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The Game – Preview

November 24, 2012

When Michigan and OSU take the field tomorrow, it will be the first time since 2007 that both teams come into The Game with at least 8 wins.  Yet shockingly, there won’t be much on the line.  With Nebraska’s win over Iowa today, the Cornhuskers have the Big Ten Legends division wrapped up and will be playing Wisconsin next week for the Big Ten title.  Though a Michigan win could land them in the BCS bowl, the likely destination for Michigan is a New Year’s Day battle against an SEC foe in the Capitol One bowl – win or lose.  For the Buckeyes, tomorrow is their Super Bowl, Rose Bowl, Big Ten Title etc., all wrapped into one.  Win, lose, draw or retroactively forfeit, the Buckeyes season ends tomorrow due to their postseason ban.  Sitting at 11-0 and ending the season a perfect 12-0 would be as good of a debut season for Urban Meyer as there is.  Likewise, finishing 11-1 with a final loss to Michigan would give the Buckeye faithful a bitter taste in their mouth all winter long.  

That’s not to say Michigan doesn’t want to win this game.  Besides the Schadenfreude of ruining the Buckeyes perfect season and improving their bowl position, starting off Urban Meyer’s Michigan/OSU career with a big L would be a great feeling.  And though Michigan’s primary goal of winning the Big Ten isn’t going to happen, beating OSU will lessen that pain for sure.

WHEN MICHIGAN HAS THE BALL

Last week Michigan sprung an entirely new look on Iowa with Denard Robinson lining up at running back, wide receiver and quarterback that has admittedly kept Urban Meyer up at night.  Maybe that’s just Urban trying to give Michigan a false sense of confidence, but after the way Michigan carved up Iowa by scoring touchdowns on their first 6 possessions, something tells me Urban hasn’t been sleeping that well this week.  Even without Fitzgerald Toussaint, this is a deadly Michigan offense that put up 41 points on Ohio State last year.  Defensively the Buckeyes are improved with a unit that ranks in the Top 40 in Total Defense and Scoring Defense.  The run defense is especially good, allowing only 116 yards per game on the ground.  However, the Buckeyes do struggle to defense the pass, giving up 250 yards per game, which is 11th in the Big 10.

If this were three weeks ago, I’d suggest the Buckeyes were in good shape, as they would be able to limit Denard Robinson on the ground and the lackluster Michigan running backs, and force them to win the game through the air.  But Michigan has broken out an entirely new (and very successful offense) the last 3 weeks whose strength is an aerial attack.  One big question is how will Devin Gardner fare playing in by far the most hostile environment of his career?  Gardner appears to be a big game player who performs his best when the lights are brightest, but we won’t know for sure until tomorrow.  If he can handle the pressure, Michigan should be in a position to score a lot of points.

WHEN OSU HAS THE BALL

Like Michigan, the Buckeyes will bring a very potent offense to the game tomorrow.  Braxton Miller seems to be part Terrelle Pryor, part Troy Smith – a deadly combination.  And he’s only gotten better with Urban Meyer as the coach.  Miller averages almost 280 yards total per game and has gone for over 140 yards per game on the ground 6 times this year.  Miller still struggles through the air some, completing just 56% of his passes.  And he’s under 50% in his last 4 games.  When Miller isn’t moving the ball, the Buckeyes look to running back Carlos Hyde who has really come on in the last 6 games.  Hyde has averaged over 111 yards in that span and accounted for 13 touchdowns.   The combination of Hyde and Miller have given the Buckeyes the #9 rushing offense in the country and are leading them to 38 points per game.

For Michigan, the defense has had its up and down moments.  Despite ranking in the Top 20 in both Total Defense and Scoring Defense, Michigan hasn’t been very good against the run this year, giving up over 150 yards per game.  Though not a terrible number, Michigan has struggled the most when they couldn’t stop the run (see Air Force, Northwestern, Nebraska and of course Alabama).  That being said, Michigan has the best pass defense in the country which comes from a solid pass defense scheme and good downfield tackling to avoid big plays.  Last year OSU had more big plays against Michigan than they allowed all season, which kept the Buckeyes in the ballgame.  That can’t happen this year if Michigan wants to win.

One key matchup to watch – the Michigan defensive line versus the OSU offensive line.  Despite having a mobile QB in Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes are 11th in the conference in sacks allowed.  Meanwhile, Michigan is only 10th in the conference in getting to the quarterback.  If Michigan can find success pressuring Miller, they can slow down the OSU offense.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Given that these teams are fairly evenly matched, this game may very well come down to special teams.  Michigan’s strength is in its kicking game with one of the most reliable kickers in the country in Brendan Gibbons – though I still don’t trust any Michigan kicker, no matter how many brunette girls he’s thinking about.  OSU kicker Drew Basil has only attempted 6 field goals all year – something to watch for if this game gets close.  In the punting game, Will Hagerup has had some shanks, but also can be a game changer when he is on, a huge advantage for Michigan if he brings his A game.  For further evidence these aren’t the Buckeyes of Jim Tressel, Ben Buchanan is only averaging 40 yards per punt and has had several blocked, something Michigan will surely try to exploit.

