Sports Nut

Mutual Contempt

A Michigan fan and an Ohio State fan explain why they hate each other and who’s going to win Saturday’s big game.

University of Michigan Wolverines fans

Jonathan: Aaron, we have always called it The Game, and we have always understood it to be the best rivalry in all of sports. This year, the entire world is seeing it the same way. ESPN has been showing countdowns for weeks, the national media have descended upon Columbus, and even outside the Midwest, the Michigan-Ohio State game is Topic A. (I spent last weekend at a wedding in Georgia, and talk about The Game never stopped.)

The Game is The Game for a number of reasons. First, of course, is that college football has the fewest games of any sport, and thus every individual game takes on magnified importance. Second, Michigan and Ohio State historically dominate the Big Ten conference and always play each other last. The matchup inevitably colors the entire season for both teams and usually carries championship implications.

Michigan and Ohio State have played 102 times, but most fans of both schools believe the essence of the rivalry is the “10 Year War.” That’s the decade (1969-1978) during which Ohio State coach Woody Hayes and Michigan’s Bo Schembechler faced off. Both teams were at their peak (OSU won 81 percent of its games over that decade, UM 86 percent). Bo, of course, had coached under Woody, lending a recurring Zeus-Cronus subplot. More importantly, The Game was, quite literally, the season. The games leading up to The Game were often a procession of blowouts, and the two rivals spent much of the year practicing for each other. Until 1975, moreover, no Big Ten team other than the champion was allowed to play in a bowl game. It was win and go to the Rose Bowl, lose and spend the next 365 days preparing for revenge.

Since Big Ten teams have been allowed to appear in other bowl games, and especially since the 1980s, when a Michigan or Ohio State loss to another Big Ten foe became something other than a freakish occurrence, The Game has seemed slightly less cataclysmic. It’s the culmination of the season, yes, but not the season itself. Except that this year, with both teams 11-0 and clearly the best two squads in the country (OSU probably a little better), it is everything those Bo-Woody battles were and more.

I’m a Michigan graduate and a lifelong fan of the football team. When my non-college-football-fan friends (and here in Washington, D.C., that means almost all of them) inquire about Michigan-Ohio State, they assume the two sides are mirror images. Sort of the way political novices think of the Israel-Arab conflict. In many ways we are alike, but we are different in one critical respect: Ohio State fans are insane hooligans. Not all of them, of course. Not even most. But enough of them.

This may sound like a hopelessly partisan statement, but let me explain. It has been known for many years that opposing fans, especially Michigan fans, get treated very badly in Columbus. Not only will you be cursed at, you may have beer or urine hurled at you. You may also be shoved or punched. If your car has Michigan license plates, the police will frequently ticket you for trumped-up infractions. I have not heard of these things happening with any regularity in Ann Arbor.

This year, the University of Michigan sent an e-mail to fans traveling to Columbus. It reads like a State Department warning to tourists visiting a hostile Third World country. Some of the advice:

- Try carpooling to the game; if possible, drive a car with non-Michigan license plates.
- Keep your Michigan gear to a minimum, or wait until you are inside the stadium to display it.
- Stay with a group.
- Stay low-key; don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself.
- If verbally harassed by opposing fans, don’t take the bait.
- Avoid High Street in Columbus.

Two years ago, the last time the game was at Ohio State, police detained the Michigan football team outside Ohio Stadium and searched them with bomb-sniffing dogs. Again, no equivalent thing has happened in Ann Arbor. I haven’t heard of anything like this happening elsewhere, either. And in no other opposing stadium do Michigan fans report regular physical abuse, vandalism, and police harassment. So, the interesting sociological question is: Why are Buckeye fans so insane?

