Well, here it is. Somehow, we expected the season to come down to the game on Nov. 26. Ever since last year’s humiliating defeat in Ann Arbor, the Buckeyes and their fans have looked to this week’s game. Oh, I know that teams never look ahead, that they play only this week’s game. But really? Is that what we believe?
All through the Urban Meyer and Ryan Day eras, the Buckeyes had dominated TTUN. Dominated. Then came last year, and the Bucks were beaten up, humbled, humiliated. The game was followed by Wolverine (coach, players, fans) boasting and trash talking. One game, and what a difference in made in attitudes.
Actually, both teams are pretty quiet going into this week’s game. Maybe the coaches have cautioned the players about talking. Maybe the players just know the significance. Whatever the case, there’s no mention of “putting 100 on ‘em,” or anything else. The Buckeyes, especially, seemed focused with a steely determination to get the job done.
The teams in 2022
So, what can we say about this year’s Game? First of all, it’s not a replay, or a Buckeye do-over, of last year’s matchup. These are different teams, and I think that both of them are better teams than they were a year ago. Better in different ways, of course.
Michigan is statistically better on both sides of the ball than last year. Quarterback J.J. McCarthy brings a superior passing attack, with the additional factor of his running ability. On defense, again the Wolverines show better stats than last year. They’re giving up fewer yards and fewer points, but their D, to my mind, isn’t as devastating as last year’s. The two ferocious edge rushers – Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo – are safely housed in the NFL, resulting in fewer sacks, tackles for loss, and turnovers than a year ago. But make no mistake: TTUN is very good – a balanced offense and a suffocating defense.
Ohio State is second in the nation in scoring offense at 46.5 per game — slightly better than last year, when they actually ranked No. 1 in that category. The Buckeye passing attack, as we’ve noted in previous columns, is down a bit in 2022. It averages nearly 100 fewer yards per game than last season. Quarterback C.J. Stroud is completing 66.4% of his passes (71.9 in 2021) and averaging 9.7 yards per attempt (10.1 last year). Because the OSU receivers are so good, we perhaps haven’t noticed that, with Jaxon Smith-Njigba more or less out for the year and Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson starring on Sundays, the Bucks haven’t consistently hit the big passing plays this year.
The running game, however, is averaging about 23 more yards per game than in 2021, with a similar per carry average – 5.5, exactly the same (surprisingly) as Michigan’s this year.
The big difference with the Buckeyes this year is the superior defense. Last year, Michigan seemed to have the ball the whole game, running for eight or 12 yards on every play. I don’t expect that to be the case on Saturday.
We can discuss numbers (with pleasure, I acknowledge) all day long, but the outcomes of college football games often come down to what we call “intangibles.” I’m talking about home field advantage and crowd input, the revenge factor, the impact of the rivalry itself, guts, a desire to win – or a refusal to lose. Nobody can really predict how these factors will play out, but I have to think that, this year, they favor the Buckeyes.
In Ann Arbor, in the snow, the Buckeyes didn’t quit in the second half, but they looked as if they expected to lose the game. They’ve stepped up this year when games have been on the line. I look for them to do it again. They’ll expect to win this game.
How Michigan can win
Let me say from the get-go here that I don’t think that Michigan will win. I think that they will try to follow the same formula that worked for them last year: Dominate the lines of scrimmage with superior line play, pressure Stroud with only a four-man rush, and control possession. If they can do all of those things again, then they’ve got a real shot.
The Wolverines have lost a lot of last year’s personnel. McCarthy is still young, and, frankly, he still makes bad plays and puts the ball on the ground. Michigan may well have difficulty running the ball against the Buckeyes – especially if Blake Corum isn’t at 100% – and, if so, look for McCarthy to get rattled and try to do too much, to put the game on his own shoulders.
How the Buckeyes can win
After watching Ohio State all year, I’m going against the grain and stating flat out that the outcome in this game depends not on the “new” Buckeye defense but, rather, on the “old” Buckeye offense. To win, the Bucks need to score a lot of points – at least 35 or 40 – and score on big passing plays. They’re not going to grind it out on the ground, regardless of who’s carrying the ball. Three yards and... well, three yards and second and seven isn’t going to cut it.
No, the OSU strength is its passing game, with the top quarterback in passing efficiency directing the attack. Success on first down will be critical. Establishing the passing game will set up the ability to run — not the other way around. The Buckeyes will need to can the wide receiver screens and throw downfield more. Where are the vintage crossing routes, where Stroud hits the slot receiver (covered maybe by a linebacker) in space? Where are the deep balls over the top?
Remember after last year’s rout of Michigan State, some Spartan defensive back said (something to this effect), “You think that you’ve got your man covered and then you look, and they’re throwing it over your head.” Stroud needs to throw it over their heads. He’ll need time, though, a luxury that he lacked last year. The Buckeyes have yielded only seven sacks so far this season, .644 per game — second in the country. The O-line will need to keep it up.
Ohio State needs not only to score quickly (avoid long drives, with lots of third down plays) but also early. Take the lead. Make Michigan play catch-up. Throttle their confidence. Put the pressure on McCarthy and see what he’s capable of. Both Ohio State and Michigan have been second-half teams this year. On Saturday, the Buckeyes need to take control in the first half. If they do, they shouldn’t play conservatively. I’m not confident that they can control possession against Michigan the way that they did against Maryland in the second half last week.
The Buckeye defense will give up some points to the Wolverine runs and tight end passes. But they won’t get routed. The game will hinge on the protection ability of the OSU offensive line, on Stroud’s accuracy, on converting third downs when necessary, and getting several big strike plays. Sounds tough, but the formula for success in this game is really just the efficient execution of the Buckeye offense.
Are we nervous? Hell, yes. But so are the Michigan fans. Big game. Home game. Go Bucks!