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The Game – Preview

November 25, 2011

328 days ago, we hit rock bottom.  A 52-14 loss to Mississippi State was the final nail in the coffin of the Rich Rodriguez era – an era which included only 1 winning season, 3 losses to instate rival Michigan State, and worse, 3 embarrassing losses to Ohio State by a combined score of 100-24.  Even if some of those outcomes will be looked at differently by history due to what was revealed about NCAA violations and the OSU program this past spring and summer, for Michigan fans, they were, and continue to be embarrassing. 

And for those who may have forgotten that the end of season misery didn’t start when Rich Rodriguez took over as coach, Michigan hasn’t beaten OSU since 2003, despite several games in which they probably should have.  But for the first time in quite some time, perhaps since Jim Tressel rode into Columbus with his $500 handshakes, the tables are turned.  Ohio State comes into this game broken and vulnerable, with a lame duck coach and a 6-5 record.  Michigan comes in with Hoke-a-Mania in full swing, after Brady Hoke has led an incredible turnaround that has Michigan at 9-2, and potentially headed to a BCS bowl.   Given the circumstances, Michigan is a heavy favorite, something that was unfathomable 328 days ago.  While Michigan’s trajectory still appears to be on the upswing, Ohio State’s downfall won’t be for long, with Urban “The Savior” Meyer likely headed to Columbus, perhaps as early as Monday.  But for tomorrow, almost everybody is picking Michigan.  There’s no reason for Michigan or Ohio State fans to think this average Buckeye team in turmoil can come into Ann Arbor and beat the Wolverines.  Except that’s not how it always plays out in rivalry games, especially this one.  Here are just a few examples of when things didn’t go according to plan – just to give Buckeyes some hope, and to remind Wolverines not to start making plane reservations for New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl just yet. 

1969 – Ohio State’s “Team of the Century” came into Ann Arbor on a 22 game winning streak, and nobody gave the Wolverines a shot.  In fact, some commentators even opined that the only interesting game involving OSU that year would be a scrimmage between their offense and their defense.  As we all know, Bo Schembechler’s upstart Wolverines had other plans, and handed OSU a shocking loss, 24-12.  Michigan won the Big Ten, went to the Rose Bowl, and announced to the world that Michigan was back. 

1987 – 18 years later, Ohio State coach Earle Bruce was surprisingly fired 5 days before The Game, but was given the honor (or disgrace) of being allowed to coach his Buckeyes in Ann Arbor.  OSU was 5-4-1 and was given no chance given the turmoil to knock off the 7-3 Wolverines.  Bruce’s team and the OSU fans rallied, and upset Michigan 23-20. 

1993 – Ohio State came to Ann Arbor with a 9-0-1 record looking to cap off an undefeated season.  Michigan limped in with a 6-4 record, trying to salvage the season.  The Wolverines not only beat the Buckeyes, but they dominated on their way to a 28-0 record. 

1995 & 1996 –  Two years in a row, Ohio State was undefeated heading into The Game, going 11-0 in 1995 and 10-0 in 1996.  Not only were they playing for the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl birth, but they had dreams of a national championship as well.  And both times, a resilient Michigan team surprised the Buckeyes.  In 1995, it was Tim Biakabatuka who ran wild over the Buckeyes, picking up over 300 yards rushing en route to a 31-23 victory.  The next year, Michigan did it with defense, shocking the Buckeyes 13-9 in Columbus. 

2001 – Five years later, it was Ohio State’s chance to shock the Wolverines.  Shortly after he was hired, new coach Jim Tressel made a thinly veiled guarantee that Ohio State would beat Michigan that year, something his predecessor John Cooper couldn’t do.  Despite sporting a 6-4 record, and starting a backup QB named Craig Krenzel, the Buckeyes were able to beat an 8-2 Michigan team 26-20, the first of Tressel’s 9 wins against Michigan in 10 years.   

2004 – In a down year for OSU and Tressel, the 6-4 Buckeyes surprised a 9-1 Michigan team by beating them soundly 37-21 in Columbus.  The breakout star of the game was Troy Smith (who would continue to haunt the Wolverines for the next 3 years), and a myriad of Michigan errors kept the game from ever being close.  Michigan still went to the Rose Bowl that year, but the better team didn’t win The Game. 

Now that I’ve broken down Wolverine fans and made them sufficiently nervous that this game may end disaster and heartbreak, let me build you back up with a few facts and figures. 

