The most storied rivalry in sports. Ohio State one win away from perfection. Michigan, desperately needing a victory to keep their Big Ten Championship (and ostensibly BCS) aspirations alive. It all comes down to this.
When Michigan and Ohio State step onto the Ohio Stadium field turf early Saturday afternoon, it will mark the 109th such time that the two storied perennial college football powers will have met. The Wolverines officially lead the series all time, 58-44-6, though Ohio State has won eight of the last ten (nine of the last eleven if you include the vacated 37-7 victory in Ohio Stadium two years ago). And yet none of this will matter the moment the opening kickoff is put into the air. For all the rivalry's rich history, for all its pageantry, the hatred these two teams share for each other is tunnel visioned; it's exclusive to the here and now, and we're all the beneficiaries for it.
"When you talk, you talk about that R word, you talk about this week. This is all I've ever known growing up...There are a lot of players in there already excited, already talking."
Urban Meyer enters his first ever Michigan-Ohio State game; that is to say his first ever as a head coach in the rivalry. The Buckeyes' first-year head man spoke all week of how "this is all [he's] ever known growing up," in the sleepy town of Ashtabula, Ohio. During a two-year stint as a graduate assistant under Buckeyes legend Woody Hayes' successor Earle Bruce (where he coached tight ends and wide receivers respectively), Meyer bore witness to two nail biters – a 24-26 loss at the hands of the hated Wolverines in Ohio Stadium in a matchup of the 6th and 7th ranked teams in the country, and a year later, in the famed "headband game", Meyer would watch the Buckeyes shock the Wolverines in Michigan Stadium, 23-20, in Bruce's swan song as Ohio State coach. During his weekly Monday press conference, Meyer spoke of how his mentor's termination still resonates with him even today:
"And I sat down I saw a bunch of coaches with their arms on the table, with their face in their arms, and tears and the whole deal. I was like the last guy to walk in, and Bay said, 'Coach Bruce will no longer be the coach after this game, and I have resigned as athletic director.' It was right there, right out that door. It was just an incredible moment in Ohio State history."
Across the field on the opposing sidelines will be Brady Hoke. Like Meyer, Hoke is an Ohio native (specifically he hails from Kettering, the largest suburb in the Dayton metro area). While The Game was all Hoke ever knew in his adolescence as well, he found himself on the opposite end of the rooting spectrum. As is prone to occur in both states, Hoke fit into the contrarian archetype; the group of fans who see the masses around them cheering for their home state team, and instead elects to go against the grain and root for the other. Resonating even in his recruiting philosophies today (Hoke prohibits Michigan verbal commits from visiting other schools lest they lost their scholarship offers permanently), Hoke continues to buck the trends of his peers.
As is somewhat customary in the rivalry, Hoke won his The Game debut a year prior in Ann Arbor in a hard-fought 40-34 struggle between a 7.5 point favorite Wolverine team and an Ohio State side that would finish the season 6-7. Leading that effort was then third-year quarterback Denard Robinson. One year removed from going 8/18 for 87 yards and rushing 18 times for 105 yards (admittedly while splitting duty with mercurial ex-Wolverine Tate Forcier), Robinson broke through against the Buckeyes en route to a 14/17 for 167 yards passing, 26 carries for 170 yards rushing, 5 touchdown afternoon. And for a second straight year, the fate of the game could fall on the Deerfield Beach, FL product who was once recruited by Urban Meyer when he was still at the University of Florida.
Unlike previous years, Robinson won't be the threat he was to the Buckeyes with his arm – though the most staunch Denard haters may even press that he wasn't anything worth losing sleep over throwing wise in the first place – after suffering an injury to the ulnar nerve in his throwing arm. Robinson missed Michigan's games against Minnesota and Northwestern before returning against Iowa, only this time, for the first time on a semi-permanent basis, at the tailback position.
In some Ohio State fans' eyes, Denard's always been a tailback.
