I walked through the tunnel with you
The air was cold
But something about it felt like home somehow
And I left my gold pants at the Big House
But we’ve still got some in a drawer even now.
This weekend’s matchup between the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes and No. 3 Michigan Wolverines is the stuff of “Folklore.” Some might even say this elite pairing for the Big Ten East crown and a shot at the College Football Playoff was Taylor-made.
There’s no shortage of Bad Blood between these two bitter rivals who are looking to “Shake It Off” after narrow wins last week, with Michigan escaping on a last-minute field goal over Illinois and Ohio State eventually running away with a road win over Maryland. And with the latest CFP rankings pitting Ohio State and Michigan firmly in the Playoff discussion, this rivalry game has a big “Reputation” and oh, Jim and Ryan are a big conversation.
Michigan hasn’t won in Columbus since the turn of the millennium, but the Buckeyes are looking for revenge after what happened last season, when the Wolverines destroyed hopes of an Ohio State Playoff berth, as they enter the 118th edition of this rivalry.
The series history of this rivalry is one of the most storied in all of the sports, and if T Swift wrote a ballad about it, it would likely be longer than the 10-minute version of All Too Well. From the Ten-Year War between Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler that helped establish the rivalry to the Earl Bruce vs. Gary Moeller years and on down the line to the emerging rivalry between Ryan Day and Jim Harbaugh, this series has evolved over time into a complex, beautiful masterpiece.
The overall history might favor Michigan, but the Buckeyes have won enough contests in recent memory to make the score a much more even one. As it stands, Ohio State is 51-59-6 against the Wolverines. This season’s matchup is also the 12th time the pair have met as top-five teams. The Buckeyes have a 7-3-1 record in those iterations.
The Buckeyes have won 15-of-17 and the pair did not face off in 2020. Perhaps the most memorable game in recent memory came in 2016, when J.T. Barrett, Harbaugh’s proverbial bogeyman, ran on 4th-and-1, the spot was good and the Buckeyes won the game on the next play.
As great as the 2004-2019 renditions of The Game were, and as much as we don’t want to talk about what happened last November, we have to address it. Let’s make it quick. *Deep breath,” Ohio State fell 42-27 on the road in Ann Arbor. Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud was 34-of-49 passing for 394 yards and two touchdowns. The run game struggled against a fierce Michigan front seven, anchored by future No. 2-overall NFL Draft pick Aidan Hutchinson. And the Wolverines ran for 297 yards and six rushing touchdowns.
Of course, that loss effectively eliminated the Buckeyes from Playoff contention while securing Michigan’s spot in the field for the first time.
As Taylor might say, “It was supposed to be fun, back in ‘21.” And now we move on.
Maybe it’s true, Ohio State can’t live without maize and blue, because this year’s rivalry game is a winner-take-all event for:
- The Big Ten East title
- A shot at the College Football Playoff
There’s also the obvious implication of a win over historic rivals. Especially after what happened last year, the Buckeyes are thirsty for a win for all the marbles. T Swift might keep the Christmas lights up ‘til January. The Buckeyes could keep their football season going then, too.
Can I go where you go?
Can we always be this close forever and ever?
Ohio State is returning home for Senior Day. The program is set to honor 23 seniors ahead of their final game against Michigan. The members of this senior class have at least one pair of gold pants apiece, more for fifth- and sixth-year seniors.
And because Buckeyes are forever, Harry Miller and Marcus Crowley, who both retired following the 2021 season, will also get to walk on Senior Day.
Saturday’s home finale against a storied rival is a perfect conclusion to the 100th anniversary of the Horseshoe — especially since it was against Michigan that Ohio Stadium was first dedicated in 1922.
Tickets to Saturday’s game might not be quite the going rate as, say, those for Taylor’s Eras Tour, but C deck endzone seats are going for well above $300 per ticket on average. Can’t make it to the game? Maybe your Lego-self can. Because this season, going to the Shoe — or at least its Lego replica — can save lives.
Jim Harbaugh is perhaps surpassed only by PJ Fleck when it comes to competing for the Big Ten’s top coaching goofball position. He’s always been a little absurd, but those eccentricities became more noticeable for Ohio State fans when Harbaugh returned to his alma mater with a goal of returning the Michigan football program’s prestige after being tarnished by mediocre coaches following Lloyd Carr’s departure in 2007.
