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COLUMBUS — The madness of rivalry week was officially on Monday at Ohio State.
Scarlet tape covered every letter “M,” right down to the 17 of them on a state historical marker honoring Woody Hayes outside the football complex. Sheets of paper concealed all but one game on the Buckeyes schedule inside the team meeting room — “Nov. 30 THAT TEAM UP NORTH.” And players took great pains to not mention that team by name.
And then — gasp — it happened: The gaffe, the horror, and the apology.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said the word “Michigan.”
“I learned to dislike Michigan at a very young age,” he said when asked about growing up in Ohio during the Ten-Year War.
Told of his faux pas, the man who bans the color blue from the football facility appeared stunned.
“Did I really?” Meyer said. “Wow, I apologize.”
If you hadn’t noticed, No. 3 Ohio State’s trip to the Big House on Saturday is indeed The Game for the Toledo-born and Ashtabula-bred coach.
Meyer has built up rivalries at each of his stops, even making assistant coaches take tests on the history of the games.
At Bowling Green, the foil was That Team Up North (Toledo). At Utah, it was That Team Down South (Brigham Young). And now the stakes are higher than ever with That Team Up (Farther) North.
Like Hayes and Earle Bruce and Jim Tressel before him, he has elevated the OSU-Michigan game into a larger-than-life showdown.
“I’m a huge fan of college football,” he said. “I’m a fan of pro football, too. But the pageantry and rivalries are unique in college football. Do we make a big deal out of this game? Absolutely. Do we make a huge deal and are we over the top about the rivalry game? Yes, we do. That’s the way I was brought up. We kind of go over the top here, and we always have.”
Senior left tackle Jack Mewhort said Meyer “flipped a switch” right after the Buckeyes’ 42-14 win against Indiana — their school-record 23rd straight victory. And on Sunday, the Buckeyes were back at practice, diving into their game week preparation a day earlier than usual.
“You can just tell what week it is when you walk into the hallways all you hear is, ‘It’s time for war,’ ” OSU linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “You can just see the look in [Meyer’s] eyes, and you can just tell that he wants to win so bad in this game.”
This year’s edition comes with an uncharted twist. Unlike in past years, when Michigan was the final hurdle before bowl season, OSU will play No. 12 Michigan State on Dec. 7 in its first Big Ten championship game.
Yet with an 11th win against UM in 13 years on the line — not to mention a continued voice in the national title discussion — the Buckeyes know this is no time to pace themselves.
Meyer faced a similar scenario in 2006, ’08, and ’09, with Florida facing Florida State a week before playing in the Southeastern Conference championship game. The Gators beat FSU all three times and won the SEC and national title games in 2006 and 2008. Alabama took down Florida in the 2009 game.
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“I don’t want to say it’s awful, but you talk about blowing out your staff and players — and then you throw in finals week,” he said. “Our focus is on this one, but we know what’s coming. You have to be so disciplined in the way you practice, and I’m going to warn our coaches and myself about sleep and taking care of yourself, because these next two weeks are going to be brutal.”
OSU’s players wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mewhort said he plans to spend part of the week indoctrinating the team’s out-of-state freshmen about what’s on the line Saturday.
“When you come to Ohio State and you’re a national guy, you may come for the big name or the big-time coach, or you may like the scheme,” he said. “But when you get here, I think it’s a responsibility to realize that it’s all about this game. Being able to play in this, it’s next-level stuff.”
EXTRA POINTS: Shazier is one of five finalists for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best linebacker. The quintet also includes UCLA’s Anthony Barr, Buffalo’s Khalil Mack, Alabama’s C.J. Mosley, and Stanford’s Shayne Skov. The junior Shazier had a career-high 20 tackles — including a school-record-tying 16 solo stops — against Indiana, leads the Big Ten with 108 tackles, and is third nationally with 19½ tackles for a loss. ... Meyer said Curtis Grant will be “good to go” after the junior linebacker sat the last two games with an ankle injury.