COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A trip to the Big Ten Championship is on the line Saturday when No. 2 Ohio State faces No. 5 Michigan at noon in Ann Arbor.
The Buckeyes and Wolverines didn’t play last year due to a COVID outbreak at Michigan, so the rivals meet again for the first time in more than 700 days.
More than 20 Buckeyes who start or get regular playing time will play in The Game for the first time in their career as OSU looks for its ninth-straight win over the Wolverines. The longest win streak in this rivalry currently belongs to Michigan, which won The Game from 1901 to 1909.
Here’s three things to know as Ohio State and Michigan face off with playoff fates hanging in the balance:
Top 10 Defense vs. #1 Offense
One of the nation’s best defenses will go toe-to-toe with the best offense in the country. Ohio State leads all teams in points per game (47.2) while the Wolverines rank 7th in fewest points allowed (16.3), so something’s got to give.
“This is a very good defense. I think they’re well-coached and they have really good players who play with an edge, so we’ve got to practice with an edge and bring it as well,” OSU coach Ryan Day said.
In their last two meetings, OSU’s high-powered offense was too much for Michigan with the Buckeyes scoring a record-breaking seven offensive touchdowns in 2018 followed by eight offensive touchdowns in 2019. The Buckeyes showed they are capable of that last week, scoring seven touchdowns on seven possessions against Michigan State to take a 49-0 halftime lead.
If the Buckeyes score at will as they did against the Spartans, Michigan doesn’t stand a chance because they can’t win a shootout-style game.
The key for the Wolverines will be getting stops in the red zone, where OSU struggled against Penn State and Nebraska. Michigan will also have to rely on its secondary, which is the second-highest graded group in college football, per Pro Football Focus (PFF).
The other key for Michigan’s defense is getting a big game from defensive end Hutchinson who’s the highest-graded defender in college football, per PFF.
Heisman-favorite C.J. Stroud, his trio of insanely talented receivers and true freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson are going to get theirs. But whether they get touchdowns or field goals will be the difference between a close top-10 showdown or another beat down.
Michigan’s bread and butter
Michigan has an incredibly balanced offense. In fact, the Wolverines are one of only six teams to average at least 200 yards passing (229.5) per game and 200 yards rushing (218.4).
Much like their in-state rival, the Wolverines offense thrives when they run the ball not only successfully but also consistently.
“It’s kind of similar to last week. They’re a run-heavy team. They like to stay on schedule, play-action pass off their run game,” OSU defensive end Zach Harrison said. “They like to run the ball a lot and that’s something we’ve got to do a good job of keeping off schedule.”
But the Spartans rushing attack, including the nation’s No. 1 rusher, was nonexistent against OSU because they went down 21-0 after the first quarter.
Kenneth Walker III was held to a season-low 25 yards on six carries. Six carries is bonkers for the best running back in the country. If that happens to Michigan as well, this game will need the mercy rule.
Establishing the run is vital to what Michigan does on offense and is a big reason why it ranks 15th in the country in points per game (36.9). Running the ball also opens up the passing attack, especially the play-action pass, and creates big plays, which is another reason why the Wolverines rank 23rd in the country in yards per game.
The Buckeyes have held five opponents to less than 100 yards rushing this season and the defensive line has gotten better every week. An unstoppable force will meet an immovable object Saturday and only one can prevail. We’ll see who that is soon enough.
Ohio State ranks first in the Big Ten in sacks (36), which is tied for ninth in the country. But on the other side of the ball, the Wolverines rank first in the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed (9), which is tied for fifth in the country.
At one point this season, the Buckeyes recorded four straight games with at least four sacks. That streak ended against Purdue when OSU wasn’t able to get a sack. But a lack of sacks isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the Buckeyes are still applying pressure and more importantly forcing quarterbacks to make quick throws and not allowing them to go through progressions to find a third or fourth option.
“The quarterback is very skilled so we’ve just to bring it every down, try to get our hands up, try to deflect balls but really just overall play really good defense,” OSU defensive tackle Haskell Garrett said.
Ohio State’s ability to get a push up front can be seen in its successful run defense. Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara is prone to getting the ball off quickly and partly explains the lack of sacks allowed. A key for Ohio State’s defensive line will be getting their hands up when McNamara throws to take away passing lanes as they did against Michigan State when the Buckeyes recorded 12 pass deflections, secondary included.
“If you can’t get home, put your hand up,” Harrison said. “Coach [Larry Johnson] says a batted pass is the same as a sack almost. It’s a lost down for the offense and then they’re behind the chains, so it’s something we emphasize and work on every day at practice.”