I cannot shake this feeling.
This feeling that Michigan has no hope to win on Saturday. That Michigan will lose to Ohio State for the sixth straight season and 13th time in 14 years. That Michigan’s regular season is bound to end on a disappointing, bitter, yet now typical note.
And I only started to feel it once I saw Brandon Peters lying motionless on the turf.
Until that moment, Michigan had an opportunity to make a defiant statement about its season. They were 8-2, but for weeks, they had been told that they were not that good. The criticism about Michigan’s lack of quality wins (valid) and Jim Harbaugh’s inability to win big games (not so valid) had been incessant and deafening. But the Wolverines had performed well in their prior three games, pummeling three sub-par Big Ten foes with Peters and possibly discovering a potent power running scheme. With two final games at Wisconsin and against Ohio State, they could shut up the naysayers.
And through 40 minutes last Saturday, they were doing just that. Michigan’s defense was on fire, and though Wisconsin’s defense revealed that the visions of Michigan having a potent power running scheme were just a mirage, Peters kept the offense afloat. He demonstrated considerable poise as the Badgers brought blitzers from all angles. He stepped up in the pocket and shimmied side to side to evade pressure while keeping his eyes down field. He bought time to find Chris Evans on a checkdown to convert a critical third down and extend Michigan’s touchdown drive. He delivered a 48-yard post to Donovan Peoples-Jones to kick start that drive. He tossed a beautiful fade to Peoples-Jones near the goal line which should have given Michigan another touchdown (but didn’t because the Big Ten replay official has worse eyesight than Ray Charles). He wasn’t perfect by any means (the decision to lunge for the end zone that resulted in a fumble was a poor one), but he finished 9-of-18 (50.0%) for 157 yards (8.7 YPA). He was clearly Michigan’s best quarterback, and though the Badgers had just reclaimed the lead, there was still belief that Peters could lead Michigan to a victory against Wisconsin and that he had the ability to upset Ohio State the following week.
But then Wisconsin’s Andrew Van Ginkel came through free on a stunt and drove Peters into the frozen turf, causing him to suffer a head injury. As Van Ginkel realized Peters had been knocked out and began frantically waving towards the Michigan sideline that medical attention was needed, the air not only escaped the lungs of Michigan coaches, players, and fans, but also any hopes Michigan had for a triumphant finish this season.
It felt over. And it felt like Michigan knew that, too.
The Wolverines’ defense crumbled on the ensuing Wisconsin possession, surrendering another touchdown on a well-designed 32-yard run by Kendric Pryor, and John O’Korn entered needing to overcome an 11-point deficit against one of the nation’s best pass defenses with a quarter to spare. O’Korn didn’t come close. Though his receivers didn’t do him any favors with some head-slapping drops, O’Korn completed just 2-of-8 passes for 19 yards in relief and displayed little situational awareness when attempting (and failing) to scramble for a first down on 3rd & 2 and 4th & 2 in the game’s final minutes.
And now The Game is here. What’s supposed to be the greatest rivalry game in sports.
And it feels like Michigan fans just want it to pass.
I understand why. Ohio State will present Michigan’s most difficult test to date. It’s a team that’s looked as invincible as Superman in nine games with only Baker Mayfield’s, um, let’s just say, moxie and Kinnick Stadium as its kryptonite. As a result, despite their two losses, the Buckeyes are first in S&P+ and ruthlessly talented across the board. They are fourth in Offensive S&P+, second in Rushing Offense S&P+, and fourth in Passing Offense S&P+. They have the most efficient offense in the entire country.
The good news for Michigan is that it has the most efficient defense in the entire country and a defense (sixth in Defensive S&P+) that can stymie the Buckeyes.
The grim news for Michigan is that its offense has no such chance to be successful against the Buckeyes. Ohio State is 12th in Defensive S&P+, second in Rushing Defense S&P+, and 21st in Passing Defense S&P+. Michigan may be 13th in Rushing Offense S&P+, but that has been more due to the Wolverines hitting explosive runs (18th) against below average rush defenses than being efficient (69th). When they have faced elite rush defenses, they have generally been stuffed, averaging 3.16 YPC vs. Purdue (6th), 2.62 YPC vs. Michigan State (5th), 2.45 YPC vs. Penn State (19th), and now 1.57 YPC vs. Wisconsin (12th). And Ohio State has a better rush defense than all of them.
This means that Michigan’s best chance to upset Ohio State is through the air. To make the throws and keep Michigan’s offense on track like Peters did against the Badgers.
Except Michigan’s best chance to do that is in concussion protocol.
And O’Korn has very little chance to do that. He is just 66-of-124 (53.2%) for 761 yards (6.1 YPA), one touchdown, and five interceptions this season. He’s thrown for less than 3.0 YPA in three of his last four games. He hasn’t thrown for a touchdown in his last 118 pass attempts. He has such little faith in his offensive line to keep him upright (understandably) that he looks to flee the pocket before he finishes his first read.
That’s why it feels so out of reach for Michigan. That’s a significant reason why a Michigan team that has just one fewer win than Ohio State is a bigger home underdog now (+11.5) than its 2009 counterpart was (+10). Mind you, that’s the same 2009 team that had one Big Ten win (Indiana) and lost to the last seven FBS teams it opposed.
That’s why the hope that Michigan can win this game feels gone.
And it’s crazy because Michigan still has the chance to alter others’ perception of its season. If the Wolverines upset Ohio State, they will hold a 9-3 record, which is what most pegged them to have, they will have beaten a rival, and they will quash any arguments that they have no quality wins or cannot win any big games. That is all still on the table for the Wolverines, and none of that has changed since last weekend.
Yet, without Peters, it’s hard to see how Michigan’s offense will be able to score enough (or any) points to keep the Wolverines in it. Their defense will likely hold for a period of time, but eventually, they will tire and break as Ohio State imposes its will.
Maybe this feeling will disappear as we draw closer to Saturday.
Maybe, for once in recent years, Michigan will surprise us all and knock out Ohio State.
But that seems unlikely. Because a Michigan loss now feels inevitable.