It’s hard to find uncharted territory for a 124-year old football program and in making their first Big Ten Championship Game appearance, the 2013 Ohio State Buckeyes have found some, and it’s not much to envy.
Ohio State’s (12-0, 8-0) week of singular focus on Michigan yielded a thrilling 42-41 win against the now-No. 2-ranked Buckeyes’ hated rivals. All the attention on the Wolverines has given way to preparation for No. 10 Michigan State (11-1, 8-0) with whom Ohio State shares a burgeoning rivalry that will be renewed this weekend in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.
The task of hanging out to vanquish one rival and quickly turning around to face another one week later is a tall one for Ohio State. It’s also a circumstance they’ll likely become increasingly familiar with in years to come, so get used to it.
Buckeyes players and coaches, beaten and worn by yet another memorable installment in the Ohio State-Michigan series, are to play a team one week after facing Michigan for the first time since taking on Iowa Pre-Flight in 1942. Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith acknowledges the inherent disadvantage of the test the Buckeyes are up against this week.
“I think it’s always going to be a challenge for us if we’re fortunate to have this opportunity to be in the (Big Ten) championship because the Michigan game (one week prior) is so important,” Smith told BSB last weekend.
But Smith, current players and a former Buckeyes coaching great are confident that Ohio State can heal up and succeed at Lucas Oil Stadium in a rare program-first. There’s also evidence to suggest a Michigan hangover and distractions resurfacing from past encounters with Michigan State, but Urban Meyer said he is ready for these hurdles as well.
As far as getting up for a 13th game in concerned, senior safety C.J. Barnett said it isn’t a challenge at all. A common sense approach to preparation will help the Buckeyes succeed, he added.
“I don’t really know if it’s a challenge,” Barnett said right after the Michigan game. “We’ve played 11 games before this thing, so we’re going to get back tonight and tomorrow get the bodies right and get back at it.”
Buckeyes senior center Corey Linsley was mostly in agreement with Barnett.
“I was pretty beat up (after the Michigan game). I just got a massage and some treatment and I’m feeling great right now,” Linsley said on Monday. “I feel like our team’s focus is pretty good. We’re on to next week.”
Linsley still acknowledged the “lasting effects” of facing Michigan. Namely, he was concerned with Michigan offensive linemen Taylor Lewan’s postgame criticism of Ohio State’s national ranking, which has since improved from No. 3 in the BCS to No. 2.
Maybe Linsley simply wanted to address Lewan’s inflammatory comment, or maybe his emotional focus was slow to shift as a result of the competitiveness of The Game.
Smith said that the challenge of mentally preparing Ohio State falls to Meyer. Even in acknowledging the difficulty of transitioning from the Michigan rivalry game into the conference championship, Smith said he expects the team to perform well. He cited the corporate-type organizational structure that Meyer has installed at Ohio State as reason to expect a business-like approach throughout the coming week.
“It’s really about how the coach manages (this week) because it’s an emotional thing,” Smith told BSB. “Physically, you need to come out of it good, but it really is a psychological deal you need to focus on early in the week. As you get to Thursday and Friday, it’s not that big of a challenge closer to the game. It’s Sunday, Monday and Tuesday because (media) are constantly asking those guys the questions. It’s really that part of the week — if you keep them focused there, they dial in.”
For Michigan State’s part, they’ve been here before. The Spartans competed in 2011’s inaugural Big Ten Championship Game, losing a 42-39 thriller late in regulation. The Spartans are spoiling for a rematch, too. Even after a tight 14-3 win against Minnesota to close out the regular season, Michigan State players are actively inviting the toughest week of practice all season. Lighter practices leading up to the 2011 Big Ten title game were partly to blame for the Spartans coughing up the lead against Wisconsin, several Spartans players said.
“It has to be the best week of practice we've ever had. It has to be a physical practice,” senior linebacker Max Bullough said. “That's what we need to do, and that's what we're going to do. That was a mistake that we made previously (in 2011). When you've got a good quarterback, a guy that can run and pass like Braxton Miller, you need to be prepared. You need to be able to take him down to the ground.”
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio is also calling for BCS National Championship Game consideration, much like Ohio State is receiving, if his Spartans team walks out of Indy as Big Ten champs.
The relationship between Ohio State and Michigan State might fall short of the Buckeyes and Wolverines shared hatred, but there probably aren’t many pleasantries exchanged between programs after the teams’ 2012 meeting. After Ohio State defeated the Spartans in East Lansing, 17-16, Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi accused Ohio State of providing incomplete game tape for scouting purposes, a claim Meyer rebuked. Additionally, the Buckeyes sent footage to the Big Ten mere days later of a Michigan State player gouging an Ohio State player's eyes during the game.
Meyer didn’t address the spat from last season during his weekly press conference. His players might be sore, he said and, yes, there’s another rival eager to take the Buckeyes down, but his plan is to use common sense about preparation for the next biggest game of the season.
“I think (the players) are sore and I have got to be smart this week what we do,” Meyer said. “But as far as energy and focus, and throw in the fact that it's finals week at Ohio State this week, too, we have to be really efficient with our team with these guys.”
Meyer has the full support of former Ohio State coaching great Jim Tressel, too.
Tressel was famous for posting a 9-1 record against hated Michigan, though he never faced the challenge of strapping up a week later to play any game, let alone a game to decide a BCS bowl berth and Big Ten championship. But even he said the Buckeyes will be properly equipped to handle the challenge in Indianapolis this week.
"I don't know that it will be tough just because now you're playing for a championship,” Tressel told BSB. “It's just like being on the playground — if you win, you keep playing. I think they'll be just fine."