ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Even without a trip to the national title game at stake, Ohio State-Michigan is huge.
Ohio State`s hopes of returning to the BCS title game took a hit last week with its first loss of the season. The seventh-ranked Buckeyes still have plenty to play for today at the Big House against Michigan, ranked 23rd by AP but is 21st in the BCS.
With a win, Ohio State (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) would:
* match its longest winning streak in the rivalry at four straight.
* win a third straight conference championship, including consecutive outright titles for the first time in a half-century.
* likely earn a spot in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1997.
"It isn`t the BCS championship game, but the tradition of the Rose Bowl is great and we hope to be a part of that greatness," punter A.J. Trapasso said. "It would be nice to finish the season in that bowl."
Michigan (8-3, 6-1) is desperately hoping to play in Pasadena for the fourth time in five years, quite a prize for a team that opened the season with a stunning loss to Appalachian State and blowout loss to Oregon.
The Wolverines` star senior trio of quarterback Chad Henne, running back Mike Hart and offensive lineman Jake Long have never beaten Ohio State. Coach Lloyd Carr is trying to avoid becoming the first Michigan coach to lose six of seven games in the series that dates to 1897.
"You get tired of hearing, â€˜Oh, they can`t beat Ohio State,`" safety Brandent Englemon said. "It`s getting old."
That`s certainly true for Henne, Hart and Long, as well as Michigan`s 62-year-old coach.
Before the season, Carr, who is 6-6 overall against the Buckeyes, seemed to set up his contract to make this his last year on the sideline. He added to the perception by making sure Michigan gave all of his assistants unprecedented, two-year deals.
Speculation has run rampant that Carr will announce his retirement in the days following the game, or perhaps during his pregame speech to fire up his players in a similar way that the Buckeyes were motivated to win the Michigan game for fired coach Earle Bruce in 1987.
Carr steadfastly has stuck by his plan all year to deflect talk about the future, and his boss has maintained his job is safe.
"He can coach at Michigan as long as he wants," athletic director Bill Martin repeated earlier this week.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, meanwhile, has cemented a warm place in the hearts of Buckeyes fans for his tremendous success overall and his dominance against Michigan.
He was hired in 2001 and ignited passion right away by telling fans they would be proud of the way his players would play against Michigan.
The Buckeyes won their first game against the Wolverines under Tressel and the past three, putting them a victory within matching the school-record streaks from 1960-63 and 1934-37.
"We always talk about the history of every ballgame we play," Tressel said. "But on the other hand, that won`t get us a first down."
Michigan hopes to move the chains against Ohio State`s highly rated defense with a relatively healthy quarterback and running back.
Henne has been on and off the field since separating his right (throwing) shoulder Oct. 20 at Illinois. Hart was held out of last week`s loss at Wisconsin and has missed 3Â½ games with a badly sprained right ankle.
Carr wouldn`t say if Henne and Hart would play, and neither player was made available for interviews.
But Ohio State`s James Laurinaitis, like a lot of people, has no doubt he`ll see Nos. 7 (Henne) and 20 (Hart) on the field in maize and blue.
"Yeah, they`re going to play," the star linebacker said. "Our thought process was that (Hart) sat out and wanted to rest himself up. I think Henne`s going to go as much as he can. It`s hard throwing with a partial separated shoulder.
"But they`re tough kids."
Henne, Hart and Long returned for their senior seasons, passing up NFL prospects, in part to beat Ohio State.
"It`s a huge game regardless, but just to have them say that they came back for this game it adds more importance to it," Laurinaitis said. "They circled this game on their schedule like we did at the beginning of our season."
Both teams are coming into the game off a loss for the first time since 1959.
The Buckeyes` setback at home against Illinois ended their 29-game, regular-season winning streak.
Michigan`s loss on the road against the Badgers was its first since opening the season in embarrassing fashion, ending an eight-game winning streak that still was good enough to put it in contention for the Big Ten title.
Carr is proud of the way his players fought back, following advice he was given when he was 11.
"There`s going to be days out there where you get beat up, and they`re no fun," Carr said. "So, like my dad told me one day after I got beat up, â€˜You got to go back on that playground, and you`ve got to fight.`
"I did what he told me, and it was one of the great lessons of my life. I was not afraid again."
Ohio State is counting on quarterback Todd Boeckman to be unafraid in his first game at Michigan Stadium after throwing three interceptions last week.
Boeckman grew up watching the rivalry in tiny St. Henry, Ohio, and said it will be a dream come true to play in it.
