It's that time of year again.
Thursday is reserved for giving thanks, but the rest of this week—Ohio State-Michigan week—is for pure hatred and tribalism. Allow us here at Land-Grant Holy Land to cut that raw spite with a little bit of level-headed analysis, just for today. (We've got plenty of the other stuff, too.)
There are about a million threads that could be unpacked with regards to The Game; for now we'll focus on the aspect of the offense that's been Ohio State's bread and butter for the entirety of the Urban Meyer era: the rushing attack.
Name: J.K. Dobbins
Height/Weight: 5'10, 208 lbs.
Line: 149 carries, 1089 yards, 6 TDs; 18 catches, 123 yards, 1 TD
It's been an up-and-down year for the true freshman, who burst onto the scene in Ohio State's first game of the season with a 181-yard performance. His touches have been limited in a few key games, but little explanation has been given for his occasional disappearance from the Buckeye game plan. Still, he's crossed the 1,000-yard threshold and proven himself to be a vital cog in the rushing attack—a piece that Urban Meyer will sorely need against a team as loaded on defense as Michigan.
For the sixth time in the last eight games, Ohio State is poised to take the field against a team whose defense is laughably superior to its offense. (Note Iowa's 21st-ranked defense, which makes the Buckeyes' struggles in that game a little more understandable, even as the Hawkeyes' 113th-ranked offense hanging 55 on them remains inscrutable.) Michigan enters Saturday's contest with the country's No. 8 defense by S&P+, a unit that has been the saving grace of a team with just the 69th-best offense in college football.
The Wolverines have no shortage of terrifying talents on the defensive side of the ball. They're especially ferocious at the line of scrimmage, where five different players have recorded 14 or more run stuffs, a group paced by DL Maurice Hurst's jaw-dropping 20 stuffs. (For reference, the leading Buckeye run-stuffer, Sam Hubbard, has nine.)
It's not just the big guys wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage, either. Khaleke Hudson, who plays the same hybrid LB-DB "Viper" position that Jabrill Peppers occupied last year, has given opposing teams fits in 2017. He has 15.5 TFLs and seven sacks on the season, numbers boosted by his astonishing eight TFL, three sack performance against Minnesota a few weeks ago. It was one of the best one-game efforts by a single player in Big Ten history.
Things don't get any rosier through the air. The Wolverines have the third-best passing defense, the No. 1 defense at preventing efficient passing, and the No. 3 third-down defense in the country. The Buckeyes have their work cut out for them.
What to watch for
One of the only places Michigan shows any weakness at all on defense is their tendency to give up explosive plays. The Wolverines, despite their otherwise-suffocating defensive presence, are just 116th in rushing defense IsoPPP and 93rd in passing defense IsoPPP (Football Outsiders' explosive plays metric). In other words, they're basically systematic drive-proof, but if you can find a seam, there's a good chance you might take the ball in for six.
Fortunately for Ohio State, both J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber are more than up to the challenge. The pair has combined for 1,634 rushing yards and 15 rushing TDs this season, and each of them has taken over games and dominated this season on long, footrace-style scores. And since H-back Parris Campbell's return from injury, they've found some success getting him the ball close to the line of scrimmage and letting him create his own space with his absurd speed.
It seems unlikely that the Buckeyes will be able to beat the Wolverines with the efficient, exhausting offense they've run so well all season—Jim Harbaugh's team is basically built to prevent that exact thing from happening. But Urban Meyer has so many weapons with home run potential that the problem might solve itself.