By Dave Hershorin
November 12, 2006

No.2 MICHIGAN vs. No.1 OHIO STATE

Location: Ohio Stadium “The Horseshoe” - Columbus, Ohio

Date: Saturday November 18, 2006

Kickoff Time: 3:30pm EST

TV Coverage: ABC-TV

Here we go…it’s almost time for the game everyone has been clamoring about for almost two months. We all knew it would be big, but now it’s No.1 versus No.2 to end the season, to decide who wins the Big Ten and to see who goes to the BCS National Championship Game in Glendale, Arizona on January 8, 2007. All of this buildup is hardly necessary to hype the Ohio State-Michigan game, but what the heck, we’ll take it, right? Annual matchups of No1 vs. No.2 are big deals, but could it get any bigger and better than this?

Rivers of saliva have been flowing ever since Michigan officially took over the No.2 slot behind the Buckeyes in week nine. Now, we are just days away from one of the best rivalries in all of sports answering many questions about how this year’s college football landscape will look as the bowl season harkens.

We will now attempt to break down this colossal matchup. Remember, anything can happen, and too many times, this game has had surprising results that no one could have predicted. These two schools hate each other (at the 2004 contest in the Horseshoe, State fans booed the UM band as they played an hour before kickoff…the fricking band was booed loudly for 20 minutes!!!) and aren’t ashamed to admit such.

 

Overall series notes: This is the 103rd time the two have met. This game has been played annually since 1918, and it has been both schools’ regular season ender since 1935. Michigan leads the series 57-39-6, but home field advantage seems to produce nearly the same W-L ratio as in Columbus – UM is 30-17-4 at home and 27-22-2 in the Horseshoe. The Buckeyes are 27-25-2 since 1952. The series is even in the last ten meetings (5-5), though Jim Tressel has come through on his initial promise to boosters/fans and is 4-1 since arriving in 2001 (and 2-0 at home) against the Wolverines. Tressel is the first OSU coach since Francis Schmidt to win four of his first five against UM (1934-38). Still, Lloyd Carr is 6-5 in his 11 tries, and is 4-3 against OSU when the Buckeyes enter this game ranked in the top 10. Carr has a 28-11 record in November as Wolverine coach, whereas Tressel is 18-3 in the 11th month. Never have the two met while they occupied the top two spots in the polls. This will be the 20th time that ABC has broadcast UM-OSU.

 

Michigan Offense vs. Ohio State Defense –

It isn’t complicated – Michigan runs it about 2/3 of the time to set up the pass. You can do that when you have a dynamo RB unit - led by the likes of Michael Hart - able to pound foes. The junior is sixth in the nation with 125 yards per game. He runs well between the tackles for a 5’9 guy, and each week he turns a few receptions in the flat into decent gainers. True freshman Brandon Minor (5.7 ypc) offers a good change of pace, as does sizable sophomore Kevin Grady (216 lbs) and senior slasher Jerome Jackson (7.6 ypc). The Wolverines like to run a traditional running scheme with only a few frills – look for senior Steve Breaston to get an end-around sometime during the game.

UM has the conference’s best rushing attack, so Ohio State has its work cut out, and the Buckeye’s 11th-ranked rush defense welcomes the challenge. Senior Jay Richardson and soph Vernon Gholston have been stellar on the ends, while seniors Quinn Pitcock (all-American) and David Patterson plug up the middle so the quickly emerging LBs can do their jobs well. OSU has allowed only three rushing TDs, meaning they do very well in the redzone, especially inside the five. A huge reason is the new-look LBs, one of the biggest surprises as Laurinaitis & Co. have delivered bigtime. No one knew how good this totally revamped unit could be. They have exceeded expectations, and the two quick sophomores – James Laurinaitis (team leader with both five INTs and 91 tackles) and Marcus Freeman (two INTs, five passes broken up) - have the savvy of a well-seasoned duo that already knows its strengths and minimizes its weaknesses.

They should hold the Wolverine’s running game in check most of the time, with an occasional big gainer possibly killing the Buckeyes in this low scoring affair. Ok, so now that Michigan may have to pass up to half of the time given the running game sputters, junior QB Chad Henne will have to have a great day for Michigan to win. The set of receivers he has to choose from is one of the nation’s best, for you can’t double-cover senior Steve Breaston (48 catches, 11.2 ypc) and sophomore sensation Mario Manningham. Breaston is the ‘go to’ guy, as is junior Adrian Arrington (31 catches, 13.6 ypc, seven TDs), but it is Manningham that has lit up the offense with 20.7 ypc and nine spectacular TDs. The TE position doesn’t offer much to open up the safeties (especially with such good LB coverage by the Buckeyes).