Left to steer the ship for Michigan offensively from the quarterback position is Devin Gardner. Gardner, technically a junior at this point, played in small bursts during his freshman year on campus after arriving as a highly touted four or five (depending on the talent evaluator) star quarterback. After Tate Forcier emerged as the starting quarterback tentatively that season, Gardner began having back problems at almost the same exact moment. Though there were photos of Gardner dancing at the team's end of season banquet less than a month and a half later, he and the university applied for a medical redshirt anyway. The NCAA doesn't rule on redshirt statuses until the end of a player's four years of ordinary eligibility. After serving as the team's principle backup last season, he was converted to wide receiver this past offseason. Though he got off to a fast start with 11 receptions for 195 yards and three touchdowns through the team's first four games of the year, he only pulled in 5 more catches for 71 yards and a touchdown in the four other games before Robinson's injury forced him back under center.
Since making the move back to quarterback, Gardner's given many Michigan fans reason to openly question whether he was better suited for Al Borges and Brady Hoke's offense in the first place. Gardner's completed 46 or 70 passes for 834 yards and 7 TDs to just 3 interceptions, good for an almost 66% completion percentage passing. In Robinson's 8 games at quarterback, he completed only 54% of his passes and had 9 touchdowns to 9 interceptions. As was common place a week prior against Iowa, it seems likely that packages designed to have Robinson take snaps under center while shifting Gardner out to wide receiver could find their way into the Wolverines' game plan.
Though Robinson is probable to spend the majority of his time at tailback (or to run out of the shotgun on direct snaps), Michigan will be without their leading rusher at tailback, junior Fitz Toussaint. Toussaint went down with a brutal ankle injury last weekend against the Hawkeyes and is said to be facing a year plus rehab on what was a difficult to digest malady. Sophomore Thomas Rawls is the next leading rusher at the tailback position and actually averages greater yards per carry than Toussaint had on the year (4.6 to 4.0). Diminutive senior Vincent Smith or redshirt freshman Justice Hayes could also see touches at halfback.
Helping to clear the way for Robinson and protect whomever Brady Hoke ultimately formalizes as his quarterback is a very senior, experience-laden offensive line. Beginning from left to right is probably the Wolverines greatest asset on the line, redshirt junior left tackle Taylor Lewan. Lewan was all-second team Big Ten as a sophomore and should be heavily favored to make the first team this year. His name came up on the likes of the Outland Award watch list and though he wasn't a finalist for the award honoring the nation's most outstanding lineman, had he been, there probably wouldn't have been too many grumbles.
Ricky Barnum, a fifth-year senior, mans the left guard position. He's joined in the interior line by another fifth year, Elliott Mealer, a somewhat surprise starter at center after it was presumed Barnum had the job locked down late in summer camp, and a third senior-plus-one in right guard Patrick Omameh. The quarterback's strong side is protected by redshirt junior Michael Schofield. One name absent from the two-deep is notorious former Ohio State verbal commit Kyle Kalis. Long before Ohio State ever faced any formal punishment, Kalis was poached by Brady Hoke during the Buckeyes' uncertain period when Luke Fickell was running the program, changing his commitment from the Buckeyes to the Wolverines. Kalis would later say, "November 24th is going to be ugly. There will be blood on the field and it won't be mine," when asked about how he was handling external criticism from Ohio State fans, scorned by his change of heart. If his bold prediction proves to be true, it will almost assuredly not be the product of any contributions he provides on the field; the freshman's only seen the field sparingly and is listed third at left guard on the formal depth chart this week.
Though Michigan is but the 97th best passing offense in the country, they do have a few viable options at wide receiver. Roy Roundtree, who wears Desmond Howard's honorary #21, hasn't quite lived up to the expectations of said jersey entering the year, but does have 25 catches for 461 yards and two scores. The team's leading receiver is actually the aptly nicknamed "Tiny" Gallon, who has 617 yards receiving on the year. The team's third receiver, Drew Dileo, is a bit of an understated threat. Fifth-year senior starting tight end Mike Kwiatkowksi is more of a downfield blocking threat than anything (though is quite effective at that) and his backup, true frosh Devin Funchess, is raw but able handed. He leads the team with 5 receiving touchdowns on the year.
Defensively is where the 2012 Michigan Wolverines have made their living (figuratively speaking; NCAA protected under compensated labor, etc). Though it'd be a stretch to call their secondary elite, it does rank as the nation's best statistically, allowing just under 153 yards per game through the air. They're far more mortal against the run, however, ranking just north of the middle of the pack at 52nd nationally. The defensive line isn't exactly the caliber of units Brady Hoke was accustomed to when he was the Wolverines' defensive line coach from 1997-2002.
