Michigan is a good football team that is currently playing some very bad football, especially on offense. Heading into a game against its biggest rival, Ohio State—which just so happens to be undefeated and vying for a national title—that is not a good place to be.
According to Vegas Insider, the Buckeyes are currently listed as 16-point favorites, despite the game taking place in The Big House. The last two times OSU was favored to beat Michigan by 15-plus points, in 2010 and 2008, it won by 30 and 35, respectively.
But those games were both in Columbus.
The last time OSU was favored to win by 15-plus points in Ann Arbor was in 1999, when it was laying 23 to an overmatched Wolverines team. That overmatched Wolverines team, however, disproved the odds by winning 24-17.
Does this team stand a similar chance at shocking the world?
I wouldn't and won't deign to predict a Michigan upset on Saturday. Given the two teams' recent forms, doing so would be ludicrous. Ohio State is playing much, much, much better football.
But it's not like Michigan is utterly hopeless. There are too many good players on its roster. Especially on its home field, this team has enough talent to play 60 good minutes of football. How else would it have beaten Notre Dame—a team that boasts wins over Michigan State, Arizona State and USC—earlier this year (and in convincing fashion)?
The first step to beating OSU will be stopping its rushing attack. As good as the Buckeyes' passing game has been, their entire offense is predicated on establishing Carlos Hyde. Without him, there is no way they would have won at Northwestern earlier this season.
But stopping the run is something Michigan does well. In fact, it happens to be what Michigan does best. The Wolverines rank 14th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 116.4 rushing yards per game, and they allow 3.23 yards per carry, which also ranks 14th nationally.
With the Big House at its back, Michigan's defense has enough capable bodies in the front seven to slow down Hyde and OSU's ground game. Even though its secondary is ripe to be picked apart, Braxton Miller struggles to throw when his running game isn't established.
Look at how his production dips when forced into 3rd-and-longs:
|Braxton Miller Third-Down Stats, 2013|
|3rd Down, 4-6 Yards to Go||62.5||152.53|
|3rd Down, 7-9 Yards to Go||71.4||129.03|
|3rd Down, 10+ Yards to Go||25.0||74.35|
This game will be won or lost on the early downs for Michigan, which can't allow Hyde to plow forward for even small chunks of yardage. The Wolverines need to shut him down on first and second downs to set Miller up for difficult thirds, putting him in spots where he tends to struggle.
If Michigan can ugly this game up, it stands a chance at finding some success. Its offense has been painfully stale these past few weeks, and there's no reason to expect a change—but it might need only 20-24 points to win this game.
In order to get to 20-24 points, which has been no small task this year, quarterback Devin Gardner will need to snap out of his funk and play like the confident, capable quarterback prospect he once appeared to be.
Entering the season, Gardner was considered a not-too-far-fetched Heisman candidate; today, he's lucky to still have a starting job. But he has enough tools to play a good game against the Ohio State defense, which has struggled (in spots) against teams like Northwestern and Iowa. He just needs to put it all together.
Being at home should help, as it has all year. Gardner has been stellar in every home game this season, save the ugly (but not atrocious) performance against Nebraska.
Just check out the numbers:
|Devin Gardner at Home, 2013|
|Opponent||CMP %||YDS||QB Rating|
Gardner needs to play one of those patented, anomalously good home games if Michigan wants to pull the upset. There's no way around it. This team's rushing game is a lost cause; even trying to establish the run against OSU might be a waste of a down.
It needs Gardner and Jeremy Gallon—who might be able to burn a highly talented but overly aggressive cornerback in Bradley Roby—to carry the load.
Beyond that, like any team hoping for an upset, Michigan simply needs to hope for luck. Something like the turnover margin can make even the biggest underdog victorious. Every fumble that hits the grass—from either team—needs to bounce the Wolverines' way.
That could turn this game upside down.
It's hard to bank on something like that, but fumbles and fumble recoveries are more or less random from season to season and week to week. Michigan needs the football gods to be in its favor and that randomness to tilt in its direction.
The home crowd will help. The rivalry factor will help. The fact that nobody believes in them will help. There's opportunity here if Michigan feels up to seizing it, but doing so will take the best 60 minutes of its season.
Ohio State has been stellar all year and doesn't look ripe for an upset. But that doesn't make it upset-proof, either.
This is The Game, after all. Weirder things have happened.