It happens once per year—for now—and is anticipated like no other game. This will be the 108th meeting between Ohio State (6-5, 3-4) and #15 Michigan (9-2, 5-2), with the Wolverines holding the 57-43-6 all-time advantage.
Since Ohio State's first win over Michigan in 1919, the Wolverines hold a 44-43-4 series advantage.
Woody Hayes took over the helm as Buckeye head coach in 1951, however, and since then Ohio State's record against the Maize and Blue is 31-26-2, and that does not include last season's 37-7 blowout.
Saturday will mark just the third meeting between coaches in their first year at these two respective schools. Under the guidance of Gustave Ferbert, Michigan won 34-0 over David Edwards' Ohio State team in 1897. The Buckeyes exacted their rookie revenge in 1929 when Sam Willaman led the Scarlet and Gray to a 7-0 win over Harry Kipke's Wolverines.
Ohio State is 18-22-3 all-time at Michigan Stadium.
This will be the fourth time this season that the Buckeyes have played the 15th-ranked team in the nation. They are 2-1 in their previous three such meetings, with their lone loss coming at Nebraska.
When Michigan Has the Ball
The Wolverines are averaging 231.9 yards rushing per game, and that's where their offense will start on Saturday. Unlike last season, however, they get their rushing from more than just quarterback Denard Robinson.
To his credit, Robinson has amassed 947 yards rushing on the season, but of late it's been tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint who has carried the Michigan running game. He's averaging 139.5 yards rushing per game over the Wolverines last four games and has carried the ball 92 times in that span.
His cutback ability will be an issue all game long for the Ohio State linebackers, as well as the safeties who gradually approach the line of scrimmage. Missed tackles cannot be tolerated against the runners that Michigan will put on the field.
It's not yet known whether weakside linebacker Andrew Sweat will be able to play this week, but given that he missed last week due to a concussion, he's probably not likely to make it. In his place last week was true freshman Ryan Shazier who last week merely led the team with fifteen tackles and was named the Big Ten's defensive freshman of the week.
Shazier is the fastest Buckeye linebacker in a long time, and he will cover some ground. It's not beyond the realm to think that he might also spy Robinson at times, but he can't just be shackled with spying when they'll need him to make plays all over the field.
Michigan will run the ball out of numerous formations with Toussaint, and they have all been effective at times this season.
Toussaint's emergence has protected Robinson late in the season, allowing him to not take the same beating he took last year. He hasn't rushed for 100 yards in a game since October 8th against Northwestern, and until last week hadn't even carried the ball more than 18 times since that same game.
However, there won't be the same desire to protect Robinson this week. Offensive coordinator Al Borges will run Robinson as many times as it takes to get a win on Saturday, and Robinson will gladly accept the responsibility.
But it's not just Robinson's touches that are down of late. He hasn't averaged over five yards per carry in a single game since October 1st. That's six games of being decidedly average in average.
The Ohio State defense will have to come out attacking Robinson from the start. The longer they can keep him on his heels, the less he'll be on his toes. As Buckeye defenders have said all season long, they will want to play downhill at the point of attack and bring the play to the Wolverines. The problem, however, is that when you do this, missed tackles becomes an even larger problem.
Defensive linemen John Hankins and John Simon will once again be important. After being quiet for a couple of weeks, they will absolutely need to be heard from. If Hankins can occupy two blockers, then that will limit where the ball carrier can go and make it for linebackers to clean it up. However, if he's still not healthy, he's going to be at a disadvantage for much of the game.
Robinson will likely get quite a few rollouts called for him, which should leave him with some open receivers. Junior Hemingway has been getting looks in the short field more often of late simply because the long passes just aren't as efficient as they were earlier in the season. Those deep balls will still happen on Saturday, and when they are up for grabs, the Buckeye defenders don't have to intercept them, but they cannot let the Michigan receivers come down with them.
The Ohio State secondary also can't be caught looking in the backfield, which is something that happens to cornerback Travis Howard quite a bit. Robinson will attack him on this, and likely come away with something big.
Borges will also call four or five screen passes to both receiver Jeremy Gallon and tailback Vincent Smith. He will try to get Ohio State's defense to back off a bit, and with the close nature of this series, much of the game could be determined on the outcome of those four or five plays.
Expect backup quarterback Devin Gardner to get some snaps as well. This is done mostly to get the ball to Robinson in different ways, or to use him as a decoy.
The Michigan special teams aren't outstanding, but they also don't put themselves in bad position. They are much like the rest of their team—simply solid enough to continue getting victories.
The return game has yet to do much for the Wolverines, but it's not like return touchdowns are unusual in this series for either team, so beware.
When Ohio State Has The Ball
Running the ball against Michigan hasn't been a problem for Ohio State over the last decade. Even without much threat of the pass, the Buckeyes had success on the ground in 2001 and 2002, as well as in 2008. For them to get the win up in Ann Arbor on Saturday, they will need to be able to reproduce that same formula.
