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Ohio State vs. Michigan: 2021 game preview and prediction

A classic rivalry game like we haven’t seen in years.

Michigan v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

It seems like just yesterday when Ohio State was suiting up to take on Minnesota on the road on a Thursday night in September. The team had a lot of questions surrounding it: How would redshirt freshman quarterback CJ Stroud fare following the departure of Justin Fields for the NFL? Who would take the lead at the running back position? Would the defense find the right pieces to come together?

Now, 11 weeks later, the regular season is drawing to a close. The 10-1 Buckeyes earned the No. 2 spot in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, while Michigan, also 10-1, is on the outside looking in at No. 5. Those questions have been answered, as an Ohio State team with its own strong, unique identity prepares to take the field against the best Michigan team it’s seen in years. And true to the history of the rivalry, the winner of this game is poised for a Big Ten championship...and more.

Series history

Technically speaking, Michigan owns the all-time series against Ohio State by a 58-51-6 margin. While the gap seems surmountable now, there was a time a couple decades ago when it seemed like Ohio State would never come close to evening the score.

But then Ohio State, under Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and, now, Ryan Day, won 15 of the last 16 against its rivals up north. The rivalry has certainly shifted in the Buckeyes’ favor even as Michigan ran through coaches like Rich Rodriguez, Brady Hoke and Jim Harbaugh — none of whom seemed able to find the formula to beat Ohio State. The last time Michigan managed to beat Ohio State was 2011, when Luke Fickell served as interim head coach in Columbus.

Sure, there have been times in recent memory when things have been close — like in 2016 when the spot was good, or in 2013 when Ohio State eked out a one-point victory — but overall OSU has dominated the series this millennium. The Buckeyes are currently riding an eight-game winning streak, their longest win streak in series history.

The history of this rivalry is a book on its own, but in short, after first meeting in 1897, the rivalry was played, without pause, from 1918 - 2020. Perhaps the most famous series within the broader history is the famed “Ten Year War” between Woody Hayes and his protégé, Bo Schembecheler, between 1969 - 1978.

The Game is famous not just because of the rivalry, but because of the broader implications as well. How many conference championships have been determined as a result of the final score? (22). How many Rose Bowl berths have come from that single matchup? (A lot).

Last time out

And then 2020 happened. Like seemingly everything else, even the Ohio State vs. Michigan game was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and, for the first time in 116 years, the two teams did not square off.

Which, of course, just added another 365 days to the tally of “days since Michigan beat Ohio State.” And means we have to go back to 2019, Ryan Day’s first year as head coach, for the most recent iteration of The Game.

In that matchup, which the Buckeyes handedly brought home by a 56-27 margin, the No. 2 Buckeyes trounced 10th-ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor through four quarters of offensive fireworks. Justin Fields was 14-of-25 passing for 302 yards and four touchdowns, while JK Dobbins powered through for 211 yards and four touchdowns on 31 carries.

Michigan jumped to an early lead with a touchdown on its opening drive, but a missed extra point meant that, when the Buckeyes scored on their next possession, Ohio State would gain a lead they would not relinquish for the remainder of the game. The game was all-but settled by the third quarter, when the Buckeyes had secured a four-score lead.

On the road again (Welcome to my house)

As one might imagine given the Buckeyes’ record against Michigan, the Wolverines’ home field advantage has been wanting in the famed Big House, though Michigan’s singular win since 2004 did come at home in Ann Arbor in 2011.

This year, the Buckeyes haven’t batted an eye when it comes to road games this season, going 4-0 combined against Minnesota, Rutgers, Indiana and Nebraska. While things were a little rough in the most recent road game (Nebraska), CJ Stroud has proven more than poised when it comes to performing in challenging environments. Stroud has completed 68.5% of his passes in road games for 1,295 yards, 15 touchdowns and three picks.

The story of the running game has been a little more troubling. In four road games, TreVeyon Henderson has had 40 carries for 259 yards. His 6.5 yards per rush away from the Horseshoe, while still impressive, is less than his 7.6 yards per attempt at home, but more challenging is that Henderson has had just three rushing touchdowns on the road compared to 11 at home.

