Three Keys to a Michigan Victory Over Ohio State

Three Keys to a Michigan Victory Over Ohio State

Football

Three Keys to a Michigan Victory Over Ohio State

Michigan fans at large are acting like it’s a foregone conclusion that the Wolverines will take down the Buckeyes for the first time since 2011 and for the first time in Columbus since 2000, but The Game won’t be that easy.

Of course, the eye test suggests that the Wolverines are far superior to Ohio State. The Buckeyes have fielded a terrible defense compared to what college football is accustomed to with Urban Meyer at the helm, ranking No. 70 nationally out of 130 FBS teams. OSU got gashed and had to survive overtime against Maryland, 52-51, a team Michigan beat 42-21. Ohio State also survived at Penn State, in what, at the time, looked like a thriller between two top teams, 27-26 — Michigan eviscerated the Nittany Lions, 42-7.

Both teams are still 10-1, however, and the winner gets to go to the Big Ten Championship game — something the Wolverines have never done.

Here’s what Michigan needs to do if it wants to secure a victory on Saturday in Columbus.

keep Dwayne Haskins in check.

In our opinion, this is the biggest challenge that the Michigan defense will have faced thus far — and the numbers bear it out.

Ohio State enters the game with the nation’s No. 2 offense — behind only Oklahoma — with the production predicated primarily on the passing game. Buckeyes quarterback Dwayne Haskins is the nation’s third-rated passer, leading the nation’s third-rated pass offense. He’s poised, accurate and prolific — having broken 12 Ohio State single-season records and counting. He has the third most passing yards in the country and is 7th in completion percentage, making 69.3% of his throws. He’s tied for first in the country with Wazzu’s Gardner Minshew with 36 touchdown passes — exactly double Shea Patterson’s total. In other words, he’s the biggest threat that the nation’s No. 1 rated pass defense has faced this season, and it probably isn’t even close.

But, Haskins can be pressured. Not necessarily neutralized, but he’s had two sub-60% passing games this season (at Penn State, vs. Nebraska) and has had four games in which he’s passed for less than 300 yards (Rutgers, Penn State, Nebraska, Michigan State). The best defense that Haskins has faced thus far has been Michigan State, which also has a porous pass defense. The best pass defense he faced was Penn State, which held him to 270 yards. His biggest game came in OSU’s loss to Purdue, where he attempted 73 passes for 470 yards. But the Boilermakers are the 10th-best defense he’ll have faced this season and 11th pass defense.

However, it’s not just his arm that Michigan has to be worried about. For the first time in his career against Maryland, Haskins ran more than 9 times, and for the first time, he had substantial success, rushing 15 times for 59 yards. Before facing the Terrapins a week ago, he wasn’t much of a run-threat, despite having 3 carries for 24 yards in The Game a year ago.

The reason why Michigan should especially be on high alert is because of what Indiana managed to do against the Wolverines in Week Twelve. While Trace McSorley was considered more of a threat, Hoosiers QB Peyton Ramsey is 44th in the nation in passing, and is the third-best passer Michigan had faced thus far — behind Adrian Martinez and Clayton Thorson. Again, Haskins is rated No. 3 in the country. If Ramsey can get 195 yards against Michigan — the second-most the Wolverines have given up this year — what will Haskins do?

Keeping Haskins from having a big day on Saturday should be priority No. 1 on the defensive side of the ball.

Run the ball effectively.

Every single game in the Jim Harbaugh era that Michigan has lost, the Wolverines hadn’t gotten more than 3 yards-per-carry on the ground.

Let us repeat: Every single game that Michigan has lost in the past 3+ years, the Wolverines have averaged less than 3 yards-per-carry.

That includes all three times against Ohio State, the late losses to MSU and Florida State, and the Outback Bowl last year against South Carolina. And in the Wolverines only loss this season, at Notre Dame, Michigan averaged just 1.57 yards per carry.

