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Ohio State vs. Michigan preview: Ezekiel Elliott goes up against strong Michigan defensive line

The 112th edition of The Game brings us pretty good matchups on both sides of the ball.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

This is the game that is unquestionably marked on everybody's calendars. The Michigan game. Or really, just The Game. This is the game that has determined numerous Big Ten Championships, Rose Bowl participants, and even national champions over the years. The most storied rivalry in college football will start a new era on Saturday in Ann Arbor, when No. 8 Ohio State takes on No. 10 Michigan under the commands of Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh.

For much of the past decade, the rivalry has been quite one sided. Ohio State has won 10 of the past 11 contests between the two, with the lone Michigan win coming in 2011, one of the worst seasons in modern Ohio State football history. This time around, the two teams could possibly be playing for a spot in the Big Ten Championship game, if Penn State is able to knock off Michigan State.

Ohio State is coming into this one fresh off of a loss at the hands of those Michigan State Spartans, after a frustrating offensive display that caused players to voice concerns in public. Ezekiel Elliott was extremely honest with his feelings after the game, how he felt about the playcalling, as well as the coaching.

The Buckeyes need this win in order to hopefully qualify for a New Year's Six bowl, and if the odds end up in their favor and the right cards fall, a College Football Playoff berth. This will also obviously mark one year since J.T. Barrett's injury, where Michigan's Devin Gardner memorably offered his condolences to Barrett on the field. It even brought Ohio State to thank Gardner in a letter, definitely one of the more loving moments in what is a hateful rivalry.

Michigan is playing some great football right now, especially now that their passing game is experiencing a bit of a resurgence.  In reality, their two losses this season were pretty winnable games, and to not take this Michigan team seriously or to think that Ohio State would cruise past them would be incorrect. Even if that were the case, you can never count anybody out in these rivalry games. The Wolverines are 21-19-4 when both teams are ranked, and as any Michigan fan will let you know, own the all-time series at 58-47-6. But those Michigan wins back when Ohio State was essentially a YMCA team won't matter tomorrow. This is all about the here and now.

Jake Rudock has really come into his own the past three weeks, and of course Michigan has played great defense all year long. With all the talent that you hear about Ohio State having, Michigan has plenty themselves. On the offensive side of the ball, you'll hear plenty from the aforementioned Rudock, Jake Butt, and Jehu Chesson. On defense, the versatile Jabrill Peppers will be all over the field, and you may even see him on offense. The Michigan defensive line, consisting of Willie Henry, Chris Wormley, Taco Charlton, and Maurice Hurst Jr. will be vicious all game. Saturday is not going to be easy by any means for Ohio State.

Data dump

Team Record CFP F/+ Rk Line
Ohio State 10-1 8 6 -2.5
Michigan 9-2 10 5

Ohio State Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.29 44 1.22 55 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 46.3% 21 32.2% 7 40.4%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 34.3 7 25.2 2 29.9
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.18 28 3.69 10 4.65
TURNOVER MARGIN EXPECTED -2.47 91 Turnover Luck (PPG):
+1.58
ACTUAL 1 63

Michigan Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.30 42 1.28 81 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 45.0% 30 31.3% 4 40.4%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 34.8 3 27.2 20 29.9
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.06 45 3.64 9 4.65
TURNOVER MARGIN EXPECTED 2.13 52 Turnover Luck (PPG):
-3.24


Ohio State's Biggest Advantages

The pass defense. Without the defense that Ohio State has played for the majority of the season, they probably aren't 10-1. The Buckeye defense is second in college football in points allowed per game, giving up just 14.1 per contest. That makes things much easier for the guys on the other side of the ball. All three layers of this defense boast a plethora of NFL caliber talent, so there are plenty of candidates to make a big play.

But we're focusing on the defensive backs. With the likes of Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Gareon Conley, and Tyvis Powell, Jack Rudock should have a difficult time on Saturday. The Buckeyes are third in the nation in passing defense S&P+. They are also sixth in the nation on passing downs in S&P+, and seventh in defensive success rate. Bell, Powell, and Conley all have two interceptions apiece on the year. With the help of those four, the Buckeyes should be able to slow down Rudock, who has been very good in November.

Ezekiel Elliott. Yes, the guy who was the center of attention after the Michigan State game for his comments on his lack of carries and the coaching. The same guy who ran these same Ohio State Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff and to a national championship. Prior to last week, Zeke had 15 straight games of at least 100 yards rushing. Also up until that point in the season, Elliott was averaging over 142 yards per game. Zeke's also an excellent pass blocker, and the Buckeyes will need all the help they can get to keep J.T. Barrett upright.