I have two theories. The first is that the Michigan-Ohio State game is more important to Ohio State. Michigan has secondary rivalries with Notre Dame and Michigan State, and these drain some of the focus that Ohio State fans reserve entirely for Michigan. OSU players get a special gold trinket if they beat Michigan. The team has a sign asking, “What Have You Done to Beat Michigan Today?” in its weight room, year-round. One of OSU’s most popular school songs is titled “ We Don’t Give a Damn for the Whole State of Michigan.” When a Buckeye coach is fired, it is generally for failing to beat Michigan, regardless of how well he has done overall. I don’t think any of these things have a parallel in Ann Arbor.

My second theory is that OSU, unlike most campuses, is located in a major city, one lacking in professional sports teams. Therefore, the whole city is wrapped up in Ohio State football, and you get a working-class fan base that’s absent in most college towns. Professional sports fans tend to be angrier and drunker than college ones. (In my youth, I took many trips to watch the Detroit Tigers, and for a $4 bleacher seat you could watch not only the game but shirtless, mullet-wearing ruffians hurling racial insults at the other team’s outfielders and, occasionally, beating the crap out of each other.)

The irony is that most Michigan fans respect Ohio State more than any other rival. Most of us root for OSU to win all its games leading up to The Game and consider our southern neighbors a worthy foe. And indeed, most Buckeye fans I’ve met are nonviolent, sober, and generally act nothing like a protest mob in Damascus. So, why do you think your side has such a sizeable crazed fringe? Can’t we all get along?

Ohio State Buckeyes fans

Aaron: Jonathan, no, we can’t. I might be inclined to believe what you’re saying about the mental state of Ohio State fans, except for the fact that I’ve personally attended the Ohio State-Michigan game in Ann Arbor three times. In 2003, I sat in the Michigan student section dressed entirely in OSU garb and was subject to vivid, profanity-laced tirades. I was also physically threatened enough times that I felt I would surely experience the end of the game from the inside of an ambulance. (Inexplicably, I ended up trading chugs from a full bottle of Jägermeister with the guy who was most ready to fight me instead …)

Don’t take my tale as a horror story. I don’t consider my experience particularly interesting or unique—I’ve heard many a tale of rogue hooliganism directed at Ohio State fans visiting Ann Arbor. In fact, I thought I got off easy. After all, I was sitting in the opposing student section during the biggest college-football game in the country. And that, I think, is the crucial difference between Ohio State people and Michigan people: Buckeye fans know that when you buy the ticket, you take the ride. Football games aren’t cricket matches. There’s no break for tea.

Actually, if you ask around, most people will cite Wisconsin or Penn State as the home of the Big Ten’s worst fans. In Madison, they have a special medical facility for fans who drink too much. Badger fans are also well-known for their profane chants. Penn State fans welcomed our band last year by lobbing bottles filled with yellow liquid. And it wasn’t Mello Yello. My point here is that insane behavior is the norm in big-time college football. What you call certified lunacy, I call passion.

You are right about one thing: Ohio State fans care more about The Game than Michigan fans. The gold pants, the song, the “What Have You Done to Beat Michigan Today” sign—guilty on all counts. What you fail to recognize is that this is completely rational. First, Ohioans care more about football than people anywhere else in the known football universe. (Sit down, Texas.) There are small towns here where your eternal worth is defined by how well your high-school team did your senior year. Plus, there are no other big-time college-football programs in Ohio. As a consequence, there are tons of Buckeye fans across the state who didn’t go to OSU. (I went to Ohio University in Athens, for example, but as a Columbus native, I consider the third Saturday in November a high holiday.) The lack of worthy state schools also means that we have to look across the border to find a legitimate rival. Do you know how hard it is to get up for games against Cincinnati and Toledo?

That said, spare me the notion that Michigan doesn’t care about this game. Your coach revealed this week that he’s been practicing for Ohio State all year long. And we haven’t forgotten that Michigan fans were in an ugly, coach-firing mood after the Buckeyes snatched another win away in Ann Arbor last year. Besides, any team whose fans willingly wear maize-and-blue checkered pants in public is pretty into the game.

