There's no better week than this one.
Every year, Michigan anxiously waits 51 weeks for this one to arrive, for a chance to beat the Buckeyes and own bragging rights for the ensuing 52. And it's even more so the case in 2015 -- Jim Harbaugh's first on the sideline as Michigan's head coach. Under Harbaugh's guidance, Michigan isn't just ahead of schedule. It's already arrived. In the summer, the Wolverines were a 16-point underdog to Ohio State. Now? Michigan is a pick 'em and just one win away from heading to a New Year's Six bowl, most likely.
We introduced you to the Buckeyes yesterday, but now it's time to learn about them from someone that knows them best. We sat down with Chris Kopech, who's an editor for Land-Grant Holy Land -- SB Nation's Ohio State site -- to ask him about this Ohio State team and what he believes will happen on Saturday. What the heck went wrong for the Buckeyes against the Spartans? After Ezekiel Elliott's post-game outburst, is there dysfunction in the locker room? With Harbaugh and Urban Meyer, will we have another Ten Year War? Which team will emerge victorious? Chris answers that and more below!
Last weekend, Ohio State was 10-0, at home, and a 14.5-point favorite against a Connor Cook-less Michigan State team. Most presumed that the Buckeyes would take care of business to set up a Big Ten East championship game between Ohio State and Michigan. However, the Spartans kicked a last-second field goal to upset the Buckeyes. What were your takeaways from the game? What went wrong for Ohio State?
So, so many things went wrong for Ohio State; so, so many things went right for Michigan State. There are plenty of failings to look at on the Buckeye side, but one thing that was certainly exploited was the offensive line's inability to create consistent running lanes for Ezekiel Elliott, J.T. Barrett or anyone else. The weather made the passing game obsolete for both teams, so whomever won the battle in the trenches was going to win that game. Ohio State couldn't run; Michigan State took full advantage.
Ohio State's defensive line deserves some blame, too. Last year, there were games where it seemed like Ohio State couldn't run the ball without getting six or seven yards every time. That must have been what it felt like for Sparty on Saturday. I couldn't have been the only one hoping Cook would play through the pain, as the last wounded duck quarterback to go against the Buckeyes was Christian Hackenberg, and that didn't end well for Penn State. But 'twasn't the case.
Also, it's worth remembering that last week's game was entirely winnable for Ohio State, even into the second half. The Spartans gifted the Buckeyes all 14 points, but really didn't do much on offense themselves. But their defense was incredible. Here are the Buckeyes' drives in the second half: punt, fumble, touchdown (one play, six seconds after a muffed punt), punt, punt. Total time of possession: 9:16. That's not optimal.
After the loss to Michigan State, Ohio State players Ezekiel Elliott and Darron Lee publicly criticized Urban Meyer and the coaching staff for not putting the team in the right positions to win the game. Further, Elliott said that there's "no chance" he'll be back next season, indicating he plans to declare for the NFL Draft. Was this just players speaking honestly in the immediate aftermath of a frustrating loss? Or was this a sign that there may be some chemistry issues or dysfunction in the locker room?
I hope for the former and fear the latter. But honestly, who doesn't regret, like, 10,000 things they said when they were 20? We'll know more about the state of Ohio State's locker room on Saturday, but for now I'm hoping that Elliott and Lee were acting in a way that Asia would appreciate: it was the heat of the moment. If it is indicative of something worse, well that would be par for the course for an Urban Meyer team, post-National Championship, I guess.
Ohio State opened the season with Cardale Jones as its starting quarterback but made the switch to J.T. Barrett after the win versus Penn State. Why did Urban Meyer make this switch? And how does this offense operate better with Barrett behind the center?
Both quarterbacks can hurt opposing defenses in different ways. With Jones, you get the big arm, and the hulking running ability. With Barrett, you get more touch in the passing game, and more slickness with his running ability. You also get a better read-option and triple option with Barrett. Both quarterbacks benefit from having Elliott next to them in the backfield.
