For the 20th time in history, Saturday’s edition of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry will feature two teams in the top 10. Though No. 6 Michigan State’s last-second victory over the Buckeyes last week put a damper on this Saturday’s game, the eighth-ranked Buckeyes and 10th-ranked Wolverines have plenty to play for.
With a potential Big Ten Championship bid, possible Rose Bowl berth and rivalry pride on the line, the Daily breaks down the matchup.
Michigan pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense
Probably the best matchup of the game, Ohio State’s pass defense — ranked fifth in the nation in yards allowed — battles the red-hot Michigan pass game.
The Wolverines, suddenly a threat in the air thanks to the emergence of fifth-year senior quarterback Jake Rudock and redshirt junior wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh as stars, are coming off a productive week against a strong Penn State defense. Rudock became the first quarterback in school history to throw for 250 or more yards in three consecutive weeks.
Ohio State has good numbers but has largely avoided facing good or experienced quarterbacks. The Buckeyes didn’t have to face Connor Cook last week, and Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld was injured mid-game earlier this season. The one veteran quarterback they did face — Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner, carved the Buckeyes up for 251 yards and two touchdowns.
Rudock is a step up from Leidner, and it will show Saturday.
Michigan rush offense vs. Ohio State rush defense
After a strong start, Michigan’s run game has fallen drastically in the second half of the season. Since gashing No. 16 Northwestern for 201 rushing yards and three touchdowns Oct. 10, the Wolverines have averaged just 111.3 yards per game and 3.58 yards per carry.
It may be tough to fix those woes against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are 30th in nation in rushing yards allowed but hold opponents to 3.4 yards per carry. With a defensive line that boasts 2014 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa and likely NFL Draft pick Adolphus Washington on the defensive line, it will tough for Michigan to gain much on the ground.
Edge: Ohio State
Michigan rush defense vs. Ohio State rush offense
A week ago, Ohio State had the clear edge in this matchup, but things change and people change. Michigan, after giving up 248 yards to Indiana running back Jordan Howard on Nov. 14, settled down and held Penn State to 70 rushing yards on 22 carries — a number even more impressive if you negate Saquon Barkley’s 56-yard burst on the opening drive.
But the big plays count just the same against the Buckeyes, and running back Ezekiel Elliot happens to make big plays a lot. The junior is seventh in the nation with 1,458 rushing yards, and has the potential to break through for a big run on any type of run. Still, it appears Elliott’s relationship with the team is turning sour, as the back only got 11 carries for 33 yards against Michigan State, then made headlines by blaming his coaches for the loss. He later apologized.
Michigan is fourth in the nation in rushing yards and touchdowns allowed, and has allowed only one running back to surpass 100 yards this season. Elliott has a tough task ahead of him, no matter how many carries he gets.
Ohio State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense
It would have been hard to imagine at the beginning of the season that this matchup would be up for debate. Ohio State famously had three NFL-caliber quarterbacks on their roster in Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett, while Michigan lost safety Blake Countess and featured plenty of unknowns in the secondary.
But by November, it has become clear that the Wolverines are among the best in the country at defending the pass, allowing just 162.9 passing yards per game — good for fourth in the nation — and a 92.8 quarterback rating, good for second. Junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis leads the nation in pass breakups, and the unit has more interceptions (eight) than passing touchdowns allowed (six).
Despite the preseason hype and apparent talent, the Buckeyes have struggled through the air. Things have improved since Barrett took over as the primary starter, but they remain 100th in the nation with 193.7 yards per game.
The stats improve when measured on a per-play basis, but don’t expect Ohio State to get much done in the air Saturday.
Michigan’s special teams have fallen in the rankings as of late. The return game remains strong and capable of a score at any time, but the coverage units have allowed two touchdowns and a blocked punt in the last three weeks. Senior kicker Kenny Allen and fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill remain consistent, but with expected winds of 10 miles per hour and temperatures barely above freezing by kickoff, their effectiveness may be limited.
Ohio State, on the other hand, seems to be getting better in special teams as the season progresses. The Buckeyes are fifth and ninth in kickoff and punt coverage, respectively, and have forced several turnovers on returns. They are also among the best in the nation with two blocked punts and three blocked kicks.
The return game has been average this year, and Ohio State hasn’t made a field goal since October. Still, expect the Buckeyes to capitalize on big plays in special teams Saturday.
Edge: Ohio State
Being the rivalry game that it is, expect things to get wacky. Harbaugh and Meyer are two of the top minds in college football, emotions will be running high and the late-November weather could certainly take a turn for the unsavory.
Both teams know how to win, but questions now surround the Buckeyes as to whether or not all their players are committed to doing so. Elliott, Lee and Jones’ comments last week suggested players had lost faith in the season and the coaching staff, while Michigan players said they would run through a brick wall for their coach.
Momentum off the field seems to be in the Wolverines’ favor, but they will need to clean up their penalties off the field, as they tallied a staggering 13 flags for 117 yards last week. By comparison, the Buckeyes had just four for 20.
In such an even matchup, the game very well could come down to one or two plays. That’s where Michigan gets the edge, because, as this reporter’s Ohio State-loving grandpa said at the Thanksgiving dinner table Thursday, “Nobody else has Jabrill Peppers.”
Prediction: Michigan 31, Ohio State 27