COLUMBUS – Urban Meyer can draw a straight line from many of the things he does as a football coach directly to Earle Bruce, who gave him his first college job when he hired him as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 1987.
Count an appreciation for the intensity of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry among the things he learned when he worked for Bruce at OSU.
Meyer grew up in Ashtabula and went to the University of Cincinnati, so he followed the OSU-Michigan game every year. But just how hot the rivalry burned wasn’t impressed upon him until he came to Columbus.
“I was just like most people from the outside looking in. Hey, it’s a great game,” Meyer said. “I grew up in the 10-Year-War (Woody Hayes’ teams against Bo Schembechler’s from 1969-78). I learned to dislike Michigan at a very young age..
“But, no, you never really appreciate it until you’re behind the walls here and find out how serious it is,” he said.
When No. 3 Ohio State (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten) plays Michigan (7-4, 3-4 Big Ten) on Saturday in Ann Arbor, it will be the latest game in a football series that began in 1897.
Their game has been played the final week of the regular season every year since 1935 . The two teams have decided the Big Ten title between themselves 22 times in this game.
“Do we make a big deal out of this game? Absolutely,” Meyer said. “Do we make a huge over the top deal about rivalry games? Yes, we do. We kind of go over the top here and we always have.
“It is different. It’s not just another game. It’s not. We officially started working on the game a day earlier than we normally do and they get it. Our players get it,” he said.
While Meyer’s in-depth understanding of the rivalry began in the 1980s, that doesn’t mean he stopped learning about it.
He says he has studied the approach used when OSU went 9-1 against Michigan in Jim Tressel’s 10 seasons as coach. And this is a coach, who when he was Utah’s head coach, made his assistants take a test on that school’s rivalries.
Ohio State’s players have obviously been schooled about the rivalry. The five players made available for interviews on Monday all talked about its importance and never veered off what sounded like Meyer-approved talking points.
“No matter what the circumstances, being in this program and playing in this game is huge. It’s the biggest rivalry in sports. It’s something we look forward to all year,” offensive lineman Jack Mewhort said. “To compete in this rivalry is huge for me.”
Mewhort graduated from Toledo St. John’s High School. Toledo is sort of a divided city with lots of Ohio State fans and lots of Michigan fans.
When Mewhort was asked if he had friends who grew up Michigan fans who are still Michigan fans and remain his friends, he said, “I think all the guys who if they were fans of that school (Michigan), they’re more fans of me now. They switched their allegiances.
“I don’t think anybody I’m that close with now is really fans of the school up north. If I find out they are, we’re going to have a problem,” he said.
Linebacker Ryan Shazier said, “This is the biggest game we’re going to play all year. This is the biggest game probably that we’ll play in the next few years.”
Asked how this game could possibly be the biggest game of the year when the Buckeyes will play in the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 7 and possibly could play in the national championship game, Shazier said, “The main focus right now is to beat the team up north. We’re not even focused on what’s ahead right now.”
INJURY UPDATE: Starting middle linebacker Curtis Grant is expected to play on Saturday after missing the last two games with an ankle injury, Meyer said.
“I think Curtis Grant will be good to go. We’ll need him in this game,” Meyer said.
There was no update on wide receiver Corey Brown, who missed OSU’s 42-14 win over Indiana last Saturday with an unspecified injury.
SHAZIER A FINALIST: Shazier was named one of five finalists for the Butkus Award on Monday. That award is given to the best linebacker in college football.
The other finalists are: Anthony Barr (UCLA), Khalil Mack (Buffalo), C.J. Mosley (Alabama) and Shayne Skov (Stanford).