  • Ohio State’s offense would have trouble picking up first downs and scoring against last year’s Michigan defense.  OSU’s rush offense isn’t bad, averaging 201 yards per game, good enough for 24th in the country, but their passing offense is horrendous.  They only average 114 yards per game through the air, which makes them 118 out of 120 teams in FBS.   In one of the most impressive turnarounds in NCAA history, Michigan’s defense is one of the better units in college football and will be ready for the Buckeyes.  For once, their weakness plays directly into our strengths.  Freshman QB Braxton Miller gets most of his yards by being elusive, breaking tackles and breaking containment.  This is exactly what Greg Mattison has coached our team to do – stay in front of your man, wait for help, and make the tackle.  Miller and OSU won’t be able to drive the field, so for them to win they are going to have to hit some big plays – something Michigan has done a great job defending against all year with only 1 play of over 50 yards allowed all year.  In short, for OSU to score, Michigan is going to have to make uncharacteristic mistakes, or OSU is going to have to play well above their heads.
  • 1-3 – That’s OSU’s road record this year, with losses to Miami, Nebraska, and Purdue.  Their lone win was a 17-7 win over Illinois.  OSU hasn’t looked great for most of this year, but they’ve struggled even more on the road.  They played the Cornhuskers tough in Lincoln, but couldn’t move the ball very well against Purdue or Penn State.  Braxton Miller plays with a lot of confidence, but he’s had a bit of a deer in the headlights look in opposing stadiums – and nothing he’s seen so far will compare to 114,000 Michigan fans. 
  • Spread Offenses – Despite a typically great defense,  teams with spread or pistol type offenses have found considerable success against OSU this year.  While the defense only allows 19 points per game, Nebraska (34) Indiana (20) and Purdue (26) have all exceeded that average.  They’ve also put up an average of 373 yards against the Bucks, 55 yards more than their average.  For a Michigan offense that is clicking on all cylinders after last weeks domination of Nebraska, they should be able to find a decent amount of success against this OSU defense. 
  • 132, 42, Beat Ohio – For those that don’t know, Brady Hoke starts every team meeting by greeting his team with good morning or good afternoon, asking them what # Michigan team this is (132), how many Big Ten Championship Michigan has won (42) and who to beat (Ohio).  While Michigan put focus on the MSU rivalry, and even put up a clock in the locker room, beating Ohio has been Brady’s focus from Day 1.  Therefore it has been this team’s focus since Day 1.  Just like under Bo, Michigan has done a little something each week to prepare specifically for this game.  Even if Rich Rodriguez fully understood how important this game was, he didn’t put enough attention on it.  And even so, he probably didn’t have enough talent to win it.  In Lloyd Carr’s final years, he emphasized The Game, but probably not at the same fanatical level that Jim Tressel did.  After a nearly 10 year drought and several embarrassing losses the last few years, its clear that Michigan and Brady Hoke want to restore balance to the rivalry.  Ohio State Coach Luke Fickell has probably put plenty of focus on beating Michigan this year – it may be his only chance to do so as OSU head coach.  But he’s been dealing with suspensions, and coaching rumors, and NCAA investigations since the summer – hardly the best atmosphere to prepare for a game like this.  Factor in his lame duck status, and who knows how motivated the team will be to actually win for him on Saturday.  We know Michigan will be locked in, but it would be understandable if OSU was not. 
  • Getting Better – Perhaps the most promising sign for Michigan is that this is a team taht has clearly gotten better as the season has gone on.  Though they stumbled three weeks ago against Iowa, they rebounded nicely with a convincing road win in Illinois and a dominant home win against Nebraska.  This team is absolutely peaking at the right time, both offensively and defensively.  Meanwhile, OSU is reeling after back to back losses to Penn State and Purdue.  College football is often a game of confidence, and Michigan clearly has that right now. 

PREDICTION

By now, Michigan fans hopefully feel pretty good about our chances tomorrow, as well they should.  The truth is that this is a OSU team with a lot of baggage.  They can’t throw the ball very well, they defend pro-style offenses great, but struggle more against spread looks, and most importantly, they have plenty to distract them this week with rumors of an Urban Meyer hiring and continued NCAA sanctions potentially coming down.  One of the reasons Ohio State has been so successful against Michigan over the last 10 years is their laser point focus on winning The Game.  That’s just not a realistic expectation for this year. 

For Michigan, this is the perfect time to get off of the OSU snide.  OSU is having a down year while Michigan is surging, and Michigan seems to have its house in order, while OSU seems to be remodeling from the inside out.  For once, Michigan may have the better defense (yes, I said it), and they clearly have the more explosive offense.  This is one of those situations where only Michigan can beat Michigan.  To be fair, that possibility is still very real.  In 2001 OSU had no business beating Michigan, but several 1st half mistakes gave OSU a big halftime lead, and Michigan never recovered.  But if Denard Robinson plays the way he did against Nebraska, there is no way that OSU can win.  Denard doesn’t need to score 4 touchdowns to lead Michigan to victory, he just has to play mistake free football and keep OSU from getting easy scoring opportunities due to turnovers.  I don’t expect Toussaint to have a huge day, but he will move the chains.  They key, as always, will be Denard’s ability to make good passes and decisions. 

Defensively, Michigan just needs to keep doing what they are doing.  OSU’s offensive line is a little banged up – they allow over 3 sacks a game, 5th worst in the country.  Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen could have a big day, especially if Braxton Miller tries to do too much.  He’s had success against weaker teams trying to make something out of nothing.  Against Michigan, that will end up being nothing most of the time. 

The only area where OSU has an advantage is on Special Teams, where their punt coverage, punt return, and kick return units are all better than Michigan’s.  But even in this instance, there is nothing particularly stellar about any of their units.  I’m a little scared that a blocked punt or punt return for a touchdown could change the momentum or outcome of this game, but I also think that’s what OSU is going to need to win. 

Michigan is the better team, they are playing at home, and they have more on the line.  Though that doesn’t always result in a W, this week it will.   I think OSU has too much pride to let this be a blowout, but if Michigan gets up early, they may pack it in.  Ultimately I see a close first half with Michigan pulling away eventually. 

Michigan 28

OSU 17

#beatohio

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Kref permalink
    November 25, 2011 4:22 PM

    If we take care of the ball we should be looking good. Go Blue! Beat Ohio!

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