For much of the season, it seemed this year’s iteration of The Game would be a one-sided affair. Michigan was eliminated from College Football Playoff contention halfway through the season with a loss to Penn State. Meanwhile, No. 2 Ohio State steamrolled everyone in its path and has already clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game. On paper, this doesn’t seem like a game that will be close, but the 10th-ranked Wolverines have been playing their best football of the season on both sides of the ball, and with the game in Ann Arbor this year, there is at least a bit of intrigue.
The Daily breaks down how Michigan matches up with the Buckeyes in all facets of the game:
Shea Patterson played his two best games with the Wolverines in the past two weeks, throwing for a combined 750 yards and nine touchdowns with only one interception against Michigan State and Indiana. On the season, he’s completed 60 percent of his passes with 21 touchdowns to five interceptions, and has also rushed for five scores.
But everything Patterson can do, Justin Fields can do better. The Georgia transfer would have a strong argument to win the Heisman Trophy if not for LSU’s Joe Burrow. He’s completed 69 percent of his passes and has 319 rushing yards on 76 attempts, including nine rushing touchdowns. If that weren’t enough, he’s been picked off just once all season.
If Fields has a weakness, it’s that he’s taken 21 sacks this year — one more than Patterson. He also fumbled three times in last Saturday’s game against Penn State, losing two. While Patterson also had fumble-itis early in the season, those issues seem to be largely resolved.
Patterson likely won’t outplay Fields on Saturday, so Michigan’s best hope is to capitalize on Fields’ few mistakes. The Wolverines do have a frightening pass rush that seems well equipped to bring pressure on Fields — and one that has forced and recovered many a fumble this year — but Michigan will have to take advantage when the opportunities come.
The Wolverines have largely gone with a run game by committee this year, using freshman Zach Charbonnet and redshirt freshman Hassan Haskins. Charbonnet has rushed for 635 yards and 11 touchdowns — a program record for a true freshman — and Haskins has 483 yards and three touchdowns.
This look has provided mixed results for Michigan. The Wolverines ran all over Illinois and Notre Dame, but have also had less than 150 rushing yards in seven of 11 games this year. Yet some of that is schematic — Michigan has opted to focus more on the passing game in recent contests, and only went full-in on the run game against the Irish due to rain. Charbonnet was limited in a few midseason games due to injury, and Haskins didn’t emerge as a weapon until the contest against the Illini. Both are clearly talented and play behind an offensive line that can open up holes.
But the Buckeyes are fifth in the country in total rushing defense and fourth in yards per rush allowed, meaning the Wolverines’ running game may struggle. Against Penn State and Michigan State, two teams with similarly good rushing defenses, Michigan ran for just 224 yards combined.
Meanwhile, Ohio State is fourth in the country in both total rushing offense and yards per rush, bringing a formidable rushing attack the likes of which the Wolverines have not yet seen.
The Buckeyes have a bona fide star at running back in J.K. Dobbins, who has run for 1,446 yards and 15 touchdowns, while also catching 15 passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns. (For comparison, all of Michigan’s rushers have combined for 1,974 yards.)
Backup running back Master Teague is also a strong option, with 751 yards and four touchdowns in about half the carries of Dobbins.
Back in September, Wisconsin’s star back Jonathan Taylor gave the Wolverines problems, and Dobbins is playing at a similar level. Michigan’s rushing defense is good — ranking eighth in the country in yards per rush allowed and 13th in total rushing defense — but it will need to find another level to stop Ohio State.
The Wolverines have two of the most purely talented receivers in the country in juniors Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins. The two were under-utilized early in the season, but the Indiana game showed what they can truly do, with Collins hauling in three touchdowns and Peoples-Jones another.
Collins also leads Michigan in receiving yards with 649, receiving touchdowns with seven and yards per reception (among players with at least five catches) with 20.94. Collins is also one of the top receivers in the country at drawing pass interference, getting a flag on over 15 percent of his targets, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Wolverines also have enviable receiver depth. Sophomore Ronnie Bell, a speedy slot receiver, is second on the team with 627 yards despite being limited in two games due to injury, and is adept at getting open and finding yards after the catch. Redshirt sophomore Tarik Black has been relatively quiet after missing most of his first two seasons due to injury, but is undeniably talented. True freshmen Giles Jackson, Cornelius Johnson and Mike Sainristil have shown flashes of promise.
At tight end, the Wolverines also split time between seniors Nick Eubanks and Sean McKeon. McKeon is a better blocker while Eubanks is a more prolific pass-catcher, but both have over 150 yards on the season.
The true test for the Wolverines on Saturday, though, will be how well they can utilize the weapons they have, as they have seemed at times to struggle getting the ball to their best receivers. Still, this corps has the potential to make some noise against Ohio State if given the opportunity.
Interestingly, given the presence of Fields, the Buckeyes are just 49th in the country in passing yards per game — one spot ahead of Michigan. That’s partly schematic — Ohio State is seventh in the country in yards per attempt (the Wolverines are 24th) and 15th in yards per completion (Michigan is sixth).
The Buckeyes roll mostly with three receivers — Chris Olave, Binjimen Victor and K.J. Hill. The trio has combined for 1,586 yards and 23 touchdowns. That’s a similar yardage total to the Wolverines’ top three receivers, but with more touchdowns due to Ohio State having a more prolific offense overall.
For tight ends, the Buckeyes’ top two are Jeremy Ruckert and Luke Farrell, though neither is used much in the passing game. They rank just seventh and ninth in receiving yards on their own team, respectively.
Both teams have formidable passing defenses as well. Ohio State is first in the country in fewest passing yards allowed, while Michigan is fourth. The Buckeyes are tied for first with six passing touchdowns allowed; the Wolverines are fifth with nine.
But a good offense can beat a good defense, and here, the key for both teams will be putting their athletes in position to make plays. Michigan will want to take advantage of its ability to generate big plays by putting its receivers in space and airing it out downfield; that is the one offensive area the Wolverines have an advantage over Ohio State.
Michigan has rotated between sophomore Jake Moody and redshirt junior Quinn Nordin at kicker the whole year, with Nordin handling primary duties the last few games. Combined, the two are just 11-for-17 on field goals, with a long of 49 from Nordin, but perfect on extra points. Buckeyes kicker Blake Haubeil is 8-for-10 on field goals with a long of 55 and also perfect on extra points.
Punting-wise, these teams had punters that drew considerable attention last year in Will Hart and Drue Chrisman. Hart is at an average of 44.8 yards per punt this year while Chrisman is at 44 exactly. Ohio State and Michigan rank 39th and 44th, respectively, in net punting yards.
Neither team has any punt return touchdowns this year. The Buckeyes average 8.3 yards per punt return, while the Wolverines are at 8.03. On kick returns, Ohio State averages 21.7 yards per return, while Michigan averages 23.17, with a Giles Jackson touchdown against Maryland.