The Game is (almost) here! No need for preamble (but if you need one, go to the LGHL homepage and start reading for the rest of the day), we hate Michigan, and Ohio State needs to beat Michigan. Can it happen? Questions abound for the Buckeyes and our "friends" over at SB Nation's Maize & Brew are here to give answers. Let's suspend hate for a few minutes and see what they have to say.
Land-Grant Holy Land: Be honest: what were your thoughts as you watched Michael Geiger's last-second kick sail through the uprights to beat Ohio State on Saturday night? And if not your thoughts, than what about Michigan fans in general?
Maize & Brew: My first thought was "You must be kidding me."
I thought Ohio State would steamroll Michigan State. Whereas Ohio State had found its groove once Urban Meyer made the switch to J.T. Barrett, Michigan State had been up and down all season. Yes, the Spartans played Michigan evenly and benefited from a great deal of fortune at the end to win in Ann Arbor, but they were an outfit dealing with injuries -- none bigger than the one to Connor Cook, who had carried that entire offense -- and being dragged down by a substandard secondary. The Buckeyes were the better and more balanced team, at home, and a 14.5-point favorite. Plus, Ohio State is coached by Urban Meyer, whose teams rarely have letdowns. I mean, Meyer was 30-0 in Big Ten regular-season games before last weekend. THIRTY AND OH. So I thought Ohio State would take care of business per usual.
But, of course, the one time that Michigan fans root for Ohio State, needing the Buckeyes to knock the Spartans out of Big Ten East contention and hand Michigan control its own destiny, Ohio State looks as awful as they have ever looked. Some of that can be attributed to the horrendous weather, but most of the blame should be put on Meyer and his staff, which cobbled together one of the worst gameplans that I have seen. Why didn't the Buckeyes test Michigan State's secondary deep? Why didn't they try to give Ezekiel Elliott more touches?
These are things usually only Ohio State fans would lament. This time, though, so were Michigan fans.
LGHL: The Buckeyes have had their own issues this year, while Michigan has played at a fairly consistent level since the loss to Utah in week one. This was a team in a bit of disarray with Brady Hoke last year. Does Jim Harbaugh get all the credit?
MB: Some credit must be given to Brady Hoke, who brought in most of the players on this roster. For all of his flaws on the sideline, Hoke was an excellent recruiter, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, and landed the No. 6 and No. 4 classes in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Most believed that Hoke left talent behind for his successor. The question was whether Jim Harbaugh could develop that talent and how quickly.
And that's why Harbaugh deserves most of the credit. Most -- myself included -- thought it would take two or three seasons before Harbaugh would have Michigan competing for Big Ten titles again. Instead, with a majority of the players on a roster that went 5-7 last season, it took him only nine months. Unlike Hoke's first season, in which Michigan went 11-2 thanks to some of the best injury and fumble luck a team can be granted, this team legitimately is good. The Wolverines are No. 3 in S&P+ and one dropped punt snap away from being in the forefront of the College Football Playoff conversation. Harbaugh realized that he had pieces to form an excellent defense that could carry the team as long as the offense didn't shoot itself in the foot. So he and his staff brought in a capable quarterback in graduate transfer Jake Rudock and squeezed as much production out of this roster as he could. The result? One of the nation's best defenses that shoulders a middling offense.
Hoke wasn't able to do that. Harbaugh was.
LGHL: Did you think Harbaugh and his staff would be able to seemingly turn around Michigan this fast? Or is this year just an blip on a longer, multi-year rebuild (we've seen it before: cough 2012 Ohio State cough)?
MB: As I mentioned in my previous answer, I believed it would take a three-year process to build Michigan back into a Big Ten contender. I thought Michigan's defense would be very good this season -- though not elite -- but there were so many question marks on the offense in the preseason. Could Jake Rudock solidify the quarterback position in his first and only season under Jim Harbaugh's tutelage? Would a running back emerge that could see the open gaps and perform consistently each week? Did Michigan have a wide receiver that could replace Devin Funchess and be a weapon that beats defenses over the top? How would the offensive line, which had glaring problems in 2013 and progressed slowly in a zone-blocking scheme in 2014, adapt to a man-blocking scheme this season? I knew that Michigan would find answers to some of these questions. But all of them? No chance. However, Michigan has answered more of them than I thought, and, because the defense vastly improved against the pass, the Wolverines have lived off a formula where its elite defense and excellent returners provide its mediocre offense shorter fields to drive. It's worked, and it helps that Michigan's biggest games have been at home.