In terms of the Buckeyes’ opponent, Michigan is undefeated at home this season, with their biggest home win coming against Washington early on in the season (most of the Wolverines’ most impressive victories this season, including Wisconsin, Penn State and Nebraska, came on the road).

Visions of Big Ten titles

In a classic rendition of Ohio State vs. Michigan games of yore, the two teams are battling for control of the Big Ten East. As previously mentioned, the pair have determined in one way or another 22 Big Ten titles in previous iterations of this matchup, including in both 2016 and 2018. This season, the Buckeyes, naturally, are tops in the East, with a one-game advantage over the Wolverines (it sure helps when the sole loss on the season came early and out of conference). Michigan State, at 6-2, is out of the race for a conference title, but might be rooting on the Buckeyes as it relates to the former’s New Year’s 6 bowl aspirations.

Looking ahead to Ohio State/Michigan’s opponent in the Big Ten Championship, the Big Ten West is still anyone’s game — or at least, any of Wisconsin, Iowa and even Minnesota’s game. The Badgers are in with a win over Minnesota. Iowa needs a win over Nebraska, plus a Wisconsin loss. Minnesota, in a head spinning combination of events, needs a win over Wisconsin, a loss from Iowa and, for reasons of tiebreak, a win for Purdue over Indiana. That combination would result in a four-way tie in the West, with the champ determined on winning percentage among the tied teams.

Hey, not everyone can keep it as simple as the East. *brushes shoulders off*

How’s Michigan now? I stopped paying attention years ago

While the Michigan teams of the past several years have not been the most challenging opponents for Ohio State to overcome, this year’s Wolverine team actually looks to be the best of the Jim Harbaugh era. At 10-1 on the season, their only loss coming to Michigan State, Michigan’s offseason moves, including a restructured salary for Harbaugh (cough, pay cut) and upgraded defensive coaching staff, seem to have paid off.

Most recently. Michigan recorded a 59-18 win over Maryland in the Wolverines’ second-straight road game. Quarterback Cade McNamara went 21-for-38 for 259 yards and two touchdowns, and running back Hassan Haskins had 20 carries for 78 yards and two scores. The Wolverines had 503 yards on offense to Maryland’s 359.

Let’s recap last week

If there was any doubt about the resurgence and continued growth of this Ohio State team following its loss to Oregon in week two, last week’s performance against No. 7 Michigan State — an absolute blowout with a 56-7 final score — fully dispelled it. The game was decided by the end of the first quarter, when Ohio State was up 21-0, and certainly by halftime, when the Buckeyes held a 49-0 lead.

Stroud had another near perfect game, which propelled him firmly to the top of the Heisman conversation (see below). On the other side of the ball, in what was an equally dominant performance, the Ohio State defense held Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III — widely regarded as the nation’s best back — to just 25 yards on six carries. The Spartans totaled just 224 yards on offense (to Ohio State’s 655) and barely held the ball, with the Buckeyes on offense for 37:58 of the game.

Stroud for Heisman

It’s not even a joke anymore. The redshirt freshman quarterback is now officially the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy after his 432 yard, six touchdown performance last week. Stroud had just three incompletions on the day and zero picks. Oh, and all of those touchdowns came in the first half, with Stroud able to rest for much of the second half after playing the first series in the third quarter.

With 3,468 passing yards in 2021, Stroud now holds the No. 2 spot in single season passing yards behind Dwayne Haskins’ 2018 performance. He also holds four of the top-10 single game passing yardage records in Ohio State program history. Those six passing touchdowns against Michigan State also tied the program record.

That being said, we must acknowledge that Stroud’s performance came against the actual last-place team in the FBS in passing defense, and this week’s matchup features a much more astute defensive secondary. Michigan has the eight-ranked passing defense in the country, with the Wolverines giving up just over 178 yards per game. Yikes.

