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Momentum for the Michigan defense rests on the status of Chase Winovich

Without the defensive end, Ohio State may have a big day in the air (and maybe even on the ground).

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan Wolverines are a team on a tour. Ever since they delivered Wisconsin to the outer edges of the Twilight Zone, the phrase “revenge tour” took shape. Defensive end Chase Winovich was credited as the creator for the team up north’s rallying cry.

However, this Saturday against the Ohio State Buckeyes, Winovich’s status is questionable. He suffered an upper-body injury last week against Indiana, but x-rays came back negative. This season, he’s been the catalyst for the Wolverines’ run through the Big Ten; he’s been one of the leaders on a vaunted Don Brown defense; and he’s one of the more experienced members on this Wolverine team.

Without him, UM will be operating on defense without their human spark-plug in what is arguably the biggest game of the season. Scratch that. This is the biggest game of the season — for both Ohio State and Michigan. Regardless of who goes to Indianapolis next week as Big Ten East Division winner, The Game is what it’s all about. The Wolverines haven’t defeated the Buckeyes in six seasons, and you could make a real case that it wasn’t a quality win.

The 2011 win Michigan experienced over OSU came in the Big House; it was against a 6-5 OSU squad that had an interim coach (Luke Fickell) and was just trying to keep its head above water before finding a permanent coach.

Ever since Urban Meyer arrived in Columbus, the reign of terror picked back up against that team up north. This Wolverine senior class has only experienced loss against Ohio State — with the losses ranging from blowout to heartbreak. While the revenge tour that Winovich coined may be directly attributed to the teams that “wronged” the Wolverines last season, the meaning gets cranked up a couple of notches when it pertains to OSU.

And after seeing what this Buckeye offensive line has been like this season, it opens up a Pandora’s box of problems. Creating rushing lanes has been tough, making life more than a bit harder than it needs to be for running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber. Pass protection has been decent, but at times this season quarterback Dwayne Haskins has been blitzed with everything but the kitchen sink.

Brown’s defense is scary good, as it leads the nation in total defense (234.8), pass defense (123.2) and pass efficiency defense (88.74). Additionally, UM has forced turnovers — leading to a not so nice 69 points.

Earlier this season, the Wolverines took down the eventual Big Ten West Division winners Northwestern in Evanston, Ill. In that game, Winovich made some big plays against the rush. Also, he was able to get to the quarterback for a sack.

A healthy Winovich has the potential to not only burst through the Buckeye O-line, but stop whomever has the ball before he even gets a chance to get back to the line of scrimmage. Tackles-for-loss are his specialty, so it’s very possible that he’d get a couple against OSU. Combined with Rashan Gary, that’s one of the most effective D-lines in the country.

The zone read and short yardage play calling is a mixed bag with the Buckeyes. A good read can keep the chains moving; a bad one, well, can turn the momentum right around. Last week against Maryland, Ryan Day pulled out a nice fourth-and-1 play call that involved a Haskins pass to tight end Luke Farrell toward the flats. That was an unexpected call that moved the chains — in overtime no less.

Some times, the Haskins read has worked. Other times, it hasn’t. Whatever play call gets dialed up has to be fully thought out. This is not the time for half-baked plays that get changed at the line. Michigan is out for revenge in the worst possible way, and they have the personnel to make it work.

Now, if Winovich isn’t playing, or if it’s apparent that he’s nowhere near 100 percent, this changes the dynamic for both teams. Michigan would lose out on one of their leaders, and the OSU offense won’t have one of the best DEs in the B1G breathing down its neck on every play.

Now, of course the Wolverines are a talented team, so there will be others ready to step up and fill his slot if Winovich ends up being out. Where it does change things is in the momentum. When a vocal leader is off the field, that spark gets lost. Especially when you’re going into a lion’s den like Ohio Stadium. The fans are going to be amped up, the players are going to be amped up, and the environment is going to be electric.

Will it be as electric as the 2006 meeting, where the schools were ranked No. 1 and No. 2? Probably not. It may not even be as electric as the 2016 meeting, in which both programs were on the fringe of the College Football Playoff, but it’ll be close.

The Game is more than a game for these institutions and fanbases. It’s one of those things that you’ve grown up with, and — at least for the athletes playing in the contest — it is an opportunity to become part of the rivalry’s lore.

Winovich will do what he can to be ready for the game, and it’s definitely something to keep an eye on. He is Michigan’s x-factor on defense, and in turn, is the main cog in a Wolverine machine poised for redemption. Ohio State’s offense may have cracks of their own, but they are efficient, and have found ways to escape contests with wins. There is something about a survivalist instinct that makes the Buckeyes a dangerous team to go up against.

Either way, the battle of Michigan’s defense versus Ohio State’s offense might be the biggest battle of this week’s slate of college football games.