This doesn't seem to be a one-year phenomenon either. Though Michigan must face the Spartans in East Lansing and the Buckeyes in Columbus, Michigan should be very good again next year. Michigan is projected to lose only three starters on offense (QB Rudock, FB Joe Kerridge/Sione Houma, and C Graham Glasgow) and four on defense (BUCK Mario Ojemudia/Royce Jenkins-Stone, LB Desmond Morgan, LB Joe Bolden, FS Jarrod Wilson). Michigan could have question marks at quarterback and linebacker, though there have been reports that Houston transfer John O'Korn, who's ineligible this season, is better than Rudock, but the defense could be beastly again thanks to a loaded defensive line if Jourdan Lewis returns to solidify the secondary. It seems that the rebuilding process may be over for the Wolverines.
LGHL: What are some of the names we may hear called on Saturday? Who are the big-time play makers on offense and defense for the Wolverines, and why?
MB: On offense, the names you'll likely hear will be when Michigan decides to unleash it through the air. Michigan's rushing attack has crumbled apart in recent weeks and lost its effectiveness. However, two-way player Jabrill Peppers was given some snaps at running back last week -- and not just to be a decoy or for trick plays -- and, because it's The Game, I wouldn't be surprised if he was Michigan made him its primary running back on Saturday. Peppers may not be Michigan's best back -- he's dreadful in pass protection -- but he's the best ball-carrier by far. He's an explosive runner, has great balance, and can slip by defenders in space. I'm very curious to see how Michigan uses him on offense.
So, unless Peppers is a star at running back, Michigan will need to rely on quarterback Jake Rudock, receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh, and tight end Jake Butt. Rudock is known as a game manager and had been inconsistent much of the season, hesitating in the pocket and not connecting on throws more than 10 yards downfield. However, in the past three weeks, a switch has flipped. In those games, Rudock has completed 76-of-109 passes (69.7 pct.) for 1,033 yards (9.5 YPA), 10 touchdowns, and two interceptions.
Some of that should be attributed to facing two poor pass defenses in Rutgers and Indiana, but there's more to it than that. Rudock looks like a completely different quarterback. He has more trust in himself, he's going through his progression much faster, he's using his eyes to move linebackers and safeties out of the window through which he wants to throw, and he's throwing pass over the middle before his receiver makes his break. I'm not saying that Rudock is an All-American quarterback. No, no. But he's picked up this offense must when the running game fell apart.
As for Rudock's targets, Michigan has a pretty good trio in Chesson, Darboh, and Butt. Chesson has really improved in the second half of the season. He also was a burner, but he seemed to have difficulty running precise routes and tracking the ball while it was in the air. That's why, for the first half of the season, he was more of a weapon on jet sweeps than when running routes. However, something changed in the middle of the season. Chesson's targets drastically increased, and Michigan started to target him downfield. It didn't work initially because Rudock was going through his own issues, but, once Rudock put it together, Chesson became dangerous.
In his last four games, he's caught 20 passes for 345 yards and seven touchdowns. He's become a threat over the top. Darboh doesn't have that straight-line speed, so defenses shouldn't expect him to beat them deep. However, Darboh is a big-bodied receiver that can shield off defensive backs on slants and hitches and then power through their tackle attempts for a few extra yards after the reception.
Also, Darboh has a knack for hauling in a spectacular catch from time to time. And then there is Butt, who should have been a Mackey Award finalist but was snubbed. He is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the nation. Not only does Butt have great hands and an ability to high point the football, he runs precise routes and has demonstrated he can shake defenders when he runs a post or a corner route. Butt is a weapon in the middle of the field.
On defense, the names that you should know are Willie Henry, Maurice Hurst, Chris Wormley, Jourdan Lewis, and Jabrill Peppers. Henry and Hurst are the defensive tackles and have had to play more snaps there since Ryan Glasgow injured his pectoral muscle. Both are able to push back offensive linemen easily -- Henry because of his size and Hurst because of his explosive first step off the snap. Wormley is Michigan's strong-side defensive end. He has 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks this season and doesn't make mistakes often.
He's usually at his best when drives an offensive lineman back and then slants inside to make a play in the backfield. However, from time to time, he flashes a nice speed rush. In the secondary, Lewis has been one of the best corners in America. Not only is he second in the country in passes defended (21), quarterbacks have had a terrible time when they have targeted him this season.
