Growing up in Washington, Emeka Egbuka openly admits he “didn’t really know anything” about the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry before the Buckeyes began recruiting him out of high school.
He isn’t the only one.
Many of the Buckeyes preparing to put their bodies on the line for the sake of The Game this weekend didn’t truly become indoctrinated into the tradition until arriving in Columbus. But as wide-reaching as Ohio State’s recruiting efforts have become over the years, there are still plenty of Buckeye State natives on the roster whose relationship with the rivalry long predates their time playing in it.
“I feel the pain not only of the loss, I feel the pain of the state having to go through a year where we come up short. And I think that kind of fuels us day in and day out.”– Xavier Johnson on losing to Michigan
Lewis Center, Ohio, native Zach Harrison remembers watching The Game with friends in elementary school and then “hearing all the team up north fans, they would get bullied, they would get made fun of, laughed at by Ohio State fans.” Of course, Michigan fans in Buckeye country were far outnumbered, but Harrison said “there’s always one in every class.”
That’s when Harrison came to a realization.
“Oh, this is serious. … This is more than just a football game,” he said. “This means a lot.”
If any member of the Ohio State program was unaware of that fact, it sure became clear following last year’s 42-27 loss to the Wolverines – the Buckeyes’ first in 10 years. Those that grew up as Ohio State fans, such as fifth-year wideout and Cincinnati native Xavier Johnson, hardly needed a reminder.
“The rivalry, the history, everything's rich behind it. So we work that game so much, we work it every day. And so having come up short, it hurts,” Johnson said. “It's something where I feel the pain not only of the loss, I feel the pain of the state having to go through a year where we come up short. And I think that kind of fuels us day in and day out. I think we got a lot of Ohio kids on the team. And so just having the understanding of that rivalry, even like pre-playing in it, I think that's kind of something that has allowed us to take it so seriously.”
Paris Johnson Jr., another Cincinnati native, said he never watched The Game as a kid. But in talking with past Buckeye players ahead of his first start in the rivalry last year, he was imbued with a sense of responsibility.
He had one such talk with former Buckeye offensive lineman Michael Jordan, who told him that before his own first start against Michigan in 2016, Orlando Pace gave him a head nod that symbolized the importance of the task at hand.
“That whole game he was thinking, ‘I just don't want to let him down.’ And for him, that was a big moment,” Paris Johnson said.
But while Jordan’s rivalry debut ended in a double-overtime victory in Columbus, Johnson’s own was far less celebratory. Johnson said he “took that loss very hard” and still remembers his emotions in the immediate aftermath in Ann Arbor.
“In that moment when we lost, just like looking up at the scoreboard, personally in my mind I felt like not only did we fail our number one goal of when you sign here to become a Buckeye, but I felt like all the past people that kept the tradition of beating them – home or away – I felt like I let them down in that game,” Paris Johnson said. “So I felt like, as far as that goes, how I felt in that moment, I've been holding onto that up to this point.”
There’s no doubt Johnson feels he owes it to his teammates and to himself to right last year’s wrong, but he doesn’t want to let those who came before him down again, either.
“I feel like I've made a connection with a lot of past Buckeyes here to the point where I know all the work they put up. To the banners up here all through the Big Ten championships. And you can't get there without beating (Michigan),” Paris Johnson said. “So there's all these guys on the poster that I'm thinking about that have done before it. I have to continue to do it myself.”
Ryan Day’s efforts to rectify last year’s loss were obvious, externally speaking. The Buckeye coach overhauled his defensive coaching staff over the offseason, save for defensive line coach Larry Johnson, and also swapped out his offensive line coach.
“Everybody changed, from Coach Day down to the equipment guys, there was a shift. And the players included in that.”– Xavier Johnson
Internally, Xavier Johnson said the changes have been even more tangible.
“Everybody changed, from Coach Day down to the equipment guys, there was a shift. And the players included in that,” Xavier Johnson said. “I think there was a bit of a lax that kind of happened, and I think that lax came back to bite us. And it was kind of like we had to re-bite on everything, whether that was our offseason workouts, whether that was the scheme, the players – we had to look ourselves in the mirror and we had to really understand that this is a matchup game.
"They're an excellent team, they have excellent infrastructure up there. And so when we're playing against them, we're playing against someone who is very – the playing fields are level. So we have to bring our A-game, and that really starts from first workout in the winter and it carries all the way through this season. So all 11 games and into the 12th. And so I think that the way it kind of changed was re-biting on that and just understanding that if we don't work this game every day, if we're not getting better every day, then we're susceptible to what happened last year.”
Whether the Buckeyes understood the severity of The Game before they got to the program, sometime soon after or only following the 2021 loss, there doesn’t seem to be any lack of urgency entering Saturday’s showdown. They’ll be on the front line in college football’s greatest rivalry game this weekend when their supposed change in attitude toward Ohio State’s archrival will truly be put to the test.