College football’s Week 13 slate is full of intriguing rivalry matchups, but few are bigger and better than the annual Big Ten showdown between Ohio State and Michigan. As usual, the Buckeyes and Wolverines square off with plenty at stake. Ohio State has already clinched a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game but needs an impressive win over the Wolverines to stay alive in the CFB Playoff mix. Michigan fell out of the top 25 following last week’s loss to Wisconsin, but coach Jim Harbaugh’s team would like nothing more than to play spoiler over their biggest rival.
As evidenced by the 2014 season, Ohio State is no stranger to a late-season run at a CFB Playoff spot. However, the path to a spot in the top four on Dec. 3 isn’t an easy one for coach Urban Meyer’s team. The Buckeyes need to win the matchup in Ann Arbor and defeat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game to have any shot at the CFB Playoff. And of course, Ohio State is going to need a little help from the teams ahead of them in the rankings. It’s no secret the Buckeyes have one of college football’s most-talented rosters. However, a 15-point loss to Oklahoma and a 55-24 defeat at Iowa have added some significant obstacles in Ohio State’s path. Regardless of what transpires with the CFB Playoff, wins over Michigan and Wisconsin would position the Buckeyes to go to one of college football’s top bowl games once again.
As mentioned earlier, this game is all about the spoiler role for Michigan. The Wolverines are reloading in coach Jim Harbaugh’s third year in Ann Arbor and are setting the foundation for a big year in 2018. However, until next season arrives, Harbaugh and his staff have to continue looking for answers on a sluggish offense and end the recent domination by Ohio State in this series. Michigan has lost five in a row and 12 out of the last 13 to the Buckeyes. And after losing to Penn State and Michigan State earlier this year, there is plenty of motivation on Harbaugh’s part to not end the season 0-3 against the top competition in the Big Ten.
This is the 114th meeting between Ohio State and Michigan. The Wolverines hold a 58-48-6 series edge over the Buckeyes.
Ohio State at Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 25 at noon ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Ohio State -12
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan’s QB Situation
After leading the Big Ten in scoring offense (40.3 ppg) last season, Michigan has slipped to seventh (26.3 ppg) in 2017. The sharp decline in production is largely related to the personnel this team lost from last fall. The team’s top three receivers expired their eligibility, the offensive line has yet to find the right mix, and three different quarterbacks have received snaps. And the situation under center isn’t clear headed into Saturday’s game. Starter Brandon Peters left last week’s game against Wisconsin due to a concussion but could be cleared by kickoff. If Peters isn’t cleared, senior John O’Korn will get the nod under center.
In order for Michigan to have a shot at the upset, this offense needs Peters to be on the field. O’Korn has completed 66 of 124 passes for 761 yards and one touchdown to five picks. Peters has thrown for 486 yards and four touchdowns to zero interceptions in five appearances. In addition to the edge in that stat line, Peters is averaging 13.1 yards per completion, compared to 11.5 for O’Korn. Simply, Peters brings the best mix of accuracy and big-play ability to this offense from the quarterback position.
Which brings us to…
2. Michigan’s Supporting Cast and Offensive Line
Considering the question mark surrounding Michigan’s quarterback situation, a strong rushing attack is going to be essential to a victory on Saturday. That means Harbaugh needs his best effort from the offensive line, along with more plays downfield by the receivers. Of course, that’s easier said than done against one of the nation’s best defenses. Ohio State is only allowing 4.4 yards per play and 19.8 points a game.
Can the Wolverines get a push from its offensive line against Ohio State’s defense? It’s tough to see that happening. Michigan’s offensive line has been an issue all season and has surrendered 29 sacks through 11 games. Harbaugh has a trio of backs at his disposal, as Karan Higdon (874 yards), Chris Evans (594) and Ty Isaac (548) power one of the Big Ten’s top running games. However, against three of the better defensive fronts in the conference – Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin – Michigan was held to less than 105 yards on the ground in each of those matchups. The Buckeyes rank fourth in the Big Ten by limiting opponents to 114 yards a game on the ground and are holding teams to just 3.2 yards per carry.
