Much like 2006, this one is for all the marbles. The Buckeyes win, they are likely headed to the College Football Playoffs. Michigan wins they are headed to the Big Ten Championship to play for their spot in the College Football Playoff. This series hasn’t been much of a rivalry of late as the Buckeyes have won 11 of the last 12 meetings, with the Wolverines lone win in that stretch coming against interim head coach Luke Fickell in 2011. There is a lot on the line this weekend though, and both teams will come prepared to do battle for sixty minutes, hoping to come out on the other side with a win and a chance at the College Football Playoff.
Both teams are coming off tough games in tough conditions last week. The Buckeyes hung on to beat the Spartans, and the Wolverines came back in the second half behind their running game to upend Indiana at home. Each game was played in very dreary weather, with snow flurries and wind playing havoc on both teams passing games. The weather is expected to be much better this weekend in Columbus, so I expect to see a little more offensive firepower from both sides.
TV: ABC (Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Samantha Ponder)
Radio: Ohio State IMG Network 97.1 WBNS (Paul Keels, Jim Lachey, and Matt Andrews), Sirius (135) and XM (195)
Online: WatchESPN / Ohio State IMG Network / TuneIn
Series Record: 58-47-6 Michigan
Previewing the Wolverines
The Michigan Wolverines will show up in Columbus sporting a 10-1 (7-1 in Big Ten) record, and ranked # in the most recent college football poll. Their season took a bit of a hit when they lost to Iowa two weeks back, not only losing the game, but also losing their starting quarterback Wilton Speight to an apparent broken collarbone. While Jim Harbaugh has been coy about the actual injury, saying that Speight continues to be day-to-day, it is hard to imagine that he would suit up against the Buckeyes this week. Enter Houston transfer John O’Korn. O’Korn played two seasons at Houston before transferring and sitting out last season. He lost the starting quarterback battle in the preseason in what was deemed a close race. He has played in eight games this season, but saw his most extensive action last week in a close win against Indiana. O’Korn was 7/16 throwing for only 59 yards, and had six rushes for 19 yards. In Wilton Speight Michigan had that sturdy confident quarterback, and with O’Korn it seems that his confidence is nowhere near what Speights was. It will be interesting to see if the Buckeye defense can affect whoever is playing quarterback into making some bad decisions.
The Wolverines real power lies in their running game. They have four players who have over 400 yards rushing on the season and all of them are averaging over five yards per carry. They are led by Senior De’Veon Smith who leads the Wolverines with 750 yards rushing and ten touchdowns. It was Smith who propelled the Wolverines to the second half comeback last week against Indiana when he broke off runs of 34 yards and 39 yards in the third quarter to turn the 10-6 deficit into a 20-10 win. Michigan also has Freshman Chris Evans who is second on the team with 547 yards but averages over seven yards per carry so far this season. Add in USC transfer Ty Issac and Karan Higdon who both have 417 yards on the season, and Michigan has a stable of backs that can hurt you. The Wolverines also like to use Jabrill Peppers out of the backfield, as well as use their wide receivers on jet sweeps or reverses. Expect to see a lot of that against the Buckeyes, as it has proven to be the one thing that the Buckeyes struggle with defensively.
Michigan boasts three of the top pass catching targets in the Big Ten in Amara Darboh, Jake Butt and Jehu Chesson. Collectively they have 111 receptions and nearly 1700 yards receiving. Darboh and Chesson provide the down the field threat, while Jake Butt is a safety valve over the middle and seems to find himself wide open quite a bit. It will be imperative on the Buckeye secondary to be cognizant of where these three guys are at all times, as they can and will beat you.
The offensive line for the Wolverines is bolstered by Seniors Ben Braden, Kyle Kalis and Erik Magnuson. They have paved the way for the Wolverines to have the 19th ranked rushing offense in the country averaging 235 yards per game. They are also holding opponents to only 1.45 sacks per game which will be important no matter who the quarterback is. Kalis is the name that you might remember the most out of that group, as he was originally part of the 2012 recruiting class for Ohio State, but then when Jim Tressel resigned he decommitted and a month later became a Wolverine. He has been notoriously vocal about his distaste of Ohio State, and his quote about there being “blood on the field” when Ohio State played Michigan hasn’t rung true as he is 0-3 against the Buckeyes. This will be the last go around for quite a few Wolverines who have 43 total seniors on the team.