I also don’t think that the working-class roots of the Ohio State fan base has anything to do with the bitterness of the rivalry. It’s more about geography and history. We hate Michigan because they wanted to fight in 1835 over a sliver of turf that the Michigan Territory and the state of Ohio had competing claims on. No shots were fired in the Toledo War, but Michigan and Ohio militias did get close enough to lob insults back and forth for several days. And then there is the more recent history of near-misses for Ohio State in Michigan games where we had everything on the line. Buckeye DB Shawn Springs falls down one year. Michigan running back Tim Biakabutuka runs for 313 yards against our vaunted defense. Kiss two national titles bye-bye.

I agree that the 10 Year War between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler made this rivalry larger than life, but I don’t think it really had that much to do with that Buckeye castoff Bo. Woody gave this rivalry its real passion—tearing up yard-line markers one year, refusing to let the almost-out-of-gas team bus stop in Michigan. And then there’s the time Woody went for a two-point conversion in 1968 when Ohio State was up 48-14. When someone asked why he did it, Hayes said, “ Because I couldn’t go for three.” Ohio State fans whisper that to their first-born sons when they place them in their cribs at night.

Ohio State coach John Cooper was most assuredly run out of town for his pathetic record of 2-10-1 against Michigan. I wouldn’t be so sure that your curmudgeonly coach is safe. The Buckeyes’ Jim Tressel has won four of five from Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr. There is loose talk in Columbus that we should throw a game just to ensure our scowling punching bag sticks around for a while. Maybe we’ll give you guys a freebie next year.

Now that I’m done explaining what the rivalry means to my people, perhaps you could explain something to me. How in the name of Fielding Yost are your boys going to hang with my Buckeyes come Saturday?

Jonathan: Well, I see you’re determined to play the role of Neanderthal Buckeye fan to the hilt, right down to the tenuous grasp of historical facts. So, my knuckle-dragging friend, I’ll happily straighten you out on a couple points.

Usually it’s the historically aggrieved party that nurses an obsession about an ancient conflict. But Ohio won the Toledo War. You have no reason to hate us, considering that you took a sliver of our land. And we don’t hate you for seizing Toledo from us, either. Frankly, Toledo isn’t exactly Paris.

Second, Woody Hayes already had 50 points when he went for two in 1968. The conversion failed. But the poor sportsmanship did help inspire Michigan to upset the massively favored, No. 1 Buckeyes the following year. Thus was established the great Buckeye tradition of massive overconfidence.

Which brings us to Saturday’s game. On the surface, Ohio State is a far better team than Michigan. Michigan outscores its opponents by an average of 29-12, which is good, but OSU outscores its opponents by an average of 36-8, which is staggering. We’ve been beating up on teams. You’ve been annihilating them.

But I think the matchup is actually much closer than it seems, for a couple of reasons. First, Michigan has played a slightly tougher schedule: Our opponents have a 63-55 record, while OSU’s are 55-63. Second, Michigan’s offensive coaches are notorious for shutting things down after getting a lead, making our statistics suffer. Through the first three quarters, OSU has scored just one point per game more than Michigan. The massive differential in fourth-quarter scoring accounts for most of OSU’s higher total. Yet there’s only one game Michigan has played all year in which we’ve made any effort to score in the fourth quarter.

Third, Ohio State’s defense is not as good as it appears. Even though Ohio State surrenders 30 yards more per game than Michigan, it gives up four fewer points. Why? Turnovers. Specifically, the Buckeyes are insanely good at making interceptions, with 21 on the year. Indeed, many of Ohio State’s opponents moved the ball quite easily against them, only to give up the ball when they neared the goal line. Football-stats geeks note that turnovers are more a function of the offensive team than the defense. Great defenses are somewhat more prone to creating them, but the offense you’re playing against has more to do with it. You can’t count on the opponent marching down the field and throwing a bad pass or fumbling time after time.

