Earlier this week, Jabrill Peppers said that the No. 3 Michigan football team (7-1 Big Ten, 10-1 overall) would be emptying the bag this weekend in Columbus. He wouldn’t expand on what that meant beyond that it would affect all three phases of the game.
Good thing, too, because the matchup with No. 2 Ohio State (7-1, 10-1) will decide the Wolverines’ fate while also being their biggest challenge of the season. It’s either win and advance or lose and go home, and Michigan has made it clear that it wants its season to go on for as long as possible.
With that in mind, here’s what to watch for in the regular season finale.
1. Can the Wolverines stop Mike Weber?
Detroit native running back Mike Weber has led the Buckeyes on the ground this season, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Saturday, he’ll see some of his former Cass Tech teammates on the field, not that Weber needs any extra incentive to beat his rivals.
Senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, senior safety Delano Hill, freshman offensive lineman Michael Onwenu and redshirt junior offensive lineman David Dawson are all graduates of Cass Tech. Last season, Weber was unable to help the Buckeyes on the field because he was redshirting, but this year, he’ll see those former teammates in playing time.
Michigan does have the No. 10 rushing defense in the country, though, allowing just 108.6 rushing yards per game. If the Wolverines can quiet Weber and slow down quarterback J.T. Barrett — who has 722 rushing yards himself — they’ll have a much better shot against Ohio State.
2. Who will start under center?
With as quiet as Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been about redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight’s injury, it’s impossible to predict if Speight is in playing condition.
We do know that senior wide receiver Amara Darboh said Tuesday that Speight and redshirt junior quarterback John O’Korn had both gotten reps in practice, but that is not necessarily indicative of whether Speight can risk taking a hit on the field.
Last Saturday, O’Korn went 7-for-16 passing for 59 yards and no touchdowns as Speight watched from the sidelines. If O’Korn plays, the Buckeyes will most likely focus their attention on stopping the running game. The attack will be completely different if Speight plays, as he has thrown for over 2000 yards for 15 touchdowns.
3. Will the senior-heavy defensive line save the day?
Seniors Taco Charlton, Chris Wormley, Matt Godin and Ryan Glasgow will have their last chance at knocking off Ohio State this Saturday. The last time the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes was in 2011, when all of the defensive linemen were still in college.
That should be enough motivation, but Charlton and Wormley are from the state of Ohio, with Charlton growing up just 15 miles away from Ohio Stadium. Tuesday, Charlton spoke of the importance of playing in his hometown and leaving victorious.
The defensive line will be tasked with one of the most important keys of the game, stopping Barrett and Weber. If a unit is going to be able to assist in stopping the run game, though, there aren’t many better than Michigan’s dominant group.
4. Will Chris Evans and De’Veon Smith carry the load?
After failing to produce against Iowa, senior running back De’Veon Smith willed the Wolverines to a win the following week against Indiana. Smith rushed for 158 yards and two touchdowns, showing off his physicality throughout by bulldozing through defenders.
Freshman running back Chris Evans has impressed as well (he’s currently averaging 7.4 yards per run), and through 11 games, the two lead the team in rushing yards. The Wolverines have used a stable of backs, with sophomore Karan Higdon and redshirt junior Ty Isaac contributing, but Evans and Smith have distanced themselves from the pack.
If O’Korn is under center and can’t make plays through the air, then Michigan should entrust its carries to its two most qualified backs. It can’t risk failing in its running game if it wants to play next week in the Big Ten Championship.