The 111th edition of The Game happens in Columbus on Saturday, with Ohio State looking to keep their hopes of making the College Football Playoff alive with a victory over hated rivals Michigan. The Buckeyes didn’t exactly impress last week against Indiana, but still rode four Jalin Marshall second half touchdowns to a 42-27 win over the Hoosiers. Much like the previous week against Minnesota, turnovers killed any chance the Buckeyes had of earning any "style points" in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Having won 10 of the last 12 meetings with the Wolverines, the Buckeyes will be looking to continue their dominance of "That Team Up North". Urban Meyer hopes to make it three-for-three against the Wolverines as Buckeye head coach, but the margins have been razor-thin in his first two battles. After winning 26-21 in 2012 to complete a 12-0 season, the Buckeyes escaped Ann Arbor last year with a 42-41 win after Michigan wasn’t able to convert a late two-point conversion. Now Meyer and the Buckeyes are looking for a win so they can accomplish something no other Big Ten team has ever done by completing three straight regular seasons without a loss.
Ohio State may be hoping to be a part of the inaugural College Football Playoff, but Michigan is just hoping to be a part of any bowl game. With the 23-16 home loss to Maryland last week, the Wolverines need a win to become bowl eligible, but the odds will be stacked against them as they travel to Columbus. Brady Hoke’s head coaching future in Ann Arbor is in question, but a win against the Buckeyes could take some of the sting away.
|Team||Record||CFP||F/+ Rk||Line||Off F/+ Rk||Def F/+ Rk||ST F/+ Rk|
|Std. Downs S&P+||Pass. Downs S&P+||Rushing S&P+||Passing S&P+||First Down Rate||Explosive Drives||Methodical Drives|
|Ohio State Defense||16||33||47||8||10||30||13|
|Std. Downs S&P+||Pass. Downs S&P+||Rushing S&P+||Passing S&P+||First Down Rate||Explosive Drives||Methodical Drives|
|Ohio State Offense||4||1||6||2||5||8||113|
Michigan's biggest advantages
Defense wins rivalry games. While the Michigan offense has had trouble putting points up on the board this year, the defense can’t be blamed for not keeping the Wolverines in games this year. Through 11 games, Michigan is ranked fourth in the Big Ten, and ninth in the nation in total defense. The strength of the Wolverine defense is against the run, as they have only allowed opponents to rush for 107 yards per game. The nine rushing touchdowns Michigan has allowed is the fewest any team in the Big Ten has given up.
Ohio State-Michigan Advanced Stats Preview
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.
Lately Michigan has been very stout against opponents in the first half, allowing zero touchdowns and just nine combined points in the first half of the past three games. With Ohio State’s ability to put points on the board early and often, Michigan will have to channel some of that early game success. Ohio State has been able to start off very strong in the past couple games with huge runs from J.T. Barrett against Minnesota and Ezekiel Elliott against Indiana to put points on the board early for the Buckeyes.
Where the Michigan defense really shines is in the red zone. Greg Mattison’s unit have only allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 18 of 38 trips inside the 20-yard line. The Wolverines will need more of that red zone consistency if they want to have any shot of pulling the upset in Columbus. Michigan can’t afford to let the Buckeyes score a couple early touchdowns since they don’t have the offense to keep pace with the explosive Ohio State attack.
Mistake minimized football. Michigan may not exactly light up the scoreboard quite like Ohio State has this year, but one of the things the Wolverines do well is they don’t beat themselves with penalties. Coming into The Game, the Wolverines are only committing 3.45 penalties per game, which ranks first in the Big Ten and second in the country, for an average of 31.2 penalty yards per game, which is second fewest in the Big Ten. Opponents of the Wolverines have committed 25 more penalties for 208 more penalty yards through 11 games this year.
On the other side of the football, penalties have been a big issue for the Buckeyes. Ohio State is averaging 48.1 yards of penalties per game, which is slightly higher than their opponents are committing. With the youth the Buckeyes display on both sides of the football, it was expected that there would be some growing pains, but they have to shore up some of these issues if they want to stay in the thick of the College Football Playoff race. False starts and procedure penalties have been a big issue for the Buckeyes this year, and they can’t continue to give opponents free yardage.
With how disciplined Michigan plays in terms of not committing penalties, the Buckeyes can’t afford the Wolverines to get into their heads like last year. The ejections of Dontre Wilson and Marcus Hall last year in Ann Arbor helped the Wolverines keep the game tight, and with Michigan likely going for broke in this game, Ohio State can’t give Michigan any advantages by losing any players. Tension is always amped up during The Game but the Buckeyes can’t get overhyped for the game which in turn could lead to them making some silly mistakes.
Hoke 'headband' effect. Brady Hoke may be coaching his last game at Michigan, so what do the Wolverines have to lose? If the Wolverines do find a way to win, then they’ll earn bowl eligibility, but being a nearly three touchdown underdog in the game, nobody is really expecting that to happen. Why not open things up against a Buckeye team that has all the pressure on them? It nearly worked last year in Ann Arbor when the Buckeyes needed a win to stay in the BCS race.
It isn’t like Michigan hasn’t relished the role of spoiling past Buckeye seasons. In years like 1993, 1995, and 1996, the Wolverines came into The Game either ranked lower than the Buckeyes or unranked and have found a way to spring the upset on Ohio State. While Urban Meyer’s early track record against Michigan is already better than those teams that John Cooper coached, nothing can be taken for granted in this rivalry.
The coaching and talent on the Ohio State side of the football may be better coming into this game, but how tight will the Buckeyes be in this game knowing that they not only have the Big Ten Championship Game next week, but also have to impress the College Football Playoff selection committee? Meanwhile, the Wolverines can afford to play loose and open things up. Essentially the Wolverines are playing with house money at this point and even though they may come into this game as a wounded team, that just makes them even more dangerous.
