Hanging along the western wall of Gene Smith’s office are about a dozen commemorative soccer balls, adorned with the date, location, and final score of a specific game. This is wall art for soccer lovers, if you are a fan of a particular team from central Ohio.
Many of these oblong-shaped white and brown memorabilia mark the Ohio State Buckeyes’ victories against their most hated nemesis. Most here do not say or write the name of that archrival. In fact, on a chalkboard in his office, Smith, in his seventeenth year as Ohio State’s athletic director, has scribbled this season’s schedule week after week. The entry for November 27 is written in red marker.
On the other side of the room, on that western wall, a soccer ball is inscribed with the scoreboard of the 2018 meeting between these two teams:
Buckeyes 62, The Up North Team 39
The Michigan Wolverines helmet, located on the far right of the soccer ball, is markedly crossed out with a red X. Why not deface your logo and refuse to write your name?
The ball has some meaning. Unbeknownst to Smith when he hung up, that game would be the last time Michigan and Ohio State would play at the Horseshoe in a four-year span, the longest in series history in more than a century.
For the first time since 1917, the two teams did not play last year after a COVID-19 outbreak in the Michigan team. The Ohio State fan base reacted with one of the fiercest and loudest waves of “poison” Smith has ever seen.
“People went crazy,” says Smith. “I got a lot of ‘They’re running away from us!’ But that was not true “.
And yet, days before one of the most important chapters in this 116-game series, no. 2 Ohio State at No. 5 Michigan – Not everyone at Columbus is convinced of that.
The Ohio state community, the city and even those on campus question the legitimacy of Michigan’s cancellation last year before a game in which the Wolverines were a 30-point underdog. The decision snapped a 102-year streak of back-to-back games between the two teams and cost Ohio State a home game and, in all likelihood, a 52nd series win.
The cancellation, rooted in Big Ten’s COVID-19 protocols, drags on during this year’s duel, seen by many as more fuel for a team that has dominated the rivalry for two decades. Did they really need more motivation for a hate-filled series that would pit two teams in the top five with Big Ten and national championship aspirations at stake?
Maybe not. Or maybe like this.
“There is a prevailing feeling in the city and throughout the show that the game could have been played,” says Bobby Carpenter, a former Ohio State linebacker and Columbus media personality who is close to the show. “Since the outcome was probably predetermined, maybe Michigan took an easy way out. A lot of people feel that way, including those at the Woody Hayes Center. “
The Woody Hayes Center is the Buckeyes ‘soccer facility, encompassing the team’s locker room, coaches’ offices and meeting rooms, the lifeblood of the program. On Tuesday afternoon, from a lectern in that building, Ryan Day dismissed any idea that the cancellation would provide more motivation for the team. After all, aren’t bets enough?
“It’s an opportunity to go to Indianapolis,” he said, referring to the conference title game site.
Among former players, within the fan base and even some on campus, last year’s cancellation is tattooed in history, marked on their minds forever, a scar on the consistency of a matchup between two teams separated by three hours.
Simply put, many here are angry.
“The way Michigan handled it last year with maybe using COVID as an excuse, maybe not, whatever it is, I know Ohio State feels cheated,” says Zach Boren, a former Buckeyes linebacker under Urban Meyer. , a leading Columbus businessman and close supporter of the school.
“Players come to Ohio State to play that game and they missed the opportunity to play that game. That game defines your legacy and who you are as a player. They missed that opportunity and he’s going to feed those guys this week. “
Earlier this week, Michigan linebacker Josh Ross called the allegations “bs.”
“Like the Michigan Wolverine, it’s a game you die for,” Ross said.
At that time last year, Michigan officials were clear: Their coronavirus outbreak was severe. More than 40 players would have missed the game either due to positive tests, contact tracing or an unrelated injury, according to the Detroit Free Press.
