Van Bergen loves spotlight on 'Ohio' rivalry

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Does the greatest rivalry in college football need a shot in the arm? I recently looked for an answer at Schembechler Hall.

First, two confessions.

Confession No. 1: I never liked the way Rich Rodriguez constantly had to defend himself about the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry during his tenure as Michigan coach.

Every year, the questions would come, and Rodriguez would have to prove how much he cared about beating the dreaded Buckeyes. No matter what RichRod said, the masses wouldn't be satisfied. They saw him as an outsider who would never understand, who would never treat The Game the right way. The yearly exchanges seemed futile.

Rodriguez could have come up with the greatest gimmicks, the most inspirational quotes and the most creative motivational tactics possible, and it wouldn't have made a difference in late November. Maybe an "I hate Brutus" tattoo across Rodriguez's chest would have quieted his critics.

Yeah, I just went there.

Bottom line: Michigan lost to Ohio State because it had a far inferior team than the Buckeyes. Rodriguez understood what The Game meant. He certainly knew that coaches who don't win it get fired.

Confession No. 2: The Michigan-Ohio State game last November was the least captivating game I've covered in three seasons as the Big Ten blogger. The teams' previous two meetings were almost as dull.

Ohio State's definitive dominance against Michigan undoubtedly took the life out of these games. The two contests in Columbus were over early in the second half, and while Michigan put up a better fight in 2009, you never really felt like the Wolverines would win.

I pretty much chalked up these games to mismatched competition. But maybe there was something more. It definitely seemed sad what had happened to such a great rivalry.

Enter Brady Hoke and his countdown clocks and his intentionally abbreviated label for the Buckeyes -- "Ohio." Hoke is a Michigan man doing all he can to play up the "Ohio" game for his Wolverines players.

Is it really necessary? Doesn't The Game have enough juice?

"It needs to be built up as big as it can be," Michigan senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen told me. "It's the biggest rivalry in college football. That rivalry was what decided the Big Ten championship and who goes to the Rose Bowl. That's the biggest game in the history of college football that you play at the end of the year, every year. And yeah, it needs to be emphasized as much as possible, that if you want to go to the Rose Bowl, you have to beat Ohio."

Van Bergen understood the rivalry before Hoke came along.

He hails from Whitehall, Mich. His parents both are from the state. He grew up watching Michigan football, and he knows the history of the Michigan-Ohio State series.

"I've studied the history of Michigan and I've looked back at the Woody Hayes-Bo Schembechler era, and you can see through the film how heated that rivalry was," Van Bergen said. "It's great for both schools. It's a necessary rivalry; it makes both teams better looking forward to that game."

Van Bergen likes the countdown clocks but notes they make a stronger impact for players from outside the state, of which Rodriguez recruited plenty.

"There's more emphasis on, 'These are big games for us that we have to win. Michigan isn’t seen as successful if you lose your rivalry games,'" Van Bergen said.

The countdown clocks aren't new to the rivalry. Ohio State has one for the Michigan game displayed in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel has been masterful at playing up The Game. On the night he was hired, Tressel famously told the crowd at an Ohio State basketball game, "I can assure you that you will be proud of our young people, in the classroom, in the community, and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor." Ohio State beat Michigan 310 days later, winning in Ann Arbor for the first time since 1987. Tressel is 9-1 against Michigan with seven consecutive wins in the series.

Perhaps Hoke's approach to The Game is the jolt Michigan needs.

"It makes you think about it," Hoke said.

The Game is on Van Bergen's brain, and he doesn't minimize what a win against the Buckeyes would mean.

"I don't think there'd be a greater accomplishment, honestly," he said. "Obviously, winning the Big Ten would be the ultimate goal, but beating Ohio wouldn’t be just about winning the rivalry game. It’d be about reinstating Michigan football. The Michigan vs. Ohio game was always the biggest game, it was always so well fought. Michigan was going to be competitive in that game.

"For us to win that game would be a big statement that Michigan has not faded."