After 2020 Game Cancellation, Playing Michigan Will Be A New Experience for Most Buckeyes

By Dan Hope on November 26, 2021 at 1:39 pm
C.J. Stroud and TreVeyon Henderson

Even though they’ve heard about The Game since the moment they arrived at Ohio State, most of Ohio State’s players haven’t actually played Michigan yet entering this year’s game with the Wolverines.

Because last year’s game was canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak with the Michigan football program, none of Ohio State’s first- or second-year players have experienced The Game as a player yet. Many of the Buckeyes who will be on the field on Saturday in Ann Arbor will be playing their first snaps against the team up north.

Going into Saturday’s game, only 26 Ohio State players have played snaps in previous editions of The Game. Only 10 Buckeyes have played offensive snaps and only another 10 Buckeyes have played defensive snaps against Michigan. Thayer Munford is the only Buckeye who’s played against Michigan three times, while only eight other Buckeyes have played in two previous editions of The Game. Munford (in both 2018 and 2019) and Chris Olave (in 2019) are the only Buckeyes who have already started a game against Michigan.

Buckeyes Who Have Played Against Michigan
Pos Player Offensive/Defensive Snaps
OL Thayer Munford 143 (71 in 2019, 71 in 2018, 1 in 2017)
WR Chris Olave 55 (38 in 2019, 17 in 2018)
TE Jeremy Ruckert 35 (25 in 2019, 10 in 2018)
CB Sevyn Banks 33 in 2019, special teams in 2018
WR Garrett Wilson 33 in 2019
CB Cameron Brown 29 in 2019
DE Tyreke Smith 25 (13 in 2019, 12 in 2018)
S Marcus Hooker 18 in 2019
RB Master Teague 18 in 2019
DT Antwuan Jackson 15 in 2019
DE Tyler Friday* 11 (7 in 2019, 4 in 2018)
CB Demario McCall 9 (7 in 2019, 2 in 2018) – on offense
OL Harry Miller* 7 in 2019
OL Nicholas Petit-Frere 7 in 2019
OL Enokk Vimahi 7 in 2019
TE Mitch Rossi 7 in 2019
DE Zach Harrison 6 in 2019
DE Javontae Jean-Baptiste 4 in 2019
LB Teradja Mitchell 3 in 2019, special teams in 2018
DT Jerron Cage 3 in 2019
S Marcus Williamson Special teams in 2019, 2017
DT Haskell Garrett Special teams in 2019
WR Xavier Johnson Special teams in 2019
OT Dawand Jones Special teams in 2019
LB Cade Kacherski* Special teams in 2019
S Craig Young Special teams in 2019
*Out with long-term injuries

For a majority of Ohio State’s players, including many of the Buckeyes who will play key roles in this year’s game, that means they haven’t personally experienced what it’s like to play in The Game yet. But that doesn’t mean they don’t understand how big of a game they’re about to play in.

“365 days, we’ve lived that rivalry. Every day we’re at least doing something for that team up north,” freshman cornerback Denzel Burke told Eleven Warriors this week. “It’s gonna be one hell of a game. I know it’s gonna be rocking. And I’ve seen the documentary, I’ve seen everything so I just can’t wait to live the hype for real.”

When one chooses to play football at Ohio State, he learns about how important The Game is before he even arrives on campus. Ryan Day says the Buckeyes talk to their players about The Game in recruiting. Once they get to Ohio State and begin training at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the emphasis on The Game is impossible to ignore, from the clock inside the facility that constantly counts down to the next clash with Michigan to the “team up north” drills they do throughout the offseason.

So Day isn’t concerned about the lack of actual game experience his players have against the Wolverines.

“We work it year-round,” Day said. “Every day, we work it. We work it in the offseason, we work it on Fridays in the weight room. We have so many different things that we talk to our guys about. We have our sessions in the preseason and spring. We have meetings about it. So we just constantly talk about it.”

Neither are the Buckeyes’ veterans who have already played in The Game.

“The second you walk into the building, you know how big this game is,” Zach Harrison said. “We train for it every single day of the offseason, every single day of the year, we’ve got this game in the back of our minds and now that it’s finally here and those guys who haven’t played in The Game, they’re excited to have the chance to go play the team up north.”

Ohio State will be relying on a lot of players who haven’t played in The Game before to make major contributions on Saturday, but there are plenty of recent examples of first-year Buckeyes stepping up in big ways in their first rivalry games.

C.J. Stroud will be playing his first snaps against Michigan on Saturday, but so was Justin Fields in 2019 and Dwayne Haskins in 2017 when they led the Buckeyes to wins over the Wolverines. TreVeyon Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba will also be playing Michigan for the first time on Saturday, but so was Garrett Wilson when he had 118 receiving yards and a touchdown against the Wolverines in 2019, as was J.K. Dobbins when he had 101 rushing yards and a touchdown in Ann Arbor in 2017.

There’s no better example of a Buckeye stepping up in his first Michigan game than Olave, who caught two touchdown passes and blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown as a freshman against the Wolverines in 2018. And he thinks the work the Buckeyes have put in all year long will have Ohio State’s young players prepared to rise to the occasion this year like he was three years ago.

“The freshmen that came in last year, they’ve been preparing almost 700 days for this game. So I know they’re prepared,” Olave said. “And the freshmen that just came, I know they’re prepared. So it’s just a matter of time for when the game comes, and I know we’ll be ready.”

“The second you walk into the building, you know how big this game is.” – Zach Harrison on Ohio State vs. Michigan

For the second-year Buckeyes who have had to wait an extra year to play Michigan for the first time, last season’s cancellation has only increased their anticipation for Saturday.

“I was looking forward to it last year, but they canceled the game, so I’m extremely excited this year,” redshirt freshman cornerback Ryan Watts told Eleven Warriors. “It’s something that I’ve been looking forward to as a kid, and now that I’m gonna be able to participate in it and help contribute to winning this game, that’s gonna mean a lot. I’m gonna be real nervous, but I’m gonna be excited.”

Players like Stroud, Henderson, Smith-Njigba and Burke may not have any experience playing against Michigan yet in their Ohio State careers, but they have been on the field playing major roles for the Buckeyes all season. Even though they’ve been made to understand that this week’s game is bigger than any other, Day says they can be successful in The Game by doing the same things that have enabled them to be successful in other games.

“Those guys have not played in The Game. And there’s a first time for everything. So they gotta do a great job in preparation,” Day said. “But at the end of the day, they can’t also make it bigger than it is. They have to just go out there and prepare and do what they’ve done all season.

“Because while it’s obviously a huge game for so many reasons, the game itself isn’t any different than playing the game against a really good opponent. You have to still go out there and play the game. You can’t overthink things. Certainly there’s a lot riding on it. But other than that, we’re still playing football.”

There’s no doubt, though, that playing Michigan for the first time will give them an extra jolt of desire to play at their absolute best on Saturday.

“I’m definitely excited,” Stroud told Eleven Warriors. “Excited for every game. Probably a little more this game, but we’re gonna have some fun.”

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