Two fanbases wait 365 days for this. Two states defined by disdain for each other wait 365 days for this. A rivalry rooted in a 19th century war and that flourished under a Ten Year War defined by legendary coaching personas. In modern times, the Saturday after Thanksgiving is The Game. The only game that matters: Michigan and Ohio State.
The Game is always big, but this one feels bigger. At least, from Michigan’s perspective. For most of my life, The Game was nothing more than a joke of a big game. From the time I was 7 until I was 16, it was two very mismatched teams, teams that didn’t belong on the same field as the other. In 9 of those instances, it was a good-to-great Ohio State team with a pathetic Michigan team and in one of those instances (2011), it was the other way around. While older Michigan fans told me it was a big deal, it was hard to take them seriously. The Wolverines had little chance.
But with Jim Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor came a sense of meaning to The Game again. In 2015, a Michigan team feeling new life was sternly reminded just how far they still had to come against a supremely talented yet underachieving Ohio State team in a brutal 42-13 beatdown. In 2016, the two teams were starkly different, yet nearly even in skill: a Buckeye team with almost entirely new starters versus a Wolverine squad that was almost entirely composed of seniors. The result was the closest you could possibly get to a tie in modern college football: a double OT thriller decided by literal inches, one that Ohio State was on the right end of. 2017 felt like a reversion to the style of game I grew up with during the lead up, as OSU appeared to be vastly better on paper but a near-perfect Michigan game-plan produced an incredibly tight game until the final moments. But again, Ohio State was on the right end of it.
So that’s where we stand entering November 24, 2018. Michigan, snakebitten over the last three years, is eager to avenge the past losses and finally exorcise The Narrative™ about Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor. In August, this year’s edition of The Game felt like a Must Win. Not that it had much basis in reality given that OSU appeared to be loaded with talent and the only true competitor to Alabama for the national crown, but to be a successful season, it felt like Michigan had to find some way to beat Ohio State. Since then, the 2018 version of The Game has become a Should Win. Not just a Must Win anymore. Indeed, the course of this year’s season has revealed this Michigan team to appear to be Harbaugh’s best since coming home to his alma mater, while the Buckeyes have been revealed to be the weakest OSU team since Urban Meyer got the program up and running (you can argue 2012 was a bit worse). Based on everything from old fashioned metrics to advanced metrics to simply their body of work across the preceding 11 games, Michigan is a clear cut higher than Ohio State. It’s why they’re favored by 4.5 points despite being the road team. It’s simply a Should Win game. Not a coin flip. A Should Win. And to every Michigan fan who has endured the last decade, that thought is terrifying.
Now for real game analysis:
Ohio State Defense
Ohio State’s defense has been much maligned, and for good reason. They’re surrendering an average of 398.6 yards per game and if you take out a major outlier against Rutgers (just 134 yards against in that one), the average balloons to 425 ypg allowed. This includes ugly 450+ yard gashings against TCU, Penn St., Nebraska, and most recently, Maryland. Per S&P+, they are the 38th best defense (out of 130), which feels a bit generous, but it is still the worst Buckeye defense of the Urban Meyer era. Their defensive line is pretty good, though the loss of star Nick Bosa to a season-ending groin injury was significant, with sophomore DE Chase Young and junior DT Dre’Mont Jones leading the way. But if you get beyond the first level, things get ugly, with a linebacking corps that’s been described by OSU fans as the worst in decades and a weak secondary. Their back seven issues have resulted in the Buckeye defense being the 8th worst in the country at giving up explosive plays (IsoPPP+). Michigan is not much of a big play offense given Harbaugh’s methodical style, but they will gladly take whatever the OSU defense gives them.
