If defense and running games win championships, then Ohio State is certainly in a good position to return from Tempe, Ariz. victorious. A lot needs to happen between now and then, of course, but the Buckeyes have survived this season because of the No. 2 defense in the country and the paltry 12.5 points per game it allows. Going undefeated is easy for an offense when two touchdowns will win the game every time. That shouldn’t be much different tomorrow against a Michigan offense that has performed satisfactorily, at best, and inconsistently, at worst. Either way, points will be at a premium, leading many experts to surmise that special teams and the field position battle will be the deciding factors.
Michigan passing offense vs. Ohio State passing defense: Will Michigan quarterback John Navarre take a gamble and throw to No. 7’s side of the field? Ohio State multi-position stud Chris Gamble is a defensive playmaker if ever there was one, and his matchups against Michigan receivers Ron Bellamy and Braylon Edwards will be a made-for-T.V. spectacle in and of themselves. Believe it or not, Navarre will lead the Big Ten in passing yards by the end of the day tomorrow. Many of those yards came courtesy of tight end Bennie Joppru, who will have to have another career day in a game where short-yardage passing and moving the chains become as crucial as ever.
If Michigan can lull the Buckeyes to sleep with its formulaic run-run-pass, and then open it up at opportune times (against a pass defense that allows more than 235 yards per game), it has a chance to put a few more points on the board than Ohio State is used to.
Michigan rushing offense vs. Ohio State rushing defense: B.J. Askew and Chris Perry could be running like Walter Payton, but the Buckeyes’ front seven is allowing 75 yards per game on the ground and has been stopping the run better than anyone in the nation. Michigan simply won’t win this battle. The best the Wolverines can hope for is that the ground game is moderately functional and Navarre finds himself in a lot of 3rd-and-short situations.
And as for Askew and Perry, they’ve been good and they’ve gotten better. But they’re no Sweetness.
Edge: Ohio State
Ohio State passing offense vs. Michigan passing defense: Ohio State receiver Michael Jenkins has as many receptions this season as Edwards, but for nearly 200 more yards. What does that tell you? When the Buckeyes open it up, they open it up big. To complement that statistic is one that reveals the strength of Ohio State’s ground game: The Buckeyes throw the ball about half as often as Navarre and the Wolverines; Ohio State relies on quarterback Craig Krenzel’s mobility and of course their backfield thoroughbreds. Michigan has been guilty of giving up the big play through the air, and could fall victim to that if the secondary is overly concerned by the run (Krenzel or Clarett, et al.). But expect the Wolverines to contain Ohio State in the air, as the Buckeyes happily pound away on the ground.
Ohio State rushing offense vs. Michigan rushing defense: Say what you will about Ohio State’s last few wins. Yeah, the Buckeyes have struggled against the definition of Big Ten mediocrity, but they have done so without the preeminent running back in the country. Maurice Clarett may or may not be ready to go tomorrow, but he says he is and that may be enough for his team. If he remains healthy and plays the entire game, Michigan would be a miracle away from victory. If Clarett’s shoulder is still a problem and his running is seriously hampered, Michigan still faces two very tough backs in Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall. As good as the Wolverines have been against the run (116.2 yards per game; 25th in the nation) they will likely be beaten on the cold ground of Columbus.
Edge: Ohio State
Special teams: Ohio State’s Mike Nugent is 24-for-26 on field goal attempts this season, which certainly makes Michigan’s combined 8-for-20 mark seem ever-the-less impressive. And while the field goal unit will likely come into play tomorrow, it is the punters that will be key in a battle for field position. Ohio State’s Andy Groom and Michigan’s Adam Finley have been similarly impressive (45 and 42.4 yards per punt averages, respectively). But Groom has been blocked twice, and although a Michigan special teams unit known for its blocking has been less successful at doing so this year than in years past, Pierre Woods and his teammates on the punt block team have hit once and have been getting closer. A blocked punt is exactly the kind of play Michigan will need to win momentum and win the game.
Edge: Ohio State
Intangibles: Michigan-Ohio State is known for this very situation, and it is the spoiler that tends to emerge victorious. For that reason and for that reason only, Michigan takes “intangibles,” with history entirely on its side.
Ohio State 16, Michigan 14