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November 27, 2013

Memories remain

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In what was the nadir of the last decade or so for Ohio State football, Michael Bennett vividly remembers the Buckeyes' last trip to Ann Arbor, Mich.

"When we were walking out of the tunnel, guys were waving dollar bills and stuff at us," said Bennett, who was a freshman for the program's 2011 bout with arch rival Michigan.

"I didn't have any feelings toward that team up north and I didn't understand it until we got there. Then I guess I bought in."

And if that wasn't enough, surely the 40-34 loss to the Wolverines --- Ohio State's first since 2003 -- was enough to spurn the junior defensive lineman's apparent indifference in a season spoiled by the fallout from NCAA violations and resignation of former coach Jim Tressel.

The Buckeyes, led by then-interim coach and current defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, finished an abysmal, historically woeful 6-7 season. The seven losses were the school's worst since 1897.

Now, Bennett and Ohio State find themselves on the other side of history.

Under the direction of coach Urban Meyer, who was introduced as the team's head football coach days after the loss to Michigan two years ago, they have yet to lose.

After a 42-14 drubbing of Indiana this past weekend, Meyer and company conquered their 23rd-straight game, setting the program record for longest winning streak.

Go figure that the juxtaposition between such triumphs and hitting rock bottom all within the span of about 24 months will be much of the show at Michigan Stadium Saturday.

"It's a good feeling to know we are going back there and we have some momentum behind us," Bennett said.

Such was not the case the last time the Buckeyes made the three-hour trek north. Then again, few things are the same since 2011.

"It is completely different. We were going there and we were reeling my freshman year. Then you have where we are -- a really strong team that is getting better every week. The confidence is through the roof," Bennett said.

"We are going to go there and do the same job and just bring the same kind of intensity that we do every year against that team up north."

And for Ohio State, such a notion seems to start with Meyer.

"You can just tell when you walk into the hallways all you hear is 'It's Time For War' and you can just tell through practice, even the players, you can just tell that we're intense when we go through our drills and you can just see the look in his eyes and you can just tell that he wants to win so bad in this game," said junior linebacker Ryan Shazier.

After all, the Buckeyes find themselves ranked third in the BCS standings and at the front of the winding down race for a spot in the national championship game.

It might even be tempting for Ohio State to look past the unraked Wolverines and ahead to a guaranteed showdown with No. 11 Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game.

But Shazier, like others, maintain that their focus on the task at hand remains unshaken.

"Every year we play the team up north, the main goal is to beat them. At the end of the year (the goal) is to make sure you always beat those guys," he said. "That's the main focus right now, to beat the team up north and we're not even focused on what's ahead right now."

Besides, overlooking Michigan might be what served the Buckeyes just their second loss to their rivals in a decade.

"I feel like maybe there was a little bit of complacency in that team when we played them that year. We might have taken them for granted after Ohio State had won seven years straight. We didn't think they were much of a factor," Bennett said.

"Now we know we can't take them lightly and every year they're going to give us their best shot. We have to do the same or it will be a battle."

It usually is anyway.

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