No pairing combines such a strong history (104 years of it), such a deep tradition, and such rich pageantry.
The bands. The fight songs. The stadiums. The uniforms.
And, oh, the hatred that flows between the two fanbases.
The contest needs no description or introduction—it’s simply known in the Midwest as “The Game”. It doesn't need a corny trophy, or constant national coverage,
It also doesn't need a melodramatic article penned by an amateur writer and posted on an all-sports website—but a brief preview can’t hurt.
The defense was expected to carry the team, and they haven’t disappointed.
At least, they hadn't until last week, when the Illinois offense ran for 260 yards and sophomore quarterback Juice Williams threw four touchdowns en route to a 28-21 win.
On the game-clinching, 8:09-minute drive, Williams scrambled to move the chains on three third downs and one fourth down.
OSU's struggles to slow down a mobile quarterback in crucial situations were cruelly similar to those of their hated rivals in Michigan.
Their ridiculously efficient and dare I say periodically explosive offense also hurt the Buckeyes against Illinois—quarterback Todd Boeckman threw three interceptions in critical situations to contribute to the loss.
For most of the season, however, Boeckman has been reliable, the offensive line has been solid, and running back Chris Wells has been unstoppable—when healthy.
The Buckeyes like to think they have the loss behind them, but some observers have wondered whether a hangover will follow OSU to Ann Arbor.
Michigan entered the season with high expectations after Chad Henne, Mike Hart, and Jake Long all decided to return for their senior seasons, and the offense seemed primed to be among the nation’s best.
The defense was worse than expected, however, and the Wolverines dropped their opening games of the season against Appalachian State and Oregon.
To their credit, the Wolverines rebounded with an eight-game winning streak, and appeared to have reestablished themselves as one of the nation’s elite teams.
And then they traveled to Madison to face the Wisconsin Badgers without the services of Henne or Hart.
The seemingly-resurgent Michigan defense was shredded by quarterback Tyler Donovan, tight end Travis Beckum, and third-string tailback Zach Brown. The offense’s only bright spot was junior receiver Mario Manningham, who had three catches for over 100 yards and two touchdowns—one of them a school-record 97 yards.
The line struggled to run or pass block, while true freshman quarterback Ryan Mallett sandwiched some nice throws in between a lot of really poor ones in a 37-21 loss.
But all that's in the past now, as the Wolverines prepare to tangle with the Buckeyes in what may be coach Lloyd Carr’s last regular season game. What better way to send Carr home than with a win over Jim Tressel and Co.?
Onto the matchups...
Michigan Run Offense vs. Ohio State Run Defense
When healthy, Mike Hart has proven without exception to be the best running back in college football. His vision, burst, cuts, and hard-nosed running all coordinate to make him a formidable back. The Buckeyes saw last year just how dangerous the 5-9, 190-pounder can be when Hart ran for 147 yards and three touchdowns in a losing effort. The other Michigan backs, Brandon Minor and Carlos Brown, have shown flashes, but don’t expect them to do anything of much notice tomorrow afternoon.
The Ohio State run defense has appeared susceptible at times this year, and this is probably attributed to the fact that Ohio State’s defensive tackles are not really that good. The linebackers are great, but it is hard for Laurinitis, Grant, and Freeman to make plays when they are getting pancaked by 300-pound linemen. If Hart is healthy, the Buckeye defensive tackles will have to learn how to eat blocks, or it could be a long day for the Ohio State defense. Still, we have no guarantee that Hart will be able to play, let alone be effective.
Advantage: Ohio State...unless it’s Michigan
Key Matchup: Mike Hart against his own ankle.
The rumors around the program suggest that Hart’s ankle isn’t really improving well enough for him to be all that useful tomorrow for running the ball. The reports from various websites are rather pessimistic, so don’t expect a whole lot from Hart tomorrow.
Michigan Pass Offense vs. Ohio State Pass Defense
Chad Henne has had an interesting senior season. He was the primary target for Michigan fan’s blame following the Appalachian State loss on September 1st, and was even attacked by fans in the Oregon game who chanted “We want Mallett” before Henne had to limp off after a knee injury. Oh, if only those fans knew what they were asking for.