Wilson for Heisman (and Olave and Smith-Njigba)

We may as well throw the collective hat of the most prolific receiving corps in college football in the ring, too. Wilson is just one part of a three-headed receiving monster that has proven all-but impossible for opposing defenses to defend. Even Michigan’s outstanding secondary will have its hands full with these Buckeyes.

Wilson needs just 61 receiving yards to become the Buckeyes’ second 1,000-yard receiver on the season, after sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba set the mark with his 139 yard performance against Purdue. Wilson has also recorded 11 touchdown receptions on the season, and Smith-Njigba six.

And then there’s Chris Olave who, in his final game in the Horseshoe, broke David Boston’s record for career touchdowns at Ohio State with 35. So far this season, Olave has hauled in 13 scores. Olave could also conceivably break the 1,000-yard mark Saturday, as the senior is sitting with 848 receiving yards on the year.

It will be a bittersweet moment for Olave (and for all his biggest fans), who stormed on the scene with a shocking performance against Michigan as an unheralded (by OSU standards) freshman in 2018. In addition to a blocked punt which set the tone for the Buckeyes’ triumph, he had two receptions, both of which went for touchdowns, for 48 yards in that matchup in a game which put him on the scene and established Olave as Ohio State’s No. 1 receiver for years to come.

Henderson for Heisman

Okay, maybe more of a stretch, but the true freshman running back hasn’t let up this season, and is second in the FBS in rushing yards per attempt with 7.3 per carry.

Once again, Henderson didn’t need to make all that many carries, and got to rest for much of last week’s matchup against the Spartans once the game was in hand for Ohio State. He wrapped up his day with just nine carries for 63 yards and no scores, but, once again, rushing was not as much of an emphasis against the worst pass defense in the nation.

This week looks like it’ll be a tough week of running, however. Michigan’s rush defense is ranked 30th in the FBS, allowing just 128.3 yards per game.

Ruggles for Heisman

Why not? The graduate transfer from North Carolina was perfect on the season until a failed field goal attempt last week against Michigan State botched it all. In all, Ruggles has connected on 16-of-17 field goal attempts, the best success rate in the Big Ten, and hasn’t missed a single of his many extra point attempts (you know, because Ohio State scores so many touchdowns).

As an aside, both Ruggles and Michigan kicker Jake Moody were named Lou Groza Award finalists earlier this week.

Elsewhere on special teams, Emeka Egbuka remains the Big Ten’s top kickoff returner, averaging an always electrifying 32.6 yards per return. Egbuka was absent during the Michigan State game, but Ryan Day is hopeful that the speedy returner will be back in the lineup Saturday.

Ohio State defense for Heisman

While the Buckeyes earned a definitive win over Purdue two weeks ago, questions around the strength of the Ohio State defense emerged after the Boilermakers put up 481 yards of offense. However, the Buckeyes’ defensive performance last week against the Spartans silenced those doubters, as Ohio State held a very good Michigan State offense to 158 yards passing, 66 yards rushing and seven points — the Spartans’ lowest total of the season.

Still, one game does not a season make, and Ohio State’s pass defense remains 98th in the FBS, allowing 252 yards per game through the air. While Michigan’s pass offense is not exactly prolific, it will be something Jim Harbaugh and Co. will try to exploit come Saturday.

Harbaugh history

Speaking of Jim Harbaugh, and since it bears repeating, Michigan’s head coach is 0-5 against the Buckeyes in The Game. His overall record against other rivals (he’s 3-4 against Michigan State) and top-10 teams (2-13) is not much better.

But it’s not all bad. Since taking the helm at Michigan in 2015, Harbaugh has amassed a 59-23 overall record, including going 41-17 in-conference.

Regardless, Harbaugh has never won a Big Ten East title, let alone a conference title, and the powers that be at Michigan restructured Harbaugh’s contract this past offseason to reflect a more incentive pay-focused structure that, as one might guess, would incentivize Harbaugh to do things like win the division and conference, and maybe even make the College Football Playoff.

It’s good to dream.