Where the Wolverines have seen the most improvement in my opinion is on the defensive side of the ball. Since Harbaugh took over last season Michigan has continued to get better defensively under now Maryland Head Coach D.J Durkin, and this season under former Boston College defensive coordinator Don Brown. Michigan enters the contest ranked #1 in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense. They also rank 10th nationally in rush defense. It is safe to say that moving the ball on Michigan has not been an easy task by anyone this season.
One name that is synonymous with Michigan on the defensive side is so-called Heisman candidate Jabrill Peppers. Peppers ranks 3rd on the team in tackles playing linebacker, safety and cornerback, but is tied for the team lead with 13 tackles for a loss with Senior Ben Gedeon. Those two along with Mike McCray form a trio of guys who like to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Wolverines rank #1 in the country averaging 9.3 tackles for a loss per game. They also sack the quarterback 3.27 times per game, good for 9th in the country. This will certainly be a challenge for a somewhat young Ohio State offensive line that has shown its struggles as of late. Expect Michigan to blitz and try and cause confusion all over the place and force the Buckeyes into second and long and third and long situations all game long.
Jourdan Lewis, the Senior defensive back might be one of the best cover corners in the country. He along with Dealno Hill and Channing Stribling have nine of the 11 interceptions for the Wolverines on the season. Expect Lewis to be lined up primarily on Curtis Samuel, while Hill and Stribling will take on Noah Brown, Parris Campbell and others. The corners of the Wolverines do not blitz much, as they have no sacks on the season so far, so expect most of the pressure to come from the linebackers and the defensive line.
Previewing the Buckeyes
The Buckeyes enter the contest at 10-1 (7-1 in Big Ten) and coming off a hard fought victory against Michigan State in East Lansing. The Buckeyes struggled last week on offense and defense and the weather was certainly a factor. J.T. Barrett struggled to find any sense of a passing game, often missing receivers who were open by overthrowing them. He only completed 10 of his 22 passes for a mere 86 yards, but he did have one bright spot on his touchdown pass to Curtis Samuel in the first quarter. Thankfully the Buckeyes were able to run the ball fairly well with both Barrett and Mike Weber going over 100 yards on the day, with Weber finding the end zone for his eighth touchdown of the season. Weber also became only the third running back in Ohio State history to run for over 1,000 yards as a freshman, joining Robert Smith and Maurice Clarett. The defense was also not as strong as it normally is giving up a couple of large plays to LJ Scott running and receiving. Michigan State used a lot of misdirection and screen plays to keep the Buckeye defense off balance, and it worked as LJ Scott had his best game of the season totalling 236 yards of total offense.
The Buckeyes enter the game ranked # in the newest college football playoff rankings, but still do not control their own destiny for the Big Ten East Champion. Michigan still holds the tie breaker, and if they win they will represent the Big Ten East in Indianapolis. If Ohio State wins and Penn State beats Michigan State, the Nittany Lions will be the champions of the Big Ten East. If Ohio State wins and Michigan State beats Penn State, then the Buckeyes would win the Big Ten East. Whoever wins the East will likely face Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game unless they stumble against Minnesota. Would the Buckeyes be on the outside looking out for the College Football Playoff if they don’t win the Big Ten Championship? It’s highly doubtful that an 11-1 team with wins over Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan would be left out, but stranger things have happened.
The Ohio State offense, as we saw last week, runs through the arm and legs of J.T. Barrett. Barrett might be playing his last home game as a Buckeye on Saturday, as there is talk that he might forgo his senior year for the NFL Draft. No matter if he stays or goes, he will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in Ohio State history. In his three years as quarterback at Ohio State he has accounted for 99 total touchdowns, which is mind blowing considering he didn’t suit up for the last three games of the 2014 season, and had a limited role last year with Cardale Jones starting the season as the starting quarterback. In order for the Buckeyes to have a successful day against the Wolverines, we are going to need to see the best version of J.T. that we have seen since the 2014 season. His accuracy and decision making on throws this year has not been great, and the lack of a downfield threat hasn’t helped him any.
The Buckeyes are going to have to rely on Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel a lot this week, and hopefully Dontre Wilson will be able to suit up and play on senior day. Michigan is great at stopping the run allowing only 108 yards per game, but the Buckeyes have multiple weapons that the Wolverines have not seen so far this season. The ability to use Curtis Samuel in a variety of ways, while also utilizing Mike Weber out of the backfield and the versatility of J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes will certainly show off looks that will hopefully catch the Wolverines off guard. If the Buckeyes are able to have a successful day running the ball, then this game should be theirs for the taking.
