Michigan-Ohio State Preview

Jamie Sabau

The Game. Period.

Michigan vs. Ohio State

Columbus, OH; Noon, ABC

Enemy Blog: Land-Grant Holy Land

Statmilk Profile (Check this out, it's cool)

While Michigan's hopes of a Legends division title have all but turned to a distant possibility (unless you're naive enough to believe that Iowa can pull off the upset against Nebraska -- in which case. I've got some magic beans to sell you), The Game still means something.

Yeah, yeah I know. It always means something. It's THE GAME. But seriously, with Ohio State sitting on the verge of an undefeated season and Saturday being Buckeye nation's de facto bowl game, Michigan has a little added incentive to go into Columbus and play spoiler -- not that Brady Hoke and Co. need any extra motivation in this one.

Ohio State has had a very good season thus far, doing enough week in and week out to maintain an undefeated record while racking up a couple impressive wins (a rout over Nebraska at home and an overtime victory against Wisconsin in Camp Randall). So far Urban Meyer's first year is turning out about as close to the best case scenario as even the most cooler poopin' Buckeye fans could have set forth before the season.

It hasn't always been pretty. The Buckeyes scraped by in a shootout against Indiana earlier in the year before escaping in overtime against Purdue with Braxton Miller on the bench with an injury. It has largely been the play of Miller -- every bit the perfect Urban Meyer quarterback he was projected to be in the offseason -- that has lifted Ohio State's offense to the level of productivity it is at this year. Meanwhile, the defense boasts what is arguably the best front line of any team in the conference, and has been very good for long stretches -- especially against the run.

Michigan may not have an undefeated record on the line, or the seven year monkey on its back, but this would be Michigan's first win in Columbus in over a decade (the last was in 2000) and would set Michigan up with a chance to post its second consecutive 10+ win season with a bowl win.

They call it The Game for a reason. Drama and excitement come standard.

When Michigan has the ball

The Ohio State defense has admittedly had some ups and downs this season. The unit is one of the better run defenses in the conference and country, allowing just 116 yards per game at 3.5 yards per carry. The aforementioned monster defensive line has something to do with that. Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is regarded as a top ten pick in next year's NFL draft, and his combination of size and athleticism are going to lead to a good payday when he decides to go pro (/shakes fist and curses). Next to him on the inside is Garrett Goebel, a redshirt senior. The Buckeyes' best run stoppers are SDE John Simon and linebacker Ryan Shazier. Both have 14.5 TFLs on the season and are routinely breaking up plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Meanwhile, Michigan's run game has been all but non-existent outside of Denard Robinson. The good news is that the coaches clearly want to try and work him into the game in different ways, including tailback. The bad news is that just as Fitzgerald Toussaint started to flash some of his form from last year, he was horribly injured and knocked out for the year.

Michigan's run game can work in this one, but it is going to need to use both Denard Robinson at tailback (assuming he is healthy) and Devin Gardner as a called run threat from the quarterback spot (something that the coaches haven't done yet. Even then, the best bet will likely be some sort of inverted veer option that relies on reads to block players, vs. the idea of not double teaming Johnathan Hankins on the inside every single time. Michigan's interior line has struggled to get a push this year. It will need to devote two guys to Hankins every time while hoping that the tackles can handle Simon.

If the run game can scrape out a meager existence, it should help set up the passing game, which has looked much better these past few weeks with Gardner taking over starting duties. However, Ohio State has the best secondary that Gardner will have seen to date. The Buckeyes may be 84th nationally in pass yards allowed per game, but the pass efficiency defense is a much more respectable 28th. Part of this is the horrible nature of the Big Ten (five teams rank better in pass eff. def.), but Ohio State certainly has better athletes in the secondary. Bradley Roby now has two full years as a starter under his belt and is the Buckeye's best corner, while Orhian Johnson, CJ Barnett, and Christian Bryant all have extensive experience. The biggest problem is that there isn't much experience after the starters.

Michigan, meanwhile, is looking like a downright pass happy squad with the emergence of Devin Gardner. The junior has been very good so far as a starter. He is throwing accurate passes, taking shots down field, and picking up yards on the ground when his receivers are covered. You couldn't ask for a much better three game entrance from Gardner. Even the receivers -- especially Roy Roundtree -- have responded in a positive way.

Outlook

Michigan should be able to pass the ball with some success against the Buckeyes. Gardner is doing a good job finding receivers, and Ohio State has shown a tendency to give up yards to opposing offenses. However, this matchup will come down to how well Michigan runs the ball. If the Denard/Devin experiment can produce some running success, Michigan's offense will be able to have a good day. Against that interior defensive line, without Toussaint, and using Denard at a position he just moved to a week ago, I don't expect this to go Michigan's way.

Advantage: Lean OSU

When Ohio State has the ball

The Urban Meyer turnaround from 2011 has been evident more than anywhere else on the offensive side of the ball. Long gone are the days of Jim Bollman and Tressel-ball. Meyer has brought his run-spread offense to Columbus, harnessed the talents of sophomore Braxton Miller, and taken the offense as a whole from one of the worst in the Big Ten to one of the best in a little under a year.

This was hardly unexpected. Meyer is known for his offensive coaching abilities, and his offensive coordinator, Tom Herman, is an up-and-coming name in the college football coaching world. Ohio State is averaging a hair over 38 points per game, 245 rush yards per game (5.33 yoc), and has only been held under 20 points once all season (17 vs. Michigan State).

