Nearly a decade after he coached at Ohio State, former Buckeyes wide receivers coach Mike Stock remembers the singular feeling of preparing for the regular season finale against Michigan.
"It's almost as if you can't breathe the whole week," recalls Stock, special teams coach for the Washington Redskins, whose eyes bulge and throat constricts at the memory. "Where's the oxygen?"
Redskins tackle Jon Jansen, a 1998 Michigan graduate, has had the date circled on his calendar all year. "It's a day that every player on every team that ever played in that game will be watching," Jansen says. "Nothing gets in the way."
An obsession among Big Ten alumni, the Ohio State-Michigan game has far broader implications this year.
An Ohio State victory would not only preserve a perfect 13-0 record and clinch a share of the conference title (Iowa is also undefeated in the league), but also send the Buckeyes to the Jan. 3 Fiesta Bowl for their first shot at the national championship since 1968. A loss conceivably could drop them as low as the Outback Bowl.
At stake for 12th-ranked Michigan (9-2) is a chance to bolster its bowl prospects, spoil the title dreams of its nemesis to the south and muddle the Bowl Championship Series rankings in the process.
"You know that losing gets to them because that's the one game of the year they want to win," said Jansen, a member of Michigan's 1997 championship team.
A record crowd of 105,000 is expected to jam Ohio Stadium for today's game. For decades, thousands of Buckeyes faithful have packed the stadium and tuned in on television to cheer the annual rite known as the "Senior Tackle," in which seniors took turns making their final tackle on home sod against a tackling dummy. Such is the depth of football passion in Ohio. And that passion is rooted just as deeply in second-year coach Jim Tressel.
Tressel's selection as successor to John Cooper -- who lost his job despite a .715 winning percentage over 13 seasons in no small part because of his 2-10-1 record against Michigan -- was met with skepticism by pundits, who opined that Ohio State would have done better in snaring a big name such as Bob Stoops or Jon Gruden. But it made eminent sense to the most loyal natives of Buckeye nation, relieved to see the job go to one of their own.
Among Ohioans, Tressel is a descendent of football royalty.
His father, the late Lee Tressel, coached at Baldwin-Wallace for 23 years, bringing home the NCAA Division III title in 1978, and played briefly at Ohio State before World War II intervened. His older brother Dick coached at Hamline University in Minnesota. And Tressel himself honed his craft as an assistant under Ohio State's Earle Bruce (1983-85) before taking over the reins at Youngstown State. There, he built a Division I-AA dynasty and restored the region's self-esteem, battered by the collapse of the steel industry, in winning four national championships in 15 years.
Tressel has done nearly as much for the Buckeyes, accomplishing in his first season what Cooper struggled so mightily to do: beat Michigan. More importantly, Tressel instinctively understood the significance of beating Michigan. Rather than playing down the pressure, as Cooper did, Tressel embraced it, vowing from Day One to make Buckeyes fans proud that day.
A native of Mentor, Ohio, he guided the Buckeyes to victory over Akron in his debut last season, then marched his squad to the south end zone and led fans and players in the school song, "Carmen Ohio." Then he capped the season by taking his team to Ann Arbor and beating Michigan, 26-20, with a first-time starter at quarterback.
Lest the gravity of today's game be lost amid a 12-0 record, Tressel invited Bruce to address his team last Sunday.
"He broke it down for us as seniors," linebacker Matt Wilhelm said. "We can go 12-0, lose to Michigan, and there would be a question mark next to the 2002 team. That's the type of pressure there is."
The rivalry has a history as a spoiler, often producing a bitter loss for the favorite. Over time, its cruelty has cut both ways.
In 1969, Bo Schembechler's first season as Michigan's coach, the Wolverines ruined the Buckeyes' hopes for consecutive national titles with a 24-12 upset in Ann Arbor. But in the six seasons that followed, 1970 to 1975, Michigan was a combined 57-0-2 entering the Ohio State game, but went 1-4-1 in those contests against Schembechler's mentor, Woody Hayes.
Lately, Ohio State has seen its hopes dashed. Three times in the last decade, the Buckeyes have entered the game with a shot at the national title (1993, 1995 and 1996). All three times, they lost.
Statistics and common sense favor Ohio State today. Quarterback Craig Krenzel is 13-1 as a starter. The Buckeyes have home-field advantage. And they boast their best start in school history. Still, in the eyes of many, they have something to prove.
Ohio State opened the season by routing Texas Tech, 45-21, with the dazzling debut of freshman running back Maurice Clarett, who rushed for 175 yards and three touchdowns. The offense has been less dominant since -- struggling to beat Purdue and needing overtime to squeak past Illinois -- and Clarett has been hampered by a shoulder injury.
In nine games, Clarett has amassed 1,071 yards, leaving him 56 yards shy of the school's freshman rushing record set by Robert Smith in 1990. While he has stopped talking about testing the NFL draft, the 19-year-old Clarett has told anyone who'll listen this week that he intends to play against Michigan.
But even without him, the Buckeyes' offense has evolved, relying Krenzel's strong arm, sturdy physique and resourceful mind to find ways to win.
Michigan quarterback John Navarre, by contrast, was a jangle of nerves in last season's loss to Ohio State, throwing four interceptions and fumbling before a dejected home crowd.
Add nearly a century's worth of enmity, and Ohio State-Michigan has proven a tough games to forecast.
Said Jansen: "It's one of those things that there is so much riding on it, you can pretty much throw out the records."