The Game is here: The 114th edition of Ohio State vs. Michigan. As has so often been the case, the matchup is for all the marbles. As the regular season comes to a close, the winner of Saturday’s matchup will earn a berth in the Big Ten Championship game to face West division champ No. 19 Northwestern. A win there means a likely Playoff spot for a shot at a national title.
The No. 4 Wolverines enter the game as winners of 10 straight after a season-opening loss to Notre Dame. No. 10 Ohio State, also at 10-1, is working to prove that it is on par with the top-four nationally. But all of that is periphery as the pair square off in the greatest rivalry in all of sports.
Not his first rodeo
Though he is a first time starter, this isn’t Dwayne Haskins’ first outing against Michigan. Last season, as a redshirt freshman, Haskins emerged off of the bench to lead Ohio State’s comeback win against the Wolverines after J.T. Barrett’s injury. He finished the day completing 6-of-7 passes for 94 yards and rushing for 24 more. Haskins’ play opened up the field for a J.K. Dobbins touchdown that put the Buckeyes ahead late in the third quarter.
By many standards, Haskins has far more favorable conditions this season than he had last year. In 2017, Haskins came off the bench. On the road. This season, Haskins will not only have home-field advantage and the confidence that comes from managing a game in its entirety, but he’ll also be able to leverage an offense which was built throughout the season to support his particular skillset.
Obviously, Haskins wouldn’t be nearly as successful throwing the football without an incredible group of receivers to catch it. This season, Haskins has completed passes to 13 different receivers, but that group is led by a trio of career 1,000-yard pass-catchers in K.J. Hill, Parris Campbell and Terry McLaurin; all three are among the top-12 in the Big Ten in receiving yards. Fifth-year senior Johnnie Dixon, with a career-best 482 yards on the season, needs only 41 yards to hit the 1,000-yard mark himself.
But it’s not just the veterans who have been making an impact at receiver this season. True freshman Chris Olave’s name has been called three times in the last two games, including a 25-yard catch on 2nd-and-long against Michigan State. While he certainly doesn’t have the experience of the aforementioned quartet, Olave has shown he could be the wide out of the future for the Buckeyes.
Smashing the record books
On that note, Haskins is at the tail end of what at times has been a Heisman-caliber season (in fact, he is still getting some votes in expert polls). He leads all starting quarterbacks in the Big Ten in completions (294) and completion percentage (69.3), and is ranked in the top-10 nationwide in both categories. More impressively, he leads college football in passing touchdowns (36), tied with Houston’s D’Eriq King and Washington State’s Gardner Minshew II. Haskins has also proven efficient and able to protect the ball, throwing just seven picks and being sacked only 13 times.
While the numbers clearly indicate a good season for Haskins, the reality is that in his first year as a starter, the redshirt sophomore is having one of the best seasons in Ohio State history. Against Maryland, Haskins broke J.T. Barrett’s 2017 single-season record for passing touchdowns in a season. In the same game, he also busted the 20-year-old single-season passing yards record set by Joe Germaine in 1998. And while his performance has been consistently high throughout the season, Haskins has broken a number of single game records as well, including putting together a 470-yard performance against Purdue to break Art Schlichter’s 1981 passing yard mark. Haskins also tied Kenny Guiton and Barrett for single-game passing touchdowns with six against Indiana.
For what it’s worth, he’s also been Big Ten Player of the Week five times in one season, which ties the record.
Running back to basics
After the Buckeyes were held to just 76 yards on the ground against Purdue, Ohio State emerged from the bye week to lay 229 rushing yards against Nebraska. J.K. Dobbins led the effort with 163 yards, while Mike Weber was close to the century mark with 91. Total rushing dipped to 120 yards against Michigan State (which makes sense, as the Spartans have the best rushing defense in the nation), but came back versus Maryland with 283 yards in the overtime effort. With Weber out against the Terps, Dobbins carried the load, rushing 37 times for 203 yards.
