The college football universe will turn its attention to Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday afternoon when Ohio State and Michigan renew one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports.
This year’s edition of The Game carries extra weight, though, as the No. 2 Buckeyes (10-1) and the No. 3 Wolverines (10-1) put their playoff hopes on the line. The winner will be one step closer to college football’s biggest stage, while the loser will certainly be eliminated from title contention.
But for that three-and-a-half hour stretch, those ambitions will be set aside for something bigger.
“Right now, we’re looking at [The Game] as the national championship, and that’s how we’re supposed to look at it,” Buckeyes running back Mike Weber said, according to Tim Shoemaker of Eleven Warriors.
The stakes haven’t been this high since 2006, when Ohio State and Michigan entered their matchup ranked No. 1 and No. 2. The Buckeyes took that classic, 42-39, and became the face of the Big Ten over the last decade, winning the league’s only national title.
The Wolverines went the other direction, struggling through two different head coaches and multiple losing seasons. But head coach Jim Harbaugh has brought his program back into the spotlight, and a win over Ohio State could propel Michigan to its first national title in nearly 20 years.
Can the Wolverines return to their former glory, or will head coach Urban Meyer continue his dominance of the rivalry with a fifth consecutive win?
Time: Noon ET
Place: Ohio Stadium—Columbus, Ohio
Radio: Ohio State Football Radio Network, Spartan Sports Network
Spread: Ohio State (-7), per Odds Shark
Get the Quarterback Comfortable
The biggest question for Michigan is whether quarterback Wilton Speight will be healthy enough to play.
The junior quarterback has paced Michigan’s offense all season, completing 62.3 percent of his passes and throwing 15 touchdowns against just four interceptions. The Wolverines averaged 48 points per game going into their matchup with Iowa two weeks ago, where the offense bogged down and Speight suffered an injury to his non-throwing (left) shoulder.
That injury kept Speight out of Michigan’s closer-than-it-should’ve-been 20-10 victory over Indiana. Senior John O’Korn replaced him and was shaky, completing just 7-of-16 passes for 59 yards in the blustery, snowy conditions.
Jim Harbaugh has been unsurprisingly withholding about Speight’s status, saying he’s “day-to-day,” according to Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press.
Whether it’s Speight coming off an injury or O’Korn coming off an uneven performance, it will be paramount for the Wolverines to get their quarterback comfortable against the nation’s No. 3 pass defense.
Handle the Pressure
To date, the Wolverines have left the state of Michigan for just two games this season.
That’s an astounding shake of fate from the scheduling gods, which gave Michigan eight home games and four road games, two of which came at Rutgers (the Big Ten’s doormat) and Michigan State (an in-state rival that’s just one win better than the Scarlet Knights).
The first truly hostile environment it experienced was under the lights two weeks ago when Michigan traveled to Iowa City. The Wolverines scored a season-low 13 points and faded down the stretch against a defense that was a week removed from surrendering 41 points a blowout loss to Penn State.
One of the few questions this Wolverines team hasn’t answered is whether it can win in a truly hostile environment, and on Saturday, it’ll enter the teeth of one of college football’s most raucous stadiums.
A big play early and a first-quarter lead would go a long way in quieting the Columbus crowd.
Stretch the Field
Ohio State’s up-and-down season offensively took another dip last Saturday, when windy conditions in East Lansing, Michigan, prevented J.T. Barrett from consistently stretching the field. Ohio State completed just of 10-of-22 passes for 86 yards against Michigan State, and if it produces similar numbers against the Wolverines, it’ll be much more difficult to come away with a victory.
One of the bright spots of the Spartans’ performance was when Barrett went over the top in play-action to find Curtis Samuel for a 24-yard touchdown. The Buckeyes have to find a way to replicate that against Michigan’s No. 1 pass defense while also stretching the field on quick perimeter throws.
Michigan will almost certainly load the box in an effort to stop the run and challenge Barrett to beat it in the passing game. It’s how Penn State spoiled the Buckeyes’ perfect season, and it’s how a three-win Spartans team nearly pulled the upset of the year.
Expect the Unexpected
Most players and coaches talk about focusing on their next opponent and refuse to look ahead, but that isn’t the case for Michigan, which has spent the last 12 months steaming over last year’s blowout 42-13 loss to the Buckeyes.
After the Wolverines dispatched Indiana last Saturday, members of the team were finally free to admit they’ve had one eye on the Buckeyes dating back to, at the very latest, October 15, when Michigan had its bye week.
“We watched their game films during the bye week. We used that week to get ready for them,” O’Korn said, according to Ryan Ermanni of Fox 2 Detroit News.
In all likelihood, though, the Wolverines have been gearing up for this game all year. The Wolverines did the same thing under Brady Hoke to break tendencies, which is how his inferior Wolverines teams hung tough with the Buckeyes.
Ohio State should prepare for new wrinkles from both the Michigan offense and its defense. But much like the Wolverines, Meyer admitted that he’s been scheming for Saturday’s game for a while now.
“This is a year-round preparation game and one we take very seriously,” Meyer said on Tuesday, via Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch.
If Michigan plans on unleashing new wrinkles against the Buckeyes, it’ll probably involve this guy.
