Eleven weeks after Jim Harbaugh coached his first game at the helm of the Michigan football team, 11 months after he was introduced last December, the Michigan-Ohio State game has arrived.
Most of the country’s eyes should be on Ann Arbor on Saturday, though Michigan State lowered the stakes by upsetting the Buckeyes last week. Whichever team emerges victorious between Michigan and Ohio State will need Penn State to knock off Michigan State in order to reach the Big Ten title game.
Nonetheless, not since 2006 — when Ohio State came in No. 1 in the country against No. 2 Michigan — have the teams been ranked this highly at the end of the season. The matchup should create quite a spectacle at Michigan Stadium.
Here’s what to watch for:
1. The coaches.
It’s rare that the most-hyped matchup in a game is between the coaches, but this might be the exception. While billing it as the second coming of “Bo vs. Woody” might be premature, this year’s battle between Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer will be one for the record books.
Whatever happens Saturday, Harbaugh has orchestrated a complete turnaround at Michigan. The Wolverines have already won four more games than they did last year and have improved significantly in every phase of the game. No one knew what to expect out of them going into the season, but being within one point on the betting line against Ohio State was certainly not in the cards.
Meanwhile, Meyer has done a similar job in Columbus, but with even better results and for a longer period. In his fourth season, he is 48-4, including 30-1 in the Big Ten, with one national championship. Perhaps just as importantly to Buckeye fans, he is 3-0 against Michigan.
With both coaches’ success, their first meeting could be a harbinger of a long period of rivalry. This year’s game will be a three-hour chess match between two of the best coaches in college football, and when it ends, they’ll go back to work preparing for next year’s.
2. Can Ohio State feed Zeke?
In the past two years, Elliott has been one of the top offensive weapons on a team full of them. In that time, he has amassed 3,336 rushing yards and 35 touchdowns, and until last week had 15 straight 100-yard games. Among them: three straight 200-plus yard games to lead Ohio State to the Big Ten and national championships last season; and a 121-yard, two-touchdown performance against Michigan.
But then came last week, when Michigan State limited Elliott to just 33 yards on 12 carries. Elliott publicly criticized the coaches for not giving him the ball more in a 17-14 loss that all but ruined the Buckeyes’ national title hopes.
Meyer said he would not discipline Elliott for his comments. If the running back returns to his form and full workload against the Wolverines, he’ll be a handful. If Ohio State is again hesitant to give him the ball, that’s one less playmaker for Michigan to worry about.
3. Can Jabrill Peppers rebound?
Michigan’s redshirt freshman safety looked vulnerable for the first time this season last week against Penn State. Nittany Lions wide receiver Saeed Blacknall beat him badly on a 25-yard touchdown catch late in the first half, and he missed quarterback Christian Hackenberg on a 3rd-and-14 in the fourth quarter, allowing Hackenberg to scramble for a first down. Peppers also committed a pass interference penalty.
A few miscues are hardly cause for concern, but the margin for error is smaller this week. Peppers said this week that he was inspired by former Michigan Heisman winner Charles Woodson’s performance against Ohio State in 1997 in which he returned a punt for a touchdown, made a reception to set up a touchdown and caught an interception in the end zone. Peppers could get the same opportunity Saturday, and as always, his play will make a huge difference in the outcome.
4. Can Michigan make any headway on the ground?
While fifth-year senior Jake Rudock’s emergence has powered the offense, the Wolverines’ running game has been almost silent in the second half of the season. Neither junior De’Veon Smith nor redshirt junior Drake Johnson has been able to get going, and neither junior Derrick Green nor redshirt sophomore Ty Isaac has touched the ball since Nov. 7.
The Wolverines have slumped to 79th in the nation in rushing offense, and they face Ohio State’s 30th-ranked rush defense.
If Rudock plays the way he has, he can help carry the offense. But this will be Michigan’s toughest opponent since its last loss, to Michigan State on Oct. 17. Even if Rudock gives the Wolverines the advantage at any point, if the running game can’t salt the game away, it will make it that much tougher to keep the lead.