It’s understandable why a kid who’s 19 or 20 years old didn’t think too highly of something most would call the greatest rivalry in sports when all evidence said otherwise, as the Buckeyes had dominated the last decade of the rivalry.
That logic can probably be applied to just about every one of his teammates right now, even the ones who grew up in Ohio.
This generation of Buckeyes didn’t know any better and had to learn the hard way because of it.
“I was absolutely not prepared at all,” Egbuka said. “I didn’t really know what it meant until I played in it. I probably still wouldn’t know unless we lost last year, and we did. We got into a lull (by) beating them every year. We got into last year expecting the same. That was a wake-up call for us. Now the rivalry’s back full force, so we’re ready to take them on.”
Egbuka’s lack of preparation wasn’t because of anything the program wasn’t doing. Head coach Ryan Day has publicly emphasized the rivalry since he was hired as an offensive coordinator in 2017 and did even more so when he was promoted to head coach in 2019. Anyone will tell you that OSU lives this rivalry daily in many different ways.
But if we’re being honest with ourselves, this hasn’t been the most competitive rivalry in the time that Egbuka and his teammates have been alive.
There’s only a handful of players on Ohio State’s roster who can say they were born before 2000, and even then, they spent the early years of a new millennium as toddlers, not aware of what was going on around them. None of them know what it’s like experiencing this rivalry when it’s truly a back-and-forth affair.
For their entire lives, this has been a game that everybody makes a big deal about up until the moment the Buckeyes walk away victorious while the Wolverines once again end their season in disappointment. Like anything, there are a few close calls, but this is a one-sided rivalry because one program is just clearly better than the other one.
When that’s what you grow up seeing, that’s how you approach it. That’s fine to do when you’re a young kid watching at home or a recruit attending the game on an official visit. Even fans and sports writers can take that approach, as many did for the 2021 game. But once you’re actually part of it, that mindset can end up being the very thing that gets you beat.
“There was a bit of a lax that happened,” Johnson said. “That lax came back to bite us.”
There were a lot of things wrong with last season’s Ohio State football team, and not all of it was just because it was playing a bunch of young guys while having a first-year starting quarterback that had never thrown a pass.
Two games into the season, Day had to fundamentally alter the roles of certain members of his defensive coaching staff because things were so bad. Two weeks later, it had a player ceremoniously quit in the middle of the game, drawing plenty of attention in the process. There are probably plenty of things that happened behind the scenes as well that probably won’t come out until someone decides to write a book or film a documentary.
Those things are never good for a program’s culture. But the ultimate nail in the coffin had been building up for two decades and finally emerged on a cold winter day in November. The Buckeyes got complacent while their opponent had grown sick and tired of being on the short end of the stick while having to answer for why they weren’t better.
Ohio State walked into Michigan Stadium last season expecting to win a football game. Not because they’d properly prepared for it and worked tirelessly to do so. But because that’s how things just are, and that’s how they’ll always be.
That’s true up until the moment it’s not, then it leaves you standing in the middle of a snowy field watching fans rush the field, confused by what just happened and feeling like a complete failure.
“In that moment when we lost, looking up at the scoreboard (and) personally in my mind, not only did I feel like we failed our No. 1 goal when you sign up to become a Buckeye, but all the past people who’ve kept the tradition of beating them home or away,” Paris Johnson said. “I feel like I let them down in that game. I’ve been holding on to that up to this point.”
Johnson grew up in Cincinnati, but even his investment in the rivalry pre-college was sparse. His family is originally from Detroit, plus he had a father playing college football, so his focus was more on Miami (Ohio) than Ohio State. It wasn’t until he became fully entrenched in what it meant to be a college football player — and not just a five-star recruit excited about playing for Urban Meyer — that he got it.
The same goes for Zach Harrison, a Columbus native, whom both schools recruited as a five-star. He didn’t really care that much either, even if he understood its significance. Now he’s at the forefront of why that game is being reignited within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in a way that’s about more than just doing some drills dedicated to Michigan daily.
“Everything (changed),” Harrison said. “The mentality. The way we work out. The way we lift. The way we run. The way we carry ourselves. We realized that we have to do more.
“Guys have stepped up for sure. We had a team meeting and addressed the issues openly and honestly. We cut our hearts open. This is what we can’t let happen again.”
As Xavier Johnson put it, “you didn’t have a choice” in whether you bought in or not this offseason. This team lost a game it’s never supposed to lose, and they’ve spent the year living with that reality while hearing their rival make jokes at their expense. Whether that’s watching Desmond Howard take jabs at their quarterback at a Heisman Trophy ceremony or having Michigan coaches question their toughness.
“We heard it,” Harrison said with a serious tone and eyes that pierced into your soul.
Cade Stover had a more animated response to what happened this summer, though it still pushes across the same message.
“To be honest with you, I really could give a s--- what anybody says about our toughness,” Stover said. “I know what we’ve got here and what we’ve got going on with us. What other people say outside of this program doesn’t matter. We know what we’ve got. We know what we pride ourselves on.”
Unfortunately, most of Ohio State’s roster is part of a team that lost to Michigan, and there’s no asterisk for why it happened like there is in 2011. They lost because they weren’t good enough to win it.
There’s no such thing as a good loss, and silver linings are often over-emphasized in sports. But lessons can come from them that can help shape the future. This new generation of Buckeyes wasn’t completely bought into what the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry was because recent history said they didn’t have to be. All they’ve ever known is a one-sided success.
Too much of a good thing is never a positive for anyone, and OSU learned that the hard way last season and has spent the last 365 days sitting with it and letting it fester in the back of their minds. But that experience has guaranteed that one thing’s for certain:
This team knows exactly what this rivalry is all about, and it’ll be a long time before one takes it for granted again.
The Buckeyes are done licking their wounds. Now it’s about getting revenge, and Saturday’s high-profile matchup provides the perfect stage to make that happen.
“I do truly believe it’s the greatest rivalry in the world, especially after playing them,” Egbuka said. “This game is gonna be one that goes down in history. One for the books. Last year’s experience helped me invest myself in the culture of Ohio State and the culture of the rivalry. I fully understand what it means now.”
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