Ohio State travels to Ann Arbor on Saturday to renew its storied rivalry with Michigan. And as expected, there’s plenty at stake in the 116th meeting of The Game. The Buckeyes ranked No. 1 in the latest CFB Playoff top 25 and a victory over the Wolverines would entrench their position atop the rankings next week. Michigan is out the playoff picture, but a win over Ohio State would end a seven-game losing streak in this rivalry and push coach Jim Harbaugh’s team to double-digit victories for the fourth time in five years.
Michigan opened 2019 with high expectations as a playoff contender and the preseason pick by some to win the Big Ten. Harbaugh’s team started with wins over MTSU and Army but were thoroughly dominated in a 35-14 loss at Wisconsin on Sept. 21. Michigan reeled off three more wins but a loss at Penn State on Oct. 19 ended any hopes of a playoff trip and Big Ten East title. While Michigan is going to fall short of a conference title or playoff bid, it doesn’t mean Harbaugh is on the hot seat. Instead, the foundation in Ann Arbor looks strong with the possibility of another double-digit win season – especially after Michigan has reeled off four consecutive victories by a combined score of 166-45.
Ryan Day had big shoes to fill in replacing Urban Meyer, but the 2019 season has been a seamless transition for Ohio State. The Buckeyes have won 10 games by 24 or more points and every contest by at least 11 points. Ohio State clinched the division title with a win over Penn State last Saturday and jumped LSU for the No. 1 seed in the weekly CFB Playoff rankings. The Buckeyes could be the favorite to win it all, but Day’s squad won’t look ahead to the postseason with the rivalry game against Michigan up next and then the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 7.
Michigan holds a 58-51-6 series edge over Ohio State. The Buckeyes have won seven in a row in this series and claimed six out of the last seven in Ann Arbor.
Ohio State at Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 30 at Noon
Spread: Ohio State -9
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Something has to give when Ohio State has the ball on Saturday. The Buckeyes have scored at least 30 points in 10 out of their 11 games, while Michigan has allowed only one opponent (Wisconsin) to reach 30 points in 2019. Behind Day’s play-calling and a balanced attack, Ohio State ranks first in the Big Ten in scoring (49.4), yards per play (7.0) and is tied for the conference lead in plays of 50 yards or more (11).
A quick look at the stat sheet shows how ridiculous and effective Fields has been in his first year with the Buckeyes. The sophomore is completing 69.4 percent of his throws and has tossed 33 touchdowns to just one interception. Additionally, he ranks second on the team in rushing scores (10) and third in yardage (445). Chris Olave (39 catches) has been Fields’ go-to receiver, but K.J. Hill (42), Binjimen Victor (29), Austin Mack (17) and Garrett Wilson (21) will see plenty of targets on Saturday. Michigan’s secondary ranks fourth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only nine scores through the air this season. Cornerbacks Ambry Thomas and Lavert Hill have been a shutdown duo on the outside, with freshman Dax Hill providing a boost of speed at safety. In last year’s game, Ohio State torched the Wolverines for 396 yards and six scores through the air. Does coordinator Don Brown have a better answer for the Buckeyes’ passing game and ability to attack the middle of the field?
While Fields is having a standout debut for the Buckeyes, running back J.K. Dobbins’ season continues to be a little underrated on the national scene. Dobbins has rushed for 1,446 yards and 15 scores through 11 games. The junior gashed quality defenses in Wisconsin (163), Penn State (157) and Michigan State (172) and is averaging a healthy 6.6 yards per carry. Michigan is giving up only 2.8 yards per rush and only one team in Big Ten play (Wisconsin) has had success finding room on the ground.
It’s no secret Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown is going to be aggressive. The Wolverines have generated 35 sacks and 68 tackles for a loss this season and won’t be afraid to attack the line of scrimmage to contain Dobbins and keep Fields in the pocket. Linebacker/edge player Josh Uche (8.5 sacks) and linemen Kwity Paye (6.5) and Aidan Hutchinson (4.5) will be key cogs in Michigan’s ability to stop the run and generate pressure on Fields on passing downs.
When Michigan Has the Ball
Jim Harbaugh’s decision to hire Josh Gattis as the team’s new play-caller after the 2018 campaign was designed to help Michigan’s offense become more explosive with its passing game and utilize more spread concepts. The Wolverines got off to a rough start with iffy performances against MTSU and Army and a 35-14 loss at Wisconsin in Week 4. However, since the second half of the Penn State game on Oct. 19, this offense has been performing at a high level. Michigan has scored at least 38 points in each of last four contests, including 39 against Indiana and 45 versus Notre Dame. Additionally, the Wolverines posted 6.2 yards a play in the rain-soaked win over the Fighting Irish, recorded 6.97 against Michigan State and 7.4 versus the Hoosiers.
Can Michigan keep its momentum going on offense this Saturday? In order for Gattis and Harbaugh to build off their last four matchups, success has to start with quarterback Shea Patterson. The senior is completing 59.5 percent of his throws for 2,523 yards and 21 touchdowns to only five interceptions. During the Wolverines’ four-game winning streak, Patterson has tossed 12 touchdowns to zero picks. The decision to open up the passing game has allowed the offense to take advantage of a deep group of skill players on the outside. Nico Collins (31), Ronnie Bell (38), Donovan Peoples-Jones (30) and Tarik Black (24) form the deepest group of playmakers at receiver that Ohio State has faced this season. The Buckeyes rank first in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense and have allowed only six passing scores all year.
After rushing for 303 yards against Notre Dame on Oct. 26, Michigan has posted only 325 over the last three games. Freshman Zach Charbonnet (635) and Hassan Haskins (483) lead the way in the backfield, with Patterson chipping in five rushing scores.
Can Michigan’s offense continue at its recent pace against Ohio State’s defense? The Buckeyes are the best unit faced in that span, as this group is holding offenses to just 10.5 points a game and 3.5 yards a play. For Patterson to continue his recent play through the air, the offensive line will have to hold up against a standout pass rush. Chase Young had a big-time performance last week after a two-game suspension and will test an offensive line that has surrendered 20 sacks this year.
During Ohio State’s seven-game winning streak in this series, only three of the matchups were decided by less than double-digits. Will the Buckeyes continue their dominance over the Wolverines? Or is this the year Michigan ends the streak? The Wolverines are hitting their stride at the right time, and the development of Patterson within Gattis’ scheme should give Harbaugh’s team a better chance at an upset. While the quarterbacks will be under the spotlight, winning the battle up front and establishing the run will always matter in this rivalry. Michigan battles deep into the fourth quarter, but Fields makes a few plays on the ground, and Young creates some havoc late to seal the victory late for Ohio State.