Guys, the season has really flown by, hasn't it? I remember my first ever edition of Behind Enemy Lines way back in week two against the Cincinnati Bearcats. Even though this won’t be the last edition of this season, I still want to thank all of the loyal readers who tune into my weekly interviews with the opponent's writers. It means a lot.
Enough with all the mushy stuff. It's rivalry week and we all know it. Although this isn't the same vibe that 'The Game' had going into last year, it's always intense and always will be. That's why I sat down with Meredith Hein of SB Nation's, LandGrantHolyLand.com to discuss what to look for, keys to victory, and a little bit of rivalry talk. Here we go, folks!
Josh LaFond: Thank you for taking the time to make this happen, Meredith. Let's start out with some rivalry talk.
What makes The Game the biggest and best rivalry in all of sports?
Meredith Hein: As much as fans joke around, what makes this rivalry so special is that the players and coaches truly respect each other. The fact that Woody and Bo were friends establishes the level of deference that each side has for the other. We truly want the other team to be good. It was no fun when Michigan already had five or six losses under Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke (okay, it was a little fun), because it means so much more to beat a worthwhile adversary. And that’s something that this rivalry has always been: a battle of the best for the Big Ten crown.
Josh: What’s your favorite memory of it?
Meredith: Last year was crazy (the spot was good), but nothing beats 2013 when Ohio State picked off Michigan’s two-point conversion attempt to seal their victory. Except maybe Will Allen’s game-ending interception in 2002 to send the Buckeyes to the national championship.
Josh: Well now I just want to drink away all the bad memories you brought back (I'm half-way kidding). Also, JT was short. But let's move on from all that pain and suffering to some Ohio State talk.
Following the loss to Oklahoma, the Buckeyes got on a roll and put fear into opponents, then the 31 point loss to Iowa happened. What would you say was the main culprit behind that and what have they done differently since then?
Meredith: Iowa is notorious for catching teams in hangovers in Iowa City (they got Michigan last year). Credit Kirk Ferentz for outstanding preparation and execution. On the schedule, Iowa looked like a letdown not quite on the level of Illinois, but certainly not a team to trouble a Buckeye squad that had just come back to defeat No. 2 Penn State. Ohio State didn’t rely on the run and, when things got bad, didn’t make moves to re-establish the run.
We saw what they did next against Michigan State, which boasts one of the top run defenses in the country. They ran for 335 yards against a team averaged under 90 yards per game. The offensive line was relentless and seemed to will the backs forward. Basically, Ohio State got back to their identity on offense. It is something that they will need to maintain against both Michigan and Wisconsin.
Josh: Well, you made some good points. Iowa is always the giant killer, and if they could play every game like it was against a top 25 team, they'd be hard to stop.
Have the perceived struggles of the passing game been a Wide Receiver problem, or a JT Barrett problem?
Meredith: Those struggles are just outside noise, for the most part. Ohio State has a top-20 passing offense. While issues against Oklahoma and Iowa have been widely hyped, the fact remains that JT Barrett is an on-field general with amazing presence in the pocket. His receivers — though inexperienced coming into the season — have come on strong, with five different wideouts recording at least 300 receiving yards. And 11 different receivers have caught a touchdown.
If any side is to blame, however, it probably is the receivers. Chalk it up to lack of experience, but they have gotten better about the drops and miscommunications that plagued the corps early in the season.
Josh: I like the matchup of Michigan's corners against this Buckeye receiving corps. It's something to keep an eye on.
What’re Ohio State’s keys to victory?
Run first. Michigan is the best team in the country in passing defense, and the strength of Ohio State’s offense has been the run game. The Buckeyes need to establish their offensive line early with JK Dobbins and Mike Weber right behind, and then, and only then, worry about opening up the passing game.
No special problems. Ohio State has to eliminate errors in special teams--from kick returns to blocked field goals to kickoffs going out of bounds--which have plagued the Buckeyes all season. These types of errors contributed to points for Penn State and even Maryland, and could prove costly in a close game against Michigan.
Josh: Thanks for the info, I'll send the scouting report over to Coach Harbaugh now.
Give us a score and game prediction.
Meredith: Michigan’s defense is good. But so is Ohio State’s. And the Buckeyes have shown that they can put up points even against the likes of Michigan State. It will be close through the first half as the respective lines battle for supremacy, but the Buckeyes will pull out a 40-23 win.
Josh: I think it all depends on who's quarterbacking for Michigan. But, I think a 17 point Buckeye win isn't too unimaginable.
Let’s end on a fun note: Skip ahead 1 year, what do you think the story lines are heading into the 2018 edition of The Game?
Meredith: The story line will likely be one which is lurking in the shadows this year. Urban Meyer is the first Ohio State coach to start off 5-0 against Michigan. Jim Harbaugh, meanwhile, would be in danger of falling to 0-4 against his rivals from the south. That record would be tied for the worst in program history with, you guessed it, Rich Rodriguez. If Harbaugh loses, next season could prove to be make-or-break as he risks a unequaled program-worst record against the Buckeyes.
Josh: Well for all Wolverine fans sake, I hope it doesn't come to that due to a Wolverine win this Saturday.
Thank you so much for being a great interviewee and best of wishes to you and yours this week, and on gameday.
Meredith: Thank you, and I would just like to add one thing: This is the greatest rivalry in all of sports, and we wish both teams a safe, healthy and riveting game that is worthy of it.
Josh: I second that.
I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Alexis Chassen for setting this up and to Meredith Hein for answering all of my questions in a great way.
As the saying goes, "keep your friends close and your enemies closer." So head over to LandGrantHolyLand.com to get all the info on 'The Game' from the Buckeyes perspective.