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Published: Saturday, 11/18/2000

Buckeyes frenzied; Wolverines loose

BY DAVE WOOLFORD
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The obsession that is Michigan visits Ohio Stadium today for a football game against Ohio State.

For the 19th-ranked Wolverines (7-3, 5-2), it's an opportunity to gain at least a share of the Big Ten championship with an outside chance of landing a Rose Bowl berth, should Purdue and Northwestern both lose at home today.

It's a big game for Michigan.

For the 12th-ranked Buckeyes (8-2, 5-2), the stakes are a tad higher. They will have the opportunity to participate in a prominent New Year's Day bowl if they win. And if they win and Purdue loses, they'll head for Pasadena.

It's a big game for OSU. No, check that. It's a fetish. A passion. A lust. An infatuation. It's Michigan. Let hate and spite prevail.

If the 21/2–point underdog Wolverines have a decided edge, it might be the same one they've had in recent years - the ability to approach this contest with verve while not getting caught up in all the embellishment surrounding the game, especially in Columbus.

A Columbus radio announcer has been admonishing Michigan even before the season started. One of the station's advertisers ends his weekly pitch with, “Beat Michigan.” Even a member of the OSU athletic staff was murmuring sour nothings about Michigan just before the Buckeyes were getting ready to tee it up against Fresno State in the season opener.

They don't play 'em one at a time in Columbus. They play one team. And that's Michigan.

That Ohio State coach John Cooper is 2-9-1 against “That Team Up North” has incensed the cynical sentiments even more. After five losses and a tie in his first six games against Michigan, Cooper had to beat the Wolverines in 1994 or lose his job. That was the dividing line.

Ohio State players were not even allowed to say the word “Michigan” after last week's enthusiastic victory over Illinois.

Can you say, “Mental block?”

Former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit, now an ESPN college football analyst, admitted to the Detroit News, “Michigan goes in relaxed. They go in expecting to win the game. Ohio State goes in hoping to win the game. That's a big advantage in any rivalry.

“The Michigan players, to a man that I've talked to, are all dumbfounded at how they'd get to their hotel room (in Columbus) and get ready to go to bed, you turn on the TV and every local station had a special (on the game). It was like a huge pep rally on every station. And they thought, `Man, at home the Wings are playing or the Pistons are playing and the Lions. And by the way, it's a big game, Ohio State and Michigan.'

“But in Columbus, it's everything. It's always been that way.”

It seems the Buckeyes currently feel much better about themselves, at least less skittish than usual, their 8-2 record the best in the Big Ten, as is their defense. It's been a season of over-achievement with even bigger opportunities on the horizon.

For the Buckeyes to win today, their defense has to set the tone from the outset against a Michigan offense that has weapons galore, but is sometimes predictable and stifled by conservative play calling.

UM coach Lloyd Carr has to unleash his offense. And should the Wolverines get the lead, which is paramount to their cause, he can't sit on it in traditional Michigan fashion with a young, patched-up defense that can be very defenseless on occasion, especially on the road.

The tradition of this game is to button things down, spar and wait for the opponent to make a mistake and then hope to capitalize. If that's what UM attempts to do, it will play right into the Buckeyes' hands.

With tailback Anthony Thomas averaging almost 150 yards rushing per game, with the accurate passing of quarterback Drew Henson to big-play receivers David Terrell and Marquise Walker, and with one of the best offensive lines in the country, Michigan is one of only seven teams in the nation to average more than 200 yards per game passing and rushing.

Look for Ohio State's offense to spread the field more than usual. You might remember hearing before the season started that quarterback Steve Bellisari would run the option more this season, but you haven't seen it. Expect to see it today.

To be successful using all of the playing surface, you have to have speed. If tailback Derek Combs and wide receivers Ken-Yon Rambo and Reggie Germany are not 100 per cent, OSU's quickness is quickly compromised. All three had to leave the game last week against Illinois with ankle or leg injuries. All three are expected to play today, according to Cooper.

If Combs, OSU's significant outside running threat, is not fit for duty, he'll be replaced by Jonathan Wells, a terror against Illinois.

He rushed for 131 yards in 27 carries and caught five passes for 50 yards.

Like any quarterback, when Bellisari gets time to function, he's very functional. When he's under attack and on the run, he sometimes makes bad decisions and even worse passes.

But against Michigan's defense he could become today's hero. The Wolverines are last in the Big Ten in sacks. If they don't find a way to at least bully Bellisari, the Big Ten's seventh-most efficient quarterback could move up considerably in the rankings.

Special teams play favors Ohio State. Placekicker Dan Stultz is second in the conference in field goals, making 17 of 21. Jeff Del Verne of Sylvania has replaced an erratic Hayden Epstein at Michigan and has connected on four of six field goal attempts.

Carr is 4-1 against Ohio State. His best chance to become 5-1 is to let his offense play to its potential and not call draw plays on third-and-long.

Cooper's best chance for a third victory in 13 tries against Michigan is to make sure his team plays within its emotional confines and doesn't get caught up in all the exterior hyperbole that has had a detrimental psychological effect on the Buckeyes in the past.

“The fact the game is being played in Columbus, and I think Ohio State's defense has the talent to win this game,” Herbstreit said. “However, Michigan has more team character and they have more leadership, and in this rivalry sometimes that's all that matters.”



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