It didn’t matter how many times he’d already seen it.
Every time Ryan Day exited his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center with his son during his first year on staff at Ohio State, the pair would stop before walking out the front door to watch the highlight video of the Buckeyes’ 2016 double overtime win over Michigan that played on loop at the facility. Having not yet experienced the rivalry firsthand, it was as close as Day could get.
“Instantly it became something that I just wanted to be a part of, and hope that I was able to enjoy a victory against the team up north,” Day said Tuesday. “I understand what it means to so many people, and just tried to embrace it over the years.”
Since then, Day has known nothing but victory over the Wolverines in three meetings, including one as head coach in 2019. But for the first time since the 2016 game that Day used to watch in awe, the 2021 matchup will feature a pair of top-five teams with identical 10-1 records that have everything to lose.
Day wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I don’t know what else to tell you other than there is a lot of pressure. And that’s the way you want it,” Day said. “You want this game with everything riding on it at their place; it’s gonna be a wild environment, and again, that’s why you come to Ohio State.”
Beating Michigan has always been the first priority for the Buckeyes. But during an era that has seen eight straight rivalry wins for the scarlet and gray, reaching the Big Ten Championship Game and earning a spot in the College Football Playoff have become standards of success and pillars of expectation for Ohio State just the same.
All three of those goals are on the table and ripe for the taking for either side in Ann Arbor on Saturday, and the two-year hiatus of The Game only adds to the atmosphere of a rivalry renewed with sky-high stakes on the line between Ohio State and Michigan this weekend.
“This is our No. 1 goal here at Ohio State is to beat the team up north – period. And we got to do it,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said at Tuesday’s press conference. “I think the guys understand that, they understand what a huge week this is for so many reasons; first off just the rivalry itself, and secondly there’s everything on the table here, certainly an opportunity to go to Indianapolis.”
The pressure Day mentioned has been palpable for Buckeye players as they prepare for The Game this week, but as fifth-year senior defensive tackle Haskell Garrett put it, “we thrive in pressure.”
Just a few months ago, Michigan was hardly expected to be a win away from a berth in the Big Ten title game entering its matchup with the Buckeyes. The Wolverines went 2-4 during the 2020 season, and started 2021 unranked in the AP poll for the first time since Jim Harbaugh’s first year at the helm of the program in 2015.
But a 7-0 start to the season, followed by a 3-0 run after suffering its lone defeat to Michigan State on Oct. 30, means Michigan not only has the chance to spoil the Buckeyes’ promising season but to take their place in the national postseason picture.
For Ohio State, which has been favored to win every game it has played this season, anything less than a 10-1 record at this stage of the year would have been a disappointment. The Buckeyes lost a regular season game for the first time in Day’s head coaching tenure, though, which means they cannot sustain another if they hope to make a third consecutive trip to the CFP.
The Buckeyes leapt from No. 4 to No. 2 in the latest CFP rankings after an Oregon loss and a dominant Ohio State win over then-No. 7 Michigan State on Saturday. Michigan’s own 59-18 blowout over Maryland helped the maize and blue climb to fifth in the rankings as the first team out of the playoff entering the weekend.
As far as bulletin board material goes, given Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara’s recent assertion that he’s not “very concerned about anything” the Buckeye defense has to offer, Day said anything else that may fuel his players’ fire outside of The Game’s inherent stakes is simply extraneous.
Cade McNamara tells @JonJansen77 that hes not concerned about Ohio States defense as much as #Michigan is looking to take advantage of the Buckeyes on that side of the ball. MORE: https://t.co/UXHloUknNN— Isaiah Hole (@isaiahhole) November 23, 2021
“We focus on ourselves, but there’s obviously social media out there and guys read things here and there. We certainly don’t need extra motivation for a game like this, everything’s riding on it, and it’s the rivalry game,” Day said. “But I know the guys are always watching and see what’s going on up there.”
The veteran leaders on Day’s roster echoed the same sentiment this week.
“This game is as big as it can get every single year, so as much as added motivation, there’s really not much, because we gotta go play the team up north and we gotta go get a win,” junior defensive end Zach Harrison said.
Due to last year’s COVID-19 cancellation and the general youth of the Ohio State roster at many vital positions, most Buckeyes that are expected to play key roles on Saturday will be doing so for the first time in a Michigan matchup. The emotions may be all new, and particularly in a hostile environment at the Big House. But Day said the extra year-long incubation period doesn’t put anything more on The Game in his eyes.
If any Buckeyes are having trouble getting up for this one, they might just be at the wrong program.
“I don’t think we need any more motivation,” Day said. “Two teams playing in the rivalry game for a chance to go to Indianapolis. Two very good teams, and here we are in November, Thanksgiving week.
“Couldn’t ask for anything more.”