As Thanksgiving has come and gone, we find ourselves at the game that signals season’s end, the annual showdown with Ohio State looming and yet another regular season ready to be etched into the record books. For some, like Denard Robinson and Jordan Kovacs, it means one final chance to perform against a bitter rival. For others such as Devin Gardner, it’s a chance to break out on the big stage and set the expectations heading into next season. Furthermore, for those such as Brady Hoke, it’s a chance to establish the upper hand over his foremost adversary. Yes, The Game is here.
Ohio Stadium - Columbus, Ohio
For so many years, the season-culminating battle has determined Big Ten titles and national championship game berths. It has featured legendary performances and provides bragging rights for the next 364 days. The game had lost some of its luster over the past few years, but Michigan finally got back in the win column a year ago. Now, Ohio State comes in unbeaten and Michigan enters with a chance to win the Big Ten Legends division and advance to the championship game. The stakes are high, just as they should be.
Although the Buckeyes aren’t able to parlay their magical season into the BCS National Championship game due to the sanctions brought on by Jim Tressel and his merry band of tattooed men, that doesn’t stop them from honoring him and his 2002 national championship team prior to the game. And it makes them that much more hungry to come together, beat Michigan, and go down in Ohio State lore as one of the greatest teams in Buckeye history.
As the old adage goes, when the two teams square off, you throw out the records. But despite the fact that Ohio State is undefeated and Michigan has three losses, these teams are pretty even. It can certainly be argued that if the teams had switched out-of-conference schedules, their records would be reversed. Ohio State’s first four opponents have a combined record of 18-27, while Michigan’s three losses were to teams with a combined record of 31-3.
Can Michigan pull off a second straight win over the Buckeyes and their first in Columbus since 2000? Or will Ohio State conclude their season undefeated and continue Michigan’s futility across the border? Let’s take a look at the matchups.
When Ohio State has the ball
Ohio State has been a high scoring team all season, averaging 38.2 points per game. The Bucks have scored over 50 four times and have been held below 20 just once, although they needed overtime to top 20 last week against Wisconsin. Perhaps the Badgers provided the blueprint for slowing down the Buckeye offense by keeping Braxton Miller from getting outside. But it’s easier said than done. Miller completes 56.8 percent of his passes for 168 yards per game and carries the ball 19 times for 110 yards per game. He’s certainly more dangerous on the ground but has enough of a throwing ability to make defenses pay if they key too much on his feet.
In the backfield, Carlos Hyde is a powerful back that averages 5.2 yards per carry. Despite not playing in two games, he’s nearing 1,000 yards and has had three games this season with at least 137 yards. He’s also a touchdown machine with 15 on the season and has scored at least one in each of the past six games.
The receivers aren’t the stars we were used to seeing, but they are capable. Sophomore Devin Smith is the big play guy with 555 yards and six touchdowns on just 28 receptions. Philly Brown is the more reliable with 48 receptions for 456 yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Jake Stoneburner has caught just 15 passes all season, but four of them have been touchdowns, so he’s a dangerous one to watch for in the red zone. Sophomore Evan Spencer is the only other Buckeye with double digit receptions (11), though he hasn’t caught a TD, while 10 others have caught at least one pass.
The offensive line is good, but not the typical mauling Ohio State line. They use a zone blocking scheme for the running game, but aren’t great in pass protection, having given up 26 sacks, which ranks 88th nationally. By comparison, Michigan has allowed just 11.
When Michigan has the ball
As I discussed in yesterday’s Friend vs Foe, Ohio State’s defense is built to defend the traditional Big Ten offenses such as Wisconsin, Penn State, and Michigan State. And in those games, they did look good. But against spread offenses, they have been porous. While the rush defense is respectable, giving up just 117 yards per game, teams have been able to pass all over the Buckeyes to the tune of 250.1 yards a game.
The line is anchored by tackle Jonathan Hankins, who Brady Hoke called “as good of an interior lineman as anyone in the country.” The space eating junior ranks fourth on the team with 52 tackles, four of them have gone for loss, including one sack. On the end is John Simon who leads the Big Ten with nine sacks to go along with 14.5 tackles for loss. Strongside end Nathan Williams has 39 tackles and two sacks, while Garrett Goebel holds down the other tackle spot and does a good job.
Linebacker Ryan Shazier is the man that makes the Buckeye defense go. He leads the team with 110 tackles and 14.5 for loss. He also has four sacks, three forced fumbles, and an interception. He’s fast and athletic, but also still prone to some of the boneheaded plays we saw out of him as a freshman last season. Etienne Sabino returned last week from a broken leg that was suffered against Nebraska to help stabilize the Buckeye defense, while converted fullback Zach Boren holds down the middle.
The secondary is the weak point, most notably corner Travis Howard. Despite four interceptions, he’s not a great cover corner and should be the one Michigan targets. Bradley Roby is a good cover man who leads the nation with 19 passes defended. Against Nebraska he picked off Taylor Martinez and returned it for a touchdown
The other third
Kicker Drew Basil has attempted just six field goals all season, making four, though he did hit 16-of-19 last season. Punter Ben Buchanan averages 40.9 yards per punt, which ranks seventh in the Big Ten. The return game could be dangerous with Corey Brown ranking third in the conference in punt returns with an average of 13.6 yards per, but the Buckeye kick return unit ranks just 87th nationally.
Rushing Attempts: 29 – Denard will pass Butch Woolfolk for 6th in career rushing attempts.
There is so much unknown with Michigan’s offense right now which will make it hard for Ohio State to prepare. The Devin at quarterback, Denard everywhere else offense that was showcased last week has so many possibilities that it’s hard to imagine Michigan’s offense struggling against the Buckeye defense that allowed 49 points to Indiana, 38 to Nebraska, and 22 to both Purdue and Illinois. Perhaps the best matchup to watch will be Taylor Lewan opposite of Simon as both have established themselves as the best in the Big Ten at their respective positions.
Look for Michigan to find a variety of ways to get the ball to Denard in space and let him go to work with his feet against mistake-prone linebackers and a poor tackling secondary. Along with that, expect him to be used as a decoy equally as much, as Ohio State will make sure to always know where he is on the field. I also would not be surprised at all see Denard throw a pass once more, but off of a reverse or step back screen rather than from behind center. For Gardner, the open spots will be underneath the cover-4 zone, where Ohio State has given up yards all season, so Jeremy Gallon and Drew Dileo will have plenty of open space. It will be up to them to make guys miss after the catch.
Defensively, Michigan will try to keep the Buckeyes up the middle and force Miller to beat them through the air. Expect to see Kovacs walk up early and often in run support, leaving the secondary exposed to a big play here and there. And, as is usual in a game like this, a big special teams play could swing the game in one direction or the other.
It’s going to be a back and forth offensive shootout that could go either way, but I think Ohio State figure out a way to contain the Michigan offense without Fitz Toussaint and will pull it out at home. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
Ohio State 38 – Michigan 35