Ohio State Offense
This is the strength-on-strength side of things, as it pits the #2 S&P+ defense against the #5 S&P+ offense. Ohio State’s offense is a little different in past years because they have a new QB, Dwayne Haskins. While Haskins is a far better passer than JT Barrett ever was, he is also not nearly the same caliber of running threat that Barrett posed to opposing defenses. Prior to last week, Haskins was running only 3 or 4 times a game compared to Barrett’s 15 to 20. Haskins’ insertion into the offense has brought upsides and downsides: his prolific arm has shattered school records and opened up the passing attack like never before under Meyer, but the running game has sagged significantly. Haskins’ season line is a sterling 69.3% completion and 36 TD to 7 INT, but the running game has struggled against elite defenses. Penn State (#12 S&P+ defense) and Michigan State (#4 S&P+ defense) are the two best units OSU has faced and in those games they had 3.2 and 2.7 yards per rush, respectively. Ohio State has a ton of receivers with no single standout, just a bunch of dudes. KJ Hill, Terry McLaurin, Johnnie Dixon, Austin Mack, and Binjimen Victor all have 250+ receiving yards on the year from the wideout spot, while Parris Campbell has 711 yards from the scat-back position as the New Curtis Samuel. At running back, JK Dobbins and Mike Weber share carries nearly equally, with Dobbins more of a spread type while Weber is the more conventional back. Each guy has over 15 receptions as well, though Dobbins is the more potent receiving threat. Last week against Maryland, Ohio State started to take some of the old JT Barrett QB read option plays out of the shed, presumably sets they were saving for The Game against Michigan but had to use them to stave off an upset against the Terps. Haskins had 15 rushes in that game, far more than any other game this season, but only for a total of 59 yards. His athleticism is not on the same level as Barrett’s but the deception was useful on the goal line, as Haskins got 3 TD’s. Maryland seemed a bit caught off guard, which was the downside of having to use those plays a week earlier than intended. Lastly, backup QB Tate Martell comes in for a few plays a game. While he has 23 completions on the year, in real games, Martell is pretty much only in as a rusher. The dual threat QB is pretty effective as a runner but he’s a bit of a one-trick pony.
Keys to the game for Michigan:
- Don’t turn it over: It’s generally a good rule to live by in sports but even more so when you’re the better team. Inferior teams win games when they are handed golden opportunities. Michigan fans can think back just two years to how important this is, when three Wilton Speight turnovers killed the team in regulation and sent the game to OT
- Red zone conversion: Michigan is gonna gain a bunch of yards in this game. The way that the Buckeyes win this game is if they hold the Wolverines to field goals rather than touchdowns. Last week’s performance of 6 field goals on 8 red zone trips against Indiana is not going to cut it against OSU. When Michigan gets into the red zone, they need touchdowns.
- QB Contain: The one thing that has hurt Michigan’s defense consistently over Don Brown’s tenure is when mobile QB’s escape the pocket. JT Barrett did that a few too many times versus the Wolverines over the years and while Haskins is no Barrett, he’s also not Peyton Manning. If the pocket cleanly collapses and no one’s open, Haskins will run it. Peyton Ramsey had a handful of frustrating scrambles a week ago against the Michigan defense. The defensive line needs to know to enclose the pocket around Haskins, even if it means laying off the aggressive pass rush slightly.
The real reason this game feels so big is that it feels like a crossroads of sorts. On one hand, you have Michigan, a program that seems like it’s on the verge of breaking through at long last. The team has its goals in front of them: two wins and the Wolverines will be playing in the College Football Playoff in all likelihood. If Michigan wins these next two weeks (and they would be extremely heavy favorites over Northwestern next week), all the narratives, from Harbaugh Can’t Win Big Games to Never Finished Higher Than Third in the Big Ten East, go away once and for all. Michigan will have arrived and finally returned to the national stage. Combine that with the high probability that a Michigan CFP appearance is likely coupled with a strong finish to an already stellar recruiting class (getting a commitment from 5* DE Zach Harrison would be the potential crown jewel), and it feels like Michigan is so close to finally achieving the salvation that Jim Harbaugh was brought here to deliver: a true return to national contention, with The Game being the most important hurdle left.
However, if Michigan doesn’t win this one, it feels like the season has all been for naught in some ways. The same old same old feeling will rein and it will seem like Michigan is farther away than ever. The Narrative™ will sound louder than ever as well. Furthermore, given all that I have said about Ohio State and their disappointing season, a matchup of Harbaugh’s best Michigan team versus arguably Meyer’s worst should be a win for the Wolverines. Perhaps easily. As a result, if Michigan cannot win, it will create a feeling of helplessness, a “if not now, when?” feeling. If this season was a make-it-or-break-it season for Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan, then saturday’s game is the defining moment of his time in Ann Arbor as the head coach, win or lose.
On the flip side, Ohio State also feels like a program in flux. With Urban Meyer leading the Buckeyes, it seemed as if OSU would be good forever. Now, it seems much more up in the air. First there’s the stuff that happened in the offseason. This space is not the place to relitigate the Zach Smith situation and I made my thoughts clear at the time, that Meyer’s actions were unremorseful, arrogant, and reprehensible and that he should have been dismissed. His punishment and the handling of it was a clown show, but it shouldn’t have seriously impacted this Ohio State team. Instead what has occurred is a season where a team that was pre-season #1 in S&P+ and crowned the most talented OSU ever has been by far the weakest since Meyer got the program up and running. They have slogged through 11 games, quite lucky to still be in the Big Ten race at all, and that loss was a total meltdown against an opponent that may not even make a bowl game.
