This Ohio State group isn't accustomed to losing. The seniors have only lost four times in their career, with two of those losses coming in regular season play. With a program as good as this one has been since Meyer's arrival, it's expected that the losses are going to be a big deal.
This was the case after last Saturday's game, as Ezekiel Elliott and Cardale Jones took the time to acknowledge it was their last game in The Shoe. While they were the only ones to publicly share it, it's likely that a host of others are in the same boat.
While we can argue all day about whether it was the right time for Jones and Elliott to bring it up; they know what we know. With the loss against Michigan State, they were probably thrown out of not only playoff race, but also the Big Ten championship game. With the two biggest goals of the season likely unreachable, how will a team with a plethora of talent on its way out respond?
The obvious nightmare scenario here is Ohio State goes to Ann Arbor unfocused and gets trounced by a Michigan team looking to beat the Buckeyes in Jim Harbaugh's first foray into The Game as a coach. This particular Michigan team is very good, so a loss is neither unimaginable, nor devastating. However, a blowout loss after last week's game and it's aftermath would be a very disappointing way for this team to be remembered in history.
We have no way of knowing the team's mindset from the outside, but I imagine we'll find out fairly early in in this one where they stand after last week.
To play off that, it'll be telling to watch offense at the start the game. A major talking point this season has been whether the offensive coaches have put their players in the best possible position to win. This criticism came to a head after the offense's performance last week. Be it playcalling, coaching, or just bad play, it's been evident all season that the Buckeyes have major offensive issues. That includes how they've started games.
Ohio State last scored on an opening drive in their September 26th game against Western Michigan. The drive went 65 yards, as the Buckeyes required only three plays to take a 7-0 lead. It was a much needed start for the offense, which looked discombobulated to start games against Hawaii and Northern Illinois the prior two weeks. Unfortunately, the opening drive success from the Western Michigan game hasn't been repeated since.
For the season, the offense has produced six three-and-outs to open games, including last week's three play, 9 yard trek against Michigan State. Of those six, four have totaled less than one yard, with three drives actually losing yardage. Not only have they been unable to set the tone in each game, they've consistently failed to register even one successful play.
With Urban Meyer vowing to
take the controller away from Tim Beck be more involved in playcalling this week, keep a close eye on how the Buckeyes attack Michigan's defense on their first drive. I wouldn't bank on the Buckeyes opening the game with points, though.
Michigan's defense is not only very good, but has only given up opening drive points once since week three. If Ohio State can generate a couple of first downs and flip field position, it would be a welcome site from what we've seen for most of the season. If somehow they're able to score, it would provide an early confidence boost for an offense that desperately needs it.
In order to score any points, the Buckeyes will need to be better on the ground than they were against the Spartans. While we now know that Ezekiel Elliott was dealing with an injury coming into the game, 12 touches for one of the best running backs in the country isn't an ideal recipe for offensive success. At the most basic level, the Buckeyes will likely need a big performance from Elliott to come out of Ann Arbor victorious; but could we also see a more varied rushing attack against the Wolverines?
Braxton Miller has been nearly absent from the running game since his scary injury against Minnesota three weeks ago. He only has two carries since, both coming against Michigan State last week. If we're going to suppose playcalling will be different with Meyer more involved, he may get a few more opportunities Saturday.
Michigan's defense is very good against the run, ranking 9th nationally in Rushing S&P+, but have allowed opponents to gash them at times. While Elliott isn't a slouch when it comes to explosive runs, Miller should get the opportunity for a game breaker if given enough chances. The Buckeyes are desperately looking for big plays, and Miller's involvement on the ground will be paramount to finding them.
Jimmy's and the Joes
Michigan State had an excellent plan last week, especially given the weather. The Spartans loaded up the box, and banked on the assumption that Barrett and the Ohio State receivers wouldn't connect enough to make a difference. They were right. Not only did the Buckeyes not complete a deep ball all day, but were out of sync in the passing game in general.
While the Spartans played excellent defense, Ohio State didn't help itself either:
Michigan State's secondary came into the game not being able to defend the deep ball. Ohio State attempted to throw deep twice; one an overthrow which Braxton Miller beat the defensive back by two steps, and another which was a forced underthrow into the wind...the Buckeyes have more than enough athletes to take deep shots, but a mixture of poor pass protection and lack of faith in both the quarterback and the wideouts kept the offense conservative....the quick game was gone; the slants, crossers and five-yard routes, which could have been executed against the soft playing Spartan secondary. The playcalling had no flow, which lulled the entire offense to sleep and caused an abundance of problems.."
Unfortunately, Ohio State faces an even better secondary this week. Led by corner Jourdan Lewis and safety Jabrill Peppers, the Michigan secondary is one of the more disruptive units in the country. They have a knack for getting their hands on the ball, and have more often than not shut down opponents through the air, especially on third downs. The Wolverines rank 1st nationally in both 3rd Down S&P+ and in passer rating on third down.
With that being said, at some point the Ohio State coaching staff has to trust that their wide receivers are good enough to make plays despite tough matchups. Lewis might be the best all-around corner in the country this year, but there's a reason Michael Thomas is being looked at as a potential first round pick in next year's NFL draft. It's going to be a tough task, but look for the Buckeyes to at least give their receivers more chances to make plays than they did last week.
Just as the matchup between Ohio State's receivers and Michigan's secondary will be crucial, the same can be said when the Wolverines have the ball. Michigan's passing game has steadily improved over the course of the year, standing at 22nd nationally in S&P+ through 11 games.
As the season's gone on, Jake Rudock has assumed more responsibility within the offense. In the last three games, Rudock's averaged an off the charts 9.5 yards per attempt while posting a 10:1 touchdown to interception ratio, and between Amara Darboh, Jake Butt, and Jehu Chesson, has more than enough options on hand to scare Ohio State. To combat those three, Ohio State's secondary needs to not only be in top form, but make a few plays of its own.
It's been rare this season to see the secondary out of position. Sure, they've given up some big plays here and there, but for the most part, the corners and safeties are right there, battling it out with receivers. What they haven't done is get their hands on the ball and go the other way with it.
Ohio State hasn't recorded an interception since Vonn Bell's pick six against Minnesota three weeks ago, and only has two in the last five games. It's been a surprising drought for a secondary that's done such a good job harassing opposing wide receivers. As good as Rudock's been lately, he's shown a tendency in the past to force throws, and with the benefit of the Buckeyes pass rush, the secondary should get at least a couple chance to make a big play and come down with the ball.