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Aidan Hutchinson looks to make good on reason for return: ' ... to beat Ohio State'

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Ann Arbor — The inch-wide smear of eye black starts above his right eye and continues on a slight angle down his cheek and stops at the jaw line.

This has been Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson’s unique look the better part of the season, borrowing from his past and what he had done while playing lacrosse at Dearborn Divine Child. The senior and two-time captain is a fan of television series "Vikings," the source of the inspiration.

He launched the one-eye eye-black design the third week and it is his signature look.

“I got some weird looks in the locker room, but a lot of the guys were like, ‘That’s cool. That’s you,’” Hutchinson said this week. “So I was like, hey, might as well rock with it now. It’s my whole viking theme. It’s kinda me now. I own it.”

Hutchinson required surgery after breaking his leg at Indiana last season and decided to return for his last hurrah this fall to help change the culture and direction of the Michigan program. At Big Ten media days last July, he shared how and why he worked so diligently to return from the injury.

“To ensure that we have success this season,” Hutchinson said at the time. “I'm willing to die for this, I swear. I want it more than anyone, I promise you that."

Here he is now, on the eve of the Michigan-Ohio State game at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, two 10-1 teams, OSU ranked No. 2 in the College Football Playoff and Michigan No. 5, with a spot at the Big Ten championship on the line. Before the season, an informal media poll rated the Wolverines fourth in the Big Ten; reaching 10 wins was not on most radars for this team.

“This is why I came back, for this team and to beat Ohio State,” Hutchinson said this week. “This has been a focus of ours since January, and it’s crazy to think now we’re in Week 12 and we’re about to play ‘em. If we win, we’re going to the Big Ten championship, if not, see ya later. There’s a lot riding on it. But I think guys in our locker room, we’re all bought in, we’re all ready to go.”

Ohio State is an offensive juggernaut, led by quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender C.J. Stroud and an assortment of skill-position standouts, a pick-your-poison situation. The Buckeyes lead the nation in total offense (555.9 yards) and scoring (47.2 points). Michigan, under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, is ranked ninth nationally yielding an average 306.6 yards and is seventh in scoring, allowing an average 16.3 points.

Hutchinson is the leader of Michigan’s defense, and, arguably, the team. He has 10 sacks this season, as does fellow edge rusher David Ojabo. Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis last week in a news conference said he believes Hutchinson should be in the Heisman Trophy conversation and considers him one of the best players in the country. Opposing coaches this season have singled him out when talking to media and also when building game plans to face Michigan.

Facing this Ohio State offense and trying to be disruptive as he has been all season is all he’s zeroed in on now. And he’s had a lot of time to think about this while sidelined with the ankle injury last year, not to mention Michigan canceled its final three games, including Ohio State, because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the team.

“A lot of teams play them scared and play them fearful, I think, just looking back at some of the teams that they played,” Hutchinson said. “But it’s like, I think a lot of the guys understand, give it everything we’ve got, sell out because this is the last time we’re stepping in The Big House this year. I don’t think you’re going to be seeing a lot of scared or fearful play from us on Saturday.”

This is bold talk without being cocky. What it is, is confidence. This is who Hutchinson is, fiercely loyal to his team and program and also a big believer in himself. His father, Chris Hutchinson, was an All-American defensive lineman in 1992 and the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year. He had 11 sacks that season, second on Michigan’s all-time list.

“I want him to break it,” Chris Hutchinson said of his sack total, before joking. “But there will always be caveats. He had an extra game, intentional grounding didn’t count when I played. But he squashes that pretty quick.”

Chris Hutchinson also was a captain that season and was a lead-by-example leader. Aidan does that but more, and not being able to play most of last year’s disappointing 2-4 season has fueled his approach.

“You can show your kid the way, but they have to embrace it,” Chris Hutchinson said. “I can show him how to work out, I can show him technique, and we can talk about these things, but it really doesn’t come to fruition until he embraces it and makes it his own.

“I think he did that during Big Ten media days. It was the first I ever really saw him bring it out into the light and say, ‘I would die for this.’ So you really get into his passion there. We didn’t play (Ohio State) last year, he was hurt last year. The whole thing has been brewing for two years to this level of boiling.”

Ohio State will face Michigan’s challenging edge rushers Hutchinson and Ojabo, and conversely, they will face tough OSU tackles Nicholas Petit-Frere and Dawand Jones. Neutralizing one is tough enough, but can the Buckeyes diffuse both of them? Against a good Penn State defense, Hutchinson recorded three sacks.

His approach is all about staying in the moment. That’s been how he has helped the team focus each week on the opponent at hand, working to avoid looking ahead. Now, the prize awaits.

“On Saturday, it’s going to be a matter of execution, playing emotionless football,” Hutchinson said. “Obviously, we’re still juiced up, but just can’t get caught up in the moment of how big this game is. Obviously, I can’t guarantee anything, but I really think this team is in a good headspace right now. Just seeing the vibe, feeling the vibe as we go through the week.

“And I really think we are ready for this. I can’t guarantee anything, but I’m feeling really confident.”

Hutchinson is projected a top NFL Draft pick, but first things first, and that’s putting the finishing touches on his college career. It is about winning this game, snapping Ohio State’s eight-game winning streak and all that, but it’s also about knowing he left the program in a better place. 

“Whatever happens in this game, this team and hopefully this culture, have changed,” Chris Hutchinson said. “Seven or eight wins, everyone was hoping for that and now we’re at 10 wins. You have all these things to look on to say how much impact he has had. You sort of get a glimpse of his legacy, you get a glimpse of how much he has matured. There are all these little pieces you put together, but this is another chapter in his book, and it’s nice to have some perspective about that.”

Beating Ohio State is something his father did four times and tied a fifth. Leaving the field at Michigan Stadium with a win over Ohio State is all Aidan Hutchinson has thought about.

“I’m already visualizing it, I can already see it all,” Hutchinson said Monday night on the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show. “It would be everything. I can’t wait.

"I just want to walk off that field as a winner, knowing I was on the team that beat Ohio State.”

Twitter: @chengelis