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The chants started deep in the third quarter, reverberating throughout a half-empty Capital One Field teeming with Michigan fans basking in the Wolverines’ 31-7 lead. 

“Beat Ohio. Beat Ohio. Beat Ohio.” 

They started strong, because these types of chants are never really faint. They carry venom. Animosity. Disdain. 

At the same time, they’re wishful, projecting the hopes and dreams of an entire fanbase. 

After an unprecedented two-year hiatus, the Game is again imminent. Next Saturday, No. 6 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State will duke it out for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game. It’s a de facto elimination game for the College Football Playoff, too. 

“It means everything,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after his team’s 58-19 thrashing of Maryland. “That was everything that was planned for, built for and all the energy that was put in since way back in early 2021. All the things that the guys have done, the coaches have done that’s put us in this position, that’s the position we wanted to be in. 

“We want to finish it. We want to win all the marbles.” 

They won’t always admit it, but Ohio State weighs heavy on the minds of Michigan players and coaches throughout the year. Michigan’s result in the Game, afterall, is so often used as the barometer for a successful season — fair or not. 

This year, the Wolverines have been careful to downplay the Game, at least externally. That’s probably for the better. They’ve staunchly abided by a one-game-at-a-time mindset, and it’s worked to a tee, pushing them to a surprising 10-win campaign. 

Now, with Ohio State at last the next opponent on the schedule, that changes. 

Late in the third quarter, with Michigan leading 45-18, junior quarterback Cade McNamara put away his helmet. His work was done, a 259-yard and two-touchdown performance. 

That’s when he shoved the Terrapins in the rearview mirror. It was time to think about Ohio State. 

“Games like next week are the reason that you come to Michigan,” McNamara said, his voice steadfast.

In the postgame locker room, everyone followed suit. 

“Now that we’ve put this one in the books, all the attention and focus just turns to them,” sophomore receiver A.J. Henning said of Ohio State. “Everything we’ve got will go into preparation for them.” 

Ohio State will surely attack this week similarly, and they already appear ready to go. The Buckeyes made a definitive statement early on Saturday, eviscerating seventh-ranked Michigan State and hanging 49 points on the Spartans in the first half alone. 

Neither McNamara nor Harbaugh watched the game, but they damn well saw the score. 

“Once we saw Ohio State — it was out of control,” McNamara said. “You just figured they would win.” 

And yet, in spite of Ohio State’s performance — and the Buckeyes’ eight-game winning streak in the rivalry — Michigan heads into the Game apparently unflappable. 

“Now that everything we’ve been working for is right here in front of us, we couldn’t be more excited,” McNamara said. “And we’re ready.” 

That mirrors the mentality that the Wolverines have expressed throughout the season. It’s a conviction rooted in extensive training and preparation that began all the way back in January, according to freshman running back Donovan Edwards. 

“We know it’s a big challenge,” Harbaugh said. “We’re excited to get after it and bring it to life.” 

That starts with execution, which has plagued the Wolverines against Ohio State throughout the Harbaugh era. Saturday’s win over Maryland provides Michigan with a blueprint, in some ways, of what it will have to do in order to dethrone the Buckeyes next weekend. 

The Wolverines will need the sort of game-changing, explosive plays that they received in droves on Saturday. There was a kickoff return for a touchdown from Henning, a blocked punt from senior wide receiver Matt Torey, a pick-six from junior cornerback D.J. Turner and a 77-yard touchdown pass to Edwards. 

That’ll certainly do against the Buckeyes. 

On the other hand, they’ll need to avoid some of the blown coverages and gaping holes in the secondary. They’ll need a consistently dynamic pass rush, one that notches more than two sacks. 

Maryland struggled to capitalize on those lapses. Ohio State won’t have those problems. 

“Guys gotta execute, do what you’re supposed to do day by day, and that’s the only way you get to the top of the hill,” Smith said. 

And now, amidst a season that’s surpassed reasonable expectations, only Ohio State stands in the way.