Dominick Sokotoff/Daily. Buy this photo.

Few players have spent as much time around the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry as Andrew Vastardis. 

Vastardis initially joined the Wolverines in 2016 as a walk-on offensive lineman. Thanks to the additional year of eligibility from COVID-19, he was allowed to return for a sixth year in 2021, where he’s grown into an anchor of the offensive line at center. In those six years, he’s seen two New Year’s Six bowls, played under three offensive line coaches and outlasted endless ups and downs against Michigan State. 

One thing he hasn’t seen? A win against Ohio State. He hopes to change that Saturday. 

“It’s The Game — it’s the game you come to Michigan to play,” Vastardis said Monday. “In the past, it’s just been unacceptable — the outcome’s been unacceptable, I mean.”

No. 5 Michigan’s long-running struggles against the Buckeyes are well documented. Michigan hasn’t won The Game since 2011. Every player who’s graduated since 2016 — Jim Harbaugh’s second season as head coach — has left Ann Arbor without a win over Ohio State. 

When Vastardis arrived on campus five years ago, the upperclassmen had to explain the importance of the rivalry without ever having won it. This year, Vastardis and the other graduating seniors have done the same for a new freshman class — even if that understanding comes naturally for some. 

“I don’t think it’s something you have to really tell guys,” Vastardis said “ … Just letting them know like, ‘Hey, every day you’re here throughout the whole season, every technique you’re trying to improve, every film study you try to get better at, everything’s just to get ready to improve and to play this game.’ ”

It doesn’t stop with Vastardis, either. Alongside the continued insistence that this year’s Wolverines are different from past Harbaugh-coached teams, Michigan’s seniors claim that they’re more ready than ever to take on the Buckeyes on Saturday. 

“This game is huge, and our class has done a great job of emphasizing to the younger players on what this game actually means to us,” senior linebacker Josh Ross said. “And it means everything — everything is on the line right now. It’s a playoff game for us.”

Senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, too, has worked to ensure the underclassmen understand the importance of The Game. After last year’s 2-4 debacle, he could have easily left for the NFL draft and been a first-round pick, but instead, he elected to come back with the hope of bringing the Wolverines back into a position where they can compete with Ohio State.

For Hutchinson individually, the decision has paid dividends. He’s already racked up nine sacks this season and established himself as a legitimate top five prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft. Saturday, he’ll have a chance to prove he belongs there on the biggest stage. 

“I mean, this is why I came back,” Hutchinson said. “For this team and to beat Ohio State. This has been a focus of ours since January, and it’s crazy to think that now we’re in (game) 12, and we’re about to play them. If we win, we’re going to the Big Ten Championship. If not, see you later.”

Of course, every one of Harbaugh’s senior classes has echoed that same message. For Michigan to break the streak and finally unseat the Buckeyes, it’ll take a lot more than just a desire to win. 

But this team — and this senior class — insists it’s different. Whenever they’ve been asked about it, players and coaches alike have echoed the claim that the Wolverines’ energy, their drive and their general togetherness is better than ever this year. 

“They’ve just worked like crazy,” Harbaugh said. “Worked daily, weekly, monthly. Just wrung everything out. This is everything they’ve been working for, planning for, to put themselves to be in this position.”

Saturday, they can display the fruits of their labor.