We’re less than 48 hours away from the kickoff of one of the most anticipated Michigan-Ohio State games ever. The Wolverines and Buckeyes are two of the three highest ranked teams in the nation, and there are Big Ten and national championship hopes on the line (as it should be each time when these two bitter rivals meet).
You’re probably in one of two camps today. Either you’re terrified of what’s to come on Saturday and using delicious Thanksgiving food to distract you as much as possible from the anxiety that awaits you or your appetite for The Game and all things about it is insatiable. If you’re reading this, you’re in Camp No. 2, and we have you covered.
To learn more about Ohio State and what will confront Michigan in Columbus this weekend, we reached out to E.L. Speyer (@ELSpeyer), a writer for Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) — SB Nation’s Ohio State site. In our Q&A, Speyer answered whether Ohio State’s season will be viewed as a failure with a loss, shared why he thinks Jabrill Peppers should not be a Heisman candidate, broke down the Buckeyes’ run offense and defense and why both will be critical to the result, and predicted who’ll win The Game.
Maize n Brew: So ... The Game is upon us, and it's difficult to raise the stakes any higher. This is just the second time in the history of the AP poll that both Michigan and Ohio State will face off as top-three teams, and a spot in the College Football Playoff essentially is on the line. What is the feeling like in Columbus? Will Ohio State's season be viewed as a failure with a loss?
E.L. Speyer: There’s a general feeling of angst shared by all of Buckeye Nation right now. It’s cliche, but this is truly a game where you can throw records and rankings aside - the result against Michigan largely makes or breaks a season.
Last year Michigan State came into the Shoe and beat Ohio State on senior day with their backup quarterback, essentially ending the Buckeyes’ playoff chances. This year’s team was so young, that entering the season fans didn’t have a playoffs-or-bust mindset. But now that Ohio State is likely a game away from a playoff birth, the season will absolutely be viewed as a failure if Michigan plants its flag in enemy soil and buries the Buckeyes. And that especially holds true if your Wolverines do it with their backup quarterback.
MnB: Entering this season, Ohio State was 127th out of 128 FBS teams in returning production according to SB Nation's Bill Connelly and needed to replace 12 players who were selected in the first four rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. That is a daunting task, one that would submarine most programs for at least one season. But Ohio State isn't most programs and reloaded without a hitch, proving itself to be a top-five team yet again. What has surprised you most about this reload? Which Buckeye has had the most unexpected emergence?
ES: The most surprising thing about this year’s team has been that several first-year starters have outperformed their counterparts who are now starting in the NFL.
Vonn Bell was a five-star recruit, perhaps one of the biggest prospects Meyer has stolen from the south to date, and was selected in the second round of last year’s draft. You would have expected a drop-off at that position, but Malik Hooker has been even better, and could possibly be a first-rounder this spring.
The same can be said at cornerback, where the Buckeyes had to replace the No. 10 overall pick in Eli Apple. Some believed that Gareon Conley was better than Apple even last year, and the junior from Massillon has had another stellar year. But he’s been outplayed at times by sophomore Marshon Lattimore, who’s burst onto the scene after sitting for two years with hamstring injuries.
The fact that Ohio State might have improved its secondary by sending three players early to the NFL has been the surprise of the season, and is a big reason for the team’s success.
MnB: Though the Buckeyes have been excellent most of the season, they have not been invincible. They had three straight games in mid-October that went down to the wire, losing one to Penn State on a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, and intercepted Michigan State's late two-point try last week to escape East Lansing. Have there been common themes in these less-than-stellar performances? Where is OSU most vulnerable?
ES: The common thread in the loss to Penn State, and the close wins against Wisconsin, Michigan State and even Northwestern, has been the shaky play of quarterback J.T. Barrett.
Barrett receives plenty of national praise, and most of it is deserved due to his leadership and abilities as a runner. With that said, he leaves a lot to be desired as a passer, and struggles tremendously in bad weather. Ohio State’s pass protection, which features a pair of first-year starting sophomores at tackle, has been dicey at times too, and was exposed against Penn State.
The Buckeyes are a run-oriented team, and they’re vulnerable when teams force them to play behind the chains and attack defenses through the air on third downs.
MnB: For Michigan to win, it must stop Ohio State's rushing attack, which is one of the nation's best thanks to the trio of Mike Weber (1,046 yards, 6.3 YPC, 8 TD), J.T. Barrett (817 yards, 5.5 YPC, 8 TD), and Curtis Samuel (650 yards, 7.7 YPC, 7 TD). They are extremely efficient and stay ahead of the chains on the ground (2nd in Rushing Success Rate), but don't rip off many large runs (75th in Rushing IsoPPP). Michigan's run defense (2nd in S&P+) has the chops to slow them down. What do the Buckeyes do that makes them so successful on the ground? Why hasn't that translated into longer runs, especially with a guy like Samuel?
ES: While Ohio State’s line has struggled periodically in pass protection, it has consistently performed in the run game. The line features a pair of three-year starters in center Pat Elflein and guard Billy Price, who were both starters on the championship team in 2014.
There are a few factors that contribute to Ohio State not being able to rip off long runs like they have in the past. For starters, Mikey Weber does not have that third gear that Ezekiel Elliot had. Additionally, the receivers aren’t as polished as down-field blockers, which had been a strength of the team in recent years. Samuel definitely has the ability to make game-breaking plays as a rusher, we saw it in Happy Valley when he went untouched on a 74-yard run in the second half. But the versatile H-back has been featured more as a receiver than a rusher this season, as his skill set is more needed in that struggling position group.