We've established both can hurt an opposing defense, but I think all of that is dependent upon the existence of a passing game. Elliott can't run with eight elite would-be tacklers cued in on him. Neither can Barrett, nor can Jones. The offense clearly misses Devin Smith's deep-ball ability that was so important last year (which, apparently, isn't translating too well on Sundays).
This might tie in to your last answer, but it's no secret that Ohio State's duo of J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott lead a prolific rushing attack. Obviously, it didn't go well last weekend, but the Buckeyes' run offense still is 10th in YPC and 11th in S&P+. Michigan's run defense has been excellent except against one team: Indiana, who gashed Michigan's front with outside zone and gassed a now-thin defensive line with tempo. With what types of runs has Ohio State found the most success? How often does Ohio State rely on or call outside zone runs? And, though the Buckeyes are only 93rd in adjusted pace, how comfortable is the offense when it speeds things up?
Hey, Indiana had some fun against Ohio State, too, so we feel you there and know exactly what you're talking about. Ohio State is a successful run team if Elliott can get yards running inside, because that sets up everything else. When he's successful inside, that allows Barrett to read-option outside, or fire off a quick screen to Braxton Miller or Michael Thomas with room to maneuver.
When the inside game is shut down, the rest of the offense has followed suit. Interestingly, the creativity in that sense seems to have been dialed back to almost nothing when the inside game isn't working. Too many times this year after Elliott has been stuffed for a yard or less, the next play has been something like a jet-sweep to the short side, or a screen pass or other short route. These get sniffed out since the defense isn't sitting on the inside run. This happened frequently against Michigan State. Further, in an Urban Meyer offense, the tempo doesn't usually go up unless first downs are earned with high frequency - that's when Tim Beck and Meyer love to keep opposing defenses on their heels. You didn't see that once on Saturday (and only gaining five first downs is the culprit).
Ohio State's aerial attack has been solid (38th in YPA and passer rating), but it's not the juggernaut that it was last season (seventh in YPA and second in passer rating). To what would you attribute this regression: quarterback inconsistencies, lack of a vertical threat like Devin Smith, or absence of former offensive coordinator Tom Herman? And how do you think J.T. Barrett and Ohio State's receivers will do against a pass defense that features Jourdan Lewis and is second in YPA and passer rating?
Tom Herman and Devin Smith are both on the Christmas Lists for almost every Buckeye fan. The play-calling this year has been awfully vanilla a lot of the time. I trust the coaching staff to know what the limitations are, but I counted one deep ball against Michigan State all game, and it was an overthrow to an otherwise open Miller. After that, whether because of weather, coverage, or lack of trust, there were very few looks downfield, if any.
The one thing that has consistently surprised me is that Miller hasn't thrown a pass all year. When he's behind center, you know what's coming - standard wildcat run through the first open gap, or a designed rollout to try and beat the defense horizontally. Is there a page in the playbook that has Miller fake a run, only to step back and throw once the defense bites? If there is, that page is probably down in Houston.
The odds are high that Ohio State will crush Michigan's run offense, which has crumbled in recent weeks. I'm more intrigued by the matchup between Ohio State's pass rush (fifth in adjusted sack rate) and Michigan's pass protection (21st in adjusted sack rate). The Wolverines just faced the nation's best pass rush and limited Penn State to only two sacks on 40 drop-backs. Is everyone in Ohio State's defensive front a threat to sack Jake Rudock? What will the Buckeyes do to get pressure on him?
Adolphus Washington, Joey Bosa, Raekwon McMillan. Those are scary names to hear for an offensive lineman, and they can lead to scarier thoughts for an offensive coordinator. Bosa hasn't put up the glory-boy numbers of years past, but that's usually the result of more than a few big bodies standing in his way. Michigan State did a great job neutralizing him on Saturday, even getting him to jump offside three times, once on 4th and 8 in the fourth quarter that helped Michigan State gain not only a first down on the next play, but a game-tying touchdown six plays later. Brutal.
This is a defensive front that creates havoc more often than not, and the adjusted sack rate speaks to that. But it has, on occasion, run a bit too much on rails - unable to adjust when an offense starts finding holes. A run-first look for an offense makes the Buckeye defense lick its chops, and that's exactly when a quick screen, or a tight slant have been effective this year against Ohio State. It would be nice to see the defense adjust and maybe play with some line stunts, which were a hallmark of last year's unit.