Michigan is known to have a good defense, especially against the run, and actually had a string of six consecutive games this season where they did not allow 100 rushing yards. But against teams with good running backs (and a mobile QB), the Wolverines haven't been quite as sharp. Utah's Devontae Booker and Travis Wilson were able to pretty much have their way on the ground in the first game of the season, and more recently, Indiana's Jordan Howard ran for a masterful 238 yards. If Ezekiel Elliott gets his carries, expect some good production.

Nothing to lose. In a season where expectations were extremely high, and probably unreasonable to a certain extent, the Buckeyes are coming off of a loss that makes their chances at repeating very slim. A lot of people had a lot of things to say about this group, some good, and some bad. But they know what they are capable of, and while the odds are slim, a win against Michigan will be all they can do in trying to finish out the season as strong as they can.

There is a group of seniors that are looking for their fourth pair of gold pants, which only a handful of players to have played for the Buckeyes can say. Expect to see an extra effort from the seniors who will be vying for those. Not to mention Braxton Miller, who will be playing in his final game of this storied rivalry. It would not be a surprise to see the Ohio State coaching staff whip some plays out of the playbook in the regular season finale.

Michigan's Biggest Advantages

The hot hand. It was easy to hate on Jake Rudock and his playing ability early in the season, but he has come on late and been really effective for Michigan. Rudock has 10 touchdown passes in the last three games for the Wolverines, which was more than the team threw all of last season. He has also thrown for 1,033 yards in those three games. Ohio State knows a thing or two about bunches of yards in short amounts of time, just ask Ezekiel Elliott.

Michigan is 22nd in the nation in passing S&P+, and is seventh in passing downs. Jehu Chesson, Amara Darboh, and Jake Butt have played significant roles in Rudock's success. Chesson caught four of Rudock's six touchdown passes against Indiana just two weeks ago. That's highly unlikely to happen against the Buckeyes, but right now, handling the Michigan passing game won't be an easy task, and should not be taken lightly.

An extremely effective run defense. Michigan has one of the better run defenses in college football, and the matchup between them and Ezekiel Elliott will be key for both sides. Michigan State showed what stopping the run will do to Ohio State, and it paid dividends. The Wolverines are second overall in defensive S&P+, and ninth overall against the run in S&P+.

Seven times this season, the Wolverines have held teams without a rushing touchdown. They have also held seven of their 11 opponents under 100 yards rushing, and while many of those games were against much lesser teams, that's still pretty tough to do. Ohio State and Ezekiel Elliott are much different beasts than those. This seems like the cliche "unstoppable force meets immovable object", and the outcome of that matchup could largely help determine the winner in this one.

Special Teams. The Wolverines are one of the better teams in the nation on special teams, and in a big rivalry game such as this one, you need to win all three aspects of the game. Nobody should know this better than the Wolverines themselves, am I right? Michigan is 14th in the nation in FEI special teams ratings, which measures the efficiency of your special teams.

The Wolverines are very efficient when it comes to punt returns and kick returns. They are seventh in the nation in kick return efficiency. They are also 12th in the nation in punt return efficiency. Jourdan Lewis and the man who can do it all, Jabrill Peppers, split the kick return duties. Peppers handles all of the punt returns for the men in maize and blue. They will have their hands full against Ohio State, who is effective when it comes to the kicking and punting game.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Michigan 27, Ohio State 22

Win Probability: Michigan 60%

You can never tell how these rivalry games might go, no matter how much the stats or history might tell you. Everything goes out the door when the teams line up and play begins. In the advanced stats, Michigan has been favored over Ohio State for much of the season, and rightfully so. The Wolverines have been great on defense, while producing just enough offense to give them an edge over the Buckeyes.

Ohio State is coming off of a loss, but their issues on offense has been apparent for most of the season. The odds are against them in terms of hoping that Saturday, in their 12th game of the year, that they suddenly find it, but as mentioned before, who really knows.

Michigan has played well for the majority of the season outside of their week one loss to Utah, and have really caught their stride recently on offense. If they can keep up that effort, along with their strong defense all year, they'll be a tough matchup for Ohio State. It appears that both of these teams do things well that counter the opposition, which should make for a great 112th edition of The Game.