Harbaugh himself came to Ann Arbor in 2015 and, in between weird incidents like having a sleepover at a recruit’s house and deliberately wearing ill-fitting khakis, has accrued a record of 72-24 overall and 50-17 in-conference with the Wolverines. He’s had at least 10 wins in five of his eight seasons with the program (including this season). Despite that record, Harbaugh has struggled to beat his rivals or win conference championships or bowl games. Last season threw the monkey off of Harbaugh’s back in terms of the former two, but he’s still 1-5 against Ohio State and in bowl games.
One of the big mysteries heading into Saturday is the status of Michigan’s run game which, in short, is their offense. The Wolverines have joined the service academies in averaging far more rushing yards than passing yards per game. In fact, Michigan is putting up 244 yards per game on the ground (No. 4 in the FBS) compared to 209 through the air (No. 99 in the FBS). Given their focus on the rushing attack, Michigan also tends to possess the ball, hanging onto the football for more than 35 minutes per game. Time goes by, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it.
That rushing game is anchored by Blake Corum who, while being an incredible citizen in his community, is third in the FBS in rushing yards (1,457) and tied for second in rushing touchdowns (18). (As an aside, he’s third in rushing yards behind Illinois’ Chase Brown and Minnesota’s Mo Ibrahim.) Corum was a hot pick for many as a Heisman contender with his mid-season play. But then came Illinois last week when Corum got hurt on a scary play at the end of the first half. He was warming up on the sideline after the break, but saw minimal action before sitting for the rest of the Wolverines’ narrow win.
Michigan was already without sophomore running back Donovan Edwards, who was in street clothes against the Illini. Edwards had been seeing more carries as the season wore on, and had a career game with 173 yards and two scores in Michigan’s win over Penn State in October. However, he’s been banged up throughout the year (we know the feeling) and had just two carries against Nebraska the week prior before sitting out the rest of the game.
Offensive tackle Ryan Hayes might be wondering “Is it cool that I said all that?” after accidentally alluding to being without Corum Saturday, but with both Michigan’s leading rushers questionable for the game, one has to wonder where Michigan will find its offense.
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy is facing his first start against Ohio State and it’s certainly an advantage (for the Buckeyes) that this start is coming on the road. In fact, the last time a first-time Michigan starter beat Ohio State on the road was in 2000 when Drew Henson, a third-year quarterback, got his first start against the Buckeyes after backing up Tom Brady. In a rowdy Horseshoe, a fresh quarterback might say, “You need to calm down, you’re being too loud” to Ohio State fans, but sorry not sorry for messing with your signal calling. Better work on that silent count.
In aggregate, McCarthy’s thrown for 1,952 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 2 picks, completing 67% of his passes. He’s also added 213 yards on the ground on 49 attempts for three scores. However, maybe something got lost in translation, maybe he asked for too much because McCarthy and his receivers have struggled with the long ball. McCarthy is completing just about a third of passes of 20+ yards. Moreover, things have started to go downhill for the passer as the season has worn on (which can probably be said of most Big Ten quarterbacks playing in finicky November weather).
After completing 80% of his passes in September — granted, against Michigan’s non-conference schedule — McCarthy’s completion percentage has dropped like a rock to 50%. Yards per attempt also got cut by almost half, from 11.6 in September to 6.3 in November.
In terms of who McCarthy is passing to, somehow Ronnie Bell is still on the team. He’s the Wolverines’ leading receiver in terms of yards with 643 receiving yards this year — more than twice what the next receiver up has. McCarthy has also relied on Cornelius Johnson and Roman Wilson who’ve had four and three touchdowns, respectively, to lead the team in passing scores.
Saturday looks to be 52 degrees and sunny in Columbus — a day where passing has more potential than the windy, rainy, snowy or otherwise unpalatable conditions many conference teams have seen this month. Especially given the potential absence of Corum and Edwards, Michigan will certainly be looking for a way to acquire an edge offensively.
Jim Knowles’ defense hits you like bang. The Buckeyes are No. 9 in the FBS in total defense, allowing just 283 yards per game, and No. 10 in scoring defense, giving up just under 17 points per outing. While the offense this season has never exactly put the Buckeyes in a rough position, the defense has made sure that opponents were out of games when things were not humming as per usual (e.g., Ohio State’s win over Northwestern).
