Looming large, The Game overshadows Michigan's big win over Nebraska

By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 20, 2011

“Beat O-hi-o,” shouted a small faction of fans behind the Michigan bench.

Michigan was soundly beating Nebraska, late in the fourth quarter of a 45-17 win.

Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s words may well have reverberated around Michigan Stadium: “It is the most important game on that schedule,” his fist pounding the podium with each word at his introductory press conference in January.

“Beat O-hi-o,” the crowd kept chanting. More fans joined each time.

Fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen smiled when he heard the group of fans. He cupped his ear and motioned the crowd to get louder. He looked at senior defensive tackle Mike Martin, who cracked a smile. It was music to their ears.

Later, Van Bergen and Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon did their traditional post-win chest bump. Brandon wore a smile as wide as his face. It was infectious.

The crowd kept chanting “Ohio,” instead of “Ohio State,” following Hoke’s lead by never calling the rival by its full name.

When the clock ran out, the players shook hands, then sprinted to the northwest corner to sing The Victors with the student section. Clocks in Schembechler Hall were ticking closer to next week: “6 days, 21 hours,” and counting.

“Beat O-hi-o,” the whole stadium roared — louder than they had cheered all game — as the players celebrated.

Before the Nebraska game was even over, everyone salivated, knowing who awaited the Wolverines.

It’s Ohio State week.

“When we were kneeing the ball, I think that everyone was thinking that in the back of their head, like, ‘Alright, that was a big win, but it’s on to the next one,’ ” said redshirt junior safety Jordan Kovacs.

“It’s exciting — you get excited,” Hoke said.

“Look,” he added, pointing at the goofy grin he had on his face — perhaps a mocking gesture towards having to start answering questions about Ohio State just minutes after his team trounced Nebraska.

“This could be a big one next week,” said fifth-year senior right tackle Mark Huyge.

Saying The Game has been lopsided the past decade would be an understatement. Michigan has lost nine of the last 10 and is wallowing in a seven-game losing streak — the Wolverines' longest ever against Ohio State. Adding insult, the Buckeyes have won the past four Games by a score of 114-27.

Saying there’s been an emphasis placed on beating Ohio State would be an understatement. Hoke refuses to wear red — a tradition that's lasted his whole coaching career, which included stops at Ball State and San Diego State, and both of those teams wear red. He won’t call his the Buckeyes by their full name, “Ohio State.” Instead he says, “Ohio.”

The players have picked up Hoke’s term. So did the fans who chanted after the Nebraska game.

“That’s what he calls them, so that’s what we call them,” Kovacs said.

When the players walk into Schembechler Hall — which has voluntarily become their home away from home — countdown clocks are posted as a reminder. They’ve been up ever since Hoke took over.

“Every day,” said redshirt sophomore running back Fitzgerald Toussaint.

“We walk in that building and it’s right there,” added Huyge.

“Right in your face,” Toussaint interrupted. “Can’t miss it. In red.”

The reeling Buckeyes lost against Penn State on Saturday, dropping their record to 6-5. Michigan is 9-2, with a potential at-large BCS bowl bid on the line. The previous 11 games this season say change is afoot.

The last time Michigan had a better record entering The Game was 2004. The last time the Wolverines had a winning streak longer than two games entering The Game was 2006.

“Well it does give us a lot of confidence,” Huyge said of the team’s two-game winning streak. “In the past — I don’t want to bring up past seasons — but we haven’t been playing well in November.”

That’s one difference. Another is the emphasis the coaches have placed on improving each week, Huyge said. After every game, win or lose, the coaches have focused on getting better. And Saturday’s 28-point win over a ranked Nebraska team could be considered the Wolverines’ best game in years.

“We knew if we got better in November, we’d be playing better football,” Huyge said.

All the while, Hoke holds an appreciation for how the Ohio State game always caps that all-important month. A win Saturday would give Michigan its first winning record for November in five years.

“Everyone knows how big this game (is),” Martin said. “That’s what makes it such a great game, because of how much time is put into it — how much it means to each program.

“And really, playing this great game of football in the month of November, is just, it can’t get better than that. This week has to be one of our best weeks of preparation, period. That’s what it needs to be.”