On the other hand, the wide receiver position is in serious question this week. Will Noah Brown, KJ Hill, Marcus Baugh or any of the other Buckeye wide outs step up this week and help take a burden off the running game. The Buckeyes rank 68th in the FBS in passing yards per game with only 230. The early season successes of the passing game have gone by the wayside recently, and even in the wins over Nebraska and Maryland there were only a few bright spots from the wide outs. With one of the best cover corners in the nation in Jourdan Lewis saying that he will be shadowing Curtis Samuel all game, the Buckeyes need to take advantage of any mismatches they can find letting their wide receivers make plays. The Wolverines are #1 in the country in fewest passing yards allowed, and the Buckeyes are going to need to be able to throw the ball to win the game.
On defense, Ohio State comes into the game right behind Michigan in total defense as the #4 team in the nation only allowing 280 yards per contest. They are led by Raekwon McMillan, who is likely playing his last home game at Ohio State as well. There are no senior starters on this defense, and although young they are proven that they are up to the task this season in filling in where guys like Darron Lee, Eli Apple and Joey Bosa left off. The defensive line has done a great job so far this season with juniors Tyquan Lewis and Michael Hill causing havoc off the edge and up the middle. And when it gets to third down, the “Rushman” package that the Buckeyes bring in with Lewis, Jayln Holmes, Nick Bosa and Sam Hubbard makes it really difficult on opposing offenses to get a pass play off. Where the Buckeyes are a little vulnerable is on misdirection plays. We saw Wisconsin with Jazz Peavy gash the defense with the jet sweep, and we saw last week LJ Scott have a big day on a couple of screen plays and delayed hand offs. The Buckeyes are going to need to keep their eyes on Michigan’s stable of running backs as well as Jabrill Peppers, and not give up the big plays.
Three Key Match-ups
Ohio State’s Offense vs. Michigan’s Defense
Ohio State’s offense comes in ranked 21st in the country averaging 493 yards per contest, while Michigan’s defense comes in ranked #1 in total defense allowing a stingy 245.6 yards per game. The Wolverine run defense is ranked 10th allowing only 108.6 yards per game, while the Buckeyes are one of the nations best rushing offenses averaging 263 yards per game. The Ohio State offense has tapered off since the beginning of the season, and the Wolverines should be stacking the box forcing the Buckeyes to throw the ball downfield. If the Wolverines can stop the run and force the Buckeyes to rely on J.T. Barrett’s arm more than his legs, the Buckeyes could be in for a long afternoon. The Buckeye offense is #5 in the country in points per game at 43.8 while the Wolverines are #1 in the country in points allowed at 10.9 points per game. Something is going to have to give.
Michigan’s Offense vs. Ohio State’s Defense
Michigan lost its starting quarterback Wilton Speight two weeks ago in their loss to Iowa, and last week we saw what John O’Korn, his backup, was capable of. O’Korn struggled all day throwing going 7-16 for 56 yards in their win over Indiana. I will give him some leeway because of the playing conditions, but he never really looked comfortable behind that massive Michigan offensive line. If the Buckeyes hope to shut down Michigan, they will need to pressure O’Korn into bad decisions and forced throws. The secondary for the Buckeyes is second to none, but will have their hands full with Amari Darboh and Jehu Chesson. The Buckeye defense is ranked 4th in the country only allowing 280 yards per game to opposing offenses. This game will come down to whose defense can hold out the longest. Michigan’s offense is #11 in the country in points per game with 42.3 while the Buckeyes defense is #3 in points allowed at 13.0. Again something is going to have to give.
Urban Meyer vs. Jim Harbaugh
Urban is 1-0 vs Harbaugh in what looks to be another ten-year war between Ohio State and Michigan. Last year the Buckeyes decimated Michigan 42-13 in Ann Arbor and the Wolverines have not forgotten. Harbaugh has done a masterful job of getting the most out of Brady Hoke’s recruits and has easily the best Michigan team in a decade. Meyer has gone 60-5 in his 4+ seasons at the helm of Ohio State and is undefeated against the Wolverines. Both coaches know what this rivalry is all about as Harbaugh is a former UM quarterback, and Urban was a grad assistant at OSU under Earle Bruce. It is a battle of two of the best head coaches in the game right now, and it will be a blast to watch.
I honestly can see either team winning this game, and I do believe it will be close all game with both defenses doing their best to shut the other team down. When all is said and done, I expect the Buckeyes to come out on top because they are at home, and Urban Meyer won’t hold anything back against the Wolverines. I look for Mike Weber to have a good game and J.T. Barrett might have another 20 rush game, but the Buckeyes should come out on top when the clock strikes zero.
Ohio State 24 – Michigan 20