Jabrill Peppers has become the ultimate X-factor for the Wolverines on offense, defense and special teams this season. He’s uniquely equipped to handle (and thrive) in a variety of different roles, which is the main reason he’s getting the most Heisman buzz for a primary defender since Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o in 2012.
But beyond any gimmicks or surprises Michigan may have in store, Peppers is a problem for Ohio State’s defense in his natural role. Moved to the linebacker unit, he’ll have more of an impact on containing J.T. Barrett in the run game—which is seemingly the only thing Urban Meyer trusts in crunch time—and he’ll handle the primary coverage of Ohio State’s most explosive playmaker in Curtis Samuel when he’s in the slot.
Simply put, if Peppers has a good day, Michigan will have a great chance to leave Columbus with a win.
With the uncertainty at quarterback, it won’t be a surprise to see Michigan rely heavily on its suddenly reliable running game this Saturday.
Running back De’Veon Smith has emerged as a bell cow for the offense and is coming off a career-high 158 yards and two touchdowns against a respectable Indiana defense. But the player to watch in Michigan’s backfield is Chris Evans, the change-of-pace back who brings explosiveness to the Wolverines running game.
The Wolverines will likely hammer away with Smith against a defense that just gave up a career-high 160 rushing yards (and 236 total yards) to Michigan State’s L.J. Scott, but Evans should serve as a dizzying complement in Michigan’s ground attack.
What has happened to Noah Brown?
The standout wide receiver started the season with a bang and looked like Ohio State’s next big thing against Oklahoma, when he hauled in a school-tying record four touchdown passes. But since that breakout game, Brown has gone quiet.
He made a brief appearance in Madison, Wisconsin, when he hauled in the go-ahead touchdown in overtime to seal a Buckeyes win. But he’s gone cold in November, accounting for just three catches for 36 yards and no touchdowns over the last three games, including a no-catch performance against the Spartans.
Ohio State will have to diversify its passing attack and rely on more than Curtis Samuel when J.T. Barrett throws the ball. It would be a good time for the Buckeyes to rediscover the playmaking ability of Brown.
With everyone expecting a defensive battle, Ohio State’s field general will be in the spotlight.
Raekwon McMillan is technically having a down year statistically after ranking fourth in the Big Ten last year with 117 total tackles. Through 11 games, Ohio State’s middle linebacker leads the team with 71 stops, but his impact goes far beyond the numbers he’s putting up on the stat sheet.
McMillan isn’t just the Buckeyes’ top tackler. He’s the guy who relays the plays, audibles and any adjustments to the rest of the defense on every given play. He’s so important to the Buckeyes defense that players literally wait for his instructions.
“What do I do pre-snap?” defensive end Jalyn Holmes said of his pre-snap prep, according to Nicholas McWilliams of the Lantern. “Wait for Raekwon to tell me to do.”
With everything Michigan is expected to throw at Ohio State, the play and direction of McMillan will be vital.
Michigan quarterback John O’Korn is confident and comfortable with however the quarterback situation shakes out this week.
“I’m gonna prepare like I’m the starter, and I hope Wilton prepares like he’s the starter,” O’Korn said last Saturday, according to Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News. “If he’s ready to go, that’s coach’s decision and I’m supporting it 100 percent. Whatever coach decides, I know we’ll both be ready to go.”
Ohio State running back Mike Weber is a Detroit native, and he’s looking forward to the opportunity to start against his home-state school.
“Now it’s really personal,” Weber said, according to Andrew Lind of Eleven Warriors. “A lot of people I played with—Jourdan Lewis, Delano Hill, Mike Onwenu, Lavert Hill—all those guys I played with in high school and won championships with are on the team. It’s going to be fun playing against all those guys, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer spoke against a perceived talent gap between Ohio State and Michigan and praised the experience of the Wolverines, according to Ari Wasserman of Cleveland.com.
The difference is there’s 47 seniors or something, some crazy number of experience. These guys have been there for a while. They’re grown men that have been playing for a while. So very, very good team, very talented. Has the gap closed? I don’t know if I’ve ever considered a gap. I always looked at these two teams, and if there is, it doesn’t matter.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has been uncharacteristically short in interviews this week as he’s shifted focus to an Ohio State program that he respects.
“They’re great. They’re a great football team. Great coaching, tremendous talent,” Harbaugh said of Ohio State, according to Adam Schnepp of MGoBlog.
Michigan’s first victory over Ohio State since 2011 will slip through its hands in the final minute.
The Wolverines will race out to an early lead, scoring the game’s first 10 points before the Buckeyes get off the mat. Starting in just his second game for the Wolverines, John O’Korn will be much sharper against the Buckeyes, completing his first six passes, which will include a touchdown to tight end Jake Butt.
J.T. Barrett will overcome two first-half turnovers by grinding out 80 yards on the ground and a touchdown. He’ll be shaky through the air against Michigan’s elite defense, completing 14-of-27 passes for 190 yards.
Down the stretch, it’ll be the Wolverines defense and running game that earns them a 20-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter. But that’s when Barrett will take over, completing a big pass to Curtis Samuel that’ll set Ohio State up in the red zone.
Mike Weber will punch in the go-ahead, one-yard touchdown with 30 seconds on the clock.
Ohio State 24, Michigan 20