Turnovers and Ohio State’s fantastic offense have covered up a fairly glaring weakness: run defense. In the Texas, Northern Illinois, Penn State, and Iowa games, opposing tailbacks averaged nearly six yards a carry against Ohio State. Now, OSU hasn’t played a lot of decent running teams, and they’ve jumped ahead of most of their foes, so that weakness hasn’t hurt them very badly. It may well on Saturday.

Ohio State, as I said, has a legitimately great offense. But Michigan’s defense is perhaps even stronger. In particular, the run defense is off the charts. Ohio State’s fantastic 2005 defense allowed 73 rushing yards a game, leading the country. The best run defense of the last few years was the 2003 Southern Cal’s, which allowed 60 yards a game. This year, Michigan allows 30 rushing yards a contest.

I don’t see Ohio State running for any sustained yardage, and they’ll be forced to throw. Of course, OSU is very good at throwing the ball, but Michigan has a strong pass defense as well. (Both teams actually give up the same yards per pass attempt: 5.5. OSU has twice as many interceptions, but as I said, you can’t count on that continuing.)

Buckeye fans are probably counting on Troy Smith, a shoo-in for the Heisman at this point, working the same magic he used on Michigan the last two times he faced us. Don’t count on it. The Wolverines’ last defensive coordinator, who peed down the side of his leg every time he faced a mobile quarterback and whose name I cursed every morning when I awoke and every night when I went to bed, is finally gone. Our new coordinator plays a far more aggressive style.

Ohio State is considerably better at passing than Michigan (8.6 yards per attempt versus 7.7). On the other hand, Michigan will probably have a better running game than Ohio State on Saturday. That means we’ll have the element of surprise on our side when we pass, and we’ll be able to catch the Buckeye defense off guard. OSU will probably have the run taken away and have to pass against a defense that’s expecting it. That should mitigate any advantage they might have through the air.

That’s the basic lay of the game as I see it. Of course, even if I could be sure Michigan would out-rush and out-pass OSU, it wouldn’t guarantee a victory. In any given game, a few plays in the red zone, turnovers, and whatnot can have the decisive influence. In 2002, for instance, Michigan outgained OSU by more than 100 yards. But a few plays killed us. We stripped the ball from your receiver, but you recovered and went on to score. You knocked the ball loose from our quarterback and recovered. A terrible pass-interference call sustained a Buckeye touchdown drive, and so on.

If you think I’m bitter, I’m not. After OSU won that game, I predicted that the Buckeyes, a heavy underdog, would match up well with overhyped Miami, and they did. What will happen in Columbus? No idea, but methinks the seven-point spread in Ohio State’s favor is too large.

God, I can’t wait.

Aaron: I’ve got no quarrel with one thing you said—you’re damn right we won the Toledo War. I’ll let the surveying crowd sort out who was in the clear over the Toledo strip, but Ohioans know the Michigan ruffians opened fire at our law-abiding surveyors, who were dispatched by President Andrew Jackson, by the way. As for Woody’s unsuccessful two-point conversion, I’m glad you caught my error. I assumed your defense couldn’t possibly have been wretched enough to give up 50 before the conversion try in 1968. My mistake.

Hurtling forward into the modern age, I love how you have carefully constructed a plausible argument on a steaming pile of statistics.

Let’s deconstruct this Michigan-played-a-tougher-schedule argument. We played six common Big Ten opponents; Michigan also played Wisconsin, while Ohio State played Illinois. Out of conference, we each played two soft Mid-American Conference teams and one big dog: The Bucks played Texas, and Michigan played Notre Dame. What’s left? We played Cincinnati, and you played Vanderbilt. That’s pretty much the same schedule. Now, let’s look at what each team did against common opponents.

