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Cloud falls over big showdown
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The game of the year in college football has yet another storyline -- a sad one.
The first No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup between Ohio State and Michigan comes a day after the Wolverines lost their most celebrated leader, Bo Schembechler. The longtime coach, who played a starring role for two decades in the century-old grudge match, died Friday at age 77.
An Ohioan who became a Michigan icon, Schembechler cut across this rivalry and helped make it the biggest -- and at times bitterest -- feud in football. Now even his death will be forever linked with The Game.
"He will always be both a Buckeye and a Wolverine, and our thoughts are with all who grieve his loss," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.
Now, the second-ranked Wolverines enter today's showdown, with the Big Ten title, a spot (or two) in the national championship game and perhaps the Heisman Trophy at stake, with heavy hearts.
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, a Schembechler protege, declined to speak with the media when he arrived with his team at Ohio Stadium on Friday. The Wolverines (11-0, 7-0) went through a quiet 25-minute walkthrough, putting the finishing touches on their preparation for the top-ranked Buckeyes (11-0, 7-0).
Schembechler brought Carr to Michigan as an assistant in 1980, and Carr was promoted to head coach in 1995. But Schembechler was never far from the program or Carr. Carr's office is in Schembechler Hall, right down the hall from his former boss.
In fact, Carr asked Schembechler to speak to the Wolverines on Thursday.
Schembechler's Wolverines were 11-9-1 against Ohio State, 5-4-1 while Woody Hayes, Schembechler's mentor at Miami of Ohio turned Big Ten rival, patrolled the Buckeyes' sideline from 1969 to 1978.
Carr, who won the national title in 1997 that always eluded Schembechler, hasn't fared so well against Ohio State lately. Carr's Wolverines have lost four of five to the Buckeyes since Tressel took over in Columbus.
Carr has drawn the ire of impatient Michigan fans for being on the short end too often against the hated Buckeyes. Winning one for Bo today -- especially one this big -- would no doubt appease many critics.
It's hardly fair considering these Buckeyes might be the most talented Tressel has coached, including the squad that won the 2002 national championship.
Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith directs one of the most explosive offenses in the country, and he's been at his best against Michigan the last two seasons.
"My success is credited to everybody else around me," Smith said. "It's not just that I'm 2-0 against Michigan. Everybody who has played on the field against them is 2-0."
True, but no one is more responsible for that 2-0 against the Maize and Blue than the multitalented Smith.
He passed for 241 yards, ran for a career-high 145 yards and accounted for three TDs in Ohio State's 37-21 upset of Michigan in Columbus two years ago. Last season, Smith threw for 300 yards, ran for a touchdown and led two long, late scoring drives to beat Michigan 25-21.
If Smith has another magical day against Michigan, the senior can all but wrap up the Heisman Trophy race. Smith has thrown 26 touchdown passes and only four interceptions while completing 66 percent of his throws.
"First of all, he's a great leader for their offense," said Michigan linebacker David Harris, the leading tackler on a unit ranked No. 1 in the country against the run. "He has a great arm. He has good mobility in the pocket. He's their guy."
He's not their only guy. Speedster Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez make up one of the country's best receiving duos. Antonio Pittman has run for 1,032 yards and 12 TDs.
"You can't really just focus on one guy," said Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley, who leads the team with 11 sacks. "It's an all-around team. They have other weapons in there."
Woodley is the catalyst for a tenacious defense that has 41 sacks and is allowing 29.9 yards per game on the ground.
"It's safe to say he's probably the best defensive end in college football," said Ohio State offensive lineman T.J. Downing, whose father, Walter, was a captain on Schembechler's 1977 team. "So we're just going to have to get after him. We're going to have to hit him in the mouth every play and just go from there."