Careers are made. Legends are born.
It’s a message that Urban Meyer distributes to his team before every season, a reminder of the responsibility that comes with playing at a program like Ohio State, and the opportunity afforded to those that embrace it.
There is perhaps not a program in the country better at providing its players with a platform to transform from unknown commodity to local legend over the course of one game. And that holds especially true for this game. The Game.
No one celebrates John Cooper for his 111 wins while coaching at Ohio State. We instead bemoan his 13 losses against the University of Michigan. You probably can’t recall one of Anthony Gonzalez’s 13 career touchdown catches, but his game-sealing snag in Ann Arbor back in 2005 is a memory that still burns bright today.
Ohio State and Michigan have been at each others throats since 1897, competing in a rivalry that predates the first World Series by six years. Even so, the upcoming 113th iteration of The Game is still unique in its magnitude.
Not since Woody and Bo stalked the sidelines has this rivalry featured two coaches quite like this. Meyer’s and Jim Harbaugh’s knack for winning big with bigger personas should lead to a redux of the Ten Year War, in intensity and import, if not in duration. Last year’s shellacking in the Big House was merely a cleansing of the palette, as Harbaugh built his roster and we moved past an era in which contests weren’t consequential for both sides. Now that the programs are on relatively similar footing, The Game should decide the Big Ten Title, and likely much more, for the foreseeable future.
This regional conflict last captivated the nation in this way 10 years ago, when the rivalry featured the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country for the first and only time, in what was considered then to be the Game of the Century. We celebrate Troy Smith less for winning the Heisman Trophy that year, and more for delivering a truly signature performance on that grand stage along the way.
With Ohio State and Michigan entering Saturday’s match at No. 2 and No. 3 in the rankings respectively, and a trip to the College Football Playoff hanging in the balance, the table is set for someone to rise up and become a legend. Ohio State’s best bet will be for Curtis Samuel to seize that opportunity like Smith did in 2006.
This season, Samuel has morphed from a flash in the pan backup to Ohio State’s best and most dynamic playmaker offensively. The junior from Brooklyn has accounted for 791 yards receiving, 650 yards rushing and 14 total touchdowns. He’s averaging a first down every time he touches the ball, and he’s touched the ball 145 times! For as celebrated as Percy Harvin was as an H-back under Meyer at Florida, Samuel might be even better, and he’s creating a new mold for that all-important role.
Still, he’s been relatively under-appreciated nationally to this point, seldom being discussed as a Heisman contender. That could change this weekend.
For much of the season it’s been assumed that college football’s most prestigious individual award would be handed to Lamar Jackson, the quarterback from Louisville. The rangy sophomore has displayed jaw-dropping athleticism to accompany unparalleled stats, trivializing the Heisman conversation through early November.
That changed a bit last Thursday, when Jackson and his Cardinals faltered terribly on national television against Houston. The Louisville quarterback is still considered the leader in the clubhouse, if only for a lack of a true competitor. Heisman trophies are not typically awarded to leaders that lose so handily with the country watching this late in the year.
With that said, there’s not a quarterback in the country with the stats to threaten Jackson for any award. Nor is there a running back or receiver on a prominent team getting much consideration. This dearth of legitimate Heisman contenders from traditional positions has shifted the narrative to an athlete who is utilized in an unconventional way, in Michigan’s do-it-all defender Jabrill Peppers.
On paper, it’s curious to see Peppers listed as Bovada’s favorite to usurp Jackson as the Heisman front runner. He might not be the best defensive player on his team, let alone in the country. Sure, he contributes in every phase of the game, but what does he do with those opportunities? The three-way sensation has scored just three touchdowns in his career. He’s never returned a kick for a touchdown. He’s never intercepted a pass.
It doesn’t hurt that Peppers wears the same Maize and Blue winged helmet that was donned 20 years ago by Charles Woodson, the only primarily defensive player to ever win the Heisman. Woodson was an excellent cornerback, but he too made his mark as a three-phase player, catching one touchdown and returning a punt for another against the No. 4 Buckeyes to lead No. 1 Michigan to a six-point win in 1997. A few weeks later he was awarded the Heisman Trophy over Peyton Manning, the presumed favorite. Manning had the stats but Woodson had the flash, thanks to some key moments on The Game’s massive stage.
Of course, Peppers is capable of doing the same this weekend, and Harbaugh won’t hold any punches against the Buckeyes. Peppers received more touches against Ohio State last season than he did against any other opponent, a trend that’s bound to repeat itself.
But Peppers’ presence also provides a vaunted obstacle for Samuel to overcome. The Wolverines primarily play man defense, and when Samuel is lined up in the slot, it will be Peppers that he’s facing in a battle of best-on-best. When he attempts to bounce a run to the perimeter, it will be Peppers he meets near the line of scrimmage, one missed tackle away from breaking loose for a big play. As a clash of two titans rages on around them, this individual matchup serves as a microcosm for the game at hand.
Samuel has thrived in these situations this year, and Ohio State will need him to play one of his best games against a Michigan team that ranks first in the country in total defense. When the Buckeyes have struggled on offense this year, its been attributed in part to their inability to get the ball to their best playmaker, due to either poor play calling or execution.
Like Harbaugh with Peppers, Meyer won’t hold anything back with his most explosive weapon this weekend. Ohio State will need Samuel to find open spaces in the secondary as a receiver, serving as a security blanket for the struggling J.T. Barrett. They’ll need Samuel to make the most of his perimeter runs, which have accounted for some of the Buckeyes longest plays this year, and creates room for the rest of the running game. As a return man, Samuel has the chance to break the game open in one touch, as so many others have done in this storied series.
Every moment of heroism for Samuel will come in contrast to and at the expense of Jabrill Peppers and his hype. Every individual clash serves as an opportunity for Samuel to build his own narrative as college football’s versatile star who most spectacularly attacks the game in an unconventional way. And maybe that will be enough for the junior H-back to receive the national recognition he deserves, as Heisman voters turn to this do-it-all talent performing on the game’s biggest stage, like Woodson and Smith did before him.
Even if not, these individual awards are just ornaments next to a pair of gold pants earned from winning The Game of games, where legends are born and history is made.