The Michigan football team has lost 11 of its past 12 games against Ohio State, and a handful of them have not been close. But heading into the 113th edition of “The Game” on Saturday in Columbus, the two teams are in a statistical dead heat.
Both have one of the most electrifying players in the country. Both have elite defenses. Both have one of the best head coaches in the sport, each of whom has proven he is willing to break open the playbook to gain a subtle edge in what should be a hard-fought game.
So we’ll see just about everything these two teams have Saturday at Ohio Stadium. The battle between the second- and third-ranked teams in the country will be one of momentum swings, a test of who can gain the edge enough to make a difference throughout the afternoon. The Daily broke down of how those individual matchups might go:
Michigan rush offense vs. Ohio State rush defense
There’s virtually no tipping point here. The Wolverines rank 19th in the country in rushing offense, and the Buckeyes are 18th in rushing defense. Michigan’s number is skewed by a 481-yard performance against Rutgers, but a couple of good signs came out of last week’s for the Wolverines.
First, Ohio State gave up 207 rushing yards against Michigan State, exceeding 200 for just the second time this season. Then, Michigan’s running game powered a 20-10 escape against Indiana, a strong response to the team’s first sub-100 yard performance the previous week against Iowa.
Senior running back De’Veon Smith is coming off one of the best games of his career, and as effective as it has been to rotate four backs and keep all of them fresh, the Wolverines could really use Smith in top form against the Buckeyes. They have plenty more weapons available. Freshman wide receiver Eddie McDoom will likely add a big-play threat on the outside, and there is always, of course, redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers.
Ohio State’s defense is young after the NFL Draft plucked most of its top talent, but the Buckeyes have started the same front seven every week since the season opener. Experienced linebacker Raekwon McMillan leads the team with 71 tackles, and an aggressive secondary makes a difference in the run game as well. Ohio State has allowed just four rushing touchdowns all season, never more than one in a game, and with Michigan’s quarterback question, the Buckeyes may put even more pressure on the Wolverines’ ground game.
Michigan pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense
The storyline in the passing game starts and ends with the uncertainty at quarterback for Michigan. Redshirt sophomore starter Wilton Speight missed last week’s game with an undisclosed shoulder injury, thrusting redshirt junior John O’Korn into action. It’s unclear who will be given the keys this weekend. Both have taken reps in practice this week, and with neither holding a full workload, it’s possible the choice will be a game-time decision.
The Wolverines have thrown for a season-low in passing yards in each of the past two weeks. They managed just 59 against Indiana as their running game carried the offense to victory. They’ll need a second dimension against Ohio State, though, whether it’s with Speight or O’Korn. It helps that coach Jim Harbaugh will likely loosen up the game plan — Michigan was relatively conservative in its play calling last week, a luxury it can’t afford in this game.
For most of the season, the Wolverines have overwhelmed their opponents with threats in the passing game. That will not be the case on Saturday. Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore (nine pass breakups), Denzel Ward (eight) and Gareon Conley (seven) can all guard top receivers, and Michigan offensive coordinator Tim Drevno specifically called out safety Malik Hooker, who leads the Buckeyes with five interceptions.
Whether Michigan starts an ailing Speight or a backup in O’Korn, it’s not an ideal situation. If Speight plays, he likely won’t be 100 percent. The Buckeyes have allowed the third-fewest passing yards in the country, and their passing efficiency defense is the nation’s best.
Edge: Ohio State
Ohio State rushing offense vs. Michigan rushing defense
You could make a case that any one of the three members of Ohio State’s backfield is the biggest threat Michigan has faced all season. Quarterback J.T. Barrett has piled up 722 yards on the ground and ran for 139 last year against the Wolverines. Running back Mike Weber, a Detroit Cass Tech product, has stepped in nicely for the departed Ezekiel Elliott and is already over the 1,000-yard mark. And all-purpose threat Curtis Samuel gives the Buckeyes a change of pace, lining up all over the field.
Ohio State has gone away from Samuel in the second half of the season, giving him 22 carries in the past five games as opposed to 62 in the first six. Coach Urban Meyer didn’t have a reason for that trend, but it could be a combination of wanting him to save him from the hits and wanting to maximize Weber. Either way, everything is on the table this week, and Michigan has not faced an offense with anywhere near this many playmakers.