While Michigan’s rush defense is more in line with Michigan State’s than Maryland’s or Nebraska’s (the Wolverines allow just 111.6 yards per game), the Buckeyes will need to establish the run in order to open up the offense. Last season, Dobbins rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown against Michigan, while Weber added 57 and another score. And oh, by the way, Dobbins needs just 85 yards to go over the 1,000-yard mark this season.
Don’t test Dre’Mont
With so much hoopla around the defensive end position at Ohio State in recent years, it was unfortunately very easy to overlook the gem who has anchored the middle of the line for the past three seasons. Fortunately, redshirt junior defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones is finally getting the respect that he deserves this season. Most recently, Jones was named a finalist for the Bednarik Award honoring the nation’s most outstanding defensive player.
While Jones is a reliable tackler (he is first on the team in tackles for loss with 12 this year), he has also proven himself to be a true differentiator on defense in a season during which there have been few bright spots on that side of the ball. Jones has a team-high eight sacks on the season, and recorded a crucial pick-six against TCU which put the Buckeyes ahead. He’s also had three fumble recoveries on the year (including one for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Michigan State) as well as a forced fumble.
On the flip side, in one of the most severely depressing stats of the season, Michigan enters the final week of the regular season ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense, giving up just 234.3 yards per game. They’re also fourth in scoring defense, allowing under 14 points per game. The Wolverines are anchored by their stout passing defense which gives just 123.2 yards through the air per game, which makes sense given that the unit has been intact since last season.
David Long and Lavert Hill both return as corners after starting during their sophomore seasons last year, while Josh Metellus and Tyree Kinnel hold down the safety spots. Something will need to give, as Haskins is third in the nation in passing yards per game with 335. Ohio State, meanwhile, has been giving up almost 400 yards per game.
Along with a solid secondary, Michigan has brought back much of its defensive line from last season. Chief among this group (for reasons other than his flowing golden locks) is Chase Winovich, who was knocked out of the Wolverines’ game last week versus Indiana. TBD on if he’ll play Saturday, since Harbaugh doesn’t release depth charts, but teammates close to Winovich have indicated that he’s likely to compete, even if he isn’t 100 percent.
The Buckeyes will also have to contend with Rashan Gary. The junior defensive tackle missed three games earlier this season with a shoulder injury, but came back stronger, recording 1.5 sacks against Indiana last week.
The top tackler on his team and a key returner from 2017, Michigan linebacker Devin Bush has stepped up to lead his defense throughout this season through both his play and his fiery demeanor (he was the one who tore up Michigan State’s logo before their game a few weeks ago).
Most recently, he tied his career high with 11 tackles against Rutgers last week. On the year, he’s totaled 60 tackles and 4.5 sacks. For the second-straight season, Bush was named a finalist for the Butkus Award, and is also up for the Nagurski Trophy, given to the top defensive player in the nation. This nomination is at least forgivable since there was that time in 2016 when Jabrill Peppers wasn’t even the leading tackler on his team but still earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Man of the People(s-Jones)
Despite being one of the most touted recruits in the 2017 class, Michigan receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones had a quiet freshman season in which he caught just 22 passes for 277 yards and no touchdowns. This season has been a different story though.
The true sophomore has caught 32 passes for 477 yards and (wait for it) seven touchdowns — that’s more than anyone else on the team. It does help that Peoples-Jones has someone to throw him the ball, which leads us to...
We knew that Michigan was set to get an upgrade at quarterback with the announcement following last season that Shea Patterson would transfer from Ole Miss, especially given the injury-riddled rotation that was Wilton Speight, Brandon Peters and John O’Korn last year. Patterson was immediately eligible to play after battling the NCAA in the offseason.
Patterson has certainly made a difference for an offense which had been quite lackluster in previous seasons. This year he has had 18 touchdowns and just four interceptions (although for those mathematically challenged amongst you, it should be pointed out that that’s half as many touchdowns as Haskins). Last season, the Wolverines had just nine passing touchdowns all season, distributed to just three receivers.
