Michigan hopes time has come in The Game

In Ann Arbor, Mich., and Columbus, Ohio, they measure time two different ways. There is Eastern Standard Time, of course. And then there is the time between editions of The Game.

The Ohio State-Michigan game is constantly on the minds of the participants and partisans on both sides. First-year Wolverines coach Brady Hoke made that clear by installing a countdown clock to the game at Schembechler Hall, as well as a giant sign that reads, "Beat Ohio." Those two words serve as Hoke's version of aloha; they're acceptable as a greeting or a farewell.

"I think it maybe made you more aware of it," Michigan defensive end Ryan Van Bergen said of Hoke's clock and slogan. "I think it was talked about in the past, but maybe not to the extent and emphasis it is now. You can't miss them; the clocks and stuff are all over and we see them every day."

It's just as important on the other side. The Columbus Dispatch's Ohio State web page has run a ticker all year with the number of days it's been since the Buckeyes last lost to Michigan (it's at 2,921 as of Tuesday, but who's counting?). This week, that ticker has been replaced with a countdown of the minutes left before Saturday's renewal of the Big Ten's greatest rivalry.

"When you start recruiting a guy, whether he's from South Florida or Columbus, Ohio, or Cleveland, Ohio, you talk about this game and you talk about the magnitude of this game and the excitement behind this football game," Ohio State coach Luke Fickell said.

So, yeah, maybe this year's game doesn't have any impact on the Big Ten title race or the national championship picture. But it remains a landmark moment for both teams.

All signs point to this year finally being Michigan's time.

The program's current seven-game losing streak to Ohio State -- its longest futility in series history -- burns the britches of every Maize and Blue supporter. The Wolverines haven't even stayed within double digits of the Buckeyes since losing the No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in 2006.

This Ohio State team, however, appears ripe for beating. Fickell's squad is 6-5 and coming off two straight losses; this is the most mediocre Buckeyes team to enter this game since the 2001 group came to Ann Arbor at 6-4. Michigan's defense has been particularly solid against the run, which is just about all the Ohio State offense can do with any effectiveness. And the game is at the Big House.

If not now for the 9-2 Wolverines, then when? The Buckeyes could quickly ramp things back up, especially if they hire a proven big-name coach like Urban Meyer. So there's no time like the present to end the streak.

Ohio State hasn't enjoyed many good times this season, but beating Michigan is the only thing that can put a happy face on the end of a difficult year. Ten years from now, Buckeyes fans might not remember what bowl game they played in to cap the 2011 season. They will remember whether they made it eight in a row over the Wolverines or saw the winning streak end.

There are some historic parallels here. The 2001 team that was 6-4 went into the Big House and won in Jim Tressel's first year. Like Hoke, Tressel put a huge emphasis on beating his rival, and he backed it up with a 9-1 record in the series (OK, 8-1 if you don't count last year's vacated win). This is most likely Fickell's only shot at continuing his former boss's success.

"It's important for us having that winning streak," Ohio State lineman John Simon said. "We know they're going to give us their best shot and will probably throw things at us that maybe they haven't throughout the year."

The Buckeyes would like to bridle Hoke's enthusiasm. He has already engineered a terrific turnaround and has plucked recruits out of Ohio State's backyard. He has continually tweaked his rival by referring to the school only as "Ohio," a habit the Michigan players have now picked up, too. The Buckeyes say it's no biggie, but you know they're at least a little annoyed that anyone disrespect the place they proudly call "The Ohio State University."

"We might refer to Michigan in different ways, too," Fickell joked.

Not that anyone needs any clever nicknames or gimmicks as extra motivation for this game.

"When we have our fan day in the middle of fall camp, every single fan says, 'Thank you very much for signing my ball. Now please beat Ohio for us,'" Van Bergen said. "That's all our fans and alums care about."

Ohio State has owned the recent past. The Wolverines' time may at long last arrive again Saturday. We're all just counting down the minutes to find out.