Emeka Egbuka grew up in Washington, and publicly admits he “didn’t really know anything” about the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry before the Buckeyes began recruiting him out of high school.
He’s not the only one.
Many of the Buckeyes who were preparing to put their bodies on the line for the game this weekend weren’t indoctrinated in the tradition until their arrival in Columbus. But even though Ohio State’s recruiting efforts have expanded over the years, there are still plenty of Buckeye State natives on the roster whose relationship with the competition long predates their time playing in it.
“Not only do I feel the pain of the loss, I feel the pain of the country that is going through a year that we are still in. And I think that kind of fuels us day in and day out.”– Xavier Johnson for the loss against Michigan
Louis Center, Ohio, native Zach Harrison recalled watching The Game with friends in grade school and then “hearing about all the fans up north, they’d get bullied, they’d make fun of them, they’d make fun of them by the Ohio State fans.” Of course, Michigan fans in Buckeye country were far outnumbered, but Harrison said “there’s always one in every season.”
This is when Harrison came to a realization.
“Oh, this is serious. This is more than just a football game,” he said. “It means a lot.”
If any member of the Ohio State Program is unaware of this fact, the following has certainly become apparent Losing last year 42-27 To the Wolverines – the Buckeyes’ first in 10 years. Those who grew up as Ohio State fans, like fifth-year wide and Cincinnati native Xavier Johnson, hardly need a reminder.
“The rivalry, the history, everything is rich behind it. So we work on this game a lot, we work on it every single day. So, it hurts me,” Johnson said. You have to go through a year where we have a deficit. And I think that kind of fuels us day in and day out. I think we got a lot of Ohio kids on the team. And so just understanding that rivalry, even like pre-playing it, I think that’s kind of the thing that allowed us to take it more seriously.”
Paris Johnson Jr., another Cincinnati native, said he never watched The Game as a child. But speaking with former Buckeye players before his first competitive start last year, he was imbued with a sense of responsibility.
He had one such conversation with former Buckeye offensive lineman Michael Jordan, who told him that before his first start against Michigan in 2016, Orlando Pace gave him a head nod to symbolize the importance of the task at hand.
“That whole game he was thinking, ‘I just don’t want to let him down,’” Paris Johnson said. “For him, that was a big moment.”
But while Jordan’s first contest ended in a double overtime win in Columbus, Johnson’s win was less celebratory. Johnson said he “took this loss very hard” and still remembers his feelings in the immediate aftermath in Ann Arbor.
“In that moment we lost, just like looking at the scoreboard, I personally felt in my mind that not only did we miss our first goal when I signed up here to become the Buckeye, but I felt like all the exes that kept the tradition of hitting them — at home or in Outside — I felt like I let them down in that game,” said Paris Johnson. “So I felt, as far as that goes, how I felt in that moment, I was holding on to that up until this point.”
There is no doubt that Johnson feels he owes it to his teammates and himself to right last year’s wrong, but he doesn’t want to let those before him down again either.
“I feel like I connect with so many ex-Buckeyes here that I know all the work they put in. To the streamers here throughout the Big Ten Championships. You can’t get there without hitting (Michigan),” Paris Johnson said. “So there are all these people. On the label I’m thinking of and have done it before. I have to keep doing it myself.”
Ryan Day’s efforts to correct last year’s loss were evident, on the outside. Buckeye coach Overhaul his defensive coaching staff Over the course of the season, with the exception of defensive line coach Larry Johnson, he also replaced the offensive line coach.
“Everyone changed, from the day coach all the way down to the equipment men, there was a transformation. And the players included in that.”– Xavier Johnson
Internally, Xavier Johnson said the changes were more tangible.
“Everyone has changed, from the day coach all the way down to the equipment men, there has been a transformation. Players are included in that,” said Xavier Johnson. “I think there was a kind of laxity that kind of happened, and I think that laxity came back to bite us. And it was like we had to re-bite everything, whether it was our off-season training, whether that was the scheme, the players — we had to look at ourselves in the mirror and we had to really understand that this was a game.
“They are an excellent team, they have an excellent infrastructure there. And so when we play against them, we play against someone who is very good – the playing fields are level. So we have to play our first game, and that really starts with the first training in the winter and continues throughout this season. So, the All 11 games into Season 12. And so I think the way it’s kind of changed has been to re-bite that and understand that if we don’t play this game every day, if we don’t get better every day, we’re vulnerable to what happened last year.”
Whether the Buckeyes realized the seriousness of the game before they entered the program, shortly after their 2021 loss or just in the aftermath, there never seemed to be any lack of urgency in Saturday’s showdown. They will be on the front line in college football’s greatest rivalry game this weekend when their supposed change in attitude toward archrival Ohio State is truly put to the test.
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