Michigan struggling heading into 'The Game' vs. Ohio State

Michigan struggling heading into 'The Game' vs. Ohio State
November 27, 2013, 2:15 pm
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Vinnie Duber

The 2013 edition of The Game is unlikely to be ranked among the most memorable.

It was the 2006 contest that was billed as "The Game of the Century," when No. 1 Ohio State topped No. 2 Michigan by three points to win the Big Ten title and advance to the national championship game. But since that well-contested matchup, it's been all Buckeyes.

Technically, it's been all Buckeyes for longer than that. The 21st century has without a doubt belonged to Ohio State in one of college football's most storied rivalries, with Michigan emerging victorious just twice since 2001. And though Michigan prevailed over an unranked Ohio State team in the year between Jim Tressel's firing and Urban Meyer's takeover in Columbus, the direction of the two programs couldn't be more different in 2013, especially when you consider both are supposed to be powerhouses.

It's Michigan that has failed to hold up its end of the deal, one that though unwritten suggests these two teams should always be playing in late November with a Big Ten title on the line. In the seven meetings since that 1-vs.-2 showdown in 2006 (including Saturday's upcoming tilt) Ohio State has been ranked in the top 10 all but once, while Michigan has played just three as a ranked team, never higher than No. 17.

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Yet again, the season has not gone the way those in Ann Arbor expect a Wolverines football season to go, and an unranked Michigan team will be heading into a game with its biggest rival as massive underdogs, all but a fly that requires swatting as undefeated Ohio State tries to find its way into the national championship game.

The hate is still there, of course. Michigan senior offensive lineman Taylor Lewan refused to talk about "Ohio," the less-than-affectionate name the Wolverines use for their rivals to the south. And Urban Meyer's face matched the red on his shirt when he accidentally uttered "Michigan" at his press conference earlier this week. He was caught by the media, and it became a headline as if he said "Voldemort" or something.

But there's certainly something different about this edition of The Game. It's the fact that Michigan's not expected to compete. Though that's not what they're saying in Ann Arbor.

"I am very confident that we can win, or we wouldn't play. I'd call down there to Columbus and say that we won't do it," Brady Hoke said at his weekly press conference Monday. "No. 1, we have to stay away from negative plays offensively. You've got to manage the manageables when you look at down and distance. Negative plays, taking care of the football, trying to steal a possession with a turnover. Defensively, their running game is going to be a big part of it. It always has. We've got to do a great job in the rushing game and try to create longer distances for them."

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That's easier said than done, though, for a group of Wolverines that has underwhelmed at every turn this season. After a Week 2 demolition of another rival in Notre Dame, Michigan has played poorly, nearly losing games to inferior opponents like Akron and UConn, falling in four overtimes to Penn State in a game full of missed field goals, getting whitewashed by another rival against Michigan State and then coughing up a lead just last week vs. Iowa. It hasn't gone well for the Wolverines, hence the lack of optimism by the fan base and media as they go up against their toughest opponent of the season.

"No. 1, I would say that we are going to play the game on Saturday, and that's why we're playing it. This game has always been different in some ways," Hoke said. "Are they a good football team? Yeah, they are a very good football team. Do we have to play better than we've played? I don't think there's any doubt about that, and we've got to be more consistent and finish things better. It's what makes it so much fun."

Fun could be something that there is very little of on the Michigan sideline Saturday. Though Hoke is right in pointing out that there is a reason his team isn't forfeiting. A win could certainly be huge, though he was the first to admit it could "never" erase the disappointment of the season up to this point.

"Is the goal always to win the Big Ten championship? No question about it. And we won't make excuses nor back down from it," Hoke said. "Have we played and coached as well as we've needed to? Obviously not. And those are things that we've got to keep going and keep working at every day because that's all you can do."