Miller is the catalyst for everything. He leads Ohio State in rush yards by a healthy margin with 1214 yards, 13 touchdowns, and a ypc average of 5.8 ypc. That is a full 50 carries and almost 400 yards more than top tailback Carlos Hyde. Hyde is built more for inside runs (6'0, 232lbs) while Miller is the speed guy that can attack the edges. As Ross Fulton of Eleven Warriors points out, Miller poses a tough matchup for Michigan. The Wolverines are going to have to use a lot of cover-four coverage while shading linebackers closer to the box than the slot receivers in an effort to stop the run on first and second down and get Ohio State backed up with long fields on third-down.

Of course, this has the tendency to open up other places to move the ball. Ohio State has a solid deep threat in Devin Smith, who leads the team in receiving touchdowns (six) and is just 19 yards behind receiving leader Corey "Philly" Brown (who has 574 this year) despite catching only 28 passes to Philly's 52. Smith is the vertical threat where Brown is the beneficiary of a lot of the shorter dump off passes that Meyer and Co. like to run with Miller. Jake Stoneburner is third on the team in his newly minted receiver role. He has 15 catches for 260 yards, and four touchdowns. The Ohio State passing game can produce its share of big plays. Despite being second to last in the Big Ten in pass plays over 10 yards, Ohio State has 17 (t-4th) pass plays over 30 yards and eight (t-3rd) over 40 yards.

Outlook

This matchup could go a number of different ways. If Michigan can successfully stack the box and avoid giving up big plays over the top (think the Nebraska game) then the Wolverines will be in business on third down, and could hold the Buckeyes to one of the lowest outputs of the year. On the other hand, if Michigan struggles to hold up on the outside and Miller is continually getting free it will put the defense on its heels and open up things for even more shots down the field. Add in the fact that this game means so much more for Ohio State without a possibility of a bowl game, and what we are likely to see is an offense that pulls out all the stops to try and keep Michigan's defense on its heels.

Miller isn't the most talented passer in the country, but with Michigan leaving its corners on an island on early downs, there are bound to be holes over top to exploit when (if?) Raymon Taylor or JT Floyd bust in coverage. If Miller is hitting these passes, things could turn out like last year. If not -- or if Taylor and Floyd close the windows -- then Michigan is in business.

It is foolish to expect OSU not to have some success throwing the ball down the field, but it is also true that this Michigan run defense is one of the better units Ohio State has seen this year (its 51st ranking nationally not withstanding).

Advantage: Even

When someone is kicking the ball

Drew Basil hasn't gotten much of a chance to play this season -- just six field goal attempts and four makes -- but he was 16 of 19 a year ago, so the talent is there. Meanwhile, Ben Buchanan is averaging just over 40 yards per punt (with the team 83rd in net punting with 35.84). Michigan doesn't have the special teams units to really take advantage of any of this. However, Philly Brown has two punt return touchdowns and has helped Ohio State to 10th nationally in punt return yards per attempt.

Other stuff

Key Matchups:

  • Floyd and Taylor vs. Braxton Miller and Those Passes - If Miller is able to consistently pick on Michigan's corners deep it will change the complexion of the game and help OSU's offense take control.
  • Miller vs. Greg Mattison's Evil Schemes - Last year Miller found his way out of a few different Mattison blitz packages, and we've seen them blow up this year as well. If you give up long third-down conversions to a running quarterback that scrambles, you're gonna have a bad time.
  • Devin Gardner vs. the crushing wave of hype he is riding in on - At some point you have to expect the Devin Gardner bubble will burst, and while this seems like the best chance for that to happen, the Buckeye are still a team that gave up 300 passing yards three times this season.
  • Denard Robinson vs. the illusion that tailbacks can't run in this offense - Help us Denard Robinson, you're our only hope.

Alternate Programming:If you want to watch Michigan's title hopes die, turn the Iowa-Nebraska game on at noon today. There isn't much on at noon Saturday, but Oregon-Oregon State is the 3pm game and should be worth checking out opposite Florida-Florida State. In the evening there are three great offerings in Stanford-UCLA at 6:30, Clemson-South Carolina at 7:00, and USC-Notre Dame at 8:00.

Inanimate Object Threat Level: 11 - Turn it all the way up, boys. I'm going to be pacing, swearing, and a danger to anything within my arms reach Saturday.

Final Prediction: I'm somewhat torn between optimism and crushing fear this week.

On paper I think Michigan poses one of the stiffest defensive tests that Ohio State has seen all year. Michigan can and should be able to contain the run and force Miller and his receivers to keep the chains moving in the passing game. I don't worry about the lateral passing game much as that burden falls to the safeties and Jake Ryan, with some good support from both corners -- both of whom have shown a good ability to make plays in the flat. On the offensive side of the ball, Gardner hasn't shown me anything yet to make me doubt his ability to lead a productive offense. Michigan has done better on the scoreboard with him under center than with Robinson, and the addition of Robinson in some capacity in the run game should mostly mitigate any loss of Toussaint.

On the other hand, the game last year seemed like the same sort of proposition. Michigan's defense was a strength and Ohio State's offense was supposed to be over-matched. We all know how that went. The Buckeyes opened up the game plan, took shots all over the field, and put together the best offensive day of the season.

I see this game staying close because neither defense will be able to totally shut down the opposing offense. Both teams are going to put up 25-30 points, both offenses are going to have crucial turnovers, and both defenses are going to give up a few big plays.

Ultimately, I don't think Michigan will have enough. There is a reason why the Wolverines haven't won in Columbus in so long. That is one of the hardest stadiums in the country to win in. Add in the fact that Ohio State is playing its de facto national championship game, and the fact that this team is set up to test Michigan's run defense on the edges and its deep pass defense, and you've to the recipe for a bad result on Saturday.

No streak of our own, I'm afraid. Michigan 27 - Ohio State 30

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