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Curtis Samuel could be the difference-maker against Michigan

With more versatility than anyone on the team, Michigan will be hard pressed to stop Curtis Samuel Saturday.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

“The guy is a problem...I found myself saying ‘this is Jabrill Peppers if Jabrill Peppers only played on offense.’”

-Nick Baumgardner, M Live

In some instances in the last decade, Michigan has actually been able to drop points on Ohio State in The Game. Unfortunately for the Wolverines, however, they have not been able to stop the Buckeyes when it counts. Even more unfortunate for Michigan is the fact that they will have to contend with a whole new sort of player in Columbus this season: Curtis Samuel.

Samuel’s flexibility has made him perhaps the most successful H back in college football since Percy Harvin. He has 650 rushing yards to 790 receiving and, as of last week, was the only player in the NCAA to have more than 600 yards in both categories. Whether lining up in the slot, at tailback, wide out as a receiver or as a wildcat quarterback, Samuel’s versatility will certainly be a pain point as the Michigan defense prepares for Saturday’s matchup. Combined with the fact that J.T. Barrett and Mike Weber remain ever-present threats both on the ground and through the air, and Michigan will likely have its hands full with the Ohio State offense.

In terms of their versatility, Samuel is akin in many ways to Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers, who will likely be taking the onus of defending Samuel Saturday. But while Peppers has described himself as the “Energizer bunny” on the field after Michigan’s win over Indiana, perhaps the area of his play that is most lacking is his pass coverage--an area which Barrett and Samuel will no doubt exploit with Samuel lining up as a slot receiver. Though Michigan’s defense has improved in wrapping up tackles and sealing off the edge against rushing attacks, they will need to cut off the ever-elusive Samuel if they have any hope of halting the Ohio State offense.

“Our eyes are forward. Let’s go.”

-Urban Meyer, via Austin Ward and Dan Murphy, ESPN

The time has finally arrived for the Ohio State Buckeyes to look ahead to Rivalry Week and focus on enemy No. 1: Michigan. While everyone knew it was coming, neither Urban Meyer nor Jim Harbaugh would allow their players to actively consider the game prior to the week of. Now, with an ugly win versus Michigan State logged in the books, the Buckeyes are finally ready to turn their attention to The Game Saturday--an iteration which, from a national perspective, is the most relevant of the last decade, with national title contention on the line. Entering this week, the Buckeyes sat at No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings, with Michigan just behind at No. 3.

Michigan has won the big game just three times since the turn of the century, with the last win coming under head Coach Brady Hoke during Luke Fickell’s year as interim in 2011. Jim Tressel was 9-1 during his tenure against a combination of Lloyd Carr and Rich Rodriguez. While Meyer remains 4-0 against Hoke and Harbaugh’s teams.

Practices for both teams change significantly during the week, upping a significant amount in terms of intensity. The scout teams at Ohio State don Michigan uniforms and preparations turn into a 24/7 endeavor. Michigan, meanwhile, expects a “more intense” week than any they have experienced under Harbaugh, much of that owing to the fact that, if Michigan wins, they will represent the East in the Big Ten Championship game, but also the undeniable consideration that no player on the current Michigan roster has ever beaten Ohio State.

Last season, the Buckeyes ran for 369 of their 482 total yards, with Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett combining for five touchdowns on the ground--an embarrassment for a team which ranked highly in every major defensive category last year.

“Coming around this time in November, wins are hard to come by. We’ll take any win that we can.”

-Ohio State linebacker Chris Worley, via Noah Trister, AP Sports

It could be reasonably expected--even at the start of the football season--that this season’s edition of “The Game” would feature both Ohio State and Michigan playing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. It was thought to likely be a scenario where both teams were highly ranked, and the matchup would essentially determine the Big Ten champion. While the former scenario is true, the fact that both Ohio State and Michigan have unexpectedly stumbled against unexpected conference opponents means that both their shots at a conference championship are very much in question. Nonetheless, the probability that the winner of the game makes the Playoff remains extremely high, and it will likely come down to each team’s defense as the difference in the game.

Though both offenses have been highly explosive at times, defensive play has remained consistently strong throughout the entirety of the season. Ohio State and Michigan are ranked No. 1 and 2 nationally in passing efficiency defense, respectively, and both are in the top-five in total defense. The Buckeye defense is led by the secondary, which has returned a school record six pick-sixes this season. Michigan, meanwhile, boasts linebacker Jabrill Peppers--who can line up from pretty much anywhere on defense and make an impact--alongside cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling.

While Ohio State’s offense had finally seemed to click against Maryland and Nebraska in consecutive wins, things fell apart against Michigan State as J.T. Barrett threw for just 86 yards on a cold and blustery day in East Lansing. However, despite giving up a 61-yard touchdown run early in the first quarter, the defense remained ever-reliable, making the big play when it counted (i.e. during Michigan State’s two-point conversion attempt). Conditions are expected to be cold and clear with very little wind--much more ideal conditions for Barrett and the offense--but against Michigan’s equally stout defense, the game could turn into quite the slugfest.