There is a school of thought that with offensive coordinator Jim Bollman knowing he's on the way out, he will be more apt to let quarterback Braxton Miller loose. Even if this comes to be, there will still need to be a level of execution that the Ohio State passing game hasn't shown this season.
It will still be up to the Buckeye running game to carry the team, and if they're going to do it, they will need more out of tailback Boom Herron than he's provided over the last two games. In back-to-back losses to Purdue and Penn State, Herron carried the ball 37 times for just 141 yards total, and this comes after averaging 138 yards rushing per GAME over his first three games back from suspension.
Michigan comes into this game with the nation's 40th-ranked rush defense, allowing 128.4 yards rushing per game. If the Buckeyes are going to win this game, they may need to double that number.
Standing in their way, however, will be a Michigan defensive line that has gotten better every single week, led by tackle Mike Martin. Martin will give the interior of the Ohio State offensive line everything they can handle, and quite likely more. If Martin needs to be doubled, that will leave the rest of the defensive line in winnable situations from time to time. The key to stopping Michigan's defense will be to stop Martin. It's very simple, but not very simple to do.
For Ohio State to run the ball as well as they'll need to they'll need Miller to play a large part via the option as well as draws and scrambles. Miller has killed teams via the speed option out of the pistol formation, so don't be surprised to see that formation used extensively.
The Wolverines have had quite a bit of success defending running quarterbacks this season, so a guy like Miller won't be new for them. In the last two weeks they've played against Illinois' Nathan Scheelhaase (16 carries for 14 yards) and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez (16 carries for 49 yards), and shut both quarterbacks down and won comfortably.
Miller has rushed for at least 99 yards in three of his last four games, and has six rushing touchdowns in those four games. His 352 yards rushing over those last four games are more than that of Scheelhaase, Martinez, Denard Robinson or Minnesota's MarQueis Gray. This will be the most elusive quarterback that this Michigan defense has faced all year.
Herron and Miller will be the workhorses in the running game, but backups Jordan Hall and Carlos Hyde will also have to provide a lift. There are soft spots in this defense, but you have to keep testing it to find them.
The Wolverine linebackers have improved as the season has gone on, but they are helped out greatly against the run by their defensive line. They can be caught out of position, or negated by blocking. Fullback Zach Boren and middle linebacker Kenny Demens will have some nice collisions, but it doesn't always take a collision to occupy Demens.
As is always the case this season, if the Buckeyes are going to get the opposing defense to back off of the line of scrimmage, they are going to have to figure out how to complete some passes. A second game with receiver Devier Posey back in the lineup will help do that, but don't expect Ohio State to simply try and sling it around.
Posey is better than both of the cornerbacks who will be defending him, but it won't matter if the throws aren't on target. It also won't matter how open the other receivers are if they don't come down with the accurate passes. Miller is not always accurate, but when he is, he absolutely needs his receivers to help him out. They are letting him down way too often this season. If the Buckeyes are going to pull off the upset in Ann Arbor, they simply can't have drops.
Ohio State was in a field position disadvantage all game long against Penn State last week, and they need their special teams to step up in this game and keep that from happening again. The return game for the Buckeyes has been very quiet over the last few weeks, however.
Drew Basil has made 13-16 field goals this year and the only extra point he has missed this season came on the blocked attempt that sent the Purdue game into overtime.
Much of this game will hang on punter Ben Buchanan's right foot. He has the ability to pin the Wolverines deep in their territory, and with Michigan's propensity to turn the ball over, something as simple as a punt could lead to a game-changing play.
How It Will End Up
The game will come down to three things: 1) Ohio State's tackling; 2) Michigan's run defense; and 3) turnovers.
The Buckeyes have shown that they are not a great tackling team, and it's hard to imagine that they will suddenly become one in the last game of the season, especially if they are without leading tackler Andrew Sweat.
If Ohio State isn't tackling, they will need to be able to run the ball regardless of how well they are throwing it. If they can run the ball, they can control the clock and negate the tackling issues.
Whomever wins the turnover battle will likely win. It's not an earth-shattering analysis, but shortened fields, or blown opportunities deep in opposing territory, will be tough to overcome. Nothing can be wasted in this game, especially scoring opportunities.
Both Braxton Miller and Denard Robinson are going to carry the ball a lot. Ohio State has to keep Robinson from breaking a long one, which he hasn't done at all during the conference season. His long carry of the Big Ten season is just 28 yards. Miller has four carries longer than that during Big Ten play.
Herron will struggle to run the ball, which means Miller will have to carry the offense on both the ground and in the air. The Michigan defense will be after him relentlessly with a variety of blitzes—a few of which they haven't even shown yet. Miller must not turn the ball over. A sack is preferable to an interception.
The Michigan running game will have success with Toussaint gaining large chunks of yards throughout the game, but he will also be stifled quite a bit. The Wolverines will capitalize on the field position that he gives them, however.
Robinson will have at least one 40-yard carry in this game, which will be a momentum changer.
The Buckeyes will open the game strong as they play for their departing head coach Luke Fickell, but emotion will only last so long. Eventually plays will have to be made, and the Wolverines will simply make more.
Michigan 27 – Ohio State 20
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