Ann Arbor — The way Ohio State coach Ryan Day described his approach to playing Michigan essentially boils down to it being a healthy obsession.
Day said the eye is always on the prize, and while that also means the big picture of reaching the Big Ten Championship Game and playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it means something else. Something bigger in these parts. It means that the year-long, season-long focus on Michigan is the ultimate goal.
“We always have one eye on (Michigan),” Day said. “It’s just the way we do business. “You can’t be crazy about it, because it can distract from the task at hand during the season.”
With a berth in the Big Ten title game on the line, No. 2 Ohio State (10-1) will face No. 6 Michigan (10-1) at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. The Buckeyes have won the last eight in the rivalry and dominated the last two decades, winning 17 of the last 19.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, in his seventh season directing the Wolverines, is 0-5 against the Buckeyes. The rivals did not play last year after Michigan canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak within the team.
For the first time during his coaching career in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh has spoken openly about Ohio State, and that started in July at Big Ten Media Days. Typically, over the years, he has been tight-lipped about the Wolverines’ rival. When people would mention how much the Buckeyes talk about the Wolverines and prepare each day for The Game, Harbaugh and the players wouldn’t bite.
Ohio State, which has won the last four Big Ten titles, was picked in an informal media poll before the season to win again. Michigan was slotted at No. 4 in the division. That the Wolverines have made it to this point, playing for the Big Ten Championship Game and, potentially, a spot in the College Football Playoff, is partly because of a change in approach this season.
Andrew Vastardis, Michigan’s starting center, said the closeness of this team and its attention to detail have been pivotal in making things click this season.
“It’s The Game,” Vastardis said this week, referencing the name often used for the Michigan-Ohio State game. “It’s the biggest rivalry in all sports. When it comes to our preparation, I feel like we’ve really improved this year in how we prepare each game and we’ve got to carry that into this game. There is that extra oomph surrounding us. But using that as motivation and as a fuel and really falling back on our great preparation we’ve had so far this year.”
What the Wolverines owe their change in preparation to is, in large part, the players embracing a leadership and ownership role in the team. Also, Harbaugh re-tooling the staff, making it younger overall, adding former players Mike Hart and Ron Bellamy, while also overhauling the defensive staff, Defensive line coach Shaun Nua was the only holdover. The moves were critical to the program’s overall change in approach.
“It’s just relationships on the team,” Vastardis said. “Call it teamwork, call it togetherness, it’s just relationships throughout the team and trust. Guys want to play for each other. Guys want to win for each other. Guys want to give it all they got, so everyone else can succeed together.”
Michigan’s lone blemish was a loss at Michigan State last month after the Wolverines built a 16-point lead. With that exception, the Wolverines have been able to shake what has been a knock on the program under Harbaugh and that’s the consistent ability to finish, especially in November.
The Wolverines had a critical win at Penn State two weeks ago, not packing it in after a strip sack that led to a Penn State score to take the lead late. Quarterback Cade McNamara led them on a game-winning touchdown drive. He had done that earlier in the season at Nebraska, as well, but this was about November and finishing late.
“I think that’s changed because of the togetherness of our whole team,” linebacker and two-time captain Josh Ross said, echoing Vastardis’ togetherness theme. “Just the way we play for each other. We got each other’s backs, and that’s the way we play, and that’s the way we approach everything we do.
“Just as far as us finishing, you guys will see that part. Ain’t no need to talk about it, because you guys are gonna see that.”
That’s another trait this Michigan team has shown in late November that others haven’t – confidence. Teams often reflect their quarterback, and McNamara has never been short on self-belief. It also comes from defensive leader Aidan Hutchinson, the overall team leader and its spark.
“I think we’ve silenced the critics for the most part,” Hutchinson, appearing this week on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show, said. “We have this one final test against Ohio State. This is a team that we simply haven’t beaten in many years. It’s something that we have to get over. Hopefully we will go out there and get the win and break that streak.”
While this game means everything for Hutchinson, for the team, for Harbaugh, the senior is making clear the Wolverines can’t let their emotions get the better of them. This goes back to their preparation and relying on that weekly muscle memory of going about things in a disciplined way to get results.
“You do get emotional and you do want it so bad and that makes you focus so much on just winning and the outcome,” he said. “That’s one thing I’m gonna stress this week is staying unemotional and staying in the process and focus on just taking one play at a time.”
It is about trusting that process that has advanced Michigan to this moment. The Wolverines have spoken all season about their brotherhood, about knowing that anyone who goes into the game at any moment, whether that player makes a big play or a mistake, will have the backing of his teammates.
“It’s everything we worked for,” edge rusher David Ojabo said on the radio show. “We’ve been preaching this since way before and decided we’re going to band together as brothers and buy-in. That was the biggest thing was buying in. We all have one goal and are working toward it.
“That’s like a dream. We’re all living a dream and it’s on us to make it happen.”
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