College football’s greatest rivalry has built itself throughout the years on playing for all the marbles. More often than not over its 107-year history, The Game has been played at season’s end to decide the Big Ten champion, the conference’s representative in the Rose Bowl, and year-long bragging rights for alumni and fans of the schools to the north and south of Toledo.
While Michigan holds a 57-44-6 edge in the series, there have been plenty of streaks by either side. Michigan won 13 of the first 15 contests played from 1897-1918 with the two others being ties. From 1922-27, Michigan had a six game winning streak and then went 10-2-2 from 1938-51. Ohio State then turned the tide throughout the ’50s and ’60s, taking 16 of 24 from 1952-75. The pendulum swung back in Michigan’s favor through the Schembechler, Moeller, and early Carr years, when Michigan won 18 of 27 from 1976-2003, including a 12-3-1 run from 1988-2000.
But since winning the game’s ceremonial 100th meeting in 2003, the rivalry has been decidedly one-sided. Seven-year old kids have never seen Michigan beat the Buckeyes and the last three years have been uncharacteristically boring for traditionalists. Even Ohio fans long for the days of the hard-fought, hyped-up battles they were used to when it didn’t matter who was favored and the underdog always played above its head.
When Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia for Ann Arbor in 2008, one of his fatal flaws, at least perceptibly, was that he didn’t completely understand the rivalry. However, as John U. Bacon’s book Three and Out detailed, he understood it as much as anyone who had never stepped foot in Ann Arbor before could, having learned many of Schembechler’s coaching principles from Bo disciple and West Virginia legend Don Nehlen. Still, his Michigan teams weren’t able to put up much of a fight against the Buckeyes, getting outscored 100-24 in three meetings.
Enter Brady Hoke. Unlike when Jim Tressel took over at Ohio State in 2001 and immediately announced to the world that he was there to beat Michigan, Hoke took his message only to his team, installing ‘Beat Ohio’ countdown clocks in the locker room. He didn’t need to declare anything publicly, but everyone in Ann Arbor understood how he felt. He refers to the Buckeyes simply as ‘Ohio,’ he claims to have never worn red, and he has declared Ohio as one of his main recruiting battlegrounds. In his first 10 months on the job, he has put Michigan in position to make a BCS bowl, secured what is so far one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, and reinvigorated the rivalry.
At this time last year, Michigan was on the eve of yet another beatdown in Columbus while Ohio State was soaring high with an experienced bunch. Now, a year later, the scrip has been flipped. The Jim Tressel saga that led to his dismissal, the loss of Terrell Pryor, and the suspension of five players for the first part of the season has brought down the mighty Buckeyes to the point that Ohio supporters are already making preemptive excuses for a loss on Saturday. They’re already giddy with excitement over the rumored Urban Meyer hiring, which has taken hold of the headlines this week surrounding the game.
But the reality is that while there’s no Big Ten title on the line, this is still a huge game for each team. Michigan has a chance at a BCS at-large bid, which would do wonders for Michigan’s return to national prominence. Ohio will likely get a middling bowl regardless of the outcome, but an eighth straight win over Michigan with a lame duck interim head coach and a freshman quarterback would be just the kind of dagger to the hearts of Michigan fans that would send Columbus into a tither.
While those in Columbus try to downplay the importance, claiming that Michigan is expected to win this one because of the current state of influx in their program, they conveniently forget that they benefited from that very thing the past three years. Now, Michigan has a chance to not only end the losing streak, but to seize control of the rivalry before St. Urban enters the fold.
The players on Ohio State’s roster come into the game expecting to win because that’s all they’ve known, while Michigan’s seniors have never beaten the Buckeyes. OSU quarterback Braxton Miller was in middle school the last time Michigan won, and until the Wolverines can win and put those doubts back in the minds of Buckeye players, Ohio will continue to have the upper hand in the rivalry.
So does Michigan have the upper hand tomorrow? Let’s look at the matchups:
Head Coach Luke Fickell gave up on the Joe Bauserman experiment after just a couple of games, opting to throw freshman Braxton Miller into the fire. Miller has delighted with his legs but underwhelmed with his arm. He leads the team in rushing with 595 yards and six touchdowns on 128 carries (4.6 yards per carry), having rushed for 100 yards in two of his last three games. But through the air, he has completed just 48.6 percent of his passes for just 76.2 yards per game.
The Bucks rarely throw the ball, and when they do, they don’t complete very many. The most attempts Miller has had all season is 18 against Purdue two weeks ago. He also had 17 last week. Both of those were games in which OSU fell behind 10-0 and was playing catch-up. The most completions he has had in a game is eight against Purdue. He’s most dangerous when he eludes the pass rush and scrambles around waiting for his receivers to work open. He does a good job of keeping his eyes upfield makes defenses pay for overpursuing or failing to bring him down.
Still, while he has shown signs of promise, he’s a true freshman playing in his first Michigan game and it’s in the Big House.
