It may only be one game, but its implications are anything but ordinary.
And it isn’t just because it’s ‘The Game.’ A Big Ten championship berth may not be on the line, but for the Michigan football team (5-3 Big Ten, 8-3 overall), a date with No. 8 Ohio State (7-1, 9-2) could change the perception of its 2017 season.
With a win, the Wolverines would finish the regular season with a 9-3 record, which would be respectable — maybe even celebrated — considering their strength of schedule and mass of injuries. With a loss, Michigan would drop to 8-4 — its worst record in three years under coach Jim Harbaugh — and lose any sign of marked progress from the past two seasons.
Here’s what to watch for when the Wolverines face the Buckeyes on Saturday:
How will Michigan respond to O’Korn under center again?
After three weeks with Brandon Peters as the signal caller, the Wolverines developed a solid rhythm with the redshirt freshman. His injury has brought that flow to a swift conclusion.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday that Peters had been placed in concussion protocol, but there is no clear indication that he will be cleared to suit up. In recent weeks, Harbaugh has also teased a possible return from quarterback Wilton Speight, but the redshirt junior is still practicing without contact so that prospect seems unlikely.
That leaves fifth-year senior quarterback John O’Korn. When he makes his return to the starting lineup, Michigan will have to make adjustments. He played for the first time since his benching in relief against Wisconsin, and the results left much to be desired. He finished 2-for-8 with a measly 19 yards in just over a quarter on the field.
The Wolverines will need much better from him in order to stand a chance against Ohio State.
Can the Wolverines’ run game return to its dominant ways?
In recent weeks, Michigan’s offense has also been sparked by a surge from its running backs unit. Between junior Karan Higdon, sophomore Chris Evans and fifth-year senior Ty Isaac, each rusher has enjoyed assertive performances.
First, it was the duo of Higdon and Isaac who gained over 100 yards apiece against Rutgers. Then, it was the pair of Evans and Higdon, who both almost hit 200 yards against Minnesota. And when it was up to Evans to do it on his own — after injuries to Higdon and Isaac — he was still almost able to reach 100 yards himself.
But against the Badgers — the top-ranked rushing defense in the nation — the Wolverines didn’t fare so well. They gained just 58 yards on 37 carries, a stark contrast from their earlier ways. Ohio State isn’t far off, as it is ranked No. 12 in rushing defense with an average of 114 yards allowed per game and 3.16 yards allowed per play.
With O’Korn still working his way back into the rotation, Michigan will need to rely on its ground game, which means the Wolverines can’t afford to slip up in that regard again.
Can the Wolverines’ defense stop a trio of talented rushers?
Michigan’s defense is no stranger to facing talented rushers. But while it tackled the challenges of Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor on two different days, Michigan was torched by both, as Barkley gained 108 yards and Taylor gained 132.
The Wolverines will have even less luck against Ohio State, as they brace themselves for the Buckeyes’ three-headed monster of running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber and quarterback J.T. Barrett all at once.
Dobbins leads the pack, averaging 99 yards per game and scoring six total touchdowns. Weber drops off in yards with an average of 60.6, but has reached the end zone the most with 12 scores. Barrett, on top of his impressive passing abilities, averages 55 yards per game and has scored eight rushing touchdowns.
Michigan’s rushing defense, which used to be the best unit in the country, has fallen back to No. 15. The Wolverines will have their hands full Saturday.
Can Michigan break the streak?
It may be the biggest game of their season, but the Wolverines haven’t been able to find success in recent years. In the past 13 years, Michigan has won ‘The Game’ only once.
The last time the Wolverines topped the Buckeyes was in 2011, when Michigan pulled out a 40-34 win in Ann Arbor. None of the current Wolverines have ever beaten Ohio State.
They acknowledged that shortcoming on Monday, as Michigan has a bevy of fifth-year seniors who have yet to secure an elusive win over its biggest rivals. One of them, fifth-year senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, has said that this is a “one-game season” for the Wolverines because of how much they want this victory.
Whether or not they can pull it off is an entirely different question.