For Gary ahead of The Game, frustration of last two years lingers
Tuesday afternoon, Rashan Gary faced reporters with a measured edge. Asked about his brief recruitment with Ohio State, Gary provided terse answers.
“What else do you want me to tell you about that?” he chided.
With the biggest game of his college career to date looming, Gary had only one thing on his mind.
“Everybody knows what week it is,” he said. “I’m focused. I’m trying to hurry up, get back to watching film. It’s one of those types of weeks.”
The junior defensive end will anchor the top-ranked defense in the country heading into Saturday’s de facto Big Ten East title game. At this point, everybody knows what’s on the line: a spot in the Big Ten Championship game against Northwestern, College Football Playoff hopes, perhaps the balance of power in the conference for the foreseeable future.
So, in short, just about everything.
It mirrors the game two years ago — Gary’s freshman year — in which Michigan fell, 30-27, in double overtime. For those around at the time, Gary among them, that heartbreak festers.
“My freshman year, we were close to winning. A couple of plays went sideways,” he said. “It’s just that one big play that everybody remembers. I don’t want to talk about it, but everybody knows that play. That’s what I keep in the back of my head, and I know my brothers keep that in the back of their head and use it as motivation going into this game.”
“That one big play,” of course, was JT Barrett’s fourth down conversion. The referee awarded Barrett a first down, despite inconclusive replays questioning the spot of the ball. Gary doesn’t want to talk about it, but the trauma still lingers. Asked about his recollection of those moments, the memories unspool.
“Man. Bring me back,” he said. “I was highly disappointed, because I’m looking up at the screen and to myself I’m like, ‘Nah, can’t be a first down.’ Then they end up getting it. It’s a little slap on the face, but you know what it is, it is what it is.”
A year later, more disappointment. Michigan led 14-0 after the fourth quarter and appeared poised to upset the Buckeyes. Led by backup quarterback Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State subsequently stormed past a tired Michigan defense.
For the Wolverines, that’s what this rivalry has been for the better part of two decades: annual frustration.
“We came out hot to a good start (last year), then we just started making small mistakes,” Gary said. “And small mistakes end up putting points on the board. They started gaining big yardage plays. That’s something I take apart from last year. This year we’re a different team, and I feel like we’re closer as a team. We know what we need to do and we know what we need to take care of.”
Gary says that this year, it feels different. This is no lip service.
Michigan has marched its way through the “Revenge Tour” with utter dominance, rattling off nine consecutive dominant wins after the loss to Notre Dame.
For one, it has quarterback Shea Patterson running the show, who is in the midst of one of the best statistical seasons by a Michigan quarterback in several years. Gary called him “a piece of the team we needed.” The Wolverines enter Columbus a four-point favorite for good reason.
And Gary, for his part, appears ready to make his mark. He returned from a lingering shoulder injury three weeks ago against Penn State. Last week against Indiana, he notched 1.5 sacks, tossing around offensive linemen the way he’s shown in flashes during his three years.
He won’t make any guarantees or offer any baited one-line zingers. But Gary and his teammates aren’t hiding their confidence. What makes this year different?
“Just our brotherhood. I feel like how our swagger is and what we want as a team goal.”
And for Gary specificially, there are conversations to have, NFL decisions to make in the near future. No time for that now, though.
He’s got film to watch.