In the return game, Dennis Northfleet seems poised to break a big return every game, but has yet to do so for Michigan.  The Buckeyes Corey Brown has two punt returns for touchdowns this year and though Michigan’s bigger concern and weakness is usually on kick returns, this is another area to watch for a big play from Ohio State.

INTANGIBLES

As I outlined above, this game is a bit of an anomaly, as the only thing truly on the line is pride.  For Urban Meyer, its his initial chance to prove if he’s more Jim Tressel than John Cooper.  Tressel systematically and methodically took the battle to Michigan and owned the series.  Cooper understood its importance, but could never figure out how to make them game special without adding too much pressure for his team.   Meyer’s pedigree and background makes it clear he gets the rivalry, but how he manages that remains to be seen.

For Michigan, coming into Columbus and winning has never been an easy task, with only three wins in Columbus since 1990.   That includes blowout losses in 2008 and 2010 though those were largely due to the Rich Rod era more than anything else.  Nebraska’s win today means that Michigan will actually have less pressure on it than Ohio State, who is playing for a perfect season.  Regardless of the outcome, Michigan is likely headed to central Florida for a New Year’s Day Bowl. 

The weather will be cool and brisk, with 17 mph winds, which could hinder the Michigan passing game.  As for any other advantage OSU may have, they will be honoring the 2002 National Championship Team*, but unless Jim Tressel throws on a sweatervest and a headset, I don’t imagine that will be a factor.

One other thing to remember – Greg Mattison was Urban Meyer’s defensive coordinator at Florida, so these two know each other very well.  My guess is that benefits Mattison, as he has a better feel for Meyer’s tendencies and where he wants to gamble, but it will probably give Meyer some additional ammo as well.

RECIPE FOR A WIN

  • Control the OSU Running Game – If Hyde and Miller find a rhythm, Michigan will struggle to get off of the field
  • Pressure Braxton Miller – Miller is a talented QB, but he’s much less effective when under duress.  In two years it won’t matter how much pressure you put on him, but for now he still gets rattled
  • Win the Mental Game – One thing Michigan has struggled with this year is silly penalties and poor decisions.  They have to be mentally strong and not take the bait of the fans or the OSU players
  • Keep Calm and Carry On – There will be moments of frustration and difficulty tomorrow.  Michigan has to fight through those and remember this is a 60 minute game

PREDICTION

Despite this being the final game of the regular season, there are still some lingering questions about both of these teams.  I’m not sold on the Ohio State defense, and their close calls with Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State suggest this is less like a juggernaut and more like a talented team that has yet to be truly tested.  But it’s tough to argue with 11-0.  

Michigan on the other hand is battle tested with games against Alabama and Notre Dame, as well as on the road at night against Nebraska.  The only problem – they lost all three of those games.  The “signature” wins are either an overtime victory against Northwestern that they probably didn’t deserve or a last second win at home against MSU.   And neither of those teams are Top 25 caliber.  

Last year’s game was supposed to be more of a defensive battle than years past due to Michigan’s stellar defense. This year’s defense may be better than last year’s on paper, but they just don’t feel dominant to me.  The last time Michigan played an Urban Meyer coached team, Michigan finished with 41 points, and that was after two fumbles inside the 5 yard line.  Couple that with last year’s offensive explosion, and this one feels like another track meet.  But for the first time in 3 years, Michigan won’t be entirely dependent on Denard Robinson to lead them to victory.  He’ll still play a role, but it no longer will be “As Denard goes, so goes Michigan”.   

As good as Ohio State may be on paper, I still think this one comes down to what is Michigan capable of doing (or not doing).  Michigan has the better defense, and when clicking, the most explosive offense.  Whether or not they can use both sides of the ball to their advantage remains to be seen.  I was fully prepared to go with recent history and predict an OSU victory. But something tells me that Devin Gardner is the big game QB we’ve been waiting for but haven’t had since Drew Henson, who not surprisingly was the last QB to win a game in the Shoe for Michigan.   And while Henson had weapons, he didn’t have one of the most dangerous players in the history of college football to throw to/handoff to/catch passes from.   For the first time since 2000, Michigan gets it done in Columbus.  

Michigan 30

Ohio State 24

 

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