The cancellation was not unexpected. The Wolverines had to cancel last week’s game against Maryland over COVID-19-related issues. They returned to limited practice the Sunday before Ohio State week, only for more players to test positive the next day. By Tuesday, the school’s medical staff deemed the spread too bad to play with.
During a press conference after the announcement, Jim Harbaugh insisted that the school purposely pulled out of nowhere. “Our players, like I said before, want to play,” he said then.
It won’t stop the theories in Columbus.
“I really don’t buy it,” says Boren. “If they had 22 healthy guys at Ohio State, they would have played Michigan. It would only have taken 22 to go out on the pitch and play in the biggest rivalry in sport. “
That could never have happened, of course. The Big Ten roster and position lows would have canceled the game. But alas, the hatred here rages.
The ordeal is the latest tinge of animosity in a series that’s packed with drama.
Last August, reports surfaced that Harbaugh accused Day’s staff of NCAA violations during a private, league-wide conference call. On the call, Day reportedly replied, “How about I care about my team and you care about yours?”
The Ohio State coach reportedly told his team that he planned to score 100 points with the Wolverines later that season. So maybe that promise will be fulfilled, just a year later? The Buckeyes are hotter than any offense in college football (they’ve scored on every possession in the first half, 14 total, in the last two games). Last Saturday, they scored 49 points in the first half against a Michigan State team that beat Michigan.
There is no longer a bulletin board with motivational material inside the OSU soccer facility, but there are television monitors, Day says with a smile. Sure, messages can flash on those screens this week to get players excited for an opponent they’ve beaten 15 of the last 16 times.
Day, 42, seems especially focused for this game. After last Saturday’s win, he strutted into the postgame press conference and, without anyone asking, began to talk about The Game, even acknowledging that he started thinking about Michigan on the bench before his team finished. at Michigan State.
When asked Tuesday about the kind of adrenaline rush to expect on Saturday afternoon at the Casa Grande, Day replied, “The adrenaline is running out now.”
It was Tuesday lunchtime, five days before the Game.
“There are guys you like to train against and beat,” says Carpenter. “I think it exists between these two.”
For some, this year’s game is the most important meeting since 2006, when No. 1 Ohio State beat No. 2 Michigan, 42–39, in Game of the Century.
“This is one of the biggest,” says Jack Park, a city radio personality who attended his first game between Ohio State and Michigan in 1952 and will be in Ann Arbor for his 50th game of the series.
Things are different here during the week in preparation for Mich: The Team Up North, Smith says from his 10th floor office on the Ohio State campus. As part of normal OSU hours, the team holds a weekly meeting during the season at 3pm on Sundays to discuss the previous game. The next opponent is rarely discussed in such meetings, Smith says.
That was not the case last Sunday.
“[Day] I was already talking about this game at the team meeting, ”says Smith. “It’s a different level of intensity and focus. Even sitting with him after the 3pm meeting and talking strategy about his players and ours, he had already started studying, which is not typical until later in the week. “
Smith gestures to his computer screen to his left. After last year’s cancellation, he received a handful of emails from outraged fans.
They are avoiding us!
They are avoiding us!
Get them to play here in 2021!
This is not fair!
Smith never suggested to the conference to move this year’s game. First, it would affect the rivalry’s traditional rotation: odd-numbered years in Ann Arbor and even years in Columbus. Also, unlike others, he believes the cancellation was legitimate.
Jack Mewhort, a Toledo native and former Ohio State lineman, takes a different approach than other angry Buckeyes fans. You understand the severity of COVID-19 and realize how unusual it was last year.
While he understands the frustration on the Ohio State side, he speaks to Michigan fans who are also angry about the cancellation.
“I understand both sides,” he says. “We were victims of circumstances.”
He pauses for a fleeting second, and in a proper dose of reality, Mewhort attacks the Wolverines. Why? Why not?
“It’s good for them,” he says. “Michigan fans can say, ‘Who knows, we may have beaten you!'”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.