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Michigan could decide AP National Champion in 109th version of The Game

File Photo/Daily
Michigan wide receiver Mario Manningham (86) during the 2006 edition of 'The Game.' Despite a Michigan loss, current junior quarterback Devin Gardner most vividly remembers this game. Buy this photo

By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 22, 2012

Greg Mattison couldn’t recall the year Ohio State’s dreams last died at Michigan’s hands. Michigan’s defensive coordinator just remembered the feeling. It was better than a Super Bowl, one player recalled. It was worth 11 other wins.

It was 1996, the last time Michigan ruined a perfect season for the Buckeyes, the most recent in a string of 19 wins over an undefeated Ohio State team dating back to the turn of the century. In 1901, a 4-0-1 Ohio State team lost to Michigan, 21-0, ruining a then-unbeaten record for the first time in the rivalry’s history.

Michigan is 19-13-3 against an undefeated Ohio State team, though just 4-9-1 since The Game moved to the last week of the season in 1935. In addition to those four victories, Michigan served Ohio State its first loss four times before 1935. And now Michigan has a chance to do it again.

Ohio State is 11-0, and though it is ineligible for postseason play, it can still be voted the Associated Press National Champion. Yet Michigan players say you can throw the record out the window in this game.

“It’s going to be sweet whether they were 1-9 or 10-0,” said junior quarterback Devin Gardner.

His teammates say you can’t add any more intensity to the rivalry, and that’s hard to argue. But the games that last, the games that become iconic — in those games the stakes were raised. The losses hurt just a fraction more.

Gardner said his most vivid childhood memory of The Game was in 2006, when a perfect No. 1 Ohio State triumphed over an unbeaten No. 2 Michigan team. For Michigan coach Brady Hoke, it was the 2002 game, when the undefeated Buckeyes beat Michigan to advance to the National Championship game.

And for Mattison, it was 1996.

“I just remember the excitement of winning that game,” Mattison said. “That’s one, of all the games I’ve been in over these years, that’s the one I’ll always remember.”

Rod Payne was a senior and a captain on that 1996 team, and he knows the feeling of playing spoiler well. In 1993, Payne’s class defeated an unbeaten Ohio State team — the first time Michigan had done so in 24 years. Again, in 1995, Payne and Michigan beat an undefeated Buckeyes team behind a 313-yard rushing performance by Tshimanga Biakabutuka.

Payne said he would give up 11 other wins for one win over Ohio State, regardless of the Buckeyes’ record.

“I played in a Super Bowl, and I played in a couple playoffs games,” Payne said. “I would say that the Michigan-Ohio State ranks above all of those games.”

Still, he concedes, “I think any one of the teams that’s down on their luck and a team that’s undefeated, there is more incentive to, just a smidgen more, to really get after guys.”

Of course, No. 20 Michigan is more concerned with No. 4 Ohio State’s explosive quarterback, game-changing defensive tackle and inventive first-year coach than the Buckeyes’ record. The 109th iteration of the rivalry pits the Big Ten’s highest-scoring offense, Ohio State, against the conference’s best-scoring defense, Michigan.

The Wolverines (6-1 Big Ten, 8-3 overall) have historically struggled against mobile quarterbacks, and they’ll face their most difficult challenge all season in Heisman candidate Braxton Miller. Miller has gained 1,214 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground this year in coach Urban Meyer’s new offensive system, and he has thrown for 1,850 yards and 14 touchdowns.

Mattison said the defense is aware of its issues with mobile quarterbacks this year. Last year, Miller accounted for 335 total years and three touchdowns against Michigan, though he was sacked four times.

“The good news is we’ve played against some really, really good quarterbacks this year, and we play against a great one every day in practice,” Mattison said. “So we’ll be ready to go.”

Michigan’s embattled offensive line, which has yet to produce a 100-yard rusher outside of senior quarterback Denard Robinson, is tasked with controlling defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. Hoke called Hankins, “as good as any defensive lineman playing in the interior in the country.”

Ohio State (7-0, 11-0), meanwhile, must prepare for two different Michigan quarterbacks. Robinson, the elusive runner and Michigan’s starting quarterback, hasn’t thrown a pass since he sustained an elbow injury at Nebraska four weeks ago. Gardner, Robinson’s replacement, has quickly ignited the Michigan receiving corps, and he has won Big Ten offensive player of the week honors twice in three weeks at quarterback.

Last week, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges used Robinson in 20 plays, at quarterback, running back and wingback. Robinson didn’t throw a pass, but he rushed for 98 yards and caught two passes. Hoke, as usual, didn’t reveal Robinson’s status.

“Denard continues to get better every day,” Hoke said. “I would say it’s probably up in the air.”

The practices, coaches say, are more vigorous this week. The hits are harder.

“When it comes down to Michigan-Ohio State, babies in cribs cry different cries this week, okay?” Payne said. “The bums on the street clean up and shave, ‘Go Blue.’ The doggone birds in the air are chirping The Victors.”

This week decides legacies. After Michigan handed him his only loss of the 1995 season, Ohio State coach John Cooper said, “I don't know if I've ever been as disappointed in my life as I am right now.”

That was Michigan’s 18th win over an unbeaten Buckeyes team. Saturday, the Wolverines go for No. 20.


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