After showing some promise after the Notre Dame and Penn State games, which he started, Mallett has seemed to get progressively worse. He’s as talented as any quarterback out there, but he has proven to be extremely raw. If he has to play at all tomorrow, expect him to give away about as many points with turnovers as he does with touchdowns. He is a freshman, and he plays like one. He has a terrible throw on first and second down, then will surprise fans with an impressive throw to convert the first down. He has a cannon for an arm, but he has yet to learn to control it. So, if you are a Michigan fan, worry if you see number 15 trot on the field at some point.
Ohio State’s secondary continues to improve, and they are hardly to blame for the Illinois debacle. Cornerback Malcom Jenkins is quickly becoming one of the purest cover corners in America, and he will be matched up against one of the most dynamic receivers in the game today, Mario Manningham—who has six straight games with 100 yards or more. This will be a fun matchup to watch on Saturday. If you are at the game, just watch every so plays to see these two duke it out.
The Buckeye pass rush is very good, as the two defensive ends, Vernon Gholston and Cameron Heyward have had excellent years. The linebackers have had 10.5 sacks this year, so they will be sure to blitz early and often. Blitzing should be a part of their gameplan, because Henne would be playing hurt and Mallett is a freshman.
RUMOR MILL: The insider’s word is that Henne didn’t play last week because of a cortisone shot that hit a nerve and adversely impacted his throwing. The absolutely unverified rumor is that Henne should be close to 100% tomorrow. If true, this is an obvious boost for Michigan. Still, regardless of Henne’s health, Michigan can’t protect the quarterback very well at all, so...
Advantage: Ohio State
Key Matchup: Vernon Gholston vs. Steve Schilling.
Everyone has said that Gholston would matchup with Michigan’s all-everything tackle Jake Long. I say, not a chance. Jim Tressel will line Gholston up against the incredible mediocrity that is redshirt freshman Steven Schilling. Watch for Gholston, who has 10 sacks this year, to create terror in the backfield, and hit the quarterback several times in the game.
Ohio State Run Offense vs. Michigan Run Defense
Ohio State’s Chris Wells is big, fast, physical, and along with Hart, one of the best backs in the Big Ten. He is incredibly difficult to bring down, and every team has struggled to stop him. Ohio State uses him well, too, and has shown the willingness to relentlessly feed him the ball with the game on the line. He has never disappointed, either. He is the definition of a workhorse, and if and when Ohio State decides to use him, he will get his yards.
Michigan’s defense has not shown the ability to shut down running backs nearly to the extent that last year’s defense—which led the nation in rush defense with a golden 33 yards per game. This unit has struggled in the last game and a half. In the first half against Michigan State, the Wolverines were superb defensively. In the second half, they were awful. They never really did much to slow down Wisconsin’s running back, even without fabulous sophomore P.J. Hill.
Michigan has shown the ability to slow down the power running games they have faced this year, but they have also been pretty poor at times against the same kind of teams. I can’t really tell you why.
Advantage: Ohio State
Key Matchup: Michigan linebackers vs. nonexistence and stupidity.
The Michigan linebackers have a nasty habit of mysteriously disappearing for long stretches of the game, leaving the team’s leading tacklers, safeties Jamar Adams and Brandent Englemon to make the plays on running backs. Chris Graham is a veteran, but he still doesn’t seem to quite know how to get off blocks and make plays. Obi Ezeh is talented, but he’s a redshirt freshman, and, like Mallett, might just be a bit too raw. Shawn Crable, one of the nation’s most talented linebackers, makes lots of plays. Sometimes, though, he just does it illegally or after the whistle, drawing a personal foul penalty. For Michigan to be effective defensively, he’s got to cut down on the stupid penalties.
Ohio State Pass Offense vs. Michigan Pass Defense
Replacing a Heisman Trophy winner is never easy, but Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman has done a very nice job this year. He is heady, smart, and determined to make plays, sometimes to a fault. Although he throws a great deep ball, sometimes he chucks it into double or even triple coverage and throws a costly interception. But when Boeckman manages the game and just takes what is given to him by the defense, he becomes very hard to beat.
His receivers, headlined by Brian Robiske, Brian Hartline, and Ray Small, have shown a lot of game breaking ability. Hartline and Small are dependable, and if Manningham wasn’t in the same conference, Robiske would easily be the best deep threat in the Big Ten. Boeckman will look deep early and often, and he will throw that direction several times for better or worse. Usually, it’s been for the better.