Ohio State's biggest advantages
History repeating itself. One of the defining images from the last time Michigan and Ohio State played in Columbus was Zach Boren standing over Devin Gardner after crunching the quarterback for a sack. This year, the Buckeyes will be hoping to put even more pressure on Gardner, and they certainly have the tools to do so. So far this season Michigan has allowed 20 sacks to opponents, but the pass rush that the Buckeyes will offer up will be the best that they’ve seen all year. Ohio State has registered 32 sacks this season, with Joey Bosa leading the charge with 11.5 sacks.
The Wolverines have had a hard time rushing the football since Derrick Green was ruled out for the season due to injury. The lack of a running game should allow the Buckeyes to pin their ears back and focus on creating a pass rush that Gardner will have a hard time escaping. Ohio State may have had some issues against the run the last few weeks, but that’s understandable when going up against running backs like David Cobb and Tevin Coleman. For the most part, the rush defense did a good job at bottling up Coleman last week aside from a couple of big runs. Michigan doesn’t possess that kind of game-changer in the running game, and it could be a long day for the Wolverines if they get behind early and are forced to abandon the running game.
Even if Bosa and company don’t get to the quarterback to register sacks, as long as they are putting heat on Gardner, they’ll greatly increase their chances of winning. What Luke Fickell and Chris Ash are hoping the Buckeye defense can do is to force Gardner into making some bad decisions with the football, and fortunately for Ohio State that is something Gardner has done a lot this year. The senior has thrown 14 interceptions on the year to just eight touchdown passes. The Buckeyes have done a great job at capitalizing on opposing quarterback's mistakes this year, bringing in 17 interceptions, which leads the Big Ten and is tied for sixth best nationally. Doran Grant, Tyvis Powell, and Vonn Bell are tied for the team-lead with three interceptions on the year.
The Heisman candidate under center. With each game the Buckeyes play, J.T. Barrett seems to get better and better as a quarterback. Had you asked Ohio State fans after the Virginia Tech game if they thought the redshirt freshman would be breaking a number of Buckeye quarterback records this year, the question probably would’ve been answered with a dismissive laugh. Yet heading into the regular season finale, Barrett has already broken Ohio State records for passing touchdowns and total offense. In total, Barrett has tied or broken nine different Ohio State and Big Ten records, and has a shot at setting the Big Ten records for passing touchdowns and total offense with a few more big games.
Barrett might not quite have the game-breaking speed that Braxton Miller possessed, but he has the kick to beat defenses when it counts. Just ask Minnesota’s defense about Barrett’s speed. The 86-yard touchdown run early in the game against the Golden Gophers set an Ohio State record for longest run by a quarterback, and the 189 rushing yards in the game was also a school record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a game. With 151 more rushing yards this season, Barrett will not only join Ezekiel Elliott in the 1,000 yard rushing club this year for the Buckeyes, but will follow up the past two seasons, where Miller posted 1,000 yard rushing totals.
If defenses key on Barrett to run the ball, he can hurt them with through the air, and the quarterback from Texas certainly has a wealth of options to choose from when throwing the ball. Jalin Marshall may have stepped up big last week, but Barrett also has the deep threat of Devin Smith, the sure hands of Michael Thomas, and the big target of Jeff Heuerman, just to name a few options. Michigan’s defense has been strong statistically this year, but this by far is the most diverse offense they’ve had to try and slow down this year.
"It's Michigan". If any Buckeye player has any trouble getting up for The Game, they shouldn’t be stepping foot on the field on Saturday. Luckily for Ohio State, they have a master motivator at the helm. Urban Meyer understands just how much this game means to Ohio State and their fans, and after last year’s close call, you have to feel he has been counting the days until he could lead his team back out onto the field against "That Team Up North".
In his third year as head coach of the Buckeyes, Meyer has not yet lost a Big Ten regular season game, and the only regular season blemish on his record came at the hands of Virginia Tech earlier this year. November is typically when Meyer does his best work as a coach, accumulating a 38-3 record in November since 2003. Meyer is 2-0 against the Wolverines since coming to Columbus, but those wins have only come by a combined six points. The Buckeye head coach has to be itching to get a blowout win over Ohio State's most hated rival under his belt.
When Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman are clicking with their offensive gameplan, there might not be a team in the country that can beat them. Just take a look at how the Buckeye offense showed up against Michigan State earlier in the month. While beating Michigan is the only thing that matters to Meyer and the Buckeyes, in the back of his mind, he knows he has to lead the Buckeyes to an impressive win to try and state their case to be included in the playoff final four. The smart money would be on Meyer to lead his team to a big performance when it matters most on Saturday.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 44, Michigan 0
Win Probability: Ohio State 97%
Though we rounded up to zero, how fun would it be if Michigan could actually finish the game with negative points as F/+ predicts? Woody Hayes would certainly approve. After seeing some of the performances of the Michigan offense this year, it wouldn’t be too surprising if they didn’t make it too far into double digits, especially with the pressure the Buckeyes are sure to bring.
The point total seems about right for Ohio State. With their scoring average over 40 points per game the last couple of years, the Buckeyes certainly have the capability to hit that number. While statistically the Wolverines have played strong this year, this is a whole different animal for them to try and defend.
If Ohio State is on top of their game like they were against Michigan State, this game shouldn’t be too much of a problem for the Buckeyes. Still, there is the possibility the Wolverines could hang around if they are amped up for the game and lay it all on the line. If the Buckeyes jump out to an early lead and make the Wolverines one-dimensional, it could make for a long day in what might be Brady Hoke’s final game at Michigan.