COLUMBUS — Ohio State defensive lineman Noah Spence is from Harrisburg, Pa.
He wasn’t steeped in the enmity that grips fans of the Buckeyes and Wolverines about this time every year.
But nearing the end of his second season in the heart of Ohio, he has a good grasp of it now.
“It’s a huge rivalry even if you’re a guy from out of state like me,” he said. “It’s everything.”
Ohio State and Michigan clash for the 110th time Saturday at Michigan Stadium. It’s already been a long, grueling season. But, as it should be, the best and biggest game has been saved for last.
Ohio State (11-0, 7-0 Big Ten), which moved to No. 3 in all major rankings Sunday, won its school-record 23rd straight game and earned a spot in the Big Ten title game with a 42-14 win over Indiana in snow-globe conditions at Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
Almost immediately, the Buckeyes’ thoughts turned to the opponent that — like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter books — no one in Ohio refers to by name.
Instead, they follow the lead of late coach/curmudgeon Woody Hayes and call it “That School (or Team) Up North.”
From a distance, it might look like a trap game: The Buckeyes have little to play for beyond holding on to what they’ve already got — an unbeaten season and conference and national title aspirations.
On top of that, the Wolverines (7-4, 3-4) have lost four of their last six games and have had major problems running the ball and scoring points.
But in a rivalry the size of “The Game,” it’s almost impossible for one team to look past another even though the Buckeyes have another major showdown a week later when they face No. 11 Michigan State in the Big Ten title game Dec. 7 in Indianapolis.
“There’s no chance of us overlooking a team from here on out,” Buckeyes defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “You’ve got That Team Up North, the Big Ten championship and whatever comes after that.
“Every week from here on out is a bowl week.”
Urban Meyer won his first Michigan-Ohio State game as a head coach a year ago, 26-21, by shutting out the Wolverines in the second half and edging past them on two field goals by Drew Basil.
Moments after his team beat Indiana, Meyer said there was not time to waste to get ready for Michigan (although, of course, he did not speak that word).
“I have great respect for this rivalry — it almost makes me in awe,” he said. “The respect we have comes with incredible responsibility that sometimes can be overwhelming (when it comes) to what we have to do next week. So we take it very seriously. We’re working on the game as we speak. We’re all going to go home, see our families and then we’re coming back (Sunday) to get ready to go.”
Michigan, ranked as high as 11th in the nation during a 5-0 start to the season, has had its hopes dashed. The latest punch to the gut was blowing a 14-point, second-half lead at Iowa on Saturday in a 24-21 defeat.
Afterward, coach Brady Hoke — like Meyer an Ohio native — was asked what objectives remained for his team.
“We play for our seniors. That’s been the first thing we always play for,” he said. “And we’ve got a pretty big rivalry game next week. ... And we’ve got one more opportunity for our seniors in that stadium.”
Nothing would please the Wolverines more than to ruin Ohio State’s perfect season and shot at a national title. That’s what happened back in 1969, when Hayes’ Buckeyes — the defending national champions — had won 22 in a row and were ranked No. 1, but lost to rookie coach Bo Schembechler 24-12 in Ann Arbor, Mich. That game touched off the tense and tempestuous “Ten-Year War” between the furiously competitive head coaches.
This year, the Buckeyes remain behind Alabama and Florida State in the BCS rankings, which determine the two teams headed for the national championship game. They need to win out and get some help to play in the title game Jan. 6 in Pasadena, Calif.
Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, who had 20 tackles including five for negative yardage in the snow against Indiana, said the Buckeyes can’t be distracted by winning streaks, the BCS and everything else which will have the opposing fan bases crowing at each other this week.
“The best thing we can do is keep winning and stay focused on what we’re doing,” he said. “And don’t think what’s going on in the outside world.”