You’ve got to be Cade-ing me

Heading into Saturday, junior Cade McNamara is looking to become the first Michigan quarterback since Denard Robinson to beat Ohio State. McNamara became the starter for the Wolverines last season after Joe Milton III got benched, and has been making the most of his first full season at the helm. McNamara has totaled 2,142 yards passing on the season and thrown 14 touchdowns and two picks. His best game of the season came against Penn State, when he led a game winning drive to beat the Nittany Lions and accounted for all three of Michigan’s touchdowns on the day.

Not the Haskins you’re thinking of

The Ohio State defense will have a familiar face in the offensive backfield come Saturday. Senior running back Hassan Haskins will suit up for his final game against Ohio State. A strong north-south runner, Haskins has accrued 1,063 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. Last time out against Ohio State in 2019, Haskins had 12 carries for 78 yards and a touchdown.

While he’s missed several games with a high ankle sprain, sophomore running back Blake Corum is looking to join Haskins in the backfield. In nine games, Corum has amassed 778 yards and 10 touchdowns. While we’re not going to cheer for Corum on the field, we can support his off the field activities, which included donating his NIL money to give Thanksgiving turkeys to families in need.

Michigan has quietly risen to become the No. 2 rushing offense in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are averaging 218.4 yards per game, sitting just behind Wisconsin.

On the other side of the ball…

The Wolverines certainly turned a corner on defense this year following the departure of Don Brown, who was replaced with Mike Macdonald, who has instilled some youth and energy to the role of defensive coordinator. That energy has borne results, with Michigan ranking seventh nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 16.3 points per game.

Michigan has proven throughout the season what a truly outstanding defensive front seven it has. Anchored by defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and linebacker David Ojabo, Michigan has recorded 28 sacks and 10 forced fumbles on the year. Keeping the pocket clean for Stroud will be a key to the game for Ohio State.

As mentioned, Michigan has one of the most lockdown pass defenses in the nation, allowing 178.4 yards per game. The unit has recorded seven picks on the year, including one returned for a touchdown.

Michigan special teams

Meanwhile on special teams, Jake Moody, Michigan’s kicker, is sitting just behind Ruggles in kicking success in the Big Ten, connecting on 22-of-24 field goal attempts this year. He’s also a perfect 44-for-44 on extra points this year.

There’s also Michigan’s return game, which is among the best in the conference. The aforementioned Blake Corum, who was the Wolverines’ primary kickoff returner prior to his injury, is third in the Big Ten with 25.3 yards per attempt. Wide receiver AJ Henning, who handles punt return duties, is averaging 9.3 yards per return, which is good for second in the conference. Henning was also the beneficiary of a nifty trick play in the kick return game vs. Maryland, resulting in an 81-yard score.

Summary

Ohio State enters Saturday’s matchup as 8.5-point favorites over the home team. Despite what we’ve seen over the last two decades, this would seem to be the best Michigan team we’ve seen in a long time, so the spread feels right.

Michigan also brings the toughest defense Ohio State has seen this season, as well as one of the most powerful offenses. In fact, this Saturday pits the top two scoring offenses in the Big Ten against one another.

Ohio State, despite a rough start to the season, has grown to boast one of the nation’s top rushing defenses, and will be looking to defend against one of the most productive rushing attacks in the country. Conversely, Ohio State’s passing offense, anchored by the nation’s top quarterback, will face its toughest defense yet.

Turnovers could be a major factor. One of the strengths for both Ohio State and Michigan is their ability to take the ball away more than they give it up. The Buckeyes are +9 in turnover margin, goof for 12th in the FBS, while Michigan is +7, tied for 20th.

While it might be easy to sit back and assume Ohio State will be able to handle Michigan as it has in recent seasons, things will not be so easy Saturday. Though it seems like the flame of the rivalry has begun to flicker from Michigan’s perspective, they’ll be hungry for their first win since 2011. Moreover, the winner gets all the marbles.

LGHL prediction: Ohio State 38, Michigan, 31