams and left the program in an unfamiliar position heading into the offseason for the first time in 10 years.
So much of what Ohio State is as a team today stems from its shortcomings against Michigan a year ago, and head coach Ryan Day didn’t shy away from that fact during his press conference on Tuesday.
“I think you’re shaped by whatever’s happened in your past, and we have scars,” Day said. “It motivated us all offseason, so we’ve worked very hard to get to this moment right here, and now it’s time to go prepare the best we can. That’s what we’re going to focus on physically, mentally, and emotionally, to go play the hardest game we’ve ever played. We’ll find out where we’re at on Saturday.”
According to senior defensive lineman Zach Harrison, “everything” changed in the Ohio State program after the fallout of last year’s loss to Michigan.
“Our mentality, the way we work out, the way we lift, the way we run, the way we carry ourselves. We realized that we have to do more,” Harrison said.
Questions of Ohio State’s toughness were rampant following the game last year, particularly from those inside the Michigan program who rightfully proclaimed they were simply the tougher, more physical team. Day, himself, was even the subject of a direct shot fired after the game by Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who now infamously suggested Day had been “born on third base” but thought he hit a triple when taking over at Ohio State.
Such questions did not go unnoticed throughout the Ohio State program, and they’ve remained a constant source of motivation as the Buckeyes finally get their chance to dismiss the narratives. “We heard it,” Harrison said in a direct, matter-of-fact tone on Tuesday.
Asked how much the comments spawning from last year’s defeat motivated the team this year, tight end Cade Stover said simply, “Quite a bit.”
Of course, none of the motivational tools and tactics will mean a thing if Ohio State doesn’t execute and play well on Saturday, a fact Day circled back to on Tuesday.
“Our guys felt the pain last year, and it simmered and we had to chew on it for a whole year, and that’s a long time,” Day said. “So we’ll see about the corrections we’ve made, we’ll see about the growth that we’ve made … I know you’re going to get an excited team. But right now, the focus has to be on having an unbelievable week of practice and an unbelievable week of preparation for our bodies, minds, and souls.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.