As the world’s foremost authority on things that I know, and the world’s second-most foremost authority on things that I think I know (my wife is the world’s foremost authority on that), I thought it would be appropriate for me to share what I know — and what I think I know — about The Game.
Having watched every game each of Ohio State and Michigan have played for over a decade, and written about them soon after, I do have a lot of thoughts about how Saturday’s game is going to go down. Those thoughts spasm through my head almost non-stop this week, so I wanted to get as many of them typed out as possible.
This isn’t everything that I’m thinking about in terms of Saturday’s game, but it’s everything that I could think to address off the top of my head. Somebody more refined than myself would have used an outline, but outlines are for people who aren’t good enough to learn to accept less than their best. This is also a thing I’m foremost good at.
I’m not really in the mood to make this super fancy, but I’ll at least make it easy enough for you to follow my scattered thoughts.
Ohio State running game vs. Michigan
+ I think the Buckeyes are going to be able to run the ball. Three teams had success against the Wolverines this season. UCF ran for 275 yards on Michigan and they did it with a fast-paced spread offense, which is something that Ohio State can pull out when they want to. Michigan State (217 yards) and Iowa (164) were the only other teams to break the 100-yard mark against Michigan and they did it with toughness, blocking, and talent. Again, these are things that the Buckeyes have. They haven’t faced many quarterbacks who can run. One of them — UCF’s Adrian Killins — busted an 87-yarder on them back in September.
+ Iowa running back Akrum Wadley made Michigan’s defense look slow, and he compares very favorably to Curtis Samuel.
+ Tempo is going to be an issue for Michigan’s defense. They tired out last year, but they are deeper this year. Still, tempo has an effect on every defense. This is one of those games where the OSU offensive line loves tempo because they feed off of seeing the Wolverine defensive line get winded.
+ The Buckeyes are going to spread Michigan out and pound the middle with Mike Weber. They’ll spread it out even more and pound it with J.T. Barrett as well.
+ Michigan can be beaten to the edge with speed, but the Buckeyes have to be wary of running something right into a run blitz for a loss of six or seven, killing a drive. A jet sweep from under center would probably be a safer idea than some type of sweep that starts five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Although we should still see some split back runs with Mike Weber leading for Curtis Samuel. That’s been a difficult play to stop in the backfield, and it has the potential to come out the other side every time they run it.
+ I could see Barrett, Weber, and Samuel combining for another 50 rushes this week, just like they did last week.
+ I think there will be some success running behind Pat Elflein and Billy Price, which is right into the teeth of the Michigan defensive line. When it’s best on best like that, I’ll go with the All-American center.
+ Linebackers Mike McCray and Ben Gedeon have to play their best games. Just as important as their constant blitzing will be their tackling. What good does it do to hit Mike Weber if you’re going to miss the tackle and watch him keep running?
+ I don’t see linebacker Jabrill Peppers as much of a factor in stopping the running game. That’s not who he is. Only five of his 15 tackles for loss this season have come by tackling a running back in the backfield. Most of the time it comes from watching the quarterback and then bringing him down when he has nobody to cover.
+ Other than that, the best thing he may end up doing is simply staying home and sealing the edge, thereby forcing the ball back into the middle.
+ I know Ohio State fans hate watching Ohio State go into an empty set and then having J.T. Barrett run the ball, but the thing you have to realize is that it works really well. Like almost every time. Just make friends with it.
Ohio State passing game vs. Michigan
+ Man, I just don’t know.
+ This is going to be the best pair of cornerbacks the Buckeyes have faced all season. Fortunately for them, they’ve faced great cornerbacks all season long in practice. They’ve never had stakes like this in practice, though.
+ The wind is going to be throwable, which is huge news for the Buckeyes. Now they just have to get protection, separation, accuracy, and then catch the ball. No wonder throwing the ball has been difficult at times.
+ If UM cornerback Jourdan Lewis shadows Curtis Samuel, then whichever receiver is getting Michigan’s No. 3 cornerback has to make plays. They have two great cornerbacks, but they don’t have three very good ones.
+ When Jabrill Peppers is on Curtis Samuel, a feint to the line of scrimmage by J.T. Barrett will freeze Peppers and Samuel will run free.
