With the role that kickers play in determining the outcome of rivalry games, we’ll examine who has the edge in special teams and intangibles in the final installment of our three-part breakdown of the Wolverines and Buckeyes.
Michigan special teams: The Indiana game last Saturday may have been just what fifth-year senior Steve Breaston needed. The wide receiver recorded his first two scores of the season – a touchdown catch and a punt return for a touchdown. Before that game, many wondered whether Breaston had lost his burst. It got so bad for the return man that Michigan coach Lloyd Carr replaced him with Brandon Minor for one kickoff against Northwestern.
But Breaston has responded and now has momentum going into Columbus after taking a punt 83 yards back to the house in Bloomington.
In the kicking game, Garrett Rivas had been having a great year, missing just three attempts, two of which were blocked. But Rivas has struggled occasionally. He missed an extra point attempt last Saturday, and doesn’t appear to have the plus-50-yard range. Still, he has been reliable inside 40 yards, even winning Big Ten Special Teams Player of Week award two weeks ago.
In a rivalry game, especially one of this magnitude, you have to have confidence in your kicker, and Rivas has performed well enough this season to warrant Carr’s trust in a clutch situation.
Redshirt freshman punter Zoltan Mesko has performed better than expected this season. He shared punting duties with fifth-year senior Ross Ryan to begin the year, but slowly moved his way into the starting role and emerged as a fan favorite. Mesko can boom the punts deep and also has a good touch on the ball to down it inside the opponent’s 20 on pooch punts.
But Mesko has a tendency to get nervous during big games, such as when Michigan traveled to Beaver Stadium to face Penn State. Mesko had one of his worst nights of the season punting the ball in the hostile environment. He ended the night averaging 38.8 yards on five punts.
Ohio State special teams: Just as – if not more – electrifying as Breaston, Buckeye return man Ted Ginn, Jr. could turn the tide of this game with just one touch of the ball. He did it back in 2004 when he was a freshman, and even though he has just one return for a touchdown this season, there’s always the chance he could break another one.
Ohio State also boasts a reliable kicker in the form of Aaron Pettrey, who has converted 8-of-11 field goal attempts. But the most impressive aspect of Pettrey’s kicking game is his strength and power. He’s made 2-of-3 from beyond 50 yards.
Usually, a big game comes down to special teams’ play. Which team’s cover unit will give up the big return? Will Breaston or Ginn break one?
With Breaston’s confidence at an all-time high coming into Saturday’s game, the Wolverines appear to have the edge in this category. Rivas has the tendency to miss extra-point attempts but converted 83.3 percent of his attempts. Mesko has problems coping with the pressure of big games, but could boom a punt at any time. Plus, Michigan brings more to the table with Darnell Hood and its cover team showing marked improvement as the season progressed.
Intangibles: It’s clear neither team needs motivation for Saturday’s game. Winner goes to the National Championship game – it’s that simple. Both teams mentally lapsed down the stretch run, but had strong showings last week. With two teams as evenly matched on paper as these two, the determining factor comes down to home-field advantage.
Since the Buckeyes are at home in the Horseshoe – one of the unfriendliest places to play in the nation – Ohio State coach Jim Tressel will have his troops ready to take the victory.
And Buckeye quarterback Troy Smith has a Heisman Trophy waiting for him if he plays like he has all season against the Wolverines on Saturday.
Edge: Ohio State
Look for our score prediction in tomorrow’s special football section.