The Wolverines will have to do better than last year against Ohio State, when they gave up 369 rushing yards in a 42-13 blowout at Michigan Stadium. But again, their front seven has held up all year long and seems as ready as ever for the Buckeyes’ attack. The defense has given up more than 90 rushing yards just three times this season, and last week wasn’t one of them — a good sign against an Indiana team that, while not nearly as talented or prolific, runs some similar sets.
The other big difference is that Michigan is healthy for this year’s matchup. The Wolverines sorely missed defensive tackle Ryan Glasgow, who sat out last year with a pectoral injury. Glasgow played one of the best games of his career last week with seven tackles (three for loss), and Michigan has its full arsenal available around him. There’s no telling how that will hold up against the high-flying Buckeyes, but it’s hard to imagine either side dominating the other.
Edge: Ohio State
Ohio State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
Barrett is an experienced starter putting together a Heisman Trophy-caliber season at quarterback, with 2,304 yards, a 63.4-percent completion rate and 24 touchdowns against just four interceptions in addition to what he does on the ground. He hasn’t done a ton in the past two editions of “The Game” because he hasn’t needed to. Last year, he threw just 15 passes for 113 yards while the Buckeyes rushed for 369. In 2014, he threw 21 times for 176 yards while the running game piled up 233.
Ohio State lost its two top receivers from last year, Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall, to early NFL Draft departures. In their place, Samuel may be an even bigger weapon in the passing game than on the ground, ranking fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards. Michigan’s success on defense might come down to how it defends him.
The Wolverines’ nation-leading pass defense should match All-American senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis with Samuel when Ohio State’s star lines up on the outside. When Samuel is in the backfield, he’ll have to go through Michigan’s tenacious front seven. The challenge will be when he starts in the slot. In those cases, he could draw Peppers or one of the Wolverines’ senior safeties, Dymonte Thomas or Delano Hill.
Noah Brown (345 yards) and Dontre Wilson (343) line up on the outside for the Buckeyes, but they aren’t as formidable as the players in the backfield. Ohio State’s passing attack ranks just 83rd in the country, but the Buckeyes’ offense works best when they don’t have to go to the air much.
Last week, Michigan’s special teams returned to its game-changing ways of earlier in the season. Fifth-year senior tight end Michael Jocz and freshman safety Khaleke Hudson each altered punts, and Peppers flipped the field on another return.
Since struggling earlier, fifth-year senior kicker Kenny Allen has now made 10 field goals in a row, pushing his success rate up to 78 percent. Allen also continued to be an asset in the punting games.
But Ohio State has the edge on him on both fronts. Kicker Tyler Durbin is the Big Ten’s scoring leader, going 16-for-17 on field goals with a long of 45 despite missing two extra points. Punter Cameron Johnston leads Allen by more than four yards per punt for first in the Big Ten at 46.3 yards. Almost a third of his kicks have gone at least 50 yards, though his more important job Saturday may be keeping the ball away from Peppers.
Edge: Ohio State
The stakes for this one are as high as they’ve been in 10 years. Michigan can clinch a berth in the Big Ten Championship with a win. Ohio State cannot do that without a Penn State loss to Michigan State, but the Buckeyes would likely stay at No. 2 in the rankings and make the College Football Playoff without a Big Ten title.
All of that is in addition to the normal hype of “The Game.” These players have plenty of history together. Michigan has 15 players, including eight starters, from Ohio. Weber went to Cass Tech with Jourdan Lewis. Peppers knows of Samuel from their days on the East Coast. All will be looking for bragging rights.
In the end, the intangibles might come down to home field. Michigan has been on the road just three times this season, and for the third straight time, the Wolverines can say they haven’t seen an atmosphere like this. Ohio State expects Saturday’s game to break the Ohio Stadium attendance record of 108,975. And when Michigan last played on the road, it turned in a sluggish performance and lost to Iowa, 14-13.
Edge: Ohio State
Prediction: Ohio State 27, Michigan 17