At long last, The Game is finally here.
And what an historic game it figures to be, at least for Buckeye fans across the world. Three streaks are on the line in this year’s installment of the greatest rivalry in college football, and in case you haven’t been paying attention, here’s what’s at stake on the final day of the Big Ten regular season:
- Ohio State is on the verge of their longest winning streak in the history of the rivalry. Eight straight wins over Michigan would be the best in school history, and one short of tying the longest such streak either school has had.
- Jim Harbaugh is agonizingly close to becoming the first coach in the history of the rivalry to go 0-5 in their first five games against the other team.
- Most importantly, Ohio State will overtake Michigan for the top spot among Power 5 teams in all-time program winning percentage with a victory. As far as anyone can tell, Michigan has held the top spot in college football for over a hundred years.
This makes the 115th edition of The Game arguably the most historically-relevant since 2006’s #1/#2 matchup in the wake of Bo Schembechler’s death. While this game doesn’t figure to be nearly as competitive as that one, Michigan still has more than enough talent in the right areas to make Saturday afternoon more interesting than it perhaps should be.
Buckeye Offense vs Wolverine Defense
Inconsistent as the Wolverines have been this season barring the last month or so, Michigan’s defense unquestionably remains the rock of their team identity. Third in the Big Ten in surrendered total yards per game (~246 ypg), third in surrendered passing yards per game (~140 pypg), and fifth in surrendered rushing yards per game (~106 rypg); the Wolverines remain as stingy on defense as they ever have during the Harbaugh era. Additionally, Michigan hasn’t allowed a team to score beyond the teens at The Big House since their nail-biter against Army back at the beginning of September.
Michigan’s front seven is particularly impressive, drawing parallels to that of Wisconsin and Penn State, two other defensive line/linebacker units that gave Ohio State some trouble earlier this season. The Wolverines score four top 25 rankings in Football Outsiders’ defensive line efficiency statistics, but leave a bit to be desired with respect to stopping short-yardage conversions and stuffing plays for negative yards.
Where they will likely do their most damage, however, is with their pass rush. Michigan currently boasts the seventh best sack rate in college football (10.3%) and the ninth best on passing downs (13.2%). That stands in contrast with an Ohio State offensive line that, to be polite, has been very lackluster in pass protection all season. The Buckeyes currently rank 96th out of 130 FBS team in surrendered sack rate (7.5%) and 107th in passing down sack rate (12.5%). Wisconsin and Penn State claimed similar ratings to Michigan when each played Ohio State, and the two teams managed to combine for eight total sacks across both contests.
Fortunately, in each of those cases, the Buckeyes managed to overcome their pass protection woes with a steady diet of running the ball. J.K. Dobbins, Master Teague III, and Justin Fields combined for 46 totes in the 38-7 win over Wisconsin; while Dobbins and Fields carried the ball a whopping 57 combined times in the win over Penn State last weekend. The 28-17 victory likely would have been even more pronounced had the two of them not fumbled the ball a combined four times (for three Penn State recoveries).
Essentially, expect to see Ryan Day run the ball a lot against Michigan. While keeping Justin Fields out of harms way is ideal, previous games against teams with similar quality defenses have suggested that Day prefers to run the ball to excess over exposing the quarterback to too many hits in the backfield. Given Michigan has arguably the least impressive run defense of the three best teams Ohio State has faced in the regular season, this is probably an ideal approach to the game.
As long as the Buckeyes avoid the freak ball security issues they encountered last week, expect the offensive line and Dobbins to have another solid showing in the Big House. Fields should continue to show efficiency on third downs and play action passes, but don’t expect his arm to be the reason Ohio State wins this game.
Wolverine Offense vs. Buckeye Defense
Michigan’s offense has taken a while to settle in, but as the regular season winds to a close, the Wolverines are finally moving the ball with purpose. Over the last two games, quarterback Shea Patterson has thrown for 750 yards and nine touchdowns after throwing for just over 1,770 yards and 12 touchdowns in the nine games before that, a few of which saw him sporadically benched. Patterson’s recent spurt of brilliance has vaulted Michigan up to fourth in the Big Ten this season in passing yards per game (~232 pypg), but the Wolverines still rank squarely in the middle of the pack by Big Ten standards with respect to rushing yards per game (~155 rypg, 8th overall) and total yards per game (~387 ypg, 7th overall).
They have a lot of sizable talent on the outside between Donovan Peoples-Jones, Nico Collins, and Tarik Black; but if Michigan isn’t converting on their long passes and jump balls to these receivers, there’s not a whole lot of threat they pose to more talented defensive teams. Their running game is not up to the typical standard of most Jim Harbaugh-coached units, although it’s hard to put that blame on the running backs given Zach Charbonnet and Hassan Haskins are averaging over five yards per carry between them on a combined 220 attempts this season.
Rather, Michigan’s biggest weakness this season — other than inconsistent quarterback play — has been their offensive line. For a coach like Harbaugh that prefers smash-mouth, ball-control football, this obviously presents an enormous problem. Strangely, however, Michigan’s offensive line isn’t necessarily bad at anything by FBS standards, they just simply aren’t at the level they need to be to compete with the very best teams in the Big Ten.
According to the six offensive line run-blocking statistics tracked by Football Outsiders, Michigan ranks among the top 30 teams only in preventing carries from getting stopped at or before the line of scrimmage. For every other statistic, they rank between 40th and 74th. Their pass protection numbers — while better than Ohio State’s — still remain far from elite, as they currently rank 69th in all of college football in sack rate (6.2%) and 83rd in passing down sack rate (8.6%).
Stopping Michigan’s offense consistently will come down to Ohio State’s ability to generate pressure on Patterson in the pocket, coupled with the Buckeye secondary’s ability to break up the long balls that they will inevitably see come their way. Things could get interesting depending on the game-time injury status of Shaun Wade, but both Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette have enjoyed solid seasons at cornerback so far, and each should be up to the task of covering Michigan’s big play receivers on the outside. Chase Young figures to have another monster game given the Wolverines’ 3rd Down pass protection woes, and even if Michigan opts to consistently double team him, that’s only going to open up opportunities for the other talent along the Buckeye defensive line to make plays in the backfield.
Even if Michigan somehow obtains an early lead, they aren’t equipped to bleed clock and keep the ball away from the opposing offense as they have been in recent years. Patterson could make this a compelling matchup if the Wolverines have to go all-out guns blazing to stay in the contest, but after he threw for only 187 yards last year against Ohio State’s sloppy defense, it’s sincerely doubtful that Buckeye fans will have to worry about the Mississippi transfer making this a dangerous game.
The Bottom Line
Michigan checks in as a top ten team according to the final regular season installment of Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings, but Ohio State arguably beat a superior version of this same team last week despite turning the ball over three times on fumbles.
Provided the Buckeyes do a better job of taking care of the ball this Saturday, they should have a much easier time running the ball over the Wolverines — on hopefully fewer attempts for Justin Fields — on their way to a victory similar in script to the Wisconsin game. Michigan would obviously love nothing more than to play spoiler for Ohio State with the Ann Arbor crowd cheering them on, but the Buckeyes are simply too damn talented up front on both sides of the football this season to let that happen.