It's hard to believe that The Game has arrived already.It seems like just last week that we learned Braxton Miller would be out for the season and the Buckeyes' championship hopes would rest on the shoulders of a redshirt freshman preparing for his first career start.
The Buckeyes have locked up the Big Ten East, but that's a pretty meaningless achievement if Ohio State loses this game. Michigan is always the most important game of the season no matter the Buckeyes' record, but it has added importance now that any Playoff hopes would immediately disappear with a letdown in The Game.
Some will argue that rivalry games often transcend statistics and are therefore impossible to predict -- and many would use last year's 42-41 thriller as evidence -- but last year the Michigan offense simply exploited a weakness that we knew deep down the Buckeye defense had: the pass defense. Devin Gardner had a surreal, zombie warrior performance in that game (throwing for 451 yards), but there were only a few big pass plays. Most of Gardner's 45 attempts were short passes that exploited soft coverage and the mostly-vacant space where linebackers and nickelbacks should have been.
The good news is that I doubt that will be the case this year. The Buckeyes are ranked ahead of the Wolverines in all but three statistical areas, and pass defense isn't one of the three.
|Field Position Advantage||59||3|
Michigan on offense
|When Michigan has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Adj. Line Yards||54||61|
|Adj. Sack Rate||58||17|
The Wolverines have scored just 26 points in their last two games against Northwestern and Maryland, but things have been hard for first-year offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. The former Alabama offensive coordinator has dealt with inconsistent quarterback play and an average running game, making Man Ball a tough goal. If you haven't watched Michigan since The Game last season, two big things are different in my eyes. First, receiver Jeremy Gallon is gone, leaving tight end/receiver Devin Funchess as the team's leading receiver followed by 6-2 sophomore Amara Darboh. These two receive the bulk of Gardner's targets and have 59% of the team's total receiving yards. Second, the offensive line -- which was terrible last season -- has improved fairly significantly. They are now just an average group in both run and pass blocking. They still struggle on standard downs, ranking 93rd and 105th in Standard Downs Line Yards and Sack Rate, respectively, but are better on pass downs.
But old problems are still there too. The Wolverines are fourth-to-last in the country in interceptions lost with 17 (and with an insane -14 turnover margin) and lack any kind of big play threats. The Buckeyes have changed significantly on both sides of the ball, but one of the biggest positive changes has been in the pass defense this season. You could tell early on when Chris Ash's defensive backs began to gang tackle short passes like an old Jim Heacock squad, but now it's apparent that this is a much more aggressive defense all around. The Buckeyes are 12th in overall Havoc Rate, which captures their ability to create turnovers and negative plays, and that's evident now that the Buckeyes are sixth in the country in interceptions gained with 17 this season. That's a big negative for Michigan.
The Wolverines' best chance in The Game likely comes from the offensive line wearing down the defensive line and a perfect storm of turnovers and special teams errors. The comparison between Adjusted Line Yards is maybe the most important here. As long as the Buckeye offense doesn't put the defense in bad situations, the one area of concern is probably whether Michigan can consistently run the ball on the defense and occasionally hit big plays. As we've seen in the last few weeks against David Cobb and Tevin Coleman, the defense is mostly efficient against the run but occasionally allows big running plays.
Michigan's De'Veon Smith was supposed to be the lightening to Derrick Green's thunder, but early on it was apparent that it was Green's show -- at least until his season-ending injury. Smith has been effective in exactly two games this season -- against Northwestern (121 yards and 6.7 yards per carry) and Appalachian State (115 yards and 14.4 yards per carry). All of his other games have been sub-five yards per carry efforts. But the Buckeye defense does have holes in the run game, and if Nussmeier can identify those (hint: bounce runs outside) and the offensive line can run block as effectively as they have this season, then Michigan is able to score some points -- but it'll take an effort like they haven't had this season to match the Buckeyes' pace.
Ohio State on offense
|When Ohio State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Adj. Line Yards||11||3|
|Adj. Sack Rate||22||91|
The Michigan defense really isn't bad. It's a top-40 unit all the way around, with a slight weakness against the pass. But the Buckeye offense is also really, really good.
The Wolverines are poor at creating turnovers -- again, fourth to last with just ten total takeaways -- but are decent on opponent third downs (42nd), and great in red zone defense (14th in opponent red zone touchdown rate), stopping explosive plays (9th) and against the run (8th). Just based on those strengths and weaknesses, you might expect J.T. Barrett to come out slinging the ball, and I wouldn't really be surprised if that's the strategy.Michigan's front seven is pretty decent (20th in Havoc Rate and 11th in Adjusted Line Yards), but the secondary is just 49th against the pass and a rough 123rd in Havoc Rate. So the goal will be to exploit the secondary. I can see big receiving yard totals for Michael Thomas and especially Devin Smith, with Jalin Marshall attacking the perimeter early and often.
I'm interested to see how Ezekiel Elliot fares against what is honestly a great Michigan run defense. They held Tevin Coleman to just four yards per carry and Jeremy Langford had just 5.1 (but 35 attempts). The only issue I see for Michigan's run defense is that they haven't faced a running quarterback like J.T. Barrett yet this season, and I'm not sure that they can handle the quarterback run game along with Elliott and Marshall.
So the two areas Buckeyes fans should be concerned about are in how well Elliott, Barrett, and Marshall can fare in the run game (and here we're looking for efficiency) and in how the offensive line can perform against the Wolverine defensive line on passing downs. There though, the Buckeyes have improved markedly since the Virginia Tech fiasco. They've allowed 23 this season, but seven of those were from the Hokies. If the Buckeyes can have a decent success rate running the ball (in the neighborhood of 55%), avoid sacks (under four), and hit explosive pass plays (four or so), then the Buckeyes will be in good shape.
Intangibles and my prediction
At least Michigan can say that they're playing for something. The Wolverines are not only fighting for their coach's job, but also their chance at bowl eligibility. At 5-6, the Wolverines only have The Game against the sixth-ranked team in the country left to make a bowl game this season. Expect all of the stops -- trick plays, fourth down attempts, two-point conversion attempts, fake punts and field goals, you name it -- against the Buckeyes this year.
Of course, the Buckeyes are playing for something too. They're the better team, playing at home, and fighting for a chance at the Playoff. If they win convincingly, they're likely right on the Playoff edge, especially with some help. The Wolverines are fighting for more than just the chance to play spoiler, but the Buckeyes have more to gain from a win.
All in all, I expect the Wolverines to score a few touchdowns, but the Buckeyes' offensive firepower to simply be too much for the Wolverines. The combination of the Buckeyes' passing offense and pass defense, along with the Wolverines' lack of explosive threats and poor standard down efficiency should be overwhelming for Michigan. Final score prediction: 45-20, Buckeyes.