K.J. Hill scrunches his face, tugging at his winter hat and pulling it down as he puts himself in deep thought, trying to reach back and snag a memory that probably feels like it came decades ago.
Austin Mack is doing the same thing moments later, narrowing his eyes, gazing upward and to the right into the distance.
It’s less than an hour after the two receivers helped push Ohio State to a 28-17 home win over Penn State on Saturday, so the adrenaline of such a monumental win is still fresh. But when asked to recall their first visits to Ohio Stadium, both moments actually come to mind rather quickly for the two seniors.
For Hill, in his fifth year at Ohio State, it was Jan. 24, 2015, when the Buckeyes brought home the College Football Playoff trophy from AT&T Stadium into the Shoe for their championship celebration. The fourth-year senior Mack’s first taste of this environment came during a 66-0 romp of Kent State on Sept. 13, 2014.
Neither of those atmospheres, and almost none of the ones that followed during their playing careers, has matched Saturday’s intensity.
“It’s top three. I’ll say it’s top three,” Hill said of where Saturday’s atmosphere ranks against some of the other games in his career. “(Saturday), I feel like was crazy. I’m glad I got to experience this for my last game in the Shoe for the atmosphere. Sometimes, when we were on offense on third down, we couldn’t hear. That’s just an atmosphere you love to play in, and that’s why I love Buckeye Nation.”
Mack’s first game day experience doesn’t seem like it was too much to write home about. After all, it was a bludgeoning over an in-state MAC opponent. But he smirks when asked if he ever imagined playing in a game like Saturday’s.
“Absolutely. I knew I wanted to come here, and I knew if I came here, there would be moments and games like there was (Saturday),” Mack said. “As a recruit, you kind of get the fan experience. You get this emotion of what’s going on – the raw-raw and the hoopty-hoo. As a senior and knowing what it means to really be a Buckeye and put all your blood, sweat and tears into this team and this university, it really means something extraordinary.”
The win over Penn State is the biggest of the season and puts them in a situation in which only an 0-2 collapse would prevent them from reaching the sport’s pinnacle. Those are the moments Hill and Mack lived for and envisioned when they signed on to become Buckeyes.
But even with how gigantic of a win, and how raucous of an atmosphere it was, this week means even more.
It’s Michigan Week. It’s the week that specifically brought some players to Ohio State and the week the coaching staff highlights, quite literally, from day one.
“In recruiting we talk to them right from the get-go,” Ryan Day said on Tuesday. “That's one of the reasons why some people come to school here, is for the rivalry. We make such a big deal of it. As you know, when you walk in the building, it's all over the place. We talk about it all the time, talk about it recruiting in all areas, strength and conditioning, football, other areas.
“It's something that you just ingrain. The more these guys are in the program, the more they get it. We still have a huge majority of our guys from the area. They get it. They talk to the guys about that.”
The Game is consistently in the minds of Ohio State recruits, and each player has had his moment when the enormity of the rivalry finally hit him.
For linebacker Pete Werner, it all started with recruiting with the epic double-overtime game in 2016.
“That's one of the reasons why some people come to school here, is for the rivalry."– Ryan Day
Trailing by three in the second extra period, the Buckeyes’ Curtis Samuel took a first-down handoff off left tackle and sprinted into the north end zone for a wild 30-27 win.
“When I was a recruit, I was first row, and I saw Curtis Samuel run that ball in the end zone, and that kind of brought me here. That was crazy,” Werner said on Tuesday. “It was the factor. I saw that, and I was like, ‘Whoa, are you kidding me? I gotta come here.’
“It was one of those plays. I’m not the only one to say that too. I was right next to a bunch of other recruits, and they were like, ‘Wow, this atmosphere.’ I remember talking to Urban Meyer after the game, and it sold me from there. He was like, ‘Wow did you see that play? Did you see this game?’”
Growing up, the Indiana native Werner wasn’t privy to the rivalry’s magnitude, but when comparing rivalries and traditions between programs in his recruitment, he came to Ohio State and felt like they took both of those more seriously than any other team in the country.
“I was sold,” he said.
The rivalry was used as a recruiting tool during the Meyer Era, and that hasn’t stopped during the infant stages of the Ryan Day Era.
There may not be a better example or a current recruit who knows better about the importance of this rivalry than Jack Sawyer, and Sawyer has already bought into the rivalry since even before committing to the program his second semester sophomore year.
The nation’s No. 2 overall junior recruit grew up a Buckeyes fan, with Ohio State memorabilia on the walls of his family home in Pickerington as he was taught to call it “The Team Up North” pretty much since the first day his parents took him home from the hospital. He is yet to join the program officially, but he already talks like he’s suiting up against the Wolverines.
“We live (the rivalry) every day,” Sawyer told Eleven Warriors. “After each lift there’s a TUN thing where however many days there are until that game, they count from zero to (that day) and each one is a push up, sit up or holding a plank position until we’ve reached that number.”
Even if it’s on a preseason day with months to go until Michigan Week, players will have to rack up those push ups and sit ups, and recruits have taken notice.
You just can’t lose to Michigan.
“It’s kind of like a standard,” said 2021 tight end target Jordan Dingle. “And there’s no other option than to beat them.”