It’s that one week of the year that Michigan fans look forward to most, even if it’s the one week of the last five years they’ve tried most to forget.
The Michigan football team (5-3 Big Ten, 8-3 overall) meets No. 8 Ohio State (7-1, 9-2) for the rivalry’s 114th game this Saturday in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines have a season to salvage, and the Buckeyes have hopes for the College Football Playoff.
The Daily breaks down this year’s rivalry matchup.
Michigan pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense
Without redshirt freshman quarterback Brandon Peters, the starting duties fall back on fifth-year senior John O’Korn. O’Korn’s mid-season stretch of games showed little promise, though, as he completed just 50.6 percent of his passes and averaged just 140.7 yards through his three full starts.
The Wolverines’ receivers — with the exception of freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones — have been all but absent since the original starting quarterback, redshirt junior Wilton Speight, suffered an injury against Purdue in September. Sophomore tight end Sean McKeon and redshirt sophomore tight end Zach Gentry were two of Peters’ favorite targets.
The Buckeyes’ secondary, while still a top-20 pass defense, might be Ohio State’s one weak link. It has allowed an average of 177 receiving yards per game. Regardless, the Buckeyes’ defensive line has an opportunity to tear up the Wolverines’ pass protection. The line has tallied 2.6 sacks per game, and might be able to increase that count against Michigan.
If the Buckeyes can get through to the Wolverines’ quarterback, they will surely hinder an already out-of-rhythm offense.
Ohio State’s only Big Ten loss came when Iowa passed for 226 yards and five touchdowns, but it’s difficult to imagine Michigan stringing together a performance like that.
Edge: Ohio State
Michigan rush offense vs. Ohio State rush defense
The Wolverines have to hope that junior running back Karan Higdon and sophomore running back Chris Evans can contribute more than they did against Wisconsin. Last week, the pair combined for just 45 yards.
In the three games before, Evans and Higdon averaged a combined 263 yards and 2.6 touchdowns per game.
The Wolverines will need that level of production, but they might not have a shot to reach it. Ohio State has the tendency to get into high-scoring shootouts, but most of its opponents’ points are coming in the air.
The Buckeyes have allowed just nine rushing touchdowns this season, and they managed to hold one of the Big Ten’s best running backs, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, to just 44 yards when the two teams met in October.
Edge: Ohio State
Ohio State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
This will be the most pivotal matchup to watch.
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett averages 245 passing yards per game. Michigan’s pass defense, however, allows just 144.
Michigan also gets an extra boost with the return of sophomore cornerback Lavert Hill, who suffered a concussion two weeks ago against Maryland. Hill and sophomore cornerback David Long will both be imperative to shutting down the Buckeye’s top receivers — Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill.
Urban Meyer has plenty more receiving weapons than Campbell and Hill, though. Ten different Buckeyes have receiving touchdowns this year, led by receiver Johnnie Dixon, who has 10 of his own.
Potentially Ohio State’s most dangerous offensive weapon will actually be tight end Marcus Bough. At 6-foot-5, Bough has all the characteristics of someone that could trouble the Wolverines’ pass defense. Michigan struggled immensely against Penn State’s 6-foot-6 tight end Mike Gesicki because the Wolverines don’t have the physical size to match up.
Edge: Ohio State
Ohio State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense
This critical matchup offers a menu full of young talent. Michigan’s two fastest linebackers, sophomores Devin Bush and Khaleke Hudson, will have to chase down Ohio State’s top two running backs, freshman J.K. Dobbins and sophomore Mike Weber.
Dobbins is having a stellar freshman season with 1,069 rushing yards and six touchdowns, and he is also followed by Barrett, who has 689 yards.
Michigan’s defensive line, though, should be up for the challenge. Fifth-year senior tackle Maurice Hurst and sophomore end Rashan Gary are two of the Big Ten’s best D-linemen, and they will make it difficult for Ohio State to open up any gaps inside.
And when Dobbins, Barrett and Weber try to run around them, Bush and Hudson will follow in pursuit.
Michigan redshirt freshman kicker Quinn Nordin finally hit a field goal after missing three attempts in the previous four games.
He converted a 39-yard field goal against the Badgers and lit up in excitement. Assuming Nordin’s rough patch is over and done, he could be crucial again if Michigan struggles in the red zone.
The Wolverines’ freshman punter Brad Robbins has strengths and weaknesses to note. While Robbins, an Ohio native himself, averages just around 40 yards per punt, he forces returners to make fair-catch calls often with how long of a hang time he manages.
Neither Ohio State nor Michigan has a kick return touchdown this year, but the Wolverines do have one punt return for a score all the way back in September.
Both teams haven’t had any major contributions from their special teams this year.
Ohio State has a lot on the line. The Buckeyes would surely be out of the playoff picture with a third loss, even though they are already moving on to the conference championship game.
Michigan, on the other hand, doesn’t have much going for it outside of pride. Having already lost the three biggest games of their season, it’s tough to see the Wolverines pulling out this last one.
Edge: Ohio State
Prediction: Ohio State 24, Michigan 7