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Wolverines eager to prepare for Ohio State

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 19, 2012

All season long, the Michigan football team says that the only game that matters is the one for that week.

They’re focusing only on that Saturday’s game, the Wolverines say. Michigan coach Brady Hoke insists that every week is a “championship week,” and that nobody is looking ahead to a future game or behind to a past game.

But the truth is that this week has been emphasized all season.

“We start every meeting with Beat Ohio,” said senior defensive tackle Will Campbell.

Michigan will take on hated rival Ohio State — or simply “Ohio,” as Hoke calls the school — for the 109th time this Saturday, and as the Wolverines themselves said on Monday, it’s a big game.

The Ohio born Hoke has emphasized the importance of the rivalry since he became Michigan’s coach before last season, a marked departure from the tenure of former coach Rich Rodriguez, who many fans felt didn’t appreciate the history with the Buckeyes as much as he should have.

But as Hoke said, the rivalry is bigger than him, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, or any player taking part in this year’s edition of the game. The two teams have a long history of tense, year-end battles and the game has spawned countless memorable moments.

The week of practice leading up to The Game shows just how much the Wolverines care about beating their counterparts to the south.

“It’s really hard to put into words, I guess,” said fifth-year senior center Elliott Mealer. “It’s probably everything you’d expect. It’s intense. The biggest thing is your focus, the bar is kinda raised on that. … You understand when you play in this game, you really have to be at your best.

“You got to be your sharpest, so your preparation is that much more focused.”

Like most years, this season’s edition of the game has plenty at stake.

Michigan still has a shot at the Big Ten Championship, since it can take the Legends Division with a win over Ohio State and Nebraska loss to Iowa. The Wolverines also have their postseason fate to play for — they’re certain to make a bowl, but which one they play in could change based on Saturday’s outcome.

As for the Buckeyes, there are no such postseason implications. They’re ineligible to take part in any postseason action, whether a bowl game or the Big Ten Championship game, due to sanctions stemming from the NCAA’s investigation into transgressions dating to the tenure of former coach Jim Tressel.

But at 11-0, Ohio State has a chance to finish the season undefeated, which is always a weighty achievement. There’s a slim chance that the team could earn a national championship should the voters of the Associated Press Poll decide to rank the Buckeyes No. 1 over the winner of the BCS Championship Game.

One might think that the opportunity to ruin a perfect season would add to the motivation for Michigan. But the Wolverines claim that’s not the case at all — Hoke said the importance of The Game renders side motivations like that irrelevant.

“If you need anything to get amped up more or whatever for this football game, then you don't know college football and you don't understand the importance of this great rivalry,” Hoke said.

Added Campbell: “I mean if they were 0-11, it’d still be Michigan playing Ohio. That’s all you need. You don’t need any motivational speeches or anything coming into this week to get prepared to play Ohio.”

Players have complimented Hoke for his ability to educate the team on the importance and history of all of Michigan’s rivalries. But even that apparently isn’t necessary for Ohio State — the awareness comes from the emphasis placed on this game throughout the whole season, and the older players maker sure that the younger ones know what’s coming, according to Hoke.

To a man, each of the players that spoke to the media on Monday spoke of their excitement for Saturday and the week leading up to it. (It probably didn’t hurt that all four of them grew up in either Michigan or Ohio, so the rivalry was never foreign to them.)

Junior quarterback Devin Gardner, who appears poised to remain the starting quarterback against the Buckeyes, said he remembers the last trip Michigan made to Columbus in 2010.

Even though the Wolverines were blown out in that game, Gardner said he was still amazed at the impact of the rivalry.

“Obviously you guys know this is the greatest rivalry in sports,” Gardner said. “I think a lot of people feel this way. I just can’t wait to play in it.”