+ Expect this to be the best pass defense game of the year for Peppers because he hasn’t had a signature game yet. So much has been made of his lack of an interception in his career that it’s nearly a mortal lock for it to happen here. There are times when Peppers is just setting an edge. He could drop back and sneak off with a quick pass without Barrett ever seeing him. We’ve seen it happen before.
+ The Buckeyes will have to balance their desire to run tempo with their larger desire to find the best matchup. They’ll motion players around, looking to find a mismatch with Samuel.
+ Freshman left guard Michael Jordan is going to have a difficult day with the inside blitzes. Sophomore right tackle Isaiah Prince is going to have to maintain his block as long as possible because it could take a bit longer for Barrett to find a guy. Unless they’re only going to have Barrett look at his first two options and then take off. Michigan’s aggressive defense is going to cause negative plays. The goal will be to stay ahead of the chains. Barrett excels at that.
+ You can spread and shred this defense with the passing game, but you have to stay ahead of the chains. Safeties Dymonte Thomas and Delano Hill can be beaten in the passing game, and that could be a plan for K.J. Hill in the slot. Delano Hill is crafty though and the Buckeyes can’t take him lightly.
+ The wheel route out of the backfield or a fake screen and go from the slot will be effective against this defense. Curtis Samuel and K.J. Hill may see 15-20 targets in this game.
+ The Buckeye offensive tackles will need their best game of the season. Michigan rotates four talented defensive ends and they can all get into the backfield. J.T. Barrett has the ability to escape that pressure, but his OL at least needs to give him an opportunity to feel it.
+ I’m just really interested to see all of the motion that Ohio State is going to run in this game, and how much of a response we see from Michigan. When Jabrill Peppers is matched up on Curtis Samuel will he have help? Or do they let Peppers do what he can until something bad happens? Does OSU want that matchup, or are they looking for Mike McCray to be that guy?
Michigan running game vs. Ohio State
+ Leading rusher De’Veon Smith is not a big-play guy, but just understand that he’s probably going to bust free for a 40-yard run somehow. Don’t worry, OSU should be able to track him down from behind.
+ Michigan State did a fantastic job of scheming up the Ohio State defense. Michigan will do the same. Expect a few frustrating chunk plays if you’re a Buckeye fan.
+ Freshman running back Chris Evans is Michigan’s big-play back. He is fast and explosive, but can be brought down with an arm tackle, provided it’s the right arm. (Not “right” as in not left, but “right” as in “proper”. I probably should have just used some other words there because left arms can certainly bring him down as well.)
+ Michigan has played four running backs all season long, but Smith and Evans are the two you’ll see for the most part. Karan Higdon is a little like Evans, while Ty Isaac is a little like Smith in that he can take a while to get started. He’s a long strider who has been effective in sweeps where he is allowed to get momentum before hitting the line of scrimmage.
+ A very good defensive line can contain this running game. Wisconsin held them to 130 yards rushing and Iowa kept them below that, with just 98 yards rushing. Can the Buckeye defensive tackles hold up? Nose tackle Michael Hill continues to take on blockers. His backup — Robert Landers — was in a walking boot this week, but OSU says he’ll play. If he does, our Kyle Morgan expects him to make it a difficult day for Michigan guard Kyle Kalis, who has trouble with quick and strong players across from him.
+ This is not the most athletic offensive line, so a guy like defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones could have a lot to say about putting this offense in second-and-long situations.
+ The quarterback situation for Michigan is completely up in the air, but if it’s John O’Korn, the Buckeyes will have to be wary of his ability to run the ball. Also, if it’s O’Korn, Michigan is going to have to throw the ball in order to get Ohio State out of the box. O’Korn is going to have to earn this defense’s respect.
+ Michigan likes to run jet sweeps with freshman receiver Eddie McDoom and starting receiver Jehu Chesson. The Buckeyes have adjusted to that since the Wisconsin game. Expect the Wolverines to attack this somehow at some point.
+ In short-yardage situations, they love to use fullback Khalid Hill, but he’s more effective at the goal line than elsewhere.
+ Expect Jabrill Peppers to have a sizable gain on the ground, around 20 yards. It’s a big stage and everybody is going to want to be seen.
