Walk into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center at any point this week and you’ll hear the same song over and over.
When reporters gathered in the meeting room for Urban Meyer’s press conference on Monday, LL Cool J’s “It’s Time For War” rang out from speakers on both sides. Just a few minutes before Meyer walked in and took the podium to discuss Ohio State’s upcoming game against Michigan, the music stopped. Then, about a minute after he walked back up the steps back to the coaches’ offices, that same song began pumping through the speakers again, and again, and again, and again, never stopping.
Dre’Mont Jones said on Tuesday that he got tired of it constantly playing in the football facility on Monday. It took Davon Hamilton just one hour to want to skip to the next song. On Ohio State’s Michigan week playlist, though, there’s only one song.
“It's my fifth year, so of course I'm sick of it,” Parris Campbell said.
That’s just part of how Ohio State deals with Michigan week. It’s different.
Some teams treat rivalry games like they’re just another matchup between two teams in a long season. That hasn’t been Ohio State’s approach.
“Just goes back to January,” Tuf Borland said. “All the workouts, all the runs continues through summer and then into the season. It's never not in our minds. I think that gives us the edge.”
For some players, that preparation begins before they were even on Ohio State’s roster. That began for Hamilton before he was even committed to the Buckeyes.
“This is ‘The Game.’ This is not any ordinary game, even though we say it is. But the truth behind it is this is the game of the year. This is the playoff game. We've got to go out there and perform.”– Dre'Mont Jones
Larry Johnson and Luke Fickell met up with Hamilton, an in-state product who played for Pickerington Central, at a local Bob Evans.
“First thing they asked me is, 'Obviously you're from Columbus. Do you understand what it means to beat the Team Up North?' I gave them my definition of what that was,” Hamilton said.
He told Johnson and Fickell that it meant “everything” to him, and emphasized how the Buckeyes aren’t ever supposed to lose to Michigan. After that conversation, Hamilton earned an invite to Ohio State’s campus.
Once on campus, especially for the out-of-state players who might not have grown up watching Ohio State and Michigan battle it out, Meyer and the coaching staff quickly indoctrinate players into the importance of what is affectionately known as “The Game.”
Borland, an Illinois native, said he watched the rivalry game while growing up, but needed some education when he arrived. That came in the form of drills and workouts during his first winter practices and continued throughout the years, which brought him up to speed “pretty quickly.”
“Every year, pretty much every day, you hear about it, this that and the other about Michigan this, Michigan that – or, Team Up North that,” Hamilton said. “I lived here for my whole life, so I heard it every day.”
Players aren’t even supposed to say the word “Michigan,” which is why Hamilton corrected himself. Demetrius Knox referred to Michigan State as “TUN State” on Tuesday, refusing to even utter the other Michigan university’s name.
During the week leading up to the game against the Wolverines, Ohio State tries to prepare for its opponent just as it would for any other team, Dre’Mont Jones said. But it’s impossible to escape the magnitude of the game.
“This week, this game is just different,” Campbell said. “The air around the Woody is different. The way we attack practice is different. The preparation is different. Everything is just different. I think he does a great job of just emulating that through the whole team, allowing the young guys to follow the leaders and the older guys follow our coaches, and everyone knows what's at stake.”
Throughout campus, the letter “M” on every sign and building is crossed off with red tape. Ohio State kicked off the week by inviting the marching band to practice. Players on the scout team wear maize and blue jerseys with winged helmets while practicing against the starters. If Ohio State wins, players get pins of gold pants that commemorate the victory.
Even babies born at the Wexner Medical Center on campus wear scarlet sleep swaddles that say “Beat Michigan!”
“Just those things, just those small things, that makes you feel different,” Campbell said. “So when you're attacking the day, you attack practice, you just remember those things. We practice every day hard, but just this week, it's all you've got, all you can give. Everything we do in the offseason is for this week right here.”
Saturday’s Ohio State-Michigan game has more on the line than just the fate of the 115th rendition of ‘The Game.’
The winner will head to the Big Ten championship to take on Northwestern with a conference title on the line, and the victor also will remain in the race for the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines will take on the Buckeyes as the favorite for the first time since 2011. Ed Warinner, a former Ohio State offensive line coach, crossed the line and now coaches Michigan’s offensive linemen.
Knox doesn’t need any of those to prepare himself, though.
“I don't think you need any extra motivation for this game,” Knox said. “I mean, it's the best rivalry in sports.”
Borland added: “I think if you need an extra gear this week, there's a problem. You're going to get our best this week. The rivalry itself should fuel you.”
Michigan holds a 58-49-6 lead in the matchup, but the Buckeyes have had most of the recent success, which is what the 18-to-22 year olds playing on Saturday remember. Ohio State has beat Michigan in each of the past six years and has won all but one game between the two teams since 2004.
For the first time since arriving at Ohio State, Meyer will be an underdog against Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines, and the last thing the Buckeyes want to do is be the doormat on Michigan’s path to the playoff. They hope to continue the stretch of dominance, which includes 15 wins in 18 matchups since 2000.
“This is ‘The Game.’ This is not any ordinary game, even though we say it is,” Jones said. “But the truth behind it is this is the game of the year. This is the playoff game. We've got to go out there and perform.”