Indiana called a timeout, and then De’Veon Smith picked up the first down, and then the chant started in earnest.
In the previous few minutes, there had been murmurs of it, as if those remaining from an announced crowd of 110,288 had been waiting to start it. Then, with just under four minutes to play, with the No. 3 Michigan football team in possession and the game finally in hand, it came out in full force:
As the Wolverines ran out the clock on a 20-10 victory against Indiana on Saturday at Michigan Stadium, the chant rumbled throughout the building. It continued after the clock ran out and the Michigan Marching Band played “The Victors.” It echoed through the concourse as the fans filed out of the bowl. It may well echo around the state all week.
The chant was “BEAT O-HI-O.” It was not “BEAT THE BUCK-EYES,” the more common call before Jan. 12, 2011. That day, Michigan introduced its new head football coach, a man named Brady Hoke.
Hoke put the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry on a pedestal. He refused to wear red. He wanted to win this game more than any of the others. He called the Buckeyes “Ohio” as a slight, which is how the chant started.
As Jim Harbaugh leads the Wolverines near the pinnacle of the college football world, those in the fan base try to erase memories from the painful years that came before. That will be hard to do this week. Though most of Hoke’s staff is gone, most of Michigan’s players are his recruits — and “The Game” is the biggest game in college football this week, just like Hoke always wanted.
Much has changed around Ann Arbor since Hoke was fired and Harbaugh arrived. Harbaugh religiously avoids placing more significance on one game than another. If his team does so, he reasons, then it didn’t give its best effort in all of the games — an unpardonable sin in Harbaugh’s book. The next game, he repeats, is the most important one.
Brady Hoke made no such stipulation.
“(Ohio State) is the most important game on that schedule, and not that the others aren’t important, but it is the most. Important. Game. On. That. Schedule,” Hoke said at his introductory press conference, pounding the podium for emphasis. “… It’s very important to me, and very … it’s almost personal.”
Hoke’s four years as head coach will always be a sore spot because of his record, especially compared to his successor. But Hoke was, by all accounts, a good man whose players loved him. He just didn’t win nearly enough football games.
He did, however, get his team ready for Ohio State. In four editions of the most important game on Hoke’s schedule, Michigan played some of its best football in all of them, winning one and making the other three far closer than they should have been.
Hoke also put his fingerprints all over this year’s team, and for that Harbaugh owes him a great deal. He recruited Michigan’s entire starting defense, from fifth-year seniors Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow on the line to senior cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling at the back end to, yes, even redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers.
He brought in starting quarterback Wilton Speight, even after other schools shied away from Speight following an injury in high school. He signed all three of Michigan’s top receivers and laid the foundation for an offensive line that now starts three fifth-year seniors.
And as much as the program is different now than it was two years ago, parts of Hoke’s culture remain. Fifth-year senior Ryan Glasgow, whom Hoke brought in as a walk-on before he blossomed into one of the defense’s most important players, said after Saturday’s game there was “no doubt” that this weekend’s showdown is the biggest of his career.
“Ohio State, Michigan, greatest rivalry in sports — how can it not be in the back of your mind from right after the day you play it until the next year?” Glasgow said. “I don’t really hesitate to say that it’s probably the biggest game that you play in every year — all dependent on what rankings are and what position you’re in, but it’s always in the back of your mind.”
In the final minutes Saturday, Glasgow couldn’t help but hear the “BEAT O-HI-O” chants coming from the stands. How could he not? The passion and sentiment Hoke instilled didn’t leave when he did.
“Great guy, great mentor,” Glasgow said. “I still check in with him every now and then. Personally, I owe a lot to that guy. Believed in me from the beginning. As an unrecruited walk-on, sometimes that doesn’t happen.”
Harbaugh, meanwhile, preaches the importance of treating every game like a championship game, and it doesn’t hurt that this really is one. If Michigan wins Saturday, it will win the Big Ten East division and advance to the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 3.
That only adds to the usual storylines. Each team has plenty of players from the other state, including both starting running backs (Michigan’s De’Veon Smith is from Warren, Ohio, while Ohio State’s Mike Weber hails from Detroit). Each team is ranked in the top three heading into the matchup for the second time ever.
“I don’t need to say too much about the game — it’s just the game,” Peppers said. “Now that it’s finally here, we can zero in on it and put all our focus towards it, ’cause this one’s for all the marbles. Everything we want is right in front of us. We just gotta go out there and execute.”
No longer do Michigan and Ohio State have to downplay this weekend’s showdown to avoid getting ahead of themselves. Regardless of which coach is at the helm, the game Saturday is the biggest of the season. Hoke and most of the rest of the country treat it that way because it’s “The Game.” Jim Harbaugh and his team do because it’s the next game. This week, it just so happens to be both.