COLUMBUS — Sixteen first-year Ohio State starters have had a whole football season to anticipate playing in their first Michigan game.
But Pat Elflein didn’t have that luxury. His first Michigan game experience came with only a few seconds of advance warning.
Ohio State’s starting center was a back-up at right guard to Marcus Hall when OSU played at Michigan in 2013. But early in the second quarter of Ohio State’s 42-41 win, he found himself in the lineup when Hall was ejected for joining in a brawl that broke out after OSU’s Dontre Wilson thought he was roughed up a little too much on a kick return.
“I saw a fight break out and someone said, ‘Marcus just threw a punch,’ and I was like, ‘Uh-oh,’ ” Elflein said earlier this week. “They started naming off numbers that were ejected and I heard 79 (Hall’s number), so I was like, ‘All right, I’m in.’
“You didn’t really have time to freak out. I just had to go in and start playing right away. Everything happened so fast. I just remember at the end of the game I took a second and thought, ‘Wow. I just played in The Game and we won.’ I’ll remember that one the rest of my life,” he said.
Elflein played in all 14 Ohio State games in 2013, but other than being on the field for most of a 76-0 blowout of overmatched Florida A&M, his experience in actual game situations was limited.
“I earned the role of sixth man during (preseason) camp and during the season, so I knew they trusted me to some extent. But I never got to test it against a real live opponent,” he said.
His relief appearance was followed by a start in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan State after coach Urban Meyer suspended Hall for saluting the Michigan fans with two upraised middle fingers as he left the field after being ejected.
Elflein says he gained more confidence from a 34-24 loss to the Spartans in the Big Ten championship game than he did in the win over Michigan.
“I know we lost, but personally I played to a higher level. After that game, I was like, `I can do this, I can not only go in but I can go in and play well,’ ” Elflein said. “That’s when I came out a different man.”
As a sophomore, Elflein started every game on OSU’s national champion team and was first-team All-Big Ten. Last season, he was first-team All-Big Ten and a second-team All-American.
This year, Elflein moved to center and has been as productive as he was at guard. He is one of five semifinalsts for the Outland Trophy, which is given to the player voted the best interior lineman in the country.
Elflein definitely has the endorsement of OSU coach Urban Meyer.
“I can’t give an adjective to over emphasize his value to our program. I’ve done this 29 years. He’s as good a player, person, leader as I’ve ever been around,” Meyer said.
Saturday’s game at Ohio Stadium will be a reunion with long-time friend and Pickerington North High School teammate Jake Butt, the tight end for Michigan.
As captains for their teams, the two will meet at midfield for the coin toss before the game.
“We talked about that,” Elflein said on Monday. “That was one of the first things we talked about when he got elected captain for his team is we’re going to see each other at the 50 for the coin toss. So that will be cool for us, will be cool for Pickerington back home and for our families and friends we grew up with.
“It’s pretty cool to see two guys from the same town make it to be captains on their teams — especially in a rivalry like this.”
“We’re friends and friendship is bigger than football,” Elflein said. “But this week, it’s not. He knows that and I’m sure he feels the exact same way.”
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.