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Ohio State will need a huge game from Raekwon McMillan to beat Michigan

No. 5 has always been excellent. He’ll have to be even better on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

In late 2015, a man named Raekwon gave an interview in which he described the roots of his incredible journey, his path to becoming a superstar, thusly:

The thing about me was I was always trying to be successful at whatever I do...All I needed was a shot. I feel I have it. I have my confidence at where I need to be at. I think every man's life, that journey is already written to where it's going to play out. I was just taking it day by day...I was inspired by others that was in it before me and paved the way...I always had a vision but I didn't know when it was going to strike.

That interview was not with standout Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, but with his namesake, Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon The Chef. Still, it could just as easily describe the meteoric rise of the Scarlet and Gray’s No. 5, a linebacker whose dedication and work ethic have made him into the cornerstone of the Buckeye defense in 2016.

Plenty of others have paved the way for McMillan’s success at Ohio State, from Curtis Grant (who he nearly Wally Pipp’d as a freshman) to James Laurinaitis to Ryan Shazier. (Really, the Buckeyes have been unparalleled as a linebacker factory in the last decade or so.) His vision, as it were, has struck; he’s a tackling machine without whom the Silver Bullets would be a shell of themselves.

Raekwon The Chef was Built 4 Cuban Linx. Raekwon McMillan was built to dismantle opposing offenses. Let’s take a look at how:

The stats

Name: Raekwon McMillan

Number: 5

Position: Middle linebacker

Year: Junior

Height: 6’2

Weight: 243

Line: 50.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles

It was a surprise to absolutely no one when McMillan was named a captain prior to the 2016 season. He’s spent 11 games this season proving why he deserves the title. He’s the Buckeyes’ leading tackler, a master at containing the run and reading plays so quickly that he’s in on just about every gang tackle racked up by Ohio State.

This Saturday will likely be his last game against Michigan. He’s only a junior, but No. 5 has the skills and the hype to leave for the NFL this spring. Given how well he played against the Wolverines in 2015, it’d be incredible to see Raekwon go out with one more crushing performance against his team’s biggest rival.

Opposition research

Wolverines QB Wilton Speight is on the mend from a shoulder injury that kept him out of last week’s game against Indiana. It’s his non-throwing shoulder, so he’s been able to bounce back quicker than would normally be expected. Still, he’s not a 100% certainty for the team’s contest with the Buckeyes, though he did split reps in practice with John O’Korn on Tuesday.

The question marks surrounding the QB position mean that Michigan is likely to go to the ground game early and often against the Buckeyes. It’s paid dividends for the Wolverines this year: they’ve scored a ridiculous 37 rushing touchdowns so far. Senior De’Veon Smith leads the pack with 750 yards and 10 TDs, but four different backs have recorded at least 65 carries for Michigan in 2016.

If the Wolverines do go to the air, TE Jake Butt will be one of the primary targets. He’s second on the team in targets and receiving yards; perhaps more importantly, it’s his last chance to earn a win against Ohio State. Butt’s a tremendous player with a tremendous name, and the Buckeyes—who have struggled at times to contain tight ends in the passing game—are going to have to shut him down and force the Wolverines to beat them on the ground instead.

What to watch for

The good news is that Raekwon McMillan is uniquely suited to make an impact based on both of these factors. He’s not one to get after the quarterback, recording just 2.5 total sacks across the last two seasons; rather, he’s one of the most effective run-stoppers in college football when teams hand the ball off. His doggedness at the line of scrimmage is one of his best assets, and he’ll need to show it off against the Wolverines.

He’s also a proficient, if not flashy, defender in the passing game. Raekwon’s ability to read offenses quickly and identify whether he should stay at home or drop back into coverage is tremendous; when he does drop into coverage, he has the raw skills to get up and make plays on the ball.

Michigan’s bruising offensive line and talented rushers make hay by wearing teams down, and they wreak havoc in secondaries with their complement of big receiving targets at multiple positions. Ohio State’s captain can—and must—have an answer to each of those weapons in turn.