If Ohio State gets the victory it cherishes Saturday, Denzel Burke’s words on Tuesday will add another chapter to the lore, the legend and the long-awaited next Ohio State victory in college football’s greatest rivalry.
Columbus, OH – Denzel Burke saw every Ohio State football reporter – and there are a lot of them – waiting for him Tuesday afternoon to talk about The Game.
“Man, there’s a lot of people here,” he said as he sat down at the microphone.
But just like competing against the best wide receivers the opponents have to offer – and the nation’s best group of receivers in practice – Burke showed no stage fright.
Cornerbacks can’t. They must execute every snap and inject every thought with confidence.
Burke spoke confidently and passionately into the microphone. The more he spoke, the more his emotions showed, the more direct his answers.
“I’m very emotional,” Burke said near the end of his seven-minute interview, leaning into the mic to be sure he was heard. “I’m trying not to get out of character, but this game means a lot for us. And we’re gonna get it done for the state of Ohio.”
My, how the state of Ohio wants to see Burke’s statement come true. To beat Michigan any year is critical to the psyche of the program and the fans. But to win this year would be the biggest dopamine hit for Buckeye Nation since Ezekiel Elliott’s 85 yards through the heart of the south.
The No. 2 Buckeyes and the No. 3 Wolverines meet at the Big House at noon Saturday with the obvious on the line – bragging rights, an unbeaten regular season, a berth in the Big Ten championship and a spot in the playoffs if Iowa doesn’t pull off the monumental upset a week later.
Then there’s the sign-stealing scandal. No one at Ohio State will talk about it, but you can be sure they think about what Michigan did and want to beat the team up north all the more. The scandal adds another layer to the Ryan Day-Jim Harbaugh rivalry. But this time they’re not talking about each other or even publicly acknowledging each other.
Questions about the other are the last questions either coach wants, but their body language says what’s not being said. The scandal makes the rivalry even more personal.
Harbaugh, who won’t be on the sideline while serving the final game of his Big Ten-imposed three-game suspension, was asked about respecting his Ohio State coaching rival on Monday.
“It’s all about our preparation for Ohio,” he said. “The days, the minutes, the hours, everything leading up to this game, that’s where the focus is. Preparing ourselves, planning, gonna practice, then execute. Anything else is irrelevant when you get to this kind of big game.”
Day was asked the same thing Tuesday.
“With everything going on, the things that are out there, we’ve just kind of stayed away from all the distractions and just focused on our team,” he said. “I was taught that the way you respect the rivalry is to work it every day. And whether it’s in the weight room, whether it’s game planning, talking to your players, periods of practice during the spring, periods of practice in the preseason. And that’s it.”
Day never shies away from talking about how important it is to beat Michigan. He acknowledges that it is part of the conversation, part of the preparation, part of the soul of the program every day of every year. Yet, the Buckeyes find a way to not be distracted by the rivalry during the season. They focused on the first 11 games and never played like a team looking ahead.
“We know what’s coming at the end of the season every single year, so that’s always in the back of our mind,” wide receiver Emeka Egbuka said. “But you have to have ultra focus on whoever your opponent is that week. The closer it gets, the harder it can be. But I feel like we handled Minnesota the way we should have, and we put our best foot forward. But we were quickly off Minnesota and onto the team up north.”
Style points don’t matter anymore. Winning in any way possible by any score is the only objective. And if you told Burke the game was tomorrow, he would be ready.
“It’s gonna be fun,” he said. “Just thinking about the game my heart kind of … my blood boils. So I’m really just ready to go out there and do what we can do.”
The coaches and players didn’t want to talk much about last year’s loss at home to Michigan or the fact of the two-game losing streak to Harbaugh’s bunch. But those losses clearly left scars.
“It’s horrible, man,” Burke said. “Especially when you’re at Ohio State, livelihoods are at stake. You gotta win this game. It’s mandatory. We had to live with it 365 days and now it’s here. We’re ready.”
While Michigan fills the role of national villain these days, the Wolverines will enter the stadium to a hero’s welcome on Saturday. They will feel the love of more than 100,000 fans. On that 100 yards of turf, the Buckeyes will be the villain.
Burke relishes the role.
“Just to be able to go on someone else’s hometown and compete, play hard and play for each other,” he said. “This game is really just about respect for us, especially my class. The last two years we haven’t got it done. No gold pants. We just got to go out there and be us.”
Burke will be the target of Michigan fans as much as any Buckeye. They will want him to eat his “we’re gonna get it done for the state of Ohio” words. And they, plus the Michigan offense, will want him to eat the words that followed a question about what stands out about the Wolverines on film.
“Nothing,” he said. “We just got to go out there and do our job, really compete, play hard for each other. We’re gonna be the villain walking in there.”
And if the Buckeyes perform true to Burke’s words, they’ll be the villains walking out.