It’s almost time.
All season long, as the Michigan football team racked up wins and insisted it was focused on the next game, this week loomed. When the Wolverines beat Michigan State, it was natural to turn ahead. Even when they lost to Iowa, this game hardly lost any sheen. It’s Michigan-Ohio State, and this time, everything is at stake.
If the Wolverines (7-1 Big Ten, 10-1 overall) win Saturday, they will head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game next week. If they fall, it will be their fifth consecutive loss to the Buckeyes and their 11th in the last 12 meetings.
When Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was hired nearly two years ago, many assumed he would return his team to relevance in the rivalry. Michigan’s only win over Ohio State in the last decade came against interim coach Luke Fickell and his 6-6 Buckeye team in 2011.
And with redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight’s status in doubt, Michigan will need its defense to step up in order to break that trend on Saturday.
“Any big game, any championship game, also any road game, you gotta pack your defense,” Harbaugh said. “Our guys will be up for the challenge and looking forward to a great week of preparation in terms of practice and getting ready to play this game.”
Led by a pair of dynamic athletes in quarterback J.T. Barrett and running back/receiver Curtis Samuel, Michigan will have its hands full. The Wolverines have held Ohio State under 40 points only once since that 2011 victory, when they lost 26-21 in 2012. This year’s Buckeyes are averaging 493 yards per game, including 263 on the ground, and their 43.8 points per game are tied for the fifth-most in the nation.
They’ll be up against a Michigan defense that has given up more than 14 points just twice this season — once in a 45-28 win over Colorado in which the Buffaloes scored a defensive touchdown, and once in a 32-23 win over Michigan State, in which the Spartans scored 13 points in the game’s final 7:31.
Ohio State will pose the most difficult challenge the Wolverines have faced to date. The Buckeyes have scored 50 or more points four times this year, and with Barrett at the helm, opposing defenses have to be prepared for a quarterback run at all times.
“You’re gonna have to challenge your entire unit to stop him, because when you’ve got an athlete at quarterback, you have to chase an athlete with a bunch of athletes, so that becomes an important piece of this thing,” said Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown. “You can’t just rely on the front four. You have to involve everybody in the process, whether it’s run fits or finding ways to be creative in rushing the passer on throw scenarios.”
If Michigan’s athletes, headlined by redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers and senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, can contain Barrett on the ground, the Wolverines will be in business. Much the better if they can stop Samuel, whose 61 receptions, 790 yards and seven touchdowns are each more than anyone on Michigan’s roster has amassed this season.
But the Wolverines will have to score to win, and Ohio State has a stout defense of its own. Speight’s offense was putting up more than 40 points a game when he was healthy, and if redshirt junior quarterback John O’Korn is thrust into action again this week, he will need to play stronger than his 7-of-16 effort last week.
There will be no shortage of motivation, with the Big Ten East title and a potential College Football Playoff birth on the line in the team’s marquee rivalry game.
“You can feel it,” Brown said. “A sense of anticipation. I know our guys are getting excited and getting ready. Focus is razor sharp, so there’s a lot of things there that you need to pay attention to.”
Michigan has a chance to turn a good season into a great one on Saturday. And for the seniors, there is something more on the line, their last chance to beat their most bitter rival.
Speaking to the media on Monday, Lewis was asked if his career would be incomplete without beating Ohio State. The answer should have been obvious.
“Yes,” he said. “Without this last game, at least a Big Ten Championship, I would say my legacy wasn’t fulfilled.”