Along the way, Meyer and his coaching staff have failed to develop blue chip recruits into a functional back-seven, spent most of the season trying to shove a round peg in a square hole on offense (Haskins vs Barrett), and watched the squad’s best player quit on the team and withdraw from school after suffering a season-ending injury. Mixed in all of this is the drama with Meyer’s increasingly distressing sideline presence, with the coach claiming that a brain cyst is impairing his ability to coach. This has left him on the sideline looking disoriented, stressed to the max, gaunt, and during a crucial time out last week when he should have been, you know, coaching, he was 10 feet from the team huddle, bent over with his hands on his knees looking like he’s about to pass out. All of this has raised questions about Meyer’s health and ability to coach going forward, with rumors circulating that the 54 year-old coach may retire in the offseason. The roller coaster of a season has left OSU’s 2019 recruiting class in trouble, ranked 12th nationally, which would be the worst of the Meyer era and a far cry from the last several seasons when they were reeling in top 2 classes. Notably, the class hasn’t picked up any significant commitments since the Zach Smith situation and if anything, recruits have slid away from them, including Zach Harrison, the nation’s top defensive end and #5 player in the country, who hails from just 20 minutes outside Columbus. In years past, Harrison would have been the easiest commitment possible for OSU but now Harrison looks probable to go to Michigan and should the Wolverines beat the Buckeyes, it seems highly likely that they would pluck the 5* talent out from Ohio State’s backyard.
My thoughts on this game were summed up well by MGoBlog’s Brian Cook on his podcast a few weeks back when he said that “I watch Ohio State and I start to feel really good about The Game and then I want to die”. For Michigan fans who have endured the 15 years of disaster against Ohio State, feeling good about The Game is almost inconceivable. Feeling like Michigan should win, is an even worse feeling. There has become a bit of a feeling among Michigan fans that everything that can go wrong will go wrong when you’re playing Ohio State. The last two matchups against the Buckeyes and the subsequent two years to ponder the pain, where Michigan came oh so close to pulling off the victory, has created a sort of aura where Wolverine diehards won’t believe they can beat OSU until the final seconds tick off the clock. And maybe that’s the way it should be.
But make no mistake: Michigan is the clear favorite in this one. Vegas and S&P+ are in an agreement on this: making a Michigan mid-single digit favorite, a line that would push double digits if the game were being played in the Big House. In games against their six common opponents, Michigan has won by an average of 27 points while Ohio State won by an average of 16.5 points. Returning to my previous thought however, this Michigan team does feel different. They have taken on adversity and overcome it, starting with the opening loss to Notre Dame. There were moments in the second half of the Michigan State game that felt like “here we go again”, yet the Wolverines won handily. They have overcome The Narrative™ several times already, though there is one last gargantuan obstacle to clear.
Despite all of the mystique around The Game, one brutal fact remains: the better team normally wins. In the S&P+ era (2005-present), only twice has the lower rated team won: 2006 and 2016, the two close OSU wins in the Horseshoe. But in those two games, Michigan and Ohio State were separated by an average of 1.25 in the advanced ratings system. This year, they are separated by 7.2 points. Those games were tossups with two closely matched teams. This game is not. I have pretty good faith that Michigan will have a good game-plan drawn up after watching last year’s affair. Harbaugh & Co. were ready for that and you have to think they will be more than ready for this. There’s also an element of hunger on this Michigan team, the idea of the revenge tour. The passion and the emotion with which Michigan has played against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State was unlike that previously seen under Jim Harbaugh. This Michigan team wants a win in this game more than anything else.
When you look at Michigan’s performances against similar teams to Ohio State and vice versa, you see a pretty stark comparison. Against defenses similar to OSU’s, Michigan’s offense has gained in the 430 yard range. Against defenses similar to Michigan’s, OSU’s offense has gained in the 350 range. The three best offenses Ohio State has played were Purdue, Nebraska, and Penn State, all of whom have units similar in rating to Michigan. OSU gave up an average of 493.6 yards in those three games. Michigan is yet to face an offense comparable to Ohio State’s, but Michigan held the Buckeyes to 280 yards and 350 yards in regulation in the last two meetings. Given all of this, Michigan should outgain OSU and probably significantly. As long as they protect the ball and convert in the Red Zone, as were the keys to the game, this should be a Michigan victory. Now put me in a coma until Saturday at 4 pm and tell me who won then.
Prediction: Michigan 34, Ohio State 24
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