Ohio State's pass defense has been excellent this season. The Buckeyes are fourth in YPA, seventh in passer rating, and third in S&P+. However, if there is one crack in that unit, it's that Ohio State is 103rd in S&P+'s pass explosiveness metric and has allowed six passes that have gained more than 50 yards. Why has Ohio State's secondary been leaky in the back? And will a resurgent Jake Rudock be able to exploit that weakness?
To me, explosiveness is more about luck than about skill. How else can you account for a secondary this good allowing that many big plays? And, given the Buckeyes' schedule, less talented players making such big plays? Gareon Conley and Eli Apple are elite-level talent, but both have made mistakes in coverage this year that led to eye-rolls from the locals. Safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell (whom you may remember) have done their jobs brilliantly at times, and have bailed out the corners at other times. Sometimes, they get beat, too.
It comes down to discipline more than anything else. When the Buckeyes get beat downfield, there's usually something concrete that caused it, and more often than not, it's been a bigger desire to go after the ball, than to play the position. If Rudock is as accurate as he's been this year, that could play very well into his hands.
Who is the one Wolverine player that you most wish was on Ohio State? Why?
Jake Butt. But only for the jokes, puns and all of that. The tight end has been a virtual non-factor this year. Though Nick Vannett was the #2 receiving option against Michigan State...with three catches for nine yards.
Fill in the blank: in order to beat Michigan, Ohio State must _______________?
Focus on the things that got them there in the first place: a run-first offense, and a high pressure defense. Michigan State provided the blueprint for beating this Buckeye team in shutting down Elliott and any other Buckeye runner. On the defensive side of things, Michigan's offense must exploit every little hole it can find. Can you get an end to bite on a hard count? That's five important yards. Is a linebacker blitzing, opening up a crossing route for a millisecond? There's another seven yards. And Rudock can't be afraid to try for a home run - lesser offenses have burned Ohio State that way.
Then again, if this is a team in turmoil (though Meyer's press conference on Monday put that to rest a bit) then "show up" might be all Michigan needs. But no one wants that, right?
Jim Harbaugh vs. Urban Meyer. Is this the closest we'll come to the Ten Year War?
Urban Meyer is probably coaching for his last team, and even if he isn't, he only stays at places for six or less years. And I swear I'm not trolling, but the Indianapolis Colts are probably going to be looking for a coach in a few weeks, and their former signal-caller fits the bill fairly well.
My point: there aren't enough miles left on Meyer and maybe on Harbaugh to come anywhere near the time-frame of Bo and Woody. What I can say is that Harbaugh, as an Xs and Os guy, is probably as good a hire as Michigan could get, more so than Brady Hoke or Rich Rodriguez ever were. And Meyer's pedigree is beyond reproach. It might not be a 10-year war, but it could be a few really good games in the next few seasons.
Prediction time. What happens? Who wins? What's the final score?
Before the season, I had the Buckeyes at 12-0, with the only possible losses vs. either Penn State or Michigan State. I thought Michigan would go 8-4 or so, setting up a high bar for the future. Michigan has looked much better than I thought, Ohio State worse. Advanced Stats say Michigan by 4.9 points, Vegas has gone back and forth since the game opened, and now favor Michigan by 1.5 or 2 points.
Worth mentioning, Michigan has had 14 coaches during this rivalry's tenure, and the combined record for those coaches against Ohio State in their first year is 11-2-1 (Langdon Lea has the tie, Harry Kipke and Rodriguez the losses) Everyone else was a winner. Harubaugh is in great position to match legends like Fielding Yost, Bo Schembechler and Lloyd Carr and win in his debut in The Game.
But I'm an optimist. Life flashed before the Buckeyes last week, and I trust Meyer to right the ship. Buckeyes 24-20 Wolverines on the strength of an offense that controls the game on the ground, and a defense that does enough to keep Michigan's offense in check when it matters.
A big thanks to Chris for answering our questions. Follow him on Twitter here.