The Ohio State Buckeyes roll into the final week of the regular season with the Big Ten East crown on their heads, and a real shot at making the College Football Playoff if a few things go their way.
After a 52-14 Senior Day win against Illinois, the Buckeyes are on the road to take on their archrival: Michigan.
It’s Michigan Week, and Urban Meyer knows it—as does the rest of Buckeye Nation. At Monday’s press conference, Meyer went over the rivalry, and what to expect going into Saturday’s contest in Ann Arbor.
Let’s breakdown the four biggest points from that presser inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“This rivalry is not a one-week deal. It's, hey, let's get this thing going -- and I learned that from Woody Hayes, from Earle Bruce, from Jim Tressel.”
Getting ready for Michigan isn't a one week process; you get ready for it at the start of camp. In the state of Ohio, you know how important the game is—so you dedicate the appropriate amount of time to it.
That's what Meyer stressed to the media: This isn't a one week kind of deal. Throughout time, the current Buckeye head coach has learned from some of the other great OSU coaches on how important this game is.
Woody Hayes coached the Buckeyes during the "golden age" of the rivalry— in essence, the Ten Year War— against Bo Schembechler. Overall, Woody won more games than he lost to UM, going 16-11-1. In 1968, Hayes coached the No. 1 Buckeyes to a blowout win over the No. 4 Wolverines, 50-14. That win punched Ohio State’s ticket to the Rose Bowl against USC, the de facto national championship game that year. However, in 1969, OSU was on the verge of back-to-back undefeated seasons, but lost to The Team Up North in Ann Arbor. The 24-12 loss was the only “L” on the season for Hayes’ Buckeyes, and, arguably, the toughest loss to Michigan in his career.
Leading into Michigan Week 1987, Earle Bruce learned that he was to be fired after “The Game.” While some were shocked and angered by the announcement, Bruce was able to coach the Buckeyes one last time, leading to a stunning victory against the Wolverines in his final game. When all was said and done, he went 5-4 against his main rival.
Jim Tressel went 9-1 against the combination of Lloyd Carr and Rich Rodriguez. The 2006 edition of “The Game” was dubbed the “Game of the Century.” In that one, The Vest secured a 42-39 win against No. 2 Michigan behind a Heisman-esque performance from Troy Smith.
Those three coaches all ended with above-.500 records against Michigan. Meyer is 5-0 right now, but to get there, it helps when your predecessors showed you how it’s done.
“That's the foundation of any good offense, the offensive line. We were blessed for three or four years having the best in the Big Ten and then we did it.”
A common mantra in football is “defense wins championships.” While that may be true, you also need an offense that can at least score some points. In the Meyer era at Ohio State, running backs have had 1,000 yard seasons, and quarterbacks have flourished. For those two components of the offense to work, you need an offensive line that can protect.
Meyer went over that core element during his presser on Monday. From Pat Elflein, to Taylor Decker, to Billy Price, the Bucks have had NFL-grade talent protecting the QB and opening paths for the RBs.
Ohio State’s dominance in the Big Ten has been due in large part to having one of the most prolific scoring offenses in the country. In the J.T. Barrett years, over 30 QB records have been broken, ranging from total touchdowns to passing yards. Without an efficient and durable offensive line, Barrett doesn’t get to the top of those lists.
Reading between the lines, you can tell what one of the most important recruiting positions is for Meyer: the O-line. Looking at the 2018 class and beyond, someone on that list of commits will become the next man up in a position that has sent many to the NFL.
The question is, who’s next?
“I think especially when you come here on visits and you start seeing them, once again something's not right if you're walking through the hallways and you don't recognize this rivalry and the respect we have for it.”
While we are still on the topic of recruiting, Meyer talked about what he’s looking for in a potential Buckeye. One of the things he’s looking for deals with whether or not the recruit understands the magnitude of the rivalry.
Understanding what it means to play in “The Game” is important, but this opens up another door into the world of Ohio State’s recruiting methods. Since Meyer came to Columbus, OSU has been an NFL factory. Alabama is the football factory for the southern, hot/humid weather schools; Ohio State is the NFL factory for the northern, cold weather programs.
Recruits, who are teenagers, recognize this. If you were a top rated player leaving high school and have ambitions of going to the NFL, you would want to be either a Buckeye or a member of the Crimson Tide. However, you may not have the same appreciation for the rivalries, traditions, and history as someone who grew up in the thick of those states.
The quote from Meyer is telling, in a good way, about what he wants in a recruit. He wants someone who wants to be a Buckeye. He wants someone who understands the rivalry, and appreciates the meaning of taking part in it.
Especially since OSU is a national brand and recruits from all corners of the country, some kids could be coming to Columbus just for the NFL chances, not because they truly want to be a member of the Scarlet and Gray. It appears that one of Meyer’s litmus tests in determining whether or not someone is right for the program is a simple one: do you understand this rivalry.
“Yeah, they're going to be a downhill rushing team. That's pretty much been their MO.”
Now, to focus on this Michigan team.
With injuries, the quarterback situation has become a complicated one in Ann Arbor. Since the start of the season, three different QBs have taken snaps under center. On top of that, passing TDs to actual receivers have not been part of the game plan. Tight end Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry are leading the team with two(!) receiving TDs apiece. Both McKeon and Gentry have been shuffled around the offense, as both have shown up in the wide receiver and TE portions of the depth chart.
Inconsistency in the passing game leads to the passing option not being their forte. It’s been a running back show—with Karan Higdon leading the way. This season, Higdon has 874 yards and 10 TDs on 136 carries. However, Higdon missed the Wisconsin game this past Saturday due to an ankle injury.
Speaking of injuries against the Badgers, Brandon Peters, their current starting QB, was knocked out of the game and was carted off the field in Madison, Wisc. He is currently in the concussion protocol.
Right now, Michigan’s clinging to a run game with a decimated offense. Meyer knows that the run game is, basically, the only thing that Michigan has going for them—assuming Peters is out this week.