Taylor Upshaw jumps as he holds the ball after a fumble recovery. His team surrounds him celebrating with him.
Ohio State is finally the sole focus of the Wolverines. And with the high stakes of The Game, its for good reason that the Buckeyes have been in the back of their minds all season. Grace Beal/Daily. Buy this photo.

For the first 12 weeks of the No. 3 Michigan football team’s season, any time players and coaches were asked about Ohio State, their response was that the Wolverines’ sole focus was on the opponent in front of them. Whether it was East Carolina, or Nebraska, or Maryland, Michigan insisted that the Buckeyes wouldn’t be anywhere near the forefront of their minds until they were next on the schedule. 

But on Monday, senior running back Blake Corum admitted that that may not have been completely true.

“You try to be where your feet are as much as you can throughout the season, but sometimes it’s hard not to glance off at that last game,” Corum said. “And I think we’ve been doing that throughout the year. Even though we’ve been preaching you know, ‘One game at a time.’ We’ve definitely glanced off. I know a lot of guys have watched (Ohio State) film previously. … But we’re here now.”

With the week of The Game having finally arrived, the constantly drifting focus toward the Buckeyes now makes sense. Because this year The Game will decide the outcome of Michigan’s season. With a win, the Wolverines become the Big Ten East champions, earn a spot in the Big Ten Championship and in all likelihood receive a berth in the College Football Playoff.

With a loss, all of that fades away. Now with The Game directly on the horizon, they no longer have to equivocate, and Michigan coach Jim Harbuagh and his players have made it clear that they fully understand the stakes. 

“We all know what it means,” acting head coach Sherrone Moore said Monday. “It’s the one you practice for, you play for, you work for all year. So we all know the stakes.”

With the pressure and the tension seemingly ready to boil over, Harbaugh and the Wolverines have tried to stress preparation above all animosity. Corum stated he won’t feel fully prepared until he gets to Friday night. Moore is emphasizing his preparation to execute the game plans as the de facto leader. And junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy even touched upon his friendship with Buckeye quarterback Kyle McCord adding that he “might shoot him a text this week.”

Harbaugh’s put so much emphasis on preparation that he’s even willing to bring it up at unprompted and awkward times. Asked what his level of respect is for Ohio State coach Ryan Day and his staff, Harbaugh chose to deflect. 

“It’s all about our preparation for Ohio,” Harbaugh said. “The days, the minutes, the hours — everything leading up to this game. That’s where our focus is. Preparing ourselves and planning, gonna practice and then execute. Anything else is irrelevant when you get into this kind of Big Game week.”

Harbaugh, McCarthy, Moore and Corum all acknowledged the impact of this one game. It isn’t just the next game the Wolverines are focusing on — it’s The Game. But regardless of the stakes, Harbaugh still won’t be on the sidelines.

In one of the biggest moments of his tenure, Harbaugh will not be at the helm. However, Moore and Michigan’s players are downplaying the potential impact of his absence.

“Going into The Game without him, it’s kind of just adding fuel to the fire,” Corum said. “… We might play a little harder for him, and make sure that at the game, we give a game ball to him.”

For Moore though, the pressure and the stakes of the contest lie upon his shoulders. But he too has downplayed any distractions, emphasizing that he will be coaching in a manner that he feels Harbaugh has prepared him to do.

“The preparation that we’ve had up to this point, in training camp and spring ball all through the season, has really prepared us for these moments,” Moore said. “To think like coach does and at the same time make the decisions that we think he’d want.”

Harbaugh won’t be on the sidelines, or even in the stadium, but the shadow of The Game will deeply impact his program. With an undefeated Michigan and an undefeated Ohio State, both teams finally have their biggest moment directly in front of them. 

And now that it’s finally here, they’re willing to admit just how much they’ve been thinking about it all along.