As mentioned above, the receiving corps was hit hard by departures from last season, and top target Tarik Black is out for the year due to injury. With the line struggling to pass protect, Michigan has just four completions of 40 yards or more. Grant Perry (24 receptions) and Donovan Peoples-Jones (16) are the top options at receiver, with tight end Sean McKeon (27) leading the team in catches.
The mission for Harbaugh on Saturday is simple: Can Michigan stay out of third-and-long? In order for the Wolverines to stay in third-and-short, the offensive line has to give Higdon, Evans and Isaac running lanes. And when Peters or O’Korn drops back to pass, they need time to take chances downfield. Ohio State’s secondary has been vulnerable at times to big plays, but that won’t matter if the pass rush is consistently getting to the quarterback. Harbaugh needs to find ways to keep the down and distance in manageable situations and play-action passes should be mixed in on early downs to keep Ohio State’s defense off balance.
Which side will win out? Can Michigan find ways to get their rushing game on track and get just enough out of the passing attack to take this game deep into the fourth quarter? Or will Ohio State’s standout defensive line control the line of scrimmage and prevent the Wolverines from getting on track all afternoon?
3. Ohio State’s Offense Against Michigan’s Defense
This is the must-see matchup in Saturday’s game. Michigan’s defense is limiting opponents to 17.1 points a contest, while Ohio State’s offense is averaging 44.9 per matchup this season. The Buckeyes also average 7.1 yards a play and will be facing a Wolverine defense only allowing 4.4 yards a snap.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett is the catalyst for coach Urban Meyer’s offense, as he’s passed for 2,698 yards and 32 touchdowns through 11 games. First-year coordinator Kevin Wilson has brought improvement to Ohio State’s offense through the air, and Barrett has grown more comfortable with the receiving corps as the year progressed. Parris Campbell (35) and K.J. Hill (49) have been the go-to targets for Barrett, but he’s got plenty of other options in the form of Johnnie Dixon (17), Binjimen Victor (23), Terry McLaurin (26) and Austin Mack (20).
While the passing game has improved with Wilson calling the plays, the run game is still the primary mode of attack. The Buckeyes average 252.6 rushing yards per game, which is the best among teams in the Big Ten. True freshman J.K. Dobbins leads the way with 1,089 yards, Barrett is second on the team with 605 yards, and Mike Weber is third with 545 yards on 80 carries. Just how important is the ground game to Ohio State’s victory hopes? In each of the last four seasons, the Buckeyes failed to rush for more than 170 yards in every loss. Establishing the run with Dobbins, Weber and Barrett would allow Ohio State to open up the offense and attack downfield. However…
The unquestioned strength of Michigan’s defense is with its front seven. Tackle Maurice Hurst has collected 13.5 tackles for a loss in 2017 and is poised to earn first-team All-America honors this December. Hurst isn’t the only standout for coordinator Don Brown up front. Ends Chase Winovich (16 TFL) and Rashan Gary (8.5 TFL) are a force off the edge. At linebacker, Khaleke Hudson (15.5 TFL) joins Mike McCray and Devin Bush as playmakers around the line of scrimmage.
Expect Michigan to focus on taking away the run and force Ohio State’s receivers to win one-on-one battles downfield.
Michigan has nothing to lose in this matchup. With a Big Ten title out of the picture and nothing but bowl positioning at stake, Harbaugh should empty the bag (or play sheet) and throw everything at Ohio State. The uncertainty of the quarterback situation for Ann Arbor adds another wrinkle that the Buckeyes will have to plan for. While the homefield advantage and nothing to lose factor favors Michigan, Urban Meyer simply doesn’t lose to the Wolverines. He’s 5-0 against the Wolverines and shouldn’t have a hard time adding extra motivation with a playoff bid still a possibility. Michigan’s defense will win some battles, but Barrett, Dobbins and the Ohio State defense will be too much for Harbaugh’s team to overcome with the issues on offense.