We beat both Minnesota and Northwestern by 30 points more than you, Penn State by 15 more, Michigan State by 13 more, Indiana by 10 more, and Iowa by seven more. (Lest you misinterpret the only single-digit margin, we could have named our score in the Hawkeye blowout.) It amuses me to no end that you think your coach plays it close to the vest in the fourth quarter while Ohio State plays wide open. They have a name in college football for sitting on the big lead, punting, and playing defense to eke out a win—it’s called Tresselball.

I noticed that you said very little about the Michigan offense. Let’s focus on that.

More often than not, you win football games through explosive offensive plays that get you touchdowns, not field goals. Your big play receiver is Mario Manningham, who had eight touchdowns in four games when your offense was clicking in September and early October. He’s the one offensive threat that concerns me. But he’s coming off midseason knee surgery and will be matched up against OSU’s lockdown corner Malcolm Jenkins. Texas’ big-play wideout Limas Sweed had all of three catches for 37 yards with Jenkins in his grill all day. When Manningham missed three Big Ten games due to injury, your team had a total of four passing plays longer than 20 yards and none over 30 yards. That tells me that you have no deep threat when Mario is out or, in this case, wearing a Jenkins blanket.

I agree that our defensive weakness is stopping the run, and I like your hard-nosed running back Mike Hart. But he’s a Smurfy speed back who needs lanes to run in. Our safeties will creep up because they don’t have to respect the deep ball, and Hart will be hemmed in all day.

Wisely, you conceded that Ohio State has a great offense. Likewise, I will concede that Michigan’s run defense is statistically about as good as can be, allowing an insane 30 yards per game. What you failed to dwell on is that your pass defense is as suspect as your run defense is stellar. You rank only 65th against the pass this year in the NCAA, and my scouting has shown that the Michigan secondary is shaky outside of DB Leon Hall.

Look for Ohio State to come out throwing to set up the run, as they have most of the year. Ohio State likes to spread the field with QB Troy Smith in the shotgun—he has 26 touchdowns and only four interceptions this year, by the way—and three or four wideouts in the game. Our wide receivers are extraordinary: There’s the sprinter speed of Ted Ginn, the impeccable hands of Anthony Gonzalez (surely you recall his back-breaking catch near the goal line in Ann Arbor last year), and the wise coach’s son play of Brian Robiskie, whose father is an NFL lifer. The Wolverines will have no choice but to roll a safety over to double Ginn—everyone has all year—leaving the soft middle open for the slant to Gonzalez and Co. Forget three yards and a cloud of dust, the slant pattern to Ginn’s opposite side has been our go-to play in 2006.

Your defensive line will be looking for the sack, but it’s easier said than done with Smith in the shotgun. He’s nifty with his feet, and his lower-body strength allows him to throw downfield with guys hanging on him. Sure, Ohio State could turn the ball over a bunch, and Mario Manningham is good enough to single-handedly turn the game in your favor. Heck, maybe there will be a torrential downpour that will really improve your lot. But those boys out in Vegas were trying to tell you something when they made Ohio State a seven-point favorite.

In the fourth quarter with the game in doubt, rivalry football comes down to quarterback play and a coach that excels—not chokes—under pressure. We have Troy Smith and Jim Tressel, you have Chad Henne and Lloyd Carr. Troy has won two in a row against Michigan, and our coach has won four of five against yours. I like our chances. Ohio State by 10.

By the way, I have a pair of tickets to the game. And they’re not for sale.

Jonathan: A few final points:

1. You’re right that Michigan gives up a lot of passing yards, but that’s only because their opponents pass the ball a lot. Michigan’s defense gives up exactly as many yards per pass as Ohio State. A lot of sportswriters have called Michigan’s pass defense a weak spot, but that’s just a sloppy use of statistics.

2. Mike Hart is indeed small. In fact, he’s not even fast. But he does not need lanes to run through. He needs crevices so tiny they often cannot be detected by the human eye.

3. I remember the last time Michigan was a touchdown underdog. The result was this.

Aaron: Let me sum up this game as succinctly as possible: We have Troy Smith. You don’t.

Good luck.