Ohio State and Michigan meet this Saturday for the 117th time, renewing one of the best rivalries in college football after a year hiatus. Not only are the rivalry stakes and bragging rights always high in The Game, but this matchup also has massive implications for the Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff. The winner of this game will head to Indianapolis next Saturday and hold an inside track for one of the top four spots in the playoff.
Ohio State’s season got off to a rocky start with a loss to Oregon in Week 2, which left coach Ryan Day’s team with little margin for error in its quest to win the national title. Day was also forced to make difficult staff changes after a slow start by the defense, demoting Kerry Coombs in favor of Matt Barnes as the team’s play-caller. Since late September, the Buckeyes seem to have found the next gear. The team has scored 52 or more points in five of its last seven games and dominated Michigan State 56-7 last Saturday. Day’s team moved to No. 2 in the latest playoff rankings and is two wins away from getting another shot at a national title.
The 2021 season was all about getting back on track for Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines had a disappointing 2-4 record last year, which prompted questions about Harbaugh’s future and his ability to get the program pointed forward in ’21. With a revamped contract in hand for Harbaugh and a major staff makeover, Michigan has erased last year’s problems and emerged as a top-10 team. En route to 10 victories, Harbaugh’s squad has defeated Washington (31-10), Wisconsin (38-17), and Penn State (21-17). The team’s only loss came against Michigan State (37-33) on Oct. 30. If Michigan beats Ohio State on Saturday, it will book a trip to the Big Ten title game for the first time under Harbaugh.
Michigan leads the all-time series 58-52-6 over Ohio State. However, the Buckeyes have won eight in a row and 15 out of the last 16 in this series.
No. 2 Ohio State at No. 5 Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 27 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Ohio State -8.5
When Ohio State Has the Ball
Can Michigan slow down Ohio State’s high-powered offense? That’s the question that will decide this game. The Buckeyes enter Saturday’s matchup averaging 47.2 points a game and 7.98 yards per play, and this unit has scored more than 50 points in back-to-back contests. The Wolverines will counter with a defense limiting teams to 16.3 points a game and 4.7 yards per play – but also one that has yet to face an offense like the one Ohio State is bringing to Ann Arbor.
Quarterback C.J. Stroud struggled with a shoulder issue early in the year but has been locked in over the second half of the season. The redshirt freshman is connecting on 71.1 percent of his passes for 3,468 yards and 36 touchdowns to just five picks. Just how good has Stroud been over the last two weeks? In games against Purdue and Michigan State, Stroud has 11 touchdown passes to just 10 incompletions. The weapons on the outside are abundant for Stroud. Jaxon Smith-Njigba leads the team in catches (69) and yards (1,132), but Garrett Wilson (60) and Chris Olave (58) are just as dangerous. This trio forms the top receiving corps in college football and is going to be a difficult matchup for a Michigan secondary that ranks fourth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense. This unit has not allowed a 300-yard passer in ’21, but this is by far the toughest matchup Harbaugh’s defense will face this fall.
With Stroud’s play this year and Ohio State’s depth and talent on the outside, Michigan’s best chance to slow down this group is to win in the trenches. Ends David Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson have combined for 20 sacks this year and need to have a huge performance on Saturday. The Buckeyes have allowed just 13 sacks in ’21 and have cleared the way for rushers to average 5.8 yards per carry. With all of the attention on Ohio State’s passing game, running back TreVeyon Henderson (1,098 rushing yards) could find plenty of running room against a defense allowing 134.4 yards per game in Big Ten.
When Michigan Has the Ball
Michigan is a ways behind Ohio State on the stat sheet, but Harbaugh’s group ranks second in the Big Ten (conference-only matchups) in scoring (33.1 points a game) and fifth in yards per play (5.8). The Wolverines also have 18 plays of 40-plus yards and lead the conference in red-zone scoring.
Similar to the other side of the ball, the trenches are going to be crucial for Michigan’s chances of an upset. The Wolverines average 43 rushing attempts a game and rank second in the conference in per-game production (218.4) on the ground. Hassan Haskins (1,063 yards) powers the attack, but Blake Corum (778) and Donovan Edwards (149) will be deployed. Corum has missed the last two games due to injury but could return for Saturday’s contest. Edwards caught 10 passes in last week’s win over Maryland and could be utilized more in the passing game this week. The strength of Ohio State’s defense rests in the trenches, limiting teams to just 3.1 yards per carry. This unit has not allowed an opponent to rush for more than 113 yards in each of its last nine games and has surrendered only three rushing scores in that span. Michigan’s offensive line has been a strength this year, but the ground game has sputtered against good defenses (such as Penn State and Wisconsin). Having production on the ground is not only important for the Wolverines’ offensive success, it’s also crucial to control the pace of the game and limit the possessions by a high-powered Buckeyes’ offense.
Quarterback Cade McNamara is quietly having a solid all-around season for the Wolverines, connecting on 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,142 yards and 14 touchdowns to two picks. McNamara has tossed just one interception over his last five games and connected on 21 of 28 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s win over Maryland. An emerging group of playmakers has solidified on the outside for McNamara, as Cornelius Johnson (34 rec.), Mike Sainristil (19), Daylen Baldwin (16), and Roman Wilson (20) headline the top options at receiver, while Erick All (31) is a steady weapon at tight end.
Ohio State’s defense struggled in its first two games (at Minnesota and Oregon) but has played significantly better down the stretch. New coordinator Matt Barnes has made a difference with this group, as the Buckeyes are holding Big Ten opponents to 18.4 points a game and 4.83 yards per play. Also, this unit has tightened up some of the problems witnessed early in the year, which included too many big plays and players out of position against the pass. The pass rush (35 sacks) continues to help a secondary that’s still rounding into form this year. What happens up front is going to play a huge role in this game. Can Michigan get its ground game on track? Or will Ohio State constantly force the Wolverines to hit big plays in long-yardage situations?
Ohio State has won the last two meetings by a combined score of 118-66. Also, the series trend in a heated rivalry clearly favors the Buckeyes. So what could be different in 2021? For one, Michigan has improved a lot since last season, and a new scheme on defense provides some optimism. If the Wolverines can create pressure on Stroud and limit his time in the pocket, then this game will be close into the fourth quarter. If Stroud has all day to throw and the playmakers on the outside are making things happen, this one could be another Ohio State rout. The pass rush and secondary is crucial to Michigan’s success, but the upset bid is also going to hinge on how well the offense can generate a push on the ground, control the time of possession and stay out of long-yardage situations. The guess here is Michigan is able to stay close for a half. However, the Buckeyes adjust and find their rhythm as the game progresses, pulling away for the win to clinch a trip to the Big Ten title game.
Prediction: Ohio State 38, Michigan 24
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