MnB: Like Ohio State, the key to Michigan's offensive success likely will be on the ground, especially with Michigan's quarterback situation up in the air. This seems like it could be a very even matchup as well, with Michigan's offense and Ohio State's defense ranked 28th and 20th in Rushing S&P+, respectively. What are the strengths of the Buckeyes' run defense? If you were Jim Harbaugh, how would you attack Ohio State on the ground?
ES: Part of Ohio State’s statistical success against the run this year has been due to game flow. The Buckeyes have led big early in several games, forcing teams to throw more than they usually would in a closer contests. In the hard-fought games, specifically against teams with power-run concepts, Ohio State has struggled.
Take Wisconsin, for example. The Badgers racked up 236 yards on the ground against Ohio State, and confused the Buckeyes for much of the game with quick jet sweeps to the perimeter. Last weekend L.J. Scott ran for 160 yards on just 19 carries for Michigan State.
Michigan’s base concepts are already similar to Wisconsin’s and Michigan States. If I’m Harbaugh, I’d test Ohio State’s undersized interior early and often, mixing in the same jet sweeps that Wisconsin torched the Buckeyes with to the keep the linebackers and safeties honest.
MnB: As you can probably detect, I am of the opinion that this game will be decided on the ground. I am of that opinion because J.T. Barrett is not the most polished passer, particularly in November weather, Michigan doesn't know whom its quarterback will be, and these are maybe the two best pass defenses in the country with four unbelievable corners in Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling, Gareon Conley, and Marshon Lattimore. Do you agree with this? Will either of these teams will be able to pass the ball well on the other?
You’re right, J.T. Barrett is an unpolished passer who struggles in poor weather, and he seems to lose confidence in his deep ball if he misfires early in the game. Even in 2014, when Barrett looked like a more decisive quarterback, this offense tapered off in November. I also have doubts in the receivers’ ability to find separation on tight man coverage against Michigan’s secondary. They’ve struggled doing so all season, and against much worse secondaries than they’re about to face.
Neither team was able to pass for 100 yards last weekend, and we could see that stat repeat itself in The Game. I think that this game will be decided less by passing yards, and more by who’s able to execute on a few downfield opportunities as both defenses sell out to stop the run.
ES: Ohio State fans seem to have a certain fascination with Jabrill Peppers. To be fair, I see it only on social media because I do not currently reside in the Midwest, but, whenever Jabrill Peppers is praised or hyped up as a Heisman candidate, Ohio State fans seem to break into the conversation like the Kool-Aid Man to claim that he is overrated or mention that he has yet to record an interception. Is what I'm seeing representative of the Buckeye fan base? And, whether it is or it isn't, do you agree with the assessment that Peppers is overrated?
Funny you should ask. I’m one of those Buckeye supporters that believes Peppers’ Heisman hype is not deserved, I even wrote about it this week.
I don’t think Peppers is necessarily overrated. He’s a hell of a college player and should be an excellent pro. But his Heisman hype is more a function of the media’s need for a counterpoint to Lamar Jackson, and a lack of legitimate contenders for the award at traditional positions. His versatility is impressive, and his three-phase usage resembles that of Charles Woodson, but his production simply does not.
MnB: Word association: Jim Harbaugh.
ES: No 2% milk. Yes, 100% crazy.
MnB: For fun, what is your favorite memory of The Game? What is your worst memory of it?
ES: I started following Buckeye football when I was seven years old in 1998, so I’ve been fortunate to grow up in a time where Ohio State has had Michigan’s number. Ohio State has taken a few losses since then, but my worst memories of the rivalry are actually the games played during the Rich Rod era. From Michigan being so down, to Ohio State wearing those terrible throwback uniforms, the rivalry that pulled me into college football in the first place seemed so mundane during those times.
My best memory is the #1 vs. #2 game back in 2006. Everything about that game, from the national implications, to the weeks of anticipation leading up to it, to Bo’s death the day before, magnified the intensity of that game. I was fortunate enough to be in The Shoe that day, and i’m not sure if i’ve ever heard Ohio Stadium louder.
MnB: OK. Prediction time. What happens? Who wins? What is the final score?
ES: Before last weekend I was very confident that Ohio State would take care of business against Michigan. But after watching the Buckeyes revert back to the prehistoric passing attack we witnessed against Penn State, I’m less sure.
I think I heard that Michigan has something like 47 seniors on its roster? That’s insane, especially in contrast to Ohio State, which has 44 freshman and only six seniors in its two deep. This is a Michigan team filled with grown men who have experienced this rivalry, and they are starving for a win against Ohio State for the first time in their careers. They’re going to play this game with anger while looking to avenge last year’s mauling, and they will hit the Buckeyes hard from the first snap. I’m not sure if a bunch of kids wearing scarlet and grey are ready for that, not after what I saw in East Lansing last weekend.
We’ve discussed how Barrett struggles in inclement climates. I would guess that a strong majority of Buckeye Nation has refreshed their Weather.com app multiple times since the beginning of this article. Right now, the forecast looks promising. If that holds, then I think this Ohio State team can ride the energy of a home crowd desperate not to see a championship season thwarted by a rival on senior day for a second consecutive season. It’s my opinion that Harbaugh needs one more recruiting class to truly be at a national-contending level, so I’m going with the side that has a talent advantage and a home crowd, over the more experienced unit.
Buckeyes win a hard-fought classic, 23-17.
So E.L. sees Ohio State winning The Game for the 12th time in 13 years and eliminating Michigan’s championship hopes. What do you think? Do you agree with his analysis and/or prediction? Disagree? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
And we want to thank E.L. for taking the time this week to answer our questions and provide his thoughts on The Game. Make sure to follow his coverage on Twitter.