With four new starters manning the four spots on the line headed into the season, there were understandably reasons for concern. The Alabama game proved those concerns couldn't have been more overstated. The Crimson Tide bulldozed the Wolverines for 247 yards net yards rushing to the tune of 5.9 yards per rushing attempt. Though the Wolverines have steadily improved since, a case could still be made that the defensive front four represents the Achilles' heel for the team as a whole. However, sophomore Frank Clark and senior Craig Roh man the ends and certainly do their part. Roh leads all Wolverines with four sacks while Clark is second on the team in tackles for a loss with seven. The interior line is less accomplished, with senior Will Campbell and redshirt junior Quinton Washington manning the tackle and nose tackle spots, respectively. The four cumulatively lack much of a natural pass rush, but as mentioned, Roh and Clark still seem to find their way to ball carriers behind the line.
The linebacking corps Michigan brings to counteract Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman's offensive attack could ultimately determine the outcome of Saturday's game. Strongside linebacker Jake Ryan (pictured above), is a legitimate stat sheet stuffer, and is arguably the Wolverines' best overall individual defender. He's got 75 tackles on the year, 13 tackles for a loss, 3.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles to his 2012 resume. Ryan was all over the place against Iowa a week back (though admittedly against a couldn't be more diametrically opposed offensive attack than Ohio State's), and may be the Wolverines best overall blitzer.
Weakside linebacker Desmond Morgan missed last week's win with a head injury and has struggled through a variety of similar undisclosed ailments on and off during the fall. His presence may be central if Carlos Hyde or Rod Smith gets any penetration to the second level; his ability to get to the ball carrier could make or break specific drives. Middle linebacker Kenny Demens is the team's second leading tackler with 72 and also has 6 tackles for a loss and an interception. Though the senior got off to a bit of a slow start this season, he's played much improved football from essentially the Notre Dame game on. He's got a natural stride and could help the Wolverines cover ground horizontally against an offense designed to leverage all 53 1/3 yards across. Though Brady Hoke at a press conference earlier this week dismissed last year's Ohio State tape as telling given the polar shift schematically, seeing the kind of success Braxton Miller had through the air and on the ground alike only goes to show how important the Michigan linebacking corps will be to counteracting what Ohio State tries to do offensively.
Though Ohio State's calling card hasn't been their passing game, just in terms of covering space (and the prospective threat served by the likes of Corey Brown, Devin Smith, and Evan Spencer), Michigan's secondary could be just as pivotal to how the Wolverines fare.
Jordan Kovacs is Michigan's Aaron Craft in the secondary; if he's not on your team, you're pretty much going to hate him.
The unquestioned leader in the secondary (and probably the defense as a whole) is senior strong safety Jordan Kovacs. Few overachieve more for their overall physical skill set, but Kovacs does have enough where it counts to not be a four-year starter for the Wolverines on the basis of will alone. The former walk-on is a two-time all-Big Ten honorable mention, but on the heels of 59 tackles (39 solo), 5 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, and an interception, it seems likely he'll factor into this year's team outright.
It's hard to imagine his running mate at free safety, redshirt junior Thomas Gordon, was also regarded as a 3-star or less by most major outlets, but the former Detroit area high school quarterback has developed into a solid option in support for defensive coordinator (and former Urban Meyer assistant) Greg Mattison. Jarrod Wilson, a talented true freshman from the Akron area, has also seen action in all 11 games.
Michigan's starting corners likely aren't future first-round NFL draft picks by any means, but have been effective at curtailing opposing pass catchers. Fifth-year senior J.T. Floyd is solid at right corner, and reads opposing routes well enough to account for five pass breakups on the year. Raymon Taylor, a true sophomore and the starter at left corner, is more prone to underclassmen mistakes and could potentially be exploited by a savvy Z-receiver like Corey Brown, but is a solid tackler and could aid in that department when the Buckeyes go to their bread and butter on the ground. Nickelback Courtney Avery's played in all 11 games and started three of them to boot.