Dan “Boom” Herron, Jordan Hall, and Carlos Hyde are the go-to backs for the Buckeyes. All three are talented and all three get the ball a lot. Herron was part of the “tat-gate” group that was suspended for the first five games of the season, but he returned with a bang, rushing for 114 yards against Illinois, 160 against Wisconsin, and 141 against Indiana. His production and workload have fallen off in the last two games, but he’s still averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
Hyde, a sophomore, is the team’s second-leading running back with 549 yards and six touchdowns. He’s averaging 5.4 yards per carry and recorded 100-yard games against Nebraska and Indiana. In the last two games, however, he has just eight carries for 36 yards.
Hall split carries with Hyde in the first half of the season, but has just 16 carries for 60 yards in his last three games combined. However, against Purdue, he caught three passes for 59 yards and two touchdowns. At 5’9″ he’s capable of playing the Vincent Smith role of catching screens and picking up chunks of yards.
The Buckeyes are a running football team. Only a handful of teams nationally have more rushing attempts this season, but while they rank 27th in rushing yards per game, they are much lower in yards per attempt at just under 4.5. By comparison, Michigan averages 5.3.
Receivers and Tight Ends:
This is a unit that got a huge facelift last week when DeVier Posey returned from suspension, who instantly gives Miller a true receiving threat. He caught four passes for 66 yards last week against Penn State, one of which was a great one-handed catch on the sideline. In each of the last two seasons, he caught at least 50 passes for over 800 yards, and against Michigan last season he caught five passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Aside from Posey, the Bucks lack true playmakers. Freshman Devin Smith is the team’s leading receiver with 11 receptions for 241 yards and four touchdowns, the majority of which came in the first half of the season. The biggest play he will be remembered for is slipping behind the Wisconsin secondary and catching the hail marry to win the game. Including that one, he has three catches since Week 4. Tight end Jake Stoneburner is probably the most dangerous touchdown threat tomorrow. The junior has 13 receptions, seven of which were touchdowns. If the Buckeyes get into the red zone, look for Stoneburner to be the target.
Ohio State does have an experienced offensive line with center Mike Brewster and tackle Mike Adams helping to pave the way for the nation’s 27th-best rush offense. The Buckeyes rank 118th in pass offense, but that has less to do with the line as it does with the signal callers. OSU has allowed a lot of sacks – 36 of them to be exact. Some of that has to do with Miller’s scrambling and some has to do with Bauserman’s ineptness early in the season. Michigan State recorded nine sacks against Ohio, but also sacked Denard Robinson and Devin Gardner seven times. Ohio uses mostly a zone blocking scheme, which doesn’t really fit the size of the linemen, but that’s what you get as a result of what has gone on in Columbus in the last 11 months.
Ohio State’s defense lost seven starters from last year’s team and lost another when defensive end Nathan Williams went down with a knee injury. Junior end John Simon is the leader of the young and inexperienced Buckeye defensive line and he’s a good one. He leads the team in sacks with six and tackles for loss with 13.5. Sophomore tackle Johnathan Hankins and freshman Michael Bennett each have three sacks, while Hankins is second on the team with 10 tackles for loss.
The Buckeyes average two sacks per game, which ranks 49th nationally, and allow 130 rushing yards per game, good for 42nd. In other words, it’s an above-average unit.
Senior Andrew Sweat and Storm Klein are your typical Ohio State linebackers: tough, smart, and always seem to be in the right position to make plays. Sweat leads the team in tackles with 68 and also has an interception, a forced fumble, and three pass breakups. However, he has been recovering from a concussion and may not play tomorrow. Klein has 41 tackles, a sack, and an interception. But the one that fans are most excited about is freshman Ryan Shazier. He filled in for Sweat last week against Penn State and recorded 15 tackles, and OSU Defensive Coordinator Jim Heacock said Shazier has the size and speed to make plays in space and may spy on Denard.
Ohio State has a pretty good secondary statistically. The Buckeyes rank 16th nationally in pass defense, allowing 188 yards per game through the air. Corners Travis Howard and Christian Bryant are okay, while safety C.J. Barnett is a playmaker. Howard got picked on by Penn State last week and the Buckeyes gave up 253 passing yards to Wisconsin, 292 to Toledo, and 234 to Purdue. In other words, I think the statistical success of the OSU pass defense is inflated by opposing teams’ ability to run on them.
Ohio State does have a good kicker in sophomore Drew Basil who has converted 16-of-19 field goals and 30-of-31 extra points. The lone missed extra point was the one that was blocked at the end of the game against Purdue, sending the game into overtime where OSU eventually lost. His longest field goal is 47 yards and he hasn’t missed from inside 40 all season. Punter Ben Buchanan averages 40 yards per punt and Ohio holds a 37.6-yard net punt average, which is above average. Return-wise, OSU is pretty good, ranking 32nd nationally in punt returns and seventh in kick returns.