The other caveat: Michigan is undefeated when Karan Higdon rushes for 100 yards or more. He had two 100+ yard games in 2016, rushed for exactly 200 twice in 2017 (his only triple-digit games) and has rushed for a hundred or more in all but two games he played this year (Notre Dame and Rutgers). He personally has managed more than 3 yards-per-carry this year in every game, and through most of last year. But where Michigan, of course, saw those numbers go down was in sacks allowed and tackles for loss — where the Wolverines have struggled the past few seasons.

Now, the offensive line has been dominant, starting in Week Four and never looking back. The Wolverines offense is fully predicated on running the ball, and last year, ranked 49th in the country, it wasn’t good enough to keep the defense off the field. This year, Michigan is No. 23 at running the ball, and faces up against an Ohio State defense that is very mediocre at stopping the run — ranked 63rd nationally. In all but two games, the Buckeyes have allowed teams to run for more than 3 yards-per-carry, including Maryland’s 7 YPC average on its way to 339 yards a week ago. Conversely, where Michigan’s pass defense hasn’t faced a passer as prolific as Haskins, Michigan’s rushing offense has faced the nation’s top rush defense in Michigan State, and managed 3.45 yards-per-carry on the way to 183 yards — the second-most the Spartans have given up all season.

Of course, the run isn’t entirely on Higdon — it’s up to the offensive line to start the job up front and for quarterback Shea Patterson to make plays with his legs, as well. If the Ohio State defense can’t key in on Higdon & Co. in the backfield, that opens up avenues for Patterson’s legs and also play-action pass — which is what Michigan’s offense is mostly predicated upon.

Should the Wolverines struggle in this arena, there’s little chance that Michigan can win The Game. But, this year, it hasn’t shown that it can’t, and Ohio State hasn’t shown that it can stop it. But, the game is played on the field for a reason.

Weather the storm.

The weather forecast for Saturday is expecting it to be 51 degrees with a 90% chance of rain. While that might favor the team with a stronger ground game, it’s not that storm or weather that we’re talking about.

As every player who’s ever played in The Game has said, you can throw the record books out the window. That’s evident by how competitive Michigan has been in recent years despite being an underdog, year-in, year-out. The script has generally gone: keep it close until Ohio State scores just enough in the fourth quarter to win the game.

Michigan is favored for the first time since 2011, and hasn’t won in Columbus in 18 years. But, Ohio State, despite being ranked No. 10, has just as much to play for as the Wolverines. A win here would likely get the Buckeyes back into the College Football Playoff conversation. Also, with a quick-strike offense, and defensive personnel that are among the best in the country — even if the numbers on the field don’t show for it — OSU can get back into a game that Michigan would normally run away with.

Nebraska laid down after the first series. Wisconsin and Penn State all but tapped out. MSU was rudderless, and most others couldn’t contend. But Maryland and Indiana kept fighting, and there’s little-to-no chance that the Buckeyes will give up before the clock hits all zeroes. The Game is life down in Ohio, and a win over a favored Wolverines team that’s expected to make the College Football Playoffs would be the biggest win in Urban Meyer’s career, save for his 2014 run.

Unlike last year, this Michigan defense feels like when the wheels fall off, it doesn’t give up. It moves onto the next play.

Either way, as linebackers coach Al Washington says, the defense will have to remain focused and consistent if it wants to win. Even when the game feels won — like it did in 2016 — it’s assuredly not.

“I expect an absolute battle,” Washington said. “I don’t expect the game to be won in the first play. No matter if you’re up or down, I see it going all the way. The team that’s the most disciplined and resilient, who executes at the highest level will come out.

“I don’t want to say who wants it more, because everybody wants it, but whoever is able to use their emotion to their advantage and stay focused, I think will come away with this one.”

This will assuredly be a great battle between one of the nation’s best offenses and the best defense in the country. Will Michigan come out on fire like it did against Penn State or will it look more like it had against Indiana this past week?

If the defense does look more like it did last week, will the offense score enough to keep the Buckeyes at bay?

On paper, it looks like a Michigan victory, but there is so much more at play, and Ohio State assuredly won’t just roll over and let the Wolverines take the first win in Columbus since Drew Henson was quarterback.

Michigan has to go down and take it.

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