For Michigan, everything could change on Saturday

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By Everett Cook, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 27, 2013

Saturday could change everything for this Michigan football team. In a lost season full of blunders and missteps, a win over Ohio State would flip the script on 2013 into something salvageable.

Questions over Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s ability to be a game manager rather than just a motivator? Squashed. Elite recruits starting to re-think their commitments to play in Ann Arbor? No more. The part of a disgruntled fan base calling for the firings of seemingly everyone? Silenced.

So yes, a win would change everything, but of course, it’s more complicated than that.

And that is because Ohio State is good. Really good. As in, scoring almost 50 points per game good.

The Buckeyes are back in their role of conference dominator, done with the bowl ban that terminated an undefeated season early last year. They have an outside shot at the national championship this year, needing at least one loss from Alabama or Florida State the next two weeks.

On Monday, Hoke said that Ohio State is “probably” the best team the Wolverines have faced this season.

He can drop the “probably.” This is no question the best team Michigan has faced, and it all starts with an offense averaging almost 48.7 points per game off almost 315 rushing yards per game.

The ground attack is a two-headed monster — quarterback Braxton Miller is averaging 6.4 yards per carry, while running back Carlos Hyde has more than 1,000 rushing yards on the year while averaging almost eight yards a carry despite missing the first three games of the year due to a suspension.

“Braxton Miller is a great football player,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said on Tuesday. “I am very, very impressed with his development. He’s becoming a complete quarterback. He’s not only a tremendous athlete, but he’s got a very good arm and he’s making a lot of great decisions. I mean, he’s going to be a great challenge. That’s why they are who they are. He’s really done a great job.”

And if that wasn’t enough, Ohio State has had eight players run for more than 100 yards this season, and all of them are averaging more than five yards per carry.

Meanwhile, Michigan has had three players crack the 100-yard barrier, and all of them are averaging less than 3.5 yards per carry.

Defensively, the Wolverines have looked pretty formidable over the last few weeks. Against Iowa, the unit was the only reason the final score was close, but it got gassed in the fourth quarter because the offense was so inept it couldn’t stay on the field.

But Iowa isn’t Ohio State, and Saturday will be the biggest test this young defense has faced this year.

And yet, the scary thing for the Wolverines is that it doesn’t get much easier on the other side of the ball.

Linebacker Ryan Shazier is a finalist for the Butkus Award, given to the top linebacker in the country. He leads the defense with 108 tackles, and in Ohio State’s win over Indiana last week, he had 20 tackles, five of them for loss.

By comparison, the Wolverines have just three players with more than five tackles for loss over the entire season, and their leading tackler, sophomore James Ross III, has 81 tackles.

He leads a defense that gives up the third-fewest points in the Big Ten and allows less than three yards per carry on the ground.

If Ohio State has a weakness, it’s a pass defense that allows 238 yards per game, good for tenth in the Big Ten. Even that might not matter, as Michigan has shown an inability to complete a deep pass in the last month, which says a lot about the health of battered redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner.

Earlier in the week, Shazier said that Michigan has given up a thousand tackles for loss this year.

He’s off by 898, but still, the Wolverines been tackled for a loss 102 times this year. That’s second in the BCS to every school except Idaho, who lost by a final score of 80-14 against Florida State last week.

So yes, the Buckeyes should win handedly on Saturday. They are a double-digit favorite and hold every major statistical advantage.

But in the end, The Game is The Game, even if the odds are stacked. This is the great equalizer, where anything can happen and seasons can be made.

It shouldn’t happen, but it could, and until Saturday at noon, that’s the final seam holding this Michigan season together.

“This game has always been different in some ways,” Hoke said on Monday. “Are they a good football team? Yeah. They’re a very good football team. Do we have to play better than we’ve played? I don't think there's any doubt about that, and we’ve got to be more consistent, and we’ve got to finish things better.

“It’s what makes it so much fun.”