Then there’s the third-down defense. The Buckeyes are allowing conversions on just 29% of opponent attempts. It makes up for one major deficiency on Ohio State’s defense: in the red zone. The Buckeyes are giving up scores on 91% of attempts. Not great. But acceptable considering just six FBS teams have allowed fewer red zone possessions.
Knowles’ defense had perhaps its biggest struggle of the season against Maryland last week, and it is faced with retooling for an entirely different kind of offensive attack this weekend against Michigan.
McCarthy et al will be facing an uphill battle when it comes to the Ohio State passing defense. That defense is allowing under 176 yards per game, which is good for No. 11 in the FBS. Key to that effort is Thorpe Award semifinalist Lathan Ransom who has been an absolute monster as the season has gone on (on both defense and special teams, mind you). It’s doubtful McCarthy will be taking shots at the D (like it’s Patron), especially given the challenges the offense has had with downfield passing, but that does narrow the assignment for the Ohio State defensive backs. Especially if Michigan has a more limited running game, the defensive secondary can focus on the short passes McCarthy so favors.
And then there’s the pass rush from the Buckeyes which is averaging just under three sacks per game (it happens to be tied with Michigan’s). The Buckeyes have also democratized their sacks, with Mike Hall Jr., Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau, Zach Harrison, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, and others.
Of course, the rush defense is where we all thought it would count with Michigan — at least a few weeks ago, and certainly last season. It’s an area, in particular, that Knowles had to work on, considering the Wolverines ran all over the Buckeyes for the aforementioned 297 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Stroud can throw you incredible things. Madness, Magic; Fleming, Marvin. And a heckuva lot more, but we can’t fit them in the lyrics.
Anyway, C.J. Stroud is having a Heisman-worthy season, even with his performance being somewhat tempered by rough games against Northwestern and, to a degree, Maryland. Some might even say that Stroud is The Man. He’s complex, he’s cool; he reads the field before he finds a receiver to commit to. And that’s okay for him to do because every touchdown that he throws makes him more of a boss to you.
And when it comes to rushing, we keep waiting, all he has to do is run. Stroud showed what he can do with his legs against Northwestern, balancing a tough passing day with the biggest rushing performance of his career. Might we see those graceful strides against TTUN?
Of course, Stroud might be sick of running as fast as he can. He would get there quicker if there were a healthy Henderson; which brings us to…
The running game’s not the same, after three months in the grave, but as the level of competition has increased (and will continue to, if a Playoff berth is in the future), an established run game is a necessity. Especially since establishing the run is what’s enabled Stroud and Co. to be so successful in the passing game.
With injury issues to Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson, freshman running back Dallan Hayden has stepped up in a big way to bring at least a little balance as the established backs have tried to recover in recent weeks. Hayden has passed the century mark against both Maryland and Indiana, scoring four touchdowns in the two games.
Marvin Harrison Jr., the reason for the teardrops on their guitar
One of Stroud’s many targets, Harrison has separated himself as possibly the greatest receiver in the country. Especially in the absence of Jaxon Smith-Njigba in the lineup for much of the season, Harrison has not just caught balls — he’s done it with style. He crossed the 1,000-receiving yard mark for the season last week against Maryland and has 11 touchdowns on the year, which are both team bests.
It doesn’t hurt that Harrison gets to line up alongside Emeka Egbuka (who could reasonably hit 1,000 yards himself Saturday), Julian Fleming, and Cade Stover.
Let’s pause for a tercet here:
Marvin finds another way to be on the highlight of Stroud’s day.
He’s catching footballs from the air on a sunny or a rainy day.
It’s hard to make a conversation when he’s taking defenders’ breath away.
Anyway. Stay flexible.
It’s no secret: The Buckeyes STRUGGLED against Michigan’s defensive front seven in 2021. The Wolverines totaled four sacks and eight tackles for loss against Ohio State. But then, to paraphrase Taylor, I got harder, I got smarter on the offensive line. I got a list of names and yours is in scarlet underlined.
Now, the offensive line is one of the hottest in college football, led by first-year position coach Justin Frye, paving the way for a rushing attack that, even with injuries to Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson, is averaging 204 yards per game.
And impressively, the line has allowed just seven sacks. All. Season. Long. They’ll be looking to face Michigan’s strong defensive front in better shape than they did last season.
