By Larry Lage
AP Sports Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Game has lost its luster in recent years.
Ohio State has dominated Michigan, winning four straight and 11 of 12 to diminish intrigue in one of the greatest rivalries in sports.
The third-ranked Wolverines (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) have a chance to change the conversation Saturday against the second-ranked Buckeyes (10-1, 7-1) in the Horseshoe, where they haven’t won since 2000.
“This rivalry is going to be relevant,” Michigan tight end Jake Butt, who is from Pickerington, said Monday. “It never won’t be relevant.”
Even if Michigan loses, dropping 12 of the last 13 meetings in the series?
“We’re not thinking about losing,” Butt said. “It’s a must-win game . We understand that. We have to win this.”
That won’t be easy.
Ohio State is favored by about a touchdown perhaps in part because the Wolverines may be without standout quarterback Wilton Speight, who missed Saturday’s 20-10 win over Indiana with an injured left shoulder.
“To my eye, he has looked better every day,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Speight’s backup, John O’Korn , struggled to sustain the success the offense was having against the Hoosiers. O’Korn was 7 of 16 yards for just 59 yards, the fewest yards passing for Michigan since John Navarre threw for 58 in a win over Wisconsin on Nov. 17, 2001. O’Korn transferred to Michigan last year after starting 16 games at Houston over his freshman and sophomore seasons.
If O’Korn is pressed into playing again and can’t make the Buckeyes respect the pass, it is difficult to envision the Wolverines being able to move the ball well enough only on the ground to earn a win.
Michigan leads the all-time series 58-48-6, but is mired in the worst slump in a storied series that dates to 1897.
Harbaugh has been hailed for coming back to the school where he was a star quarterback and guaranteed a win over the rival Buckeyes in 1986, backing it up with a win. But he and his proud program must upset Ohio State to show significant signs of progress this season. In his debut as a coach in the rivalry, Ohio State routed Michigan 42-13 last season at the Big House.
At his weekly news conference ahead of the highly anticipated game, Harbaugh wasn’t in the mood to make predictions or discuss the showdown in detail.
“It’s a great opportunity and tremendous challenge,” he said in one of his many brief answers.
Michigan, college football’s winningest program, has an opportunity to move a big step toward ending its longest championship drought since going without one from 1950 to 1964. Beat the Buckeyes and the discussion can continue this season.
“It’s very important,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “I don’t know how many wins we got this decade. It would be very important, especially for our season. This determines who’s going to go to the Big Ten championship game. It’s a big stake.”
With a win, the Wolverines would in fact earn a spot in the Big Ten title game and be another victory away from its first conference championship since 2004. With two more wins, they would be in the College Football Playoff with a shot to earn its first national championship since 1997.
A loss to the Buckeyes, though, would lead to more questions about whether signature wins and coveted championships will ever catch up to the hype Harbaugh has brought to Ann Arbor.