Rain, rain go away
If only Friday’s cool, crisp weather could have held for another day. But no. Saturday’s forecast is calling for high 40s and rain through the afternoon. Not great, and certainly not optimal for passing offenses. Dobbins, Weber and the offensive line will need to step up to establish the run early for the Buckeyes.
GameDay on site
Despite the weather, ESPN’s pregame show is set to originate from Ohio State’s campus tomorrow, with the last hour of the show inside the stadium. It’ll be the 43rd time that the broadcast has aired from an Ohio State game, tied with Alabama for the most appearances. Lee Corso has picked Ohio State 27 times (second only to Alabama), and is 19-8 when putting on the Brutus head. On the flip side, he’s 17-7 when picking the Wolverines. It’s the fourth time the crew has come to Columbus for The Game.
It’s quiet... too quiet
Where are the antics? Where is the rhetoric? How did Jim Harbaugh get through an entire season without talking about milk or having weird sleepovers or climbing a tree? Perhaps this is the year that he finally decided to focus on coaching and see where it got him.
Perhaps he recognized that he has been out-coached by Urban Meyer for three seasons. Why now?
The fact he hasn’t finished higher than third in the Big Ten East until this season has likely caught up to him, given that he is the third-highest paid football coach in the NCAA. In short, the proverbial monkey has been on Jim Harbaugh’s back for four seasons, and this is his chance to knock it off.
No margin for error
Anything can happen in a rivalry game as both teams rise to the occasion and parity seems to increase overnight. Just look at 2016 when the game literally came down to a centimeter one way or the other (actually, the spot was good). Or at 2004 when the 6-4 Buckeyes upset No. 7 Michigan in Columbus.
However, in order to pull that effort off, the underdog needs to be flawless. The mistakes that have plagued Ohio State at various points throughout the season simply cannot happen if the Buckeyes want to defeat their rivals. Ohio State has not looked like a Playoff team in recent weeks, while Michigan has steadily been strengthening its resume.
But that’s the beauty of a rivalry. Sometimes it makes the season just to spoil theirs.
Following the trends
Six straight wins under Urban Meyer. And 13 of the last 14 dating back to the Tressel years. No current Michigan player, coach (with the exception of defensive line coach Greg Mattison) or even athletic director has beaten Ohio State in what has become a lopsided rivalry in recent years. Ohio State has rapidly closed the gap in its all-time record against TTUN, and now sits at 49-58-6 overall. This year might look like a tough one to pull off, but the Buckeyes have shown the ability to be exceptional at various times throughout the season. And again, anything can happen in a rivalry game.
F/+ Projection: Michigan 30, Ohio State 26
Win Probability: Michigan 54.4%
Ohio State has owned this rivalry for the past 14 seasons. However, this year’s Michigan squad might present the most credible threat to that domination, seeming to finally put together all the pieces on both sides of the ball to make it happen. With a new quarterback at the helm and a defense which has returned many starters from 2017, the Wolverines have looked like a Playoff team in the last 10 weeks, despite a season-opening loss.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, have almost gotten back on track since their loss to Purdue, but an overtime win over Maryland left a lot of questions last week — especially surrounding the defense. Once again, Ohio State showed it couldn’t stop the big play as Maryland’s Anthony McFarland ran for 298 yards, including touchdown runs of 81 and 75 yards. On sustained drives, Ohio State’s defense held Maryland to 4-of-13 on third down conversions, but gave up two fourth down plays, including a trick play on special teams.
The offense, on the other hand, has impressed, as the Buckeyes gained 688 yards on offense while giving up 535 to the Terps. It also proved to be a balanced performance, as Haskins threw for 405 yards as the team rushed for the remainder. Especially given the weather, establishing the run will be crucial if there’s any hope of a passing offense for Ohio State Saturday.
But the fact is that everything is on the line Saturday. The winner survives and advances. The loser may get the Rose Bowl as a consolation prize depending on how the Big Ten Championship game and final College Football Playoff rankings play out. And yes, while things may seem to favor that team up north, this is the greatest rivalry in sports. Anything can happen.