Accordingly, Pro Football Focus has listed Lewis as one of the best 10 players in the nation. That's how good he's been, thriving in Michigan's press man scheme. However, that doesn't mean Lewis can't be beaten. He can, and he has. But, to beat Lewis, the quarterback must place in the ball in the perfect spot. The last name to know is Peppers, who is Michigan's hybrid-space player. He'll play corner, nickel, safety, and even some linebacker. Essentially, Michigan likes to have him on the edge where he can provide run support and blow up screens in his direction. Peppers still has some issues in pass coverage -- he totally forgot how to play his man on 25-yard touchdown last week -- but his cover technique is improving each week.
LGHL: Take the Sparty game out of it (I wish we could!) and Ohio State is a strong rushing team led by Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett. Does Michigan have a strong enough secondary to keep the passing game in check and force Ohio State to win the game on the ground?
MB: Yes, it does. Last season, Michigan's pass defense was its weakness (45th in S&P+). This season, it has become a strength (11th in S&P+). Jourdan Lewis has the ability shut down half the field, and I'm interested to see if Michigan will put Lewis on Michael Thomas. Lewis can cover lankier receivers, but I don't know if Michigan's lankier corners -- Jeremy Clark and Channing Stribling -- can cover Ohio State's shiftier receivers. Nonetheless, I think Michigan will keep Ohio State at bay through the air. Ohio State will have to win this game on the ground. Michigan's run defense was superb earlier in this season when it had a two-deep full of talented defensive linemen. This allowed Michigan to rotate often and keep its linemen fresh.
By the fourth quarter, offensive lines were worn down and wanted no more. However, since the injuries to Mario Ojemudia and Ryan Glasgow, that has changed. Suddenly, depth on the defensive line is thin, and Willie Henry and Maurice Hurst must play many more snaps. This wears them out. Further, Indiana exposed that Michigan struggles to defend the zone stretch or outside zone runs. The Hoosiers turned Michigan's positive -- its ability to push upfield -- against them by outflanking them. Ohio State likes to run inside with Ezekiel Elliott, but the Buckeyes are more than capable at running outside zone. If they do it effectively, Michigan is in trouble.
LGHL: What are Michigan's strength on offense? Jake Rudock to Jake Butt has been a potent combo (51 YPG, and 3 scores), but what else can the Buckeyes expect from the maize and blue offense?
MB: I somewhat answered this question above, but right now, Michigan's strength is throwing the ball as the run game has deteriorated. Last week against Penn State, Michigan called 43 passes and only 19 runs before it ran out the clock on its final drive. This team relies on picking up yards through the air. Because I've already discussed Jake Rudock, Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt, I'll focus on the matchup that intrigues me most on Saturday: Michigan's pass protection versus Ohio State's pass rush.
It's no secret that the Buckeyes can be a ruthless force when they come after a quarterback. They are fifth in adjusted sack rate and have threats all over the place in Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington, Tyquan Lewis, and others.
However, it is a bit of a secret that Michigan's pass protection has experienced major improvements this season. The Wolverines are 21st in adjusted sack rate and just held the nation's top pass rush to only two sacks on over 40 drop-backs. Now, Michigan negated Penn State's pass rush by calling lots of three-step drops and having Rudock throw lots of quick screens. Nonetheless, Michigan's offense line has kept the pocket clean for Rudock. If they do it again, Rudock should find some success.
LGHL: Prediction time. Vegas says Michigan by 2, Advanced Stats say Michigan by 6. What say you?
MB: Though I think Jake Rudock will perform admirably, I don't think he'll be able to do to Ohio State's defense what Ezekiel Elliott will do to Michigan's. I know that Urban Meyer just put together an awful gameplan against Michigan State, but I can't imagine he'll do it two weeks in a row. He'll look at the film, see that Michigan struggles to defend outside zone (Willie Henry can be cut down easily), and install that play for Elliott. I haven't liked this matchup for Michigan for weeks, particularly since Ryan Glasgow, who was Michigan's best and most consistent defensive lineman, went down, and I don't think one very poor game from the Buckeyes will change what I think will happen on Saturday.
Ohio State 28, Michigan 24.
Thanks to our good friends at Maize 'n' Brew for a very thorough Question and Answer session. Sure, we hate Michigan, but we love our other SB Nation blogs, so give MnB a look through today. They have you covered.