Coming off of last Saturday”s thrilling, 20-17 victory at Wisconsin, Michigan (6-1 Big Ten, 8-2 overall) finds itself just one win away from clinching its fourth Big Ten championship in the last five years, not to mention an automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series.
The only team standing in the Wolverines” way? None other than their most hated rival, Ohio State (4-3, 6-4). This series has been chock-full of games with massive championship implications and Saturday”s tilt is no exception.
“There is an intensity that you cannot find many places in life that you”ll find down there on the field Saturday afternoon when Michigan and Ohio State are playing,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said.
Intensity aside, Ohio State enters Saturday”s game as a prohibitive underdog. The Buckeyes actually were controlling their own destiny in the Big Ten race heading into last week”s games, but that all changed when Ohio State was flogged at home by Illinois, 34-22.
Part of the Buckeyes” problem against Illinois was that they were forced to play without senior quarterback Steve Bellisari, who was suspended the Friday before the game for a drunken driving arrest. Backups Scott McMullen and Craig Krenzel played well at times, but in the end, their inexperience killed any chance Ohio State had at winning.
Bellisari has since been reinstated for Saturday”s game, although he is currently listed as the fourth-string quarterback. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel would not rule out allowing Bellisari to play.
“Steve will be available to play and I can honestly say that I have mixed emotions,” Tressel said. “My plans are to get Craig and Scott ready to play against Michigan, and as I stand here today Steve would be number four on the depth chart.”
Regardless of which quarterbacks play, the Buckeyes” passing game will be mediocre, at best. None of Ohio State”s signal-callers has looked impressive and the Buckeyes” starting wideouts Chris Vance and Michael Jenkins don”t exactly inspire fear in hearts of defenses.
The one thing Ohio State has going for it is tailback Jonathan Wells. The senior rushed for 192 yards and a touchdown against Illinois. On the season, he has amassed 1,151 yards while scoring 12 touchdowns. If the Buckeyes have any hope of beating Michigan, Wells will have to have a huge game and he knows it.
“I want to get better every week,” Wells said. “We have a guy with some inexperience who is going to be our quarterback. I plan to step it up.”
Michigan has its own offensive issues. Last week, the Wolverines gained only 163 total yards against a Wisconsin defense that has played poorly all year. Just 58 of those yards came through the air, which means that the heat is on quarterback John Navarre to improve dramatically.
Navarre played reasonably well through Michigan”s first six games, but he has since struggled and appears to be playing progressively worse each week. The Wolverines don”t need Navarre to throw for 300 yards against Ohio State, but they do need a consistent performance from him something which they haven”t gotten in a month.
“There are some things that John needs to correct, but the thing that you need to remember is that he is still a very young quarterback,” Carr said. “You are going to have some bad days and things aren”t going to go your way. The good thing for John Navarre is that you can still win and play bad or not play as well as you want to.”
In the end, the most important thing for the Wolverines is that they emerge with a win. Michigan has won 10 of its last 13 games against Ohio State, and the Wolverines would love to make that 11 of 14.
“If it was not for an opponent with the tradition of Ohio State, we would not be here looking forward to another great game,” senior center Kurt Anderson said. “We are just worried about focusing on the game and going out to play our best game of the year.”