The most exciting aspect of this team coming into the season was the marriage of new coach Urban Meyer and sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller showed flashes of potential a year ago -- including a very strong game in Ann Arbor -- and has thus far delivered a strong sophomore campaign. How is he used in Urban Meyer's offense and what are his strengths? Are there any potential weak points to his game that Michigan would be wise to try and exploit?
What you saw in the Ann Arbor game a year ago was the trailer for a future best picture candidate. Miller's running pedigree is unleashed in Tom Herman and Urban Meyer's offense, and while he isn't quite the thrower Johnny Manziel is, a core of talented wide receivers and a solid line help him read the opposing defensive line, decide whether to run or pass, and then execute on a few basic reads. Miller at times seems to sort of lose his focus temporarily when things aren't going quite right, but fortunately for the Buckeyes that hasn't happened very often in 2012. Michigan's "best hope" is to limit his mobility, but that's far easier said than done. If they make him beat them with his arm, he will. They're the top pass defense in the country for a reason though. We'll see what that looks like in practice.
The offense hasn't quite been Michigan 2010 in terms of its dependence on Miller, but he has been the leader in rushing by a fairly wide margin. Who are some of Ohio State's other offensive weapons, and how do they play off Miller's skills?
Carlos "El Guapo" Hyde is a half hedgehog, half bowling ball of a man who come at you with surprising quickness for someone of his build. Rod Smith is a more than capable change of pace back who catches the ball decently but has a fumbling issue. Corey Brown (of the Philly variety) is the Buckeyes' most capable weapon at wide receiver. He's also effective on end arounds and is the closest thing to a Percy Harvin with Jordan Hall sidelined for the season. Jake Stoneburner is a big bodied, agile wide out but he's had a substandard season after moving over from tight end. Both Ohio State tight ends, Jeff Heuerman and Nick Vannett are sure handed.
The Ohio State defense has been very good at some things (17th in rush defense) and bad in others (84th in pass defense). What has been the story on this unit so far this year, and how do you think it matches up with the surprisingly pass heavy Michigan offense under Devin Gardner.
Assuming Gardner's the guy, I'll take my chances with this D. The cornerbacks have been excellent, in fact there's a very decent case to make that Bradley Roby should rightfully be on the short list for the Thorpe Award. Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett are extremely sink or swim, but both played excellent games against Wisconsin. The unit isn't very deep, however, and have a tendency to get beat late. If Michigan can effectively throw the ball 30-40 times, they might be able to "wear" them down. Unfortunately when other teams have done that, they've usually been down by multiple scores already and in terms of the final outcome, it hasn't really mattered.
Ohio State is undefeated, but doesn't get the same national respect as some other undefeated and one-loss teams in part because of a few close calls against bad bad teams. Indiana put up 49 points in a three-point loss, Purdue took Ohio State to overtime, and the Cal game was tied in the fourth quarter. Is this a case of Ohio State playing down to its competition, or some other factor? Is there anything from these games that worries you going into this game?
This Buckeyes team absolutely plays up and plays down to all of its opposition. The Purdue game was probably their worst of the year (until the final two minutes and overtime when they suddenly looked like themselves again). And the Cal contest was a combination of factors: Cal played their best game while Ohio State unquestionably played one of their poor ones. The two things combined to make one team look better than they were and the other look worse. Ordinarily when you play with fire, you get burned. Ohio State hasn't yet; hopefully this isn't the week where that comes to fruition.
What are three keys to a Ohio State win on Saturday?
I'd say the first key for Ohio State winning Saturday against Michigan is getting Braxton Miller his sweet spot carries wise. That's probably somewhere between 18-25 carries. If he does that (and does so successfully), he'll open up the passing game, and thus the entire offense. Defensively, I think Ohio State has to make Denard beat you with his arm (assuming he's as good to go as Brady Hoke claims). If they use him as a pure running back, a sub-key will be not buying the play fake and not missing when you tackle. I'd go as far as to let Devin Gardner try to pick on the secondary. If he succeeds, you tip your hat to him. But if Christian Bryant or C.J. Barnett don't miss on a given play, it could be a turnover or 6 points the other way. Oh, and the Buckeyes have to block on the punt. If Michigan blocks a punt (which Ohio State has been prone to give up this season), it could change the entire complexion of the game.
After three surprisingly good games from Devin Gardner, I have to ask: which scenario is more worrisome for Ohio State from your perspective, a healthy Denard Robinson starting at quarterback, or Devin Gardner? What are your thoughts on Michigan using both players in a similar way to how Robinson was deployed (as a running back, slot receiver, and wildcat quarterback) against Iowa?
Denard Robinson looked mighty mortal against Ohio State two years ago. While this year's Buckeye defense probably isn't as good collectively as a unit, they're certainly as talented. Robinson had a good game last year, undoubtedly, but how much of that was the comfort of playing at home? Gardner is more of an unknown quantity. I mean, I've watched him play, and so will have Urban Meyer and Tom Herman, but I still don't know what Michigan has in him. I think you can key in and force Robinson to beat you with his arm the way Alabama did, and when that happens, anything goes. Gardner might actually do it.
How do you see this game playing out and what is your final score prediction?
The oddsmakers in Vegas felt Ohio State were 4.5 point good (at least in terms of drawing equal action on both sides of the line). I think the Buckeyes are about 6-7 points better honestly, but crazy things can happen in rivalry games. I think last year's higher scoring affair will echo somewhat this year, but not quite as prolifically. Let's say Ohio State 28 - Michigan 17. I'm prone to change my mind about two dozen times between now and kick off though.