Ever since Michigan benched both cornerback Johnny Sears and safety Stevie Brown, the secondary has been pretty good. The incredible performance by Wisconsin’s tight end Beckum last week notwithstanding, the secondary has actually played pretty well for most of this season. Junior cornerback Morgan Trent has surprised a lot of people with an All-Big Ten caliber season, and freshman Donovan Warren is set to follow in the long line of great Michigan corners who played significantly as true freshman: Ty Law, Charles Woodson, Marlin Jackson, and Leon Hall. He is a freshman, though, and even Woodson had tough freshman experiences. Safeties Jamar Adams and Brandent Englemon have been reliable, but the tend to get out of position every now and then.
After the first two games, Michigan’s pass rush got progressively better throughout the start of the Big Ten schedule. Sophomore end Brandon Graham and senior linebacker/rush end Shawn Crable turned into monsters, and Tim Jamison, Terrance Taylor and Will Johnson have each had dominant games. Just last week, junior defensive tackle Terrance Taylor had ten tackles- a ridiculous number for a defensive tackle. The pressure has fallen off the map recently, however, probably due to the fact that Michigan has struggled to stop the run.
Nevertheless, if Michigan can force third and long situations, the Buckeyes will be hard-pressed to move the ball. The Wolverines have been relentless at getting after the quarterback in these situations, and their secondary is good enough to hold their own here.
Advantage: Michigan (I have to pick them sometime!)
Key Matchup: Todd Boeckman vs. the Irresistible Urge to Chuck the Ball Down the
Field at the Wrong Time.
If Boeckman can be patient and take what he is given by the Michigan defense, he should not have many problems. If he gets too greedy too soon, though, he could put Ohio State in an early hole. He needs to be patient and just manage the game.If he does this and Ohio State runs the ball well, it could be a long day for Michigan.
Some predictions that are guaranteed to be wrong...
Things with an asterisk (*) are genuine predictions, everything else is for dramatic effect.
- *Henne and Hart start, but neither finishes the game, with the possible, outside shot at Henne proving me wrong. Hart tweaks his ankle early on and disappears to the bench. Henne will play longer, and is more likely to grind it out. But he will find the pain too much to perform adequately, and will be removed in favor of Mallett.
- *The Michigan defense will play surprisingly well throughout much of the game.
- Michigan will start fast, jumping to a quick 13-0 lead on the passing by Henne. Michigan fans begin to think that they are set to run away with it- until Hart limps off and Henne starts to miss throws.
- *Ohio State marches down the field and gets a field goal and a touchdown before halftime.
- *Chris Wells at will in the second half, to the tune of somewhere around 35 carries, 186 yards.
- Down 13-10, Ohio State nabs the lead 17-13 on their first drive of the half.
- Henne tries to hit Manningham deep, but underthrows him badly (wind or shoulder?) and is picked off by Malcolm Jenkins. In tackling Jenkins on the INT return, Henne blows his shoulder out and is not seen again.
- Wells calmly walks into the end zone on a third-and-goal to give the Buckeyes the 24-13 lead in the beginning of the third quarter.
- *Mallett struggles to move the ball, and Michigan can’t run at all.
- With eight minutes left and all hope seemingly lost, Wells fumbles the ball and Michigan recovers. Fans dare to hope that Henne and Hart walk out for a dramatic last couple drives, but they don’t.
- Manningham Braylonizes Jenkins for a touchdown. 24-20.
- Ohio State goes three-and –out with a minute and a half left, and puts the ball to Michigan. Again, Mallet walks out on the field to a collective groan of the maize and blue faithful.
- Mallett converts some third-and-longs on the drive, but all Mallett throws an late interception in Ohio State territory, and Lloyd Carr is second guessed until the end of time for not going for two after Manningham’s touchdown, and for not letting Henne throw left-handed on the final drive.
- * Final score: Ohio State 24, Michigan 20.
I am so tempted to pick Michigan in this game.
This is what Henne, Hart, and Long came back for: to beat Ohio State.
Lloyd Carr has a chance to beat Ohio State and ride into the sunset on Jake Long and Chad Henne’s shoulders. (No, wait. Never mind about Henne.)
Michigan has so many intangibles on their side in this game. But I just can’t get over the fact that Ohio State looks so much better on paper, especially when Henne and Hart aren't at 100 percent.
So, there you go. Ohio State by four in an exciting game for all.
Enjoy the game, everyone!