It. Is. Time!
Those are the three words that Ohio State strength coach Mickey Marotti will yell in the locker room before the Buckeyes take the field at Michigan Stadium this Saturday.
He will likely be using more exclamation points than I did.
Before the Buckeyes get to Ann Arbor, however, things will change around the football facilities in Columbus. Urban Meyer has L.L. Cool J’s “It’s Time for War” blasting on a loop throughout the building, for instance.
Yes, tension is in the air.
Every step finds players walking into cobwebs spun from days gone by. Wherever they walk, strings of the past tangle with expectations of what is to come. And there’s no point in wiping any of it away.
Despite the distraction, the Buckeyes were able to take care of an easy task this past weekend against Illinois. Michigan, on the other hand, wasn’t so fortunate. Of course, their task was much more difficult.
After a promising first 38 minutes — in which Michigan held a 10-7 lead, the final 22 minutes were all Wisconsin, as the Badgers eventually took control for a 24-10 win in Madison.
The loss to Wisconsin combined with OSU’s win over Illinois clinched the East Division for the Buckeyes, and they will play Wisconsin for the Big Ten Championship in a little under two weeks.
But all of that is meaningless right now.
There are much more important things on the immediate horizon.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Michigan offense was held to just 234 yards of total offense, which was a season low. The Wolverines rushed for 58 yards on 37 attempts and passed for 176 yards and no touchdowns.
The story of the game was starting quarterback Brandon Peters leaving the game late in the third quarter with a concussion. He had to be carted off and he is now in the concussion protocol, so his availability for this week is completely up in the air. Peters was then replaced by John O’Korn. Things did not go well after that.
The loss of Peters is huge, but I don’t know that it had any impact on this game. When O’Korn took his first snap, the Wolverines were down 21-10 with 24 seconds left in the third quarter. Could Peters have led Michigan to 14 points in the fourth quarter? Sure. The fact that he had only led them to 17 points in the previous five quarters, however, makes me think that it wasn’t going to happen.
Peters’ last four drives totaled just 26 yards, which also happened to be the exact same length as O’Korn’s first drive, so let’s not pretend like the injury derailed the Wolverines’ chances. One of those drives with Peters at quarterback started at the Wisconsin 41-yard line, and ended at the 42-yard line in a punt. The drive after that started at the Wisconsin 29-yard line and ended eight yards later in a field goal.
Peters finished 9-of-18 for 157 yards and was sacked twice. O’Korn completed 2-of-8 passes for 19 yards, though he was the victim of at least two drops.
Michigan did finally get some production out of their wide receivers, though it was mostly freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones, who caught four passes for 64 yards, including a 48-yard deep ball. I don’t know why Michigan hasn’t done more of this, but I go back to something J.T. Barrett said about why the Buckeyes didn’t throw deep much last year — basically, if they aren’t hitting it in practice, they’re not going to call it in the game, and they weren’t hitting it in practice.
What struck me most in this game is how often the tight ends were lined up as wide receivers and running receiver routes.
I know former Michigan receivers coach Jeff Hecklinski once infamously said “speed is overrated” at receiver, but Jim Harbaugh is taking things to a whole new level.
By the way, while I’m talking about Hecklinski, he’s part of the problem that Michigan is dealing with now. He made that comment about speed following signing day in 2013 when the Wolverines signed three less-than-blue-chip receivers. Any of those guys could be redshirt seniors and helping this team right now.
Instead, they’ve all been gone for years. Da’Mario Jones and Jaron Dukes left before 2016 without ever contributing, and Csont’e York was dismissed prior to the 2014 season. In fact, the three of them combined for two catches for 13 yards in their respective careers, with both receptions belonging to Jones.
Unless your quarterback has pinpoint accuracy — or plays for Indiana or Iowa — I don’t know that matching a tight end against an Ohio State cornerback is going to be a winning proposition. To this point, we have not seen a Michigan quarterback capable of such precision.
Despite the desperate description of the passing game, it might actually be in better shape than the Michigan running game.
The Wolverines’ 58 yards rushing was their lowest total since the Ohio State game in 2015 when they managed just 57 yards on the ground.
Starting running back Karan Higdon is not 100% healthy, so that definitely was a factor. Higdon rushed for 20 yards on seven carries. Michigan was “led” on the ground by Chris Evans, who rushed for 25 yards on 11 carries. The biggest rush of the day came from Donovan Peoples-Jones, and it was only 12 yards.
Here is a sobering statistic for Michigan fans: In games against opponents that are not currently ranked, the Wolverines have rushed for 234.1 yards per game. In games against teams that are currently ranked, however, Michigan is averaging just 87.7 yards rushing per game.
And the last I checked, Ohio State is ranked.
Michigan’s offensive line is hit and miss, with more misses the tougher the schedule gets. Because of this, Harbaugh tried to even up the numbers a bit against Wisconsin. Michigan went with Evans in the wildcat to get an extra blocker, but it didn’t really do much for them. They also ran the read option to even the numbers, but that also did not work well.
