Ohio State-Michigan rivalry still resonates for players

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Terrance Taylor knows Michigan's season can't be salvaged along the banks of the Olentangy River. He knows most people have attached weights to the Wolverines and tossed them in the deep end weeks ago.

But Taylor also knows that the Michigan-Ohio State game, no matter the circumstances, always has a lasting effect on memories and perceptions of both teams.

To illustrate this, the Wolverines senior nose tackle recalled the last time the program was near the top of college football, ranked No. 2 nationally and headed to Columbus to face the top-ranked Buckeyes in 2006.

Michigan lost a wild game, 42-39.

"People don't talk about the great class that we had or the great games that we played in or how we led the nation in rush defense," Taylor said. "They talked about how we lost to Ohio State and the penalty [Shawn] Crable got on the sideline.

"It has proven over the years that [the good things] don't matter. To a lot of people, it matters how you finish out the season."

Taylor understands that the wounds from this season won't heal even if Michigan beats Ohio State on Saturday in what would be the greatest upset in the 105-year history of the rivalry.

People won't forget Toledo or the sputtering offense or poor defensive performances against Illinois and Purdue. People won't forget a school-record eight losses and Michigan's first losing season since 1967.

But there's plenty to be gained Saturday (ABC, noon ET) for both squads.

"It will set a foundation that this senior class let everyone know that we are Michigan, we won't quit," Taylor said. "Even though it seems like the whole country is against us and the fans are not there, that stuff really doesn't matter. Because we put in the work over the summer. We lifted, we ran, we threw up, we bled.

"I've had a smile on my face since Sunday and knowing that I have one more chance. This is my last game. I don't have a bowl game to go to. This is my bowl game."

Ohio State will be going to a bowl game, potentially a very attractive bowl game. The 10th-ranked Buckeyes can clinch a share of the Big Ten title with a win, and if Penn State falls to Michigan State, they'll head to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1997.

Buckeyes players are well aware of Michigan's well-publicized struggles this season, and human nature suggests that getting amped for Saturday's game would seem more difficult than usual. As three-touchdown favorites, Ohio State is facing a mere shell of its archrival.

Can the game still be The Game?

"It's huge," Ohio State senior fullback Brandon Smith said. "Guys are looking for their first victory against Michigan. Some guys are looking for multiple. They're still a good team, regardless of what their record indicates. It doesn't take much to get excited for this one."

No one hammers home the importance of the rivalry more than Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, who hopes to improve upon his 6-1 record against Michigan. To Tressel, there should be no difficulty in getting motivated for this game, regardless of the records.

"Typically, the Ohio State-Michigan game has a lot of things that result from that game," Tressel said, "but anyone that's ever played in it or coached in it, the only thing that's important as they prepare for the game and as they play the game is that game. That is the only line of business that goes forward this week."

Ohio State's four-game win streak in the series also carries weight for players on both sides. The Buckeyes have never beaten Michigan five consecutive times and listed a win Saturday as one of their two primary goals entering the season (an unprecedented third straight outright league title was the other).

Smith admits when he arrived at Ohio State, he and his classmates never talked about beating Michigan five straight times.

"The first thing you think about is you want to beat Michigan at least once," he said. "Some players here in the past haven't beaten Michigan [at all]."

Taylor hopes the reverse doesn't hold true for his class, which has taken its share of criticism.

"After last year, the Appalachian State game, we saw how fans could get," he said. "It doesn't matter what they think. They're sitting in the stands, they're sitting in the studio, they're sitting at home, watching it on the TV. They're not out there. They didn't practice. Their body's not sore.

"It seems like everyone's against us. I have a feeling, and so do a lot of seniors, to play with all the emotions we had this season -- the anger, the happiness, the despair -- and put it toward a goal to go down there and have one of the best games that Michigan's ever played."