“We Feel Like We Can't Leave Here Without Gold Pants”: Third- and Fourth-Year Buckeyes Hungry to Finally Beat Michigan

By Dan Hope on November 22, 2023 at 4:05 pm
Emeka Egbuka
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The majority of Ohio State’s current football players have never experienced a win over Michigan.

Only one player still on the team, sixth-year senior Xavier Johnson, saw action in Ohio State’s last win against Michigan in 2019. Fellow sixth-year senior Josh Proctor played as a true freshman against the Wolverines in 2018. Aside from them, only six other current Buckeyes were even on the roster when Ohio State last beat Michigan four years ago.

Everyone else on Ohio State’s roster is still chasing their first pair of Gold Pants. That gives everyone – particularly the third- and fourth-year Buckeyes who may leave Ohio State without ever experiencing a rivalry win if it doesn’t happen this year – extra motivation to turn the tables in this year’s edition of The Game after the 2020 game was canceled and Michigan won in both 2021 and 2022.

“Everyone in my class, we feel like we can't leave here without Gold Pants,” said third-year wide receiver Emeka Egbuka.

Several members of Ohio State’s 2020 recruiting class, including C.J. Stroud, Paris Johnson Jr. and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, already left Columbus without winning a pair of Gold Pants thanks to the 2020 cancellations and the last two years’ losses. It’s no guarantee that their recruiting classmates who remain at Ohio State will follow them out the door this year – all of them still have the extra year of eligibility that all players received because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 – but players like linebacker Cody Simon who are still deciding whether to stay for a fifth year certainly feel a sense of urgency to beat the Wolverines now.

“It's everything,” Simon said of chasing his first win over Michigan. “We need to try new things and find ways to give more effort, give more preparation, be a better teammate, do something to get yourself over that hump. And it's tough, and it's not an easy feeling to have, but that's what we're working on every day right now.”

Everyone in Ohio State’s 2021 recruiting class still has either two or three years of remaining eligibility, but Saturday will likely be the final rivalry game for the stars of that class like Egbuka, Marvin Harrison Jr., Denzel Burke, TreVeyon Henderson and JT Tuimoloau, all projected early-round picks in the 2024 NFL draft. And while those players have made a big impact for the Buckeyes throughout their three years in Columbus, they know their Ohio State legacies will be incomplete if they never beat the team up north.

“We all go in there and debate in the locker room who has the best class, who's the best team, and probably the No. 1 question you have to ask is, ‘Did you beat the team up north?’ I think it always starts there,” Harrison said. “That's a deciding factor I would say, on where your class ranks, as far as legacy-wise. I think what definitely matters most is that game.”

The Buckeyes know they can’t change what happened over the last two years, so they’re not to think about the past as they focus on the present. But the pain they felt from losing The Game in both 2021 and 2022 is driving them to make sure that doesn’t happen again in 2023.

“It's horrible, man,” Burke said when asked about the losses the last two years. “Because 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. So we're ready.”

Those Buckeyes know they aren’t just playing for their own aspirations to win a pair of Gold Pants, but for the pride of their entire program and its fanbase.

“This game means a lot for us, and we're gonna get it done for the state of Ohio,” Burke said. “I'm not just doing it for myself, I'm doing it for my teammates. I'm doing it for my head coach. I'm doing it for our coaches. I'm doing it for the state of Ohio. And we don't want to let them down.”

The importance of beating Michigan is drilled into all Ohio State players from the moment they arrive on campus, giving the Buckeyes who have worked toward that goal for the past three or four years all the more reason to feel they must achieve it.

“You've kind of got to experience it to know what the rivalry is like. And now that I've experienced it firsthand, just with more experience and more being able to play team up north more, you know what it means to this university. It starts to mean something special to you as well,” Egbuka said. “So the longer I've been here, the more and more I feel myself, kind of just my blood getting hot before this rivalry.”

“I'm not just doing it for myself, I'm doing it for my teammates. I'm doing it for my head coach. I'm doing it for our coaches. I'm doing it for the state of Ohio. And we don't want to let them down.”– Denzel Burke on the importance of winning The Game

That said, the Buckeyes also know they can’t let their emotions get in the way of their focus.

“The game's on Saturday. So we've got to try not to spiral out of control too soon,” Egbuka said Tuesday. “It's a slow build until the ball hits the foot and you can kind of let everything go at that point. So we're going to work on staying locked in and staying focused this week, to make sure we put our best foot forward on Saturday.”

The small group of Buckeyes that actually has experienced a win over Michigan – particularly Johnson and his fellow captains, fifth-year seniors Tommy Eichenberg and Cade Stover – will play an important role in ensuring their team stays level-headed before they all look to add a pair of Gold Pants to their collection on Saturday.

“I think that it's plain and simple. We gotta be us. There's no room for any second-guessing or any trying to do anything out of the ordinary,” Johnson said. “If we go out there and we be us, I like us. So the goal is every day, put our best foot forward, keep stacking days. We stacked days dating all the way back to August, even before that back to January when we came back together as a team, we reconvened as a team (after the College Football Playoff loss to Georgia). So just continue to stack days, continue to be intentional with everything that we're doing, and looking at this game as the next game and as the biggest game and as the game that is a must-win.”

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