The Wolverines can try to even the numbers all they want, but if the five guys up front aren’t taking care of their assignments, the numbers will never even out.
When Michigan Was On Defense
There was a point in this game when I felt like Michigan was about to take control. It was the third quarter and the score was tied at 7-7. Wisconsin was just finishing up their third-straight three-and-out and they punted from their own 11-yard line. This ended up being the drive that the Wolverines started at the Badgers 41-yard line. They punted it back three plays later, but had begun to dominate the field position battle.
The next drive for Wisconsin ended in a Devin Bush interception at the Badger 29-yard line. The Michigan offense converted that into just three points. The Wolverines were trying to establish momentum, but Wisconsin wasn’t interested in letting that happen. Badger quarterback Alex Hornibrook threaded some passes on the ensuing drive, which ended in a touchdown and a Wisconsin lead that they would never relinquish.
The Badgers scored on their next drive as well, essentially putting the game away in the process.
Wisconsin only managed 325 yards of total offense, which was actually more yards than they managed against Northwestern or Illinois.
The biggest number here is the 182 yards rushing by the Badgers. It’s not a huge number, but Wisconsin wore on the Michigan defense as the game went on. The Badgers were held to 21 yards on six attempts in the first quarter, and in the second and third quarters they rushed for 73 yards on 17 carries. It was the fourth quarter, however, where Wisconsin put things to bed by rushing for 88 yards on 17 attempts.
Michigan needed the ball in the fourth quarter to make a comeback, but the Badgers held it for 10:57. The Wolverine defense held Wisconsin to just three points in the fourth quarter, but the Michigan offense just couldn’t stay on the field long enough to capitalize. Wisconsin was happy to burn the clock in the fourth quarter and they did an excellent job of shortening the game.
I went through and looked at the games where Michigan gave up some rushing yards this season, namely Air Force (168), Michigan State (158), Penn State (224), Maryland (180), and Wisconsin (182). Those five teams have one of two things (and sometimes both) — either a mobile quarterback (Air Force, Michigan State, Maryland) or a dynamic running back (Penn State, Maryland, Wisconsin).
The thing that should concern Michigan fans is that Ohio State has two dynamic tailbacks in Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins, and a quarterback in J.T. Barrett who has rushed for 353 yards in his career against Michigan in just 10 quarters of play.
The Michigan Special Teams
I have badgered Michigan punter Brad Robbins all season long about his inability to pin the opponent deep, but on Saturday he was much better. Of his nine punts, four of them were placed inside the 20-yard line. He was a great help to the defense. Robbins wasn’t perfect, however, as he punted from the Badger 41-yard line in the first quarter and could have pinned Wisconsin very deep. Instead his kick went into the end zone, which was quite predictable. He did a nice job of turning things around after that, however.
Michigan did allow a 50-yard punt return touchdown to Nick Nelson. It was not an explosive return, but rather expertly blocked.
As Jim Tressel has said in the past, the punt is the most important play in football, and that’s not going to stop being true this weekend. The Buckeyes finally allowed their first punt return last week. It went for one yard. They lead the nation in both fewest returns allowed and yards allowed.
Given the history of this game, they would be wise to not let that number go up by even one return this weekend.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Ohio State still has realistic playoff hopes and that Michigan could end those hopes for good on Saturday.
On (virtual) paper, this Michigan offense shouldn’t put up too much of a fight against an Ohio State defense that has seen much better.
They’ve also seen Iowa, and we all remember how that one went.
This is a different Buckeye defense than that one, however, as the linebackers have been moved around and have now found their rightful homes. But this will still be an area where Michigan can make plays, and they’ll have to.
When it comes to this game, the role of spoiler is not an uncommon one for Michigan over the years, but that doesn’t mean they’ve been very good at it.
This shouldn’t be a close game based on the data, but data doesn’t wear shoulder pads, and data hasn’t had to hear about how it has lost to Ohio State five years running.
Nobody on this roster knows what it is like to beat the Buckeyes, and that kind of frustration can drive a program more than playoff hopes can.
Selfishly, every player in this game will want to win. It will be the selfless team, however, that gets it done.
The Road to The Game
Sept. 2 Michigan 33 – Florida 17 (1-0)
Sept. 9 Michigan 36 – Cincinnati 14 (2-0)
Sept. 16 Michigan 29 – Air Force 13 (3-0)
Sept. 23 Michigan 28 – Purdue 10 (4-0, 1-0)
Oct. 7 Michigan State 14 – Michigan 10 (4-1, 1-1)
Oct. 14 Michigan 27 – Indiana 20 (5-1, 2-1)
Oct. 21 Penn State 42 – Michigan 13 (5-2, 2-2)
Oct. 28 Michigan 35 – Rutgers 14 (6-2, 3-2) (Rivalry Game)
Nov. 4 Michigan 33 – Minnesota 10 (7-2, 4-2)
Nov. 11 Michigan 35 – Maryland 10 (8-2, 5-2)
Nov. 18 Wisconsin 24 – Michigan 10 (8-3, 5-3)
Nov. 25 Ohio State at Michigan