When the shirts arrived, nobody on Michigan had any use for them.
Co-East Division Champions, they read on the front. On the surface, it’s a momento of an 8-1 conference record and the season that made that possible. But to the Wolverines, the shirts served as an visceral reminder of everything that could have been.
East Division Champions — no “co” needed — was the minimum expectation when Michigan entered Columbus last season on a 10-game win streak with everything to play for.
What came next doesn’t need repeating. A year later, 62-39 is a scoreline etched in Michigan’s conscience. Nobody needs a reminder — least of all the Wolverines’ defense, carved for 567 yards in that humiliation against Ohio State.
Jim Harbaugh, though, provided them with one anyway, by way of those shirts.
“Coach Harbaugh put all the losses that we had (on the shirt) and that 62 was right at the top,” junior defensive end Kwity Paye told reporters. “So we looked at all the losses. And when people wear that shirt, we see the number on the back of the shirts and that just reminds us every day that we aspire to be a lot better than last year.”
Paye, a Rhode Island native, didn’t grow up around the rivalry like so many of his teammates. Even when he got to Michigan, it wasn’t on the forefront of his mind, as he fought for playing time on one of the country’s most talented defensive lines.
That’s why he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong when he got to the Wolverines’ walkthrough for the 2017 edition of The Game. To everyone else, Paye’s mistake was glaring: he was wearing a red t-shirt.
Not wearing red is an unspoken rule of Schembecher Hall year-round. During Ohio State week, it’s a mandate. So when the Wolverines’ senior leaders demanded Paye remove his shirt, he complied, going through the rest of the walkthrough shirtless.
“Once Ohio State week hits, everybody’s locked in,” Paye said. “We’re locked in all season but it’s a different type of locked in.”
It’s why last year stung so much and why this year will be defined by Saturday.
This year’s game, though, has a different importance for Paye — and it’s not just because of last year’s stinging memory.
A year ago, he was a rotation player, only seeing the field when Chase Winovich or Rashan Gary needed a break. Now, he’s a linchpin along Michigan’s defensive line, leading the Wolverines in sacks and playing a key role in their run defense.
Against the Buckeyes’ pro-spread offense, his importance is magnified.
“He’s the best spread run defender I’ve ever seen,” defensive coordinator Don Brown said in October. “Why do I say that? Cause you can’t fool him.”
Brown continued to extol everything that makes Paye great against the spread run: his discipline, his ability to read an offense, his speed to chase a quarterback down from behind. All of it will be in the spotlight Saturday, against Ohio State’s duo of quarterback Justin Fields and running back J.K. Dobbins — 1,848 rushing yards between them.
Paye’s importance Saturday extends to the passing game, where the Wolverines’ zero sacks were a key part of their dismantling a year ago. All season, his emergence has helped negate the impact of Winovich and Gary’s departures.
Now, it’s on Paye to help Michigan do what they never could: Beat the Buckeyes.
“Our goal every year is just to beat them,” Paye said. “Everyone on this team knows that this is the biggest game of the year.”