In Big Ten, it comes down to `Big Game'

Michigan-Ohio St. victor gets title, feather in cap

College Football

November 22, 2003|By Melissa Isaacson | Melissa Isaacson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It's not easy to come up with original ways to describe the emotions surrounding the biggest rivalry of the year, today's Michigan-Ohio State game. But Wolverines linebacker Carl Diggs dug deep this past week.

"It feels like something just takes over your body," said Diggs, a fifth-year linebacker injured in last year's "Big Game."

"Running off the field after the Northwestern game [a 41-10 Michigan victory], my face just lit up with a big smile because I knew the time had finally come."

The time has come in many respects.

At stake is sole possession of the Big Ten championship, and for Ohio State, No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, the chance to defend its national title with a Sugar Bowl berth.

The Buckeyes (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten) have not won the conference title outright since 1984 and have not defeated the Wolverines three times in a row since they won four straight in 1960-63.

"It would be very hard for any Michigan team to take three straight losses to Ohio State," former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler said. "Especially because we're playing at home ... We just have to get it done."

Michigan (9-2, 6-1 and No. 9 in the BCS standings) shared the conference title in '98 and 2000 after winning it alone in '97, the year they went on to win a share of the national title. A victory would send coach Lloyd Carr's Wolverines to the Rose Bowl.

The Buckeyes come in with the top-rated defense in the nation against the run, allowing just 50.5 rushing yards a game, and the sixth-ranked defense overall.

The Wolverines have the nation's 25th-rated rushing offense averaging 188.4 yards a game with tailback Chris Perry, No. 3 in the nation at 130.5. Michigan also ranks 26th in passing offense, averaging 270.1 yards a game behind John Navarre, who has thrown a Big Ten-leading 21 touchdown passes with only eight interceptions.

Presumably, Ohio State's defense vs. Michigan's offense is where the game will be decided.

Offensively, Ohio State is a lowly 98th nationally, averaging 327.1 total yards per game. It has won three games without allowing an offensive touchdown.

Even the Buckeyes quarterback suggested they have to be better to beat Michigan. "We're a team that's very close to being very good," Craig Krenzel said.

Michigan is perhaps that much closer with rapid improvement over the past five weeks and a defense that matches its offense. Perhaps not as strong as the Buckeyes, the Wolverines are still among the nation's best -- seventh in total defense (279.1 yards per game) and eighth in scoring defense (15.5).

In coach Jim Tressel's first season two years ago, the Buckeyes took a 23-0 halftime lead and held on for a 26-20 victory. Last season in Columbus, Michigan controlled the ball, but the Buckeyes made the big plays for a 14-9 victory.

While Michigan has a tendency to overwhelm its opponents, the Buckeyes have been dubbed "the Luckeyes" for squeaking out close games.

Michigan has won five straight after dropping the first two. Ohio State lost at Wisconsin, but has won its past five.

"This is what you come to Michigan for, this is why you go to Ohio State," said the Wolverines' Tony Pape. "This is our season. It comes down to this game, what we've all worked for."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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