In terms of special teams, Michigan's redshirt junior kicker (and brunette girls aficionado) Brendan Gibbons has been one of the most sure-footed in the Big Ten. He's hit 14 of 16 field goals on the year, including a season long 52-yarder. Junior punter Will Hagerup's also been one of the best in the league, averaging 44.7 yards per kick. Ohio State fans likely remember what that felt like during the Tressel era. Michigan's kick and punt returns (mostly handled by true freshman Dennis Norfleet and Gallon) have been solid though unspectacular; the team has no special team touchdowns on the year.
When it comes to rivalry games, it's difficult to look at how the teams match up on paper and venture a guess with much certainty. When it comes to Michigan-Ohio State, your gut instinct is even more inclined to lead you astray. For all of Ohio State's wins over the course of the 2000's, how many rational, reasonable Ohio State fans would say with much certainty that they didn't have the same butterflies in their stomach feeling going into the kickoff each year (and likely simmering until late in the 4th quarter of each contest)? Even during the seasons Michigan was favored like 2004, the outcome is never a certainty, regardless of the standings of the teams going into the contest. For all Rich Rodriguez's failures, he did manage to succeed in one very important area: making Ohio State fans second guess themselves every late November regardless of the two teams' respective records and how confident they felt otherwise.
Brady Hoke is already winning hearts in minds throughout what Ohio State fans love to call "That State Up North". Winning cures just about all, but his propaganda of annoyance campaign to refer to his team's largest rival as "Ohio" has gotten to the point where it unquestionably will lead to multiple barfights this week, particularly in the rivalry hostile border area of Toledo. Should Brady Hoke and Michigan find a way to buck the 4.5 point action working against their favor and win a second straight, Hoke can all but guarantee a contract extension as being in his future. Dogs and children alike will be adorned with the name Brady and whether the team finishes its season in Orlando or sunnier destinations, 2012 won't be deemed the let down it would otherwise.
On the other hand, if Urban Meyer delivers an undefeated season in his first season in charge of one of the most storied programs in college football, his legacy in Columbus and statewide will almost instantly be catapulted to the piousness of the pope of the same name. Ohio State's strength of schedule (which one third party projects as 42nd in the nation) may not match the luster of the Alabamas, the Floridas, and the LSUs of the world (who benefit greatly from a rigorous conference schedule), but not one of those teams has taken care of their business week in, week out. Should Ohio State regress Brady Hoke's career record against the Buckeyes to the mean, Meyer can lay claim to something not one of them will be able to: perfection.
Meyer's record against rivals while at Florida was positively Tressel-ian: As the Gators' head coach, Meyer lost only twice in twelve tries against Georgia and Florida State. In his inaugural go at it with the Gators, they defeated both, including Florida State at season's end by a margin of 34-7. While just whom the Buckeyes' secondary rival is is certainly open to interpretation (Illinois? Penn State? Wisconsin?), Ohio State fans will surely hope Meyer's able to reproduce the formula and begin things 2-0.
Brady Hoke didn't have a ton of rivalry game experience in his admittedly short last stop at San Diego State. The Aztecs don't have a very defined primary rival, with some laying claim to Fresno State and others feeling it was more BYU. SDSU never met Fresno in his two years in Southern California, while they went 0-2 against the Cougars. One would suppose the perfect trump card would be the small sample sized unbeaten mark he carries against the Buckeyes.
The battle of good and evil; hyperbolic to outsiders, but not to Michigan & Ohio State fans.
Should this one play according to form, you'd have to expect a Buckeyes one-score victory. The sheer indeterminate nature of a collection of 160+ 18-22 year-olds playing a violent, fast paced game against one another for three hours when the two have a sort of passionate distaste for one another could make that touchdown swing in either direction. While Michigan's defense has looked the part the past 10 weeks, their track record against teams their physical equal or better leaves enough reasonable doubt to assume there's something to the purported Buckeyes edge. While Braxton Miller will be hard pressed to match his inaugural go at The Game, if he comes close, it's hard not to envision the Buckeyes emerging victorious.
Regardless of what Saturday's three hours of concentrated hate deliver, in spite of whoever emerges victorious when the scoreboard indicates zeroes across the board, one unalienable fact looms larger than the rest: in 372 days we get to do it all over again.
Ohio State 28 - Michigan 17.