Emeka Egbuka, who grew up in Washington, openly admits that he “really didn’t know anything” about the rivalry between Ohio and Michigan before Buckey started recruiting him after school.
He is not the only one.
Many of the Buckeyes who were preparing to put their bodies on the line for the Game this weekend weren’t really indoctrinated into the tradition until they arrived in Columbus. But as broad as Ohio State’s recruiting efforts have been over the years, there are still many Buckeye State natives on the list whose relationship with the rivalry long before they played it.
“I feel pain not only from the loss, I feel pain from the fact that we have to go through a year when we failed. And I think it fuels us day in and day out.”— Xavier Johnson on loss to Michigan
Lewis Center, Ohio native Zack Harrison recalls watching The Game with friends in elementary school and then “hearing the whole team of Northern fans, they were bullied, they were laughed at, they were laughed at by the Ohio fans.” Of course, there were far fewer Michigan fans in Buckeye Country, but Harrison said “there’s always one in every class.”
It was then that Harrison came to an understanding.
“Oh, this is serious. … This is more than just a football match,” he said. “It means a lot.”
If anyone in the Ohio State program was unaware of this fact, it became clear after last year’s 42-27 loss to the Wolverines, the first defeat for the Buckeyes in 10 years. Those who grew up as an Ohio State fan, like fifth-year and Cincinnati native Xavier Johnson, hardly needed a reminder.
“Rivalry, history, everything rich is behind it. So we work so hard on this game, we work on it every day. And so when I fail, it hurts,” Johnson said. “This is where I feel the pain of not only the loss, I feel the pain of the condition that should pass in a year when we failed. And I think it feeds us day in and day out. I think we have a lot of guys from Ohio on the team. And so just understanding this rivalry, even pre-participating in it, I think that’s what allowed us to take it so seriously.”
Paris Johnson Jr., another Cincinnati native, said he never watched The Game as a child. But in talking to past Buckeye players before his first start in the competition last year, he was imbued with a sense of responsibility.
He had one such conversation with former Buckeye offensive lineman Michael Jordan, who told him that before his first start against Michigan in 2016, Orlando Pace nodded his head to symbolize the importance of the task at hand.
“The whole game he was thinking, ‘I just don’t want to let him down.’ And for him it was an important moment,” said Paris Johnson.
But while Jordan’s debut in the rivalry ended with a double overtime win at Columbus, Johnson’s own debut was far less celebratory. Johnson said he “took the loss very hard” and still remembers his emotions right after in Ann Arbor.
“The moment we lost, just by looking at the scoreboard, I personally felt that not only did we fail our number one goal of you signing here to be Buckeye, but I felt that all the past people who kept the tradition of beating them – home or away – I felt like I let them down in this game,” said Paris Johnson. “So, I felt as much as possible, as I felt in that moment, I held onto it until now.”
There’s no doubt that Johnson feels he has an obligation to correct last year’s mistakes to his teammates and to himself, but he also doesn’t want to let down those who came before him again.
“I feel like I’ve connected with a lot of the ex-Buckeyes here to the point where I know all the work they’ve done. Under the banner throughout all Big Ten championships. And you can’t get there without beating (Michigan),” said Paris Johnson. “So all these guys on the poster that I think of have done this before. I have to keep doing it myself.”
Ryan Day’s efforts to correct last year’s losses were outwardly obvious. During the off-season, coach Buckeye overhauled his defensive coaching staff, with the exception of defensive line coach Larry Johnson, and also changed offensive line coach.
“Everything has changed, from Coach Day to the kit guys, there has been a change. And the players included in it.”— Xavier Johnson
Inside the company, Xavier Johnson said the change has become even more tangible.
“Everything has changed, from Coach Day to the kit guys, there has been a shift. And the players included in it,” said Xavier Johnson. “I think there has been some kind of weakness, and I think this weakness has come back to bite us. And it was like we had to snack on everything, whether it was our off-season training, or the scheme, or the players – we had to look at ourselves in the mirror, and we had to really understand that this was a match-up. the game.
“This is a great team, they have a great infrastructure. And so when we play against them, we’re playing against someone who is very… the playing field is even. and it really starts with the first workout in the winter and continues throughout the season. So, all 11 games and up to the 12th. And so I think the way it changed was snacking on that and just realizing that if we don’t work on this game every day, if we don’t get better every day, then we’re receptive to what happened in the past. year.”
Whether the Buckeyes understood the gravity of The Game before they entered the program, shortly after, or just after their 2021 defeat, there seems to be no shortage of urgency in Saturday’s showdown. This weekend they will find themselves at the forefront of college football’s greatest rivalry when their supposed change of heart against archrival Ohio State will be the real test.