He also dismissed any disappointment hanging from the loss that likely knocked the Buckeyes out of the race for the BCS title game, leaving them to play for the Rose Bowl.
"I don`t know if it`s lost its specialness because it`s the Rose Bowl," he said. "It`s what we always wanted to be a part of."
WHO: No. 7 Ohio State vs. No. 23 Michigan
WHERE: Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, Mich.
TV/RADIO: Ch. 5; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM
RECORDS: Ohio State (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten); Michigan (8-3, 6-1)
To the winners go the spoils ... and a valuable trinket.
Each time the Buckeyes beat Michigan in their annual regular-season curtain-closer, all team personnel are given a $25 replica of a pair of football pants, a golden charm that has the year and the score of the game engraved on the front.
The tradition began in 1934 when first-year Ohio State coach Francis Schmidt told those wondering how Ohio State would do against the mighty Wolverines, "They put their pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else." Schmidt then led the Buckeyes to four consecutive wins over Michigan, all by shutout.
It`s a pretty big deal to have the special piece of jewelry. So big a deal that in 2003 when a pair were put up for sale on eBay, fans, players and coaches were all incensed. No one ever found out who it was who tried to put a price on a small object with such big sentimental value.
Now a group of Ohio State players can actually collect four gold pants charms.
Marcus Freeman, a fourth-year junior linebacker, is going for No. 4. He reflected this week on what the charms meant to him.
"Growing up, I heard about it, and I thought you get a real pair of gold pants, I didn`t know what it was," he said with a laugh. "Then when I got here and got my first pair you see it`s a little charm, but then you learn what an important tradition it is. My first pair I gave to my mother, my second pair I gave to my father, and my third pair I gave to my brother, so I hopefully have to get another pair to keep for myself."
The weather report for Ann Arbor, Mich., is a high of 44 degrees and a low of 30 under cloudy skies with a 10 percent chance of precipitation.
DOESN'T TRAVEL WELL
The Game isn`t exactly THE game in Johannesburg, apparently.
Here`s kicker Ryan Pretorius on what it`s like trying to explain American football and Ohio State-Michigan to his friends and family back in South Africa: "They think the Rugby World Cup is the biggest event in sports. I just tell them how big the game is and how every single day when you come to football here all they ever talk about is the Michigan game. Since I`ve arrived, I`ve known that this is the biggest game of the year. A great season or a bad season depends on that game regardless of who you beat or lose to."
It`s hard to go a day without a smidgen of the wit and wisdom of right tackle Kirk Barton, so here`s today`s salvo.
A reporter asked Barton if the acoustics at The Big House were such that you don`t hear too much of what the fans say or yell.
"Well, we`re not going to an opera, so that`s a good thing with the acoustic thing," he said, laughing. Still cracking up, he added, "Acoustics? During football? They`ll be loud and they`ll be armed with four-letter words the whole game, so I`m excited to hear that. I can`t wait to hear the sweet things that will come out of their fans` mouths this time."
Ex-Pioneer to play in The Big House
Visiting The Big House will take on special significance for Elyria High grad Brett Daly, who was introduced prior to last Saturday`s final home game with Illinois as one of 15 Buckeye seniors.
"It`s nice what they did for us individually," said Daly, the first senior introduced to the crowd of over 105,453 Ohio State fans at Ohio Stadium. "It was a real neat feeling running on the field individually like that. I was nervous but they did it up right."
Ohio State introduced the seniors in alphabetical order but saved the captains for last - including offensive tackle Kirk Barton. Daly`s picture went up on the huge Ohio Stadium scoreboard as he ran to greet and hug his parents - Tom and Gabriella - standing near the North end zone. Daly never had time to look back to check out his picture on the big screen on the other end of the field. On his way, he was greeted by Coach Jim Tressel.
"all I heard him say was to enjoy this," Daly said. "I couldn`t really hear him with the crowd cheering."
Daly has been a regular member of the field goal and extra points units since the second game of the season. Today, he`ll be on the field at The Big House, home of the Michigan Wolverines, for the first time, but he actually was in Ann Arbor on Thursday for an interview to attend medical school.
"(Michigan) was the first school to start the application process for attending medical school," Daly said.
Daly hasn`t ruled out returning to Ohio State for medical school, but he`s keeping all his options open. He`s listed at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, and has always been an honor student, dating back to his days as a Pioneer.
- Tim Gebhardt