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No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State Preview: Hatred, excitement, stress, hope

It has been 1,091 days...

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

In some ways, there are no words that can do this justice. In shades of 2006 and 2016, another colossal showdown between the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes is upon us. While the season stakes (a Big Ten Championship Game and likely College Football Playoff berth) are enormous, the impact this game could have on the rivalry as a whole is just as substantial.

One year ago, Michigan did the seemingly impossible by breaking the streak and planting the idea that these two teams could once again be seen as equals. Though there is still a decent talent gap, no 11-0 team should feel uncapable of winning any game, regardless of opponent, situation, or environment, and especially not after what transpired last Thanksgiving weekend. The Buckeyes are favored, but this one could truly go either way.

Jim Harbaugh bought himself some breathing room after last season, but this is an opportunity that the Wolverines have been dying for. An Ohio State win would hurt — and is the most likely outcome — but it would not devastate this Michigan program. Still, a win on Saturday would have a lasting effect on college football as a whole going forward, and the moment is right to turn some waves until a tsunami.

No. 3 Michigan Wolverines (11-0, 8-0) at No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes (11-0, 8-0)

Date & Time: Saturday, Nov. 26, Noon
Location: Ohio Stadium, Columbus, OH
TV/Streaming: FOX

Power doesn’t panic

There are obviously many question marks heading into this weekend regarding the health of key Michigan players (Blake Corum, Donovan Edwards, Luke Schoonmaker, AJ Henning, etc.), but it seems that essentially everyone will be back, even if no one is truly at 100 percent. Harbaugh has often held out stars ahead of The Game, and with the exception of Corum it looks like most of these injuries are of that nature.

Should the starters all play, look for the Wolverines to do what they do best: run the football. The Ohio State defense is in better shape than 12 month ago, but it has yet to face a ground game like the one Michigan has leaned on all season. Even with a banged up Corum and Edwards, this is the offense’s best chance for success, and both teams know it after last year’s domination.

The challenge becomes what happens if the Buckeyes are able to limit the Michigan run game, as this has been the blueprint for 11 games now. The passing game has struggled over the past month, and it is unlikely J.J. McCarthy is going to be asked to single-handedly take over. While many of the issues lie in the hands of the receivers, McCarthy has not shown the same level of accuracy that he did early on.

What needs to happen is a creative playbook that features plenty of tight ends and crossing routes, keeping the throws simple while allowing for yards after the catch. The Buckeyes do not blitz a ton but still force pressure through lineman like J.T. Tuimoloau, and the secondary is not prone to many busts. Drafting up winning concepts, therefore, is essential for giving McCarthy usable options.

At the end of the day, the offense is going to have to win in the ways that is has all season, though. Corum (5.9 YPC) and Edwards (6.7 YPC) have been electric the entire year aside from injury, and when McCarthy runs, the Michigan offense has even more success. The Wolverines will need to hit some passes to win the game, but how the run fares against adversity is the biggest lever.

I don’t have “lately”; I have “always”

34-for-49, 394 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions. That was C.J. Stroud’s line last season and basically what he could be expected to repeat again on Saturday. Instead of Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba it will likely be Marvin Harrison Jr., Emeka Egbuka, and Julian Fleming, but it does not really matter that the names have turned over; this passing game is scary good.

Michigan won last year because Stroud only had those two touchdowns, however, and the recipe is the same this season. With no Aidan Hutchinson or David Ojabo around, Stroud is going to have time in the pocket. Rather than play aggressively and try to rack up countless pressures again, the Wolverines might be best off with conservative approach that hopes to notch some wins in the red zone. Big catches are going to happen, but limiting home runs is something the defense can control.

The other factor to consider is the run game, of course, as the Buckeyes have really struggled in this department. Add in the questionable health of TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams and it seems like this is one of the few areas where the Wolverines have the distinct advantage, with the interior defensive line holding up this whole year.

Ohio State has not been perfect over the last month either, and last year’s game should definitely give Michigan’s defense at least a little optimism. I would caution against getting too swept up in recency, though. This is still the No. 4 offense per SP+ and the Wolverines have not faced anyone close to this level all year. The Buckeyes have a long track record of scoring a ton — including in The Game — and one successful game plan last season does not ensure success this time around.

One single thing will break the siege

The areas of strength are clear: Michigan will have some level of success running the ball and Ohio State will move down the field through the air. Whichever of these units converts red zone opportunities into touchdowns is going to win. This is no different than last season and strengths are usually what decides the game.

Still, both teams’ weaknesses are going to draw the most attention. If McCarthy regains some of his accuracy from earlier this year, then the ceiling on the Wolverines offense increases dramatically. However, what happens if Ohio State’s oft-criticized run game actually starts firing? That is a deadly scenario few have even considered and it might result in an ugly blowout for the Buckeyes.

Last year, Harbaugh and Michigan won by being the tougher team, dominating in the trenches and embracing the oncoming weather. This season, it will likely require a mental edge, finding the right calls for the passing game and limiting the damage against Stroud and the otherworldly receivers.

Should Michigan win this game? Realistically, no, not given the talent gap, team composition, and running back injuries. But the path to victory is definitely there, and last year proved that this is no longer impossible. The fact that 2021 showed that an underdog Michigan can indeed beat Ohio State is enough to spark hope again this weekend.