Well, this is it. Despite one frustrating loss, the Michigan Wolverines still control their own destiny and have a chance to accomplish their season-long goals heading into the final week of the regular season. While this is extremely surprising when compared to preseason expectations, this is actually not a foreign position for Jim Harbaugh.
Just like 2016 and 2018, the Wolverines meet Ohio State as top-10 opponents with everything on the line. But unlike these two defeats, as well as 2006, Saturday’s matchup will be in Ann Arbor, where games like 2013 and 2017 ended up much closer than expected. Obviously the end result has been nearly always the same, but there is reason to have at least a little hope heading into the weekend.
Still, the scales are fairly one-sided. The betting markets like the Buckeyes, as do the computers (who are high on Michigan, yet even significantly higher on Ohio State). Most of the fanbase is extremely realistic, knowing it will take an extraordinary effort and a little luck to come out victorious. Even so, given how the past decade has gone and how most fans were feeling three months ago, there are certainly worse places to be.
No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes (10-1, 8-0) vs. No. 6 Michigan Wolverines (10-1, 7-1)
Cade McNamara had one of his best games against Maryland, and it has to be said that the Michigan passing game is peaking at the right time. This is not a high-volume attack, but there are no fewer than six very capable pass catchers who have a chance to make a difference. The Ohio State secondary is decent but not elite, and McNamara will have chances to move the ball. So too will J.J. McCarthy, who is surely going to have a few opportunities to mix things up, both with his arm and his legs.
The Wolverines will still look to get the ground game going, but complementary football will be key. A lot of attention has been given to working the clock and trying to prevent a shootout, that cannot mean just running Hassan Haskins between the tackles. With Blake Corum expected back healthy and the emergence of Donovan Edwards, there is good diversity in this backfield, and the deployment of the running backs seems more important than the actual running game itself.
Not much needs to be said about the Ohio State passing game, which has put up over 300 yards for eight weeks in a row. C.J. Stroud is surrounded by an unbelievable trio of receivers, and Michigan’s only hope is to slow down the attack, not stop it. While crossing routes were the death of the Wolverines’ man coverage in years past, keeping the safeties deep and letting the receivers have everything underneath is probably the right option this time around. The key here is not letting this matchup get out of hand; Michigan will not shut down this aerial attack to win the game, but it can keep its hopes alive by making the Buckeyes work it down the field.
TreVeyon Henderson is quite a talent running the ball, but this somehow feels like an acceptable outcome all things considered. His worst games were against Oregon, Penn State, and Nebraska, which were the only times the Ohio State offense looked human. As much as the defensive line needs to get to Stroud, containing the running backs is crucial too. Limiting the run game will allow the linebackers and safeties to focus on the deep threats, which is where the real damage could be done.
So many things need to go right for the Wolverines to pull off the upset, but one obvious factor is not missing opportunities. Short yardage situations and red zone opportunities have both been hit or miss this year, but these absolutely cannot be a problem this Saturday. While better execution is the most straightforward solution, now is the time for Josh Gattis to show some creativity. Empty the playbook, bring in McCarthy, take some risks — whatever it takes, the offense needs to capitalize on all of its chances.
Defensively, there are a lot of fears after last weekend’s massacre, but it is worth remembering that Michigan State ranks just 30th defensively per S&P+ with one of the country’s worst pass defenses. Michigan comes into the game ranked seventh, which might seem a bit generous, but has overall been validated over the course of the season. When issues arise it has often been self-inflicted, such as the substitution issues in East Lansing. Playing a defensively sound, yet not otherworldly, game should honestly be enough to at least let the Wolverines stick around. Ohio State will certainly move the ball, but avoiding the monster plays and getting a few opportune stops will keep the hope alive.