INDIANAPOLIS — When Cade McNamara entered the field at Michigan’s Big House to face Ohio State last November, he had a better record against the archrival Buckeyes than nearly all his Wolverines teammates, than pretty much everyone who played for them in the 21st century. He was 0-0.
The previous year’s game had been canceled because of COVID issues. When OSU won in 2019, McNamara was redshirting, so that 19-point embarrassment doesn’t go on his record. Now, after 60 minutes of chilly football on that autumn afternoon, he’s one of the few recent UM players who can say he’s got a 1.000 winning percentage against the Bucks.
And that means so much more than a single football game.
Michigan-Ohio State is a rivalry again.
“It helps a lot. It definitely gives us more confidence,” McNamara told The Sporting News at Big Ten Media Days. “We’ve been there. There is less weight on our shoulders as to the stress of it, and ‘We have to do this.'”
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OSU-Michigan’s position at or near the top of the great college football rivalries hasn’t been much more than a default position over the past two decades. It is, because it was — that’s a lot of what made people pay attention to this game as they’d line up in either Columbus or Ann Arbor and the Buckeyes would wind up celebrating at the end.
At the start of last season’s game, OSU had won eight in a row, nine of the previous 10 and 17 of the previous 20. Those streaks were ended or altered following Michigan’s 42-27 triumph.
Now they enter the 2022 season with the Buckeyes ranked No. 2 and the Wolverines at No. 6, according to TSN’s Bill Bender. Ohio State spent much of the offseason driven by the memory of the most recent game. Michigan spent it with a grander sense of confidence about what it can accomplish.
“When your season’s over, you look back and ask why, and what you could have done wrong,” Jaxon Smith-Njigba, OSU’s burgeoning star wideout, told TSN. “That’s a game where we can pull a lot of things from. You just see the scoreboard, and that’s motivation.”
For Michigan, a lot of what grew from the game was the product not just of the result, but the margin. Certainly the Wolverines needed to win, at last. If they’d merely squeezed out a victory on a fortunate bounce, though, it would not have resonated in the same way. UM winning so decisively that fans could spend the entire fourth quarter celebrating was great for the rivalry and a considerable boost to the team.
“It was super important. There’s no question about it,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh told TSN. “I’m happy. I’m happy the players got to experience that. Mostly, that’s where that happiness comes from. That’s part of the transformational process, that our players learned there are big challenges — there’s obstacles in the game of football, and in life. And I think they learned with the right approach, with the right work ethic, with the right team-first mentality and teamwork that you can make anything happen. You can bring anything to life.”
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The 2021 edition of OSU-UM was the sixth for Harbaugh. His teams had lost the previous five by a combined 85 points. Only one had been decided by a single-figure margin. Being owned to this degree by the opponent that historically defined Michigan football success led to considerable public heat on the university to consider the possibility of a coaching change.
This sort of thing impacts players. Those who are happy with their program — and that’s most still in uniform, given the ease now of transferring — can feel responsibility, sometimes extreme pressure, to save their coach’s job.
“In a way, the anxiety was, ‘Why is coach Harbaugh on the hot seat? Why does he have to face the criticism?’ Because if anyone wants to beat Ohio State, it’s coach Harbaugh. I can promise you that,” McNamara said. “But I think now that we got that for him, now that we know what that looks like, we’re going to be more comfortable going into that game.”
Michigan won the Big Ten East division by defeating the Buckeyes and the Big Ten championship by blowing out Iowa a week later. It at last joined its biggest rivals, OSU and Michigan State, as teams that earned College Football Playoff appearances.
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There is a challenge this Michigan squad has not conquered, that Wolverines football in general has not in a long while. They last won at Ohio State’s “Horseshoe” in 2000. That’s 10 consecutive road losses. OSU has won eight times at the Big House since UM last won in Columbus.
“They’re not going to flinch, if that’s what you’re asking,” Harbaugh said. “There’s nothing really I’ve got to teach them or show them or tell them. I know our team really well by now. We’ll just keep attacking and building. That’s definitely our goal: to win the championship again, to fight like hell for Michigan to get that done.”
Smith-Njigba allowed that being on the other side of the final score did reignite the rivalry. “It’s a different outcome than we’d seen in a minute. So when something like that happens, yeah, it kind of shakes it up,” he said.
His quarterback, though, saw it as a fierce competition no matter how one-sided it had gotten.
“That’s always a rivalry. I don’t care if we beat them 100 times or they beat us,” C.J. Stroud told TSN. “It doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, I don’t want to say it’s like bad blood off the field, but it seems just like we just — it’s two great traditions on both sides, two great programs and great players on both sides, that both have guys doing it in the NFL now.
“It’s respect both ways, but at the same time, it is a war.”