The week, for most of the country, begins Monday morning.
Michigan week, for Ohio State, though, began about five hours after the team’s 42-14 victory against Indiana on Saturday that moved the Buckeyes to 11-0.
"Once 12 o'clock hits, everybody knows exactly what time it is, what game is coming up,” junior linebacker Ryan Shazier said in the immediate aftermath of the Indiana game. “It's the biggest rivalry of all time."
It won’t take much convincing to make Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer to feel that way as well.
A native of Ashtabula, a disciple of both Woody Hayes and Archie Griffin, Meyer told a story at his introductory press conference about going shopping with his mother Gisela around the Thanksgiving holiday and hearing The Game over the loudspeakers. As he told it, his hardscrabble hometown on the windswept shores of Lake Erie didn’t stop on every game day, but it “shut down” on The Game day.
It was no “310 days” speech, but it certainly immediately set the tone that Meyer understands what it means when the silver helmets meet the winged lids on a cold November day.
“I have great respect for this rivalry, humbled to be a part of it,” Meyer said Saturday. “When I say great respect, it almost makes me in awe. Eight of my nine (assistant coaches) are from the state of Ohio. One wishes he was from Ohio.
“I'll say this, the responsibility sometimes can be overwhelming, what we have to do next week. So we take it very serious. We're working the game as we speak. We're all going to go home, see our families, we're coming back tomorrow and ready to go.”
The Buckeyes better be ready. Undefeated and going to the Big House to take on 7-4 Michigan, the Scarlet and Gray could be in the crosshairs for one of the upsets that in many ways define the series. Bo Schembechler’s 1969 upending of what was supposed to be college football’s greatest team is the most famous example, but it was matched by one coach coming in – Jim Tressel in 2001, on the 310th day, if you remember – and one going out – a fedora-clad Earle Bruce in 1987. Those, of course, are just scratching the surface.
"We're going to get their best shot like we do every single game,” OSU defensive lineman Michael Bennett said. “It doesn't matter what their schedule is or what they've done up to this point. They're going to come out and they're going to operate on all cylinders, and we need to, too."
What most players first notice is the physicality of the game. The most famous stretch in the rivalry’s history, the Ten-Year War between Hayes and one-time protégé Schembechler, was essentially organized combat on a gridiron, a physical, smash-mouth, run-based showdown devoid of subtlety in most every way.
The style of football has changed a bit but not the hard-hitting, smack-talking nature. David Boston and Charles Woodson came to blows in the 1997 game. Five years ago, Malcolm Jenkins body-slammed Greg Mathews to the ground on Michigan’s first play from scrimmage. In 1973, the Buckeyes ran out from the tunnel and tore down Michigan’s famed “M-Club” banner.
Jenkins learned the physicality of the rivalry while seeing sporadic action as a true freshman in 2005.
“I just saw the difference in the seniors and the starters in their preparation and their intent as they were playing,” he said. “They were really – I could tell – trying to hurt people out there. I could tell they had stepped it up to a whole ’nother level.”
That is what winning The Game often takes – elevating the level of play to a point that has not been reached all season long. When asked what he’ll tell his younger teammates about The Game, Shazier – who had 15 tackles as a freshman in 2011 – had a knowing answer.
"I'm just going to tell them, this is going to be the biggest week of your life, the biggest game of your life,” Shazier said. “It's so much at stake on this game. It doesn't matter what our records are. We can be 0-11 right now and they could be 0-11 and it'll still be the biggest rivalry in football. Everybody's eyes are still going to be watching. We just have to do our job and continue to work hard and win. A lot of freshmen and younger guys are going to see how important this game is this week."
The Game is so important that it’s shadow is never far from the players’ minds. Both schools have countdown clocks in their respective weight rooms ticking off the days and minutes to the second until the ball goes in the air each year. That doesn’t happen for Indiana.
Tressel famously instituted a “Maize and Blue” period, a five-minute span of each practice in which effort-based drills reminded the Buckeyes of what would need to be done to beat Michigan at the end of the year. There are no Maroon and Gold drills that we know of.
"We have a clock up on the wall that we're working out in front of all the time, waiting for this week,” Bennett said. “So now that (the Indiana) game is behind us, it's about That Team Up North, all about beating them."
It’s a game where talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words, but the last word is often one delivered with a barbed tongue. “A funny thing happened on the way to the sunset,” Kirk Barton crowed after OSU won its fourth in a row vs. once-ballyhooed Michigan in 2007, but “only the good ones” travel from Ohio to wear Maize and Blue, Dennis Franklin said in the 1970s.
So we’ll close with a quote from one of the best talkers left in the rivalry, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby. When asked about the rivalry Saturday evening, he was the one Buckeye player to use the one word that many think but precious few say when discussing the rivalry – hate.
It’s The Game. It shouldn’t be any other way.
“I love it because the fans are crazy (in Ann Arbor),” Roby said. “They're all against us. We don't like them and they don't like us. I hate them, so I can't wait for the game."