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Published: Tuesday, 11/18/2003

UM s Pape ready for defining moment

ANN ARBOR - This Ohio State-Michigan stuff isn t reserved for seven days in November.

Just ask Tony Pape, the Wolverines splendid offensive tackle who shares a house with UM quarterback John Navarre and center Dave Pearson.

They answered a knock on the door one day this past summer to find a man standing there with his two young daughters, both dressed in Ohio State uniforms.

“We re just here to spread some Buckeye cheer,” the man said.

Fortunately, for him, Pape is a gentle giant who probably found at least a little humor in the moment.

It will be different this Saturday. The guy across the line dressed in an OSU uniform, hoping to spread a little Buckeye cheer in the Big House, will be 6-5, 265-pound Will Smith, arguably the best defensive end in the land.

“I couldn t be more excited,” Pape said yesterday. “It s the defining moment for two great teams and it s the defining moment for me and for Will Smith.”

Pape brings some credentials of his own to what should be a classic, head-to-head confrontation.

He was selected to the All-Big Ten first team a year ago and will surely repeat in 2003 while being considered for the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award.

He is the leader of a veteran and star-studded offensive line that has paved the road to 5,039 yards and 411 points in 11 games.

And, on Saturday, this irresistible force meets an immovable object, the Ohio State defense.

In microcosm, Tony Pape meets Will Smith, who leads the Buckeyes, if not the world, with 20 tackles for losses and 101/2 sacks.

“I m going to have to play the best game of my entire life,” Pape, a fifth-year senior, said. “Will may be the best in the country. He s definitely an All-American. Our match-up will be a huge part of the game. He s a difference-maker on their defense and I think I m a difference-maker on our offense.”

They will be tangling for the third time as starters, and Pape is of the opinion he and Smith have battled hard and pretty much nullified each other. On the other hand, Pape also knows Ohio State has won each of the last two meetings.

“I ve been thinking about this game for a year, ever since we lost the last one,” he said. “I always ask myself what I could have done to make the outcome different.”

He doesn t want to spend another year wondering the same thing.

“I know it s going to be on the offensive line. Can we move them? Their rushing defense is an amazing statistic.”

While Michigan has hammered out more than 2,000 yards on the ground this season, the Buckeye defense has allowed just 556 rushing yards, an average of 50.5 yards per game.

“That has to be one of the best in modern college football history,” UM coach Lloyd Carr said of Ohio State s defensive rushing average.

Pape is impressed, but not scared. Hey, nothing scares the guy. He stands 6-6 and weighs 304 pounds.

Off the field, Pape hardly looks like one of the game s nastiest linemen.

He has this tall mound of hair, a mishmash of waves and curls, and thick, wide sideburns that wrap to his chin. He is always sort of bouncing, even while standing in place, and there is a constant smile on his lips and a gleam in his eyes.

“Tony is just an easy-going, happy-go-lucky guy,” Carr said. “But man, is the game important to him. He is one tough guy.

“That s good, because anybody who s going to block Will Smith will have his hands full. He s not just a pass rusher. He s great against the run and he is such a good athlete that they drop him into coverage.”

If anything, said Pape, Smith is better than ever.

“I think he s even more aggressive,” Pape said. “Maybe in previous years, now and then, you d see him quit on a play. Not now. He ll go to that third or fourth move to get to the quarterback. But I ve changed too. I think I ve made a huge improvement as a pass protector.”

Yes, it should be interesting. Two of the best, head to head for a good part of 60 minutes, the Big Ten title, the Rose Bowl, maybe even more on the line.

“We re playing extremely well right now,” Pape said of the Wolverines, who have averaged 38.6 points per game during a current five-game winning streak. “But it means nothing if we stop now.

“This is the defining moment. This is the game that defines whether we re a great team or an average team. You d better believe we want to be remembered as a great team.”

Contact Dave Hackenberg at dhack@theblade.com



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