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Published: 11/18/2006

Big Game becomes even bigger

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Flowers and memorials are left outside Schembechler Hall, Michigan s football practice facility named after the late coach. Flowers and memorials are left outside Schembechler Hall, Michigan s football practice facility named after the late coach.
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COLUMBUS - The blimp is tracing endless slow- motion arcs across the sky. There are also six guys dressed like Woody Hayes wandering around the premises posing for photos.

This is the site where Ohio State and Michigan will settle their differences that date back more than a century, and do so on fresh sod that is just three weeks old.

The cavalry of national media is staging all around the place.

And so are the huge metal arms that shoot toward the sky and articulate over the sides of Ohio Stadium, in order to rinse the field with light so that this epic battle can be played as day melds into night.

They would have to throw this in the dryer and shrink it a few sizes in order for it to be just big.

The hard edge of the series was a bit softened yesterday by the death of former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, 77. Ohio State will observe a

moment of silence before today's game.

Security has been ratcheted up to a new alert level beyond orange: it's scarlet or maize. Rational adults who wear business suits and Windsor knots the rest of the year will be plastered today with face paint and draped with the shell-covered fruit of the Aesculus glabra tree.

(To those of you in suburban West Millgrove, that's a buckeye.)

Others will don wolverine heads, or wear out-

rageous shirts with phrases that are neither catchy nor fit for family viewing.

Twelve straight weeks of football has come down to this - the Big Two of the Big Ten battling to be king of the college football mountain. Top-ranked Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan have defied the

historians and the keepers of their respective kingdoms and figured out a way to make this normally grandiose encounter into something even more.

"I expect it to be all 11 games in one," Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith said about this season-ending tilt that will crown its winner the outright Big Ten champion, and send that team to the Arizona desert to play for the national championship.

In a bizarre stroke of incongruity, the loser likely gets a trip to the Rose Bowl as the booby prize. For eons, that was the winner's treasure. An evolution Darwin never dreamed of has taken Ohio State and Michigan into that new reality.

"It's definitely going to be a different feeling this year, because there's a lot on the line," Michigan senior defensive end LaMarr Woodley said. "It's already a big rival game. Both teams are undefeated in our conference, and it's a chance to compete and play in the national championship game."

The wealth of dynamic individuals on these two teams are nominated for more awards than the film Titanic was in its big year at the Oscars. Ohio State and Michigan have a player being considered for every postseason honor but best performance by a nickel back in a supporting role.

No, wait, they've got that covered, too.

Ohio State has Smith and the Olympic-caliber speed of wide receiver/kick returner Ted Ginn Jr. The Buckeyes have the steady running of Antonio Pittman, and so many options through the air with Anthony Gonzalez, Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline.

The Buckeyes' offensive line is maybe the best in a decade, while the defense has defied the experts and reloaded seemingly overnight. The OSU defense went from suspect to dominant while holding national champion Texas to seven points on its home field the second week of the season. It has maintained that level of denial.

Kicker Aaron Pettrey has hit eight of his last nine field goals, and has three from outside 50 yards. Punter A.J. Trapasso has made the most of his minimal opportunities behind this

offense, dropping 14 kicks inside the 20.

Michigan has the steady and prolific Chad Henne maturing into a quarterback of legend, while Mike Hart runs with more gusto than anyone in the conference. There are multiple threats on the outside, and an offensive line that has blossomed under a new zone-blocking scheme.

The Wolverines' defense is second to none - big, fast and ferocious up front, athletic and explosive at linebacker, and deep in the secondary. In Garrett Rivas, Michigan has a kicker who is the school's all-time leading scorer, and punter Zoltan Mesko is more dangerous now that he's learned to control his cannon.

"Great players on both sides, no question, and that's probably why it's these two teams in this situation," Smith said. "It is going to be complete pandemonium around the stadium with two teams of this caliber and tradition. This is always the biggest game for both schools. And this year, it managed to get even bigger."

The coaches in this bigger- than-big affair did not get to this juncture by being riverboat gamblers. They play it close to the vest, positioning themselves for that moment when the

opposition falters.

They won't risk much, while they wait for the stress of the surroundings to reduce someone's capabilities.

"I think a guy doesn't come to Michigan unless he wants the pressure," Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr said. "We talk about that all the time. Expectations are such that you've got to want it. You have got to understand that it's part of playing here. You're going to deal with a lot of different issues."

Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who has won four of the five games against Michigan in his tenure with the Buckeyes, senses a similar environment surrounding this one.

"You can feel the electricity and the energy," Tressel said. "You can't quantify it, but you can feel it."

While many might expect the outcome to be settled by one of the obvious stars - the Heisman Trophy favorite on the home side of the field, or the dynamo running back across the way, or by the jet-powered wide receiver with the gray helmet, or the unstoppable defensive end with wings on his headgear - it could come down to a minor role player, or a fatal error.

"The truth is that there are going to be mistakes out there," Carr said.

"There's going to be some missed tackles. There's going to be some guys that miss blocks. There's going to be some guys that maybe miss a pass. They turn the football over. But the deal is that if you've been in this season, I think on either side of the ball at either school, you know what pressure is, and you wouldn't have gotten here if you didn't."

Tressel sees the need to play mistake-free when the opposition appears so flawless.

"You're going to have to earn every inch that you get," Tressel said.

"You're going to have to play tremendous gap-control defense and you better cover every zone. You better be spotless. But that's not a concern, that's something that you know. I don't think there's anything that concerns me about this game; we've just got to get excited to be out there and play. And we've got to play well, because Michigan's going to play well."

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.



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