Michigan passing game vs. Ohio State
+ If this is Wilton Speight, then the Buckeyes need to hit him until it isn’t. That’s not to say they need to take cheap shots, but they need to make Speight feel his left shoulder injury as often as possible. While it’s not the same injury, or even the same arm, we saw how ineffective Michigan’s passing game was in 2007 when Chad Henne had a bum shoulder. Michigan fans are well aware how effective an opposing offense is when they are down to their backup quarterback.
+ I still have no clue what I think is going to happen at quarterback. I’m not saying I don’t know what will happen — I don’t even know what I think is going to happen. I think I think it will be John O’Korn, but the smoke has been billowing for Speight over the last 24 hours or so. This is probably exactly as Jim Harbaugh wanted it.
+ If it’s Speight, then he’s going to throw five or six deep balls on the Buckeyes and the OSU cornerbacks will need to be up to the task. They generally are, and of those five or six, one or two will be completed, and a third may have a flag thrown. What we have only seen one or two times this year, however, is a deep pass completed and a receiver continuing to run free into the end zone. Yes, downfield passes have been completed, but the tackle is usually happening instantaneously. The Buckeyes have allowed just two passes of 40 yards or more this season, which is second-fewest in the nation.
+ If it’s O’Korn, I have no idea what kind of deep passer he is, but I know he’s not as good as Speight, he is sometimes great, sometimes below average.
+ This will be the best secondary the Wolverines have faced this season. The Buckeyes will continue to rotate their three starting cornerbacks, and on passing downs it will be Gareon Conley at the nickel. Conley on Michigan’s third receiver is almost overkill, and it makes me think he could be used better elsewhere. Like maybe on Jake Butt?
+ Tight end Jake Butt has been pretty quiet of late, but that will change quickly and loudly on Saturday. Michigan doesn’t appear to have an edge against OSU’s cornerbacks, but I don’t know what they plan to do with Butt and be successful. I’m assuming it will be free safety Damon Webb or linebacker Chris Worley. Strong safety Malik Hooker could help out, if OSU is okay not giving the corners deep help. Things will change throughout the game, but it will definitely be interesting to see how they plan to defend Butt.
+ Michigan’s receivers have been quiet of late. Some of that was due to the weather last week.
+ There will always be play-action bootlegs as long as Michigan is still playing football, which means that receivers and tight ends will be dragging across the middle against man coverage which won’t always be able to keep up.
+ Watch out for Chris Evans to play a big part in the passing game. He is an explosive player who can get big chunks, and I’m convinced that Michigan isn’t going to score much without those chunks. A screen or three with him could break big against an aggressive pass rush.
+ The Michigan inside guys — specifically guards Kyle Kalis and freshman Ben Bredeson — are going to have difficulties with defensive ends Jalyn Holmes and Nick Bosa on passing downs. Wisconsin sacked Michigan quarterbacks four times. The Buckeyes have the defensive ends to provide pressure outside and inside. The Wolverines are going to need their best pass blocking day. Their tackles are capable. The inside, however, might be where it all falls apart.
+ Amara Darboh is the strong receiver who moves the chains. Jehu Chesson is the speed guy who runs deep. They complement each other well and can do what the other does. The Buckeye cornerbacks can just sit on routes. Tendencies tend to be a little scarce in the first half of these games.
+ Jabrill Peppers is going to have a pass called for him out of the wildcat, but he will be smart enough to not throw the ball if nothing is available. Malik Hooker can’t bit on this. His aggression has put him in bad spots in the past, and this could be one of those times.
+ Jake Butt should have 6-8 targets in the first half alone.
Ohio State special teams vs. Michigan special teams
+ If the Buckeyes lose this game, it will be special teams that does them in. It’s what did them in against Penn State as well.
+ Michigan blocks punts like most people absentmindedly scratch an itch. Ohio State has had a couple of punts blocked this season and they absolutely cannot have that happen in this game.
+ Jabrill Peppers is a tremendous punt returner, but the Buckeyes generally don’t allow anybody to return punts. There shouldn’t be too many opportunities for Peppers to field a punt without having to fair catch it.
+ The Buckeyes may stick with trying to kick touchbacks, but I wouldn’t expect Peppers to scare them away from a plan that they love. If they have an opportunity to pin a John O’Korn offense at the 11-yard line, they’re going to risk it.
+ These are two excellent special teams when they are clicking, but both teams have also had a game that was an embarrassment to the oddball special teams community at large.
+ Whichever team plays closest to their potential on special teams will probably win this game.