Ohio State has faced some challenging defenses this year (read: Iowa), but the Buckeyes, after some fits and starts, were able to overcome the physical play and establish their own game with some second-half adjustments.
It’ll be another tall order Saturday. Michigan has surpassed the Big Ten West trio of Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota to lead the conference in both scoring (11.7 points per game) and total (241.3 yards per game) defense. The Wolverines are also tops in the nation in total and No. 2 in scoring defense.
There also isn’t a clear point of weakness on the defense. Michigan is No. 5 in the FBS in passing yards allowed and No. 2 in rushing defense, allowing 162 yards through the air and 79.5 yards on the ground per game. Making matters worse for a struggling Ohio State rushing attack, the Wolverines have given up just 2.4 yards per rush this season. On third down, they allow opponents to convert just 30% of the time (for what it’s worth, Ohio State’s offense is converting 48% of third-down attempts). Their weakest point is probably their red zone defense, where the Wolverines are giving up scores on 79% of opponent trips. Still, that’s not a horrible stat.
Edge rusher Mike Morris and linebacker Junior Colson, as our Josh Dooley shared this week, lead the Wolverines in sacks and tackles, respectively and, along with defensive lineman Mazi Smith, are a set of generally freak athletes on the other side of the ball (spoiler: Smith was the freakiest heading into the season. Harrison was No. 2). The memory of last year is strong, and the offensive line, once again, will need to prove itself against Michigan’s defensive front seven.
For his first few seasons, Ryan Day was another nightmare for Jim Harbaugh; the next iteration of an Ohio State coach he simply couldn’t beat. Then last year happened. Unfortunately, that means Day is just 1-1 against the Buckeyes’ chief rival since Michigan backed out of 2020’s matchup when, yes, Ohio State probably would have hung 100 on them.
Nonetheless, Ryan Day is nothing if not methodical, and he demonstrated throughout the offseason and in the early season that his program can make the adjustments for things that decided the game last season (like bringing in Justin Frye to shore the offensive line and Jim Knowles to rapidly overhaul the defense).
There doesn’t seem to be any love lost between Day and Harbaugh, though things have been at least civil in the week’s proceedings.
If only Drew Chrisman was still on the team! Just kidding, we’ve been ecstatic with the performance of Ray Guy finalist punter Jesse Mirco, who, yes, can fake a punt when needed. While Mirco’s services have not been called on as often as others (his 39 punts so far this season are third-fewest in the Big Ten), he is averaging more than 45 yards per attempt and downs nearly half his punts inside the 20-yard line.
Then there’s kicker Noah Ruggles, who is 12-of-14 on field goals and 67-68 on extra points this year, having had one blocked against Maryland last week. While he’s not been called into duty this season for a game-winner, he did have that one in the Rose Bowl against Utah last season.
Michigan kicker Jake Moody, meanwhile, is the pride of the Wolverines this week after kicking a game-winner against Illinois Saturday. Moody is 25-for-30 on field goal attempts this season, since Michigan attempts nearly twice as many kicks as the Buckeyes. Of note, Moody is just 2-of-5 in 50+ yard attempts.
Ohio State hasn’t had to rely on special teams to win games this season. Michigan has. So they do have that experience going for them, I guess.
As the Buckeyes look to get “Back to December” in the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis, there’s one more Blank Space to fill on their schedule. Meanwhile, Michigan might be looking to repeat a Big Ten title, but lately we’ve been dressing for revenge in Columbus.
The weather is looking more favorable for the Buckeyes’ passing game than we’ve seen in a few weeks, at least not as Cold As You were against Indiana. It will be a perfect stage for the repeat battle of Ohio State’s high-flying offense versus Michigan’s shutdown defense.
On the flip side, we’ll be waiting with bated breath to see what comes of Michigan’s offense — namely if the Wolverines’ leading rushers will be suiting up against their rivals — and if first-year starter J.J. McCarthy will himself try to establish a downfield passing game against a much-improved Ohio State defense.
Our Song is We Don’t Give a Damn for the Whole State of Michigan. And Michigan might beat Ohio State in their Wildest Dreams, since Blake Corum wasn’t even born the last time the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe.
Today’s the day when we forget about the line (which stands at 7.5 in favor of Ohio State). And while things were rough in ‘21, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling ‘22.