Luke Fickell is probably the unluckiest current head coach in the country. As a promising assistant and co-defensive coordinator, he was likely headed for his shot eventually, but when Jim Tressel was forced out amid the “tat-gate” scandal, Fickell was thrust into the position before he was ultimately ready. That has shown this season from seemingly giving up at the end of a game early in the season to the uncreative offensive scheme, Fickell has just seemed as if he was in over his head. He very well may be a great head coach some day, but he isn’t right now and with the Buckeyes on the verge of hiring Urban Meyer, he’s got to be pretty uncomfortable right about now.
Contrast that with Michigan’s current position: a “Michigan man” head coach brought in to replace the one the loyalists ran out of Ann Arbor, who brings a true understanding of the the rivalry, the Michigan way, and boasts a 9-2 record. If Michigan wins tomorrow and likely earns a BCS berth, Hoke will be the most popular man in Ann Arbor for a long time to come
On one hand, you have a team playing at home, hungry to avenge seven straight defeats at the hands of the other. A Michigan win would likely send the Wolverines to the Sugar or Fiesta Bowl, the first BCS bowl since the 2006 season. On the other hand, you have a team with nothing to lose, playing under a lame duck interim head coach, already salivating over his likely replacement, and carrying all the momentum of the rivalry, having won the last seven meetings. It could go either way, right?
If Rich Rodriguez was still the head coach, that would probably be true. But the mentality that Hoke has instilled in his team is one that is tired of hearing about the number of days since it last beat Ohio. It’s hungry to change the tide of the rivalry. And it’s one that is playing its best football of the season right here and now. Michigan won’t play tight like it did the last three years. It will play confident because of the man at the helm.
Years ago it was always near impossible to predict the outcome of the Michigan-Ohio State game. Whether one team was ranked higher or one team was having a down season didn’t matter. You could always throw out the records when the two squared off in late November. In the past few years, however, we Michigan fans have tried to rationalize ways in which we thought Michigan could pull off the upset against the decidedly better team. But the reality was Ohio had the upper hand in the rivalry because it had the better team. Michigan had gotten away from Michigan football and what made the rivalry great.
What a difference a year makes. At this time last season, prospects looked bleak. Michigan was about to fire Rich Rodriguez and Ohio State was cruising into yet another BCS bowl with a hotshot quarterback promising to return for his senior year, and plenty of talent around him returning as well. Now, the mastermind that figured out the secrets of success is in Indianapolis watching replays, the hotshot is riding the pine in Oakland, his replacement is an up-and-coming star but still a freshman, and everyone in Columbus is begging Urban Meyer to become their savior.
Frankly, Michigan is the better team right now and is in a much better spot with its program. The Wolverines are riding high off of decisive wins over Illinois and Nebraska, while Ohio is reeling after losses to Purdue and Penn State. The once formidable Buckeye defense is giving up early leads and the offense couldn’t get a waterwheel spinning in a monsoon.
In the last two weeks, Michigan has scored early. Against Illinois, Michigan marched the opening drive down the field for a touchdown. Against Nebraska, the first drive yielded a punt, but after forcing a Nebraska punt, Michigan marched down for a touchdown. Ohio State is already down and out having lost its last two, and having dug itself a 10-0 hole in each of the last three, so Michigan should take the ball first if it wins the toss. Driving right down the field for a score to open the game would send a message early.
From there, Michigan needs to stop Braxton Miller. The Wolverine defense did a phenomenal job against Nathan Scheelhaase and Taylor Martinez the last two weeks, so there’s no reason it can’t handle Miller. He’s probably more elusive than both of them, but the Michigan front seven needs to make sure to contain him. As mentioned above, he’s at his best not on designed runs, but when he breaks containment and scrambles around. At that point, he keeps his eyes upfield for an open receiver or he picks up a big gain on the ground. Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh need to keep him from getting out on the edge, and I think Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison will dial up some aggressive blitz schemes from the linebackers to keep him off balance and force him to make quick decisions. He’s always a run-first checkdown if he’s forced into a quick decision, Michigan’s safeties can come up and make the tackle.
Offensively, expect a lot more of what we saw last week. Michigan has to force Ohio State to prove it can stop Fitz Toussaint. The Buckeyes had trouble with Penn State’s duo of Stephfon Green and Silas Redd last week. Toussaint has the ability to pull off a couple of big runs in this one. Also look for a couple of new looks we haven’t seen before. I’m not talking about some of the gimmicks that were tried in the middle of the season, but some special packages that were saved specifically for Ohio State.
I think it’s important to get off to a fast start. Ohio State has the momentum in the rivalry, but not the current momentum. A couple of scores early on would demoralize the Buckeyes, but letting them hang around would only build their confidence.
Michigan will come in prepared, hungry, and ready for business and will send the Buckeyes home with a .500 record. Toussaint will rush for 120 yards and Denard will break a big run.
Michigan 35 – Ohio 17
Good to Know:
|With 10 pass completions, Denard Robinson will pass Steve Smith (1980-83) for 8th in career completions.|