Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has thrived in rivalry games through his career, going 22-3, mostly because he’s been able to impart to his players how important they are.
But before he could motivate his teams, he first had to gain an appreciation for those games himself. And it wasn’t easy for a native Ohioan to grasp how much Utah gets worked up for BYU and Utah State or Florida for Georgia and Florida State.
“When I went out to Utah, I had to be introduced to that, but I dove into it,” Meyer said at his media luncheon Monday. “I made our staff learn everything about it. I made our staff take a test to figure out what the rivalry meant, because I don’t want coaches to be phony.
“I don’t want somebody from Ohio stepping into Salt Lake City and making them act like it’s a big deal, but deep down you don’t believe it is. Players see right through that.
“I was educated real fast. I asked and tried to learn as much as I could.”
Meyer didn’t need to go through any sort of orientation to understand the history of bad blood between OSU and Michigan, who will meet for the 110th time on Saturday. Although he studied two of his predecessors who had success in the game, Earle Bruce (5-4) and Jim Tressel (9-1), Meyer was steeped in Buckeye lore from his earliest memories in northeast Ohio.
“I grew up during the 10-year war,” he said, referring to the battles between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler from 1969-78 where the Buckeyes and Wolverines were almost always battling for a Big Ten title. “I learned to dislike Michigan at a very young age.”
Meyer violated one of his chief tenets by calling Michigan by name. He’s scolded his players for using anything but “That Team Up North” or “our rivals.” He does that to give the Wolverines a poke, similar to how Michigan coach Brady Hoke always refers to Ohio State as “Ohio.”
When told he slipped, a crestfallen Meyer said: “Did I really? Wow. I apologize.”
Asked what he called BYU while at Utah, he said, “The Team Down South.”
And Florida State? “The Team Out West.”
He added: “I’m a huge fan of college football. I think that’s what separates it from a lot of the other sports. I’m a fan of pro football, too. But the pageantry and rivalries are unique in college football.”
The OSU-Michigan game may have lost some of its luster with the Buckeyes’ recent dominance (10-2 record since 2001) and the Wolverines’ woes (41-33 record since 2008). But in 1999, ESPN rated it as the No. 1 sports rivalry in the 20th century, just ahead of the boxing trilogy between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
Michigan holds a 45-58-6 edge in the series, but since OSU’s first victory in 1919, the overall record is 45-45-4.
Beginning with Woody Hayes’ first season in 1951, the Buckeyes have a 33-27-2 advantage.
“Do we make a big deal out of this game? Absolutely. Do we go over the top about rivalry games? Yes, we do,” Meyer said. “That’s the way I was brought up. We kind of go over the top here, and we always have.”
Honorees: Junior linebacker Ryan Shazier tied school records with 16 solo tackles and five tackles for loss against Indiana and was named the Big Ten defensive player of the week. He had 20 tackles overall.
“Ryan Shazier played as well as he can,” Meyer said. “He had 54 ‘production points.’ We’ve always done production points, and 30 is probably the most I’ve ever seen.”
The OSU coaches named defensive tackle Michael Bennett, a junior from Centerville, as the co-defensive player of the game with Shazier. Bennett had two sacks and three tackles for losses.
“Mike Bennett is playing at a very, very high level. He’s healthy again. He started the season very strong and went through some injuries. He’s getting stronger and stronger again,” Meyer said.
Miller impressive: Braxton Miller earned praise from Meyer for a second-half pass where he stood in the pocket, took a hit and made a first-down completion to tight end Jeff Heuerman on third-and-17.
“That is his best play at quarterback since we’ve been here,” Meyer said. “That is his best, and he knows it, I know it, (offensive coordinator) Tom Herman knows it. It was his best play as a QUARTERBACK. I’m not saying as an athlete that jumps around and lands on his head. Those are just from being a very gifted young men.”
Ohio State (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten) at Michigan (7-4, 3-4), noon, ABC, 1410