The Buckeyes have the nation’s No.23 pass defense, but they are No.6 in the efficiency rating, allowing foes only six TDs by air so far. They are tied for the national lead with 21 INTs. This is a sure-tackling secondary that keeps the play in front of them. Seniors Brandon Mitchell (FS) and Antonio Smith (CB) have led a group of underclassmen to form a solid back seven that handles underneath routes as well as the deep ball. That means you can look for slow, methodical drives by Michigan that earn about two, three, or four yards most of the time but break a few for more. Unless they can get a big play on Ohio State’s D, look for the Buckeye’s to keep UM under 20 points, as they have all their foes so far.

In an affair where the first team to 20 points may win, the UM No.34 offense is just not going to reach that plateau. OSU has faced opposing offenses that have mostly ranked in the top 50, holding Texas’ high powered offense to just seven points as they throttled the Longhorns down in Austin to pay them back for last year’s loss to them in the Horseshoe. But UM has played inconsistently on offense at critical times, and their inability to put teams away with strong offensive second halves has produced only 51 fourth quarter points. The Wolverines can’t afford any mistakes on offense if they want to win this one, so Henne can’t lose his cool and needs to use his decent set of wheels when the pressure comes. He will be the difference somehow if UM wins.

 

Ohio State Offense vs. Michigan Defense –

This is a huge matchup, considering how Buckeye QB Troy Smith has dismantled Michigan defenses two years in a row. They just have to find a way to stop Smith from scoring on them at the most inopportune times so that OSU gets the eventual win. One thing that stands out is how much less Smith is running this year. Couple that with Michigan’s top ranked rushing defense and you might think that Smith won’t be the weapon he usually is on the ground. Think again. Smith is still third on the team in rushing (211 yards) and a viable threat to break a big one at any time.

Ohio State relies mostly on junior Antonio Pittman and frosh Chris Wells to tote the running chores. The Buckeyes have essentially gotten five yards per carry from each, and they, too, run it 2/3 of the time. Stan White, the FB who has no carries this season (but seven catches), has to really make some of his famous holes appear against the nation’s leading rushing defense. Michigan is allowing 1.3 yards per carry and also has allowed only three rushing TDs. LaMarr Woodley (11 sacks, four forced fumbles) is a monster coming off the right end. OSU ranks a strong 20th in rushing, so watch to see if Michigan stacks the box with extra men. Buckeye WRs will be open on the outside for play-action big gainers if safeties have to help stop the rushing attack. This area is huge in interpreting how effective OSU will be on offense.

It seems UM will have to go with (at least) four in coverage most plays against OSU’s receivers. Ted Ginn quietly leads the team with 51 receptions and eight TDs, while Anthony Gonzalez has stepped into his starting role with great success. Sophomore Brian Robiskie is a strong third option Michigan cannot ignore by covering him with a LB. Smith should have a lowdown on who is on whom, so as to exploit mismatches in coverage. His audibles are the key for State to get the ball downfield effectively in the passing game. Michigan leads the nation with 40 sacks, meaning Smith will have to have his read before the play even starts due to little time before the pocket collapses and/or shifts. OSU has the No.5 pass efficiency offense and will try to stretch the field early and often in their bid to avoid sizable senior LBs David Harris and Prescott Burgess sniffing out how plays are developing. Junior LB Shawn Crable has been both a huge surprise and an even bigger reason why Michigan ranks No.8 in total defense. The passing game for Ohio State is how they will win and lose this ball game.

But that just alludes back to Troy Smith. Smith has thrown only four INTs to go with his 26 TDs. Can he find enough time to complete his passes, or will he just turn on his motor and fly down the field as plays get blown up in development. Smith’s improvisations have been the extra dimension OSU has needed to win the last two against UM. Play calling and audible check offs at the line will be how Ohio State gains another edge. OSU likes to get its ball handlers in space, so they can make moves to get past the isolated primary tackler and earn big extra yards. If Michigan can make the first tackle, they will contain Ginn and the other WRs. But expect Michigan to have trouble keeping up with all of the possibilities and then being spread thin enough for OSU to eventually exploit them this way.

 

Special Teams

There seems to be little advantage statistically in the punting game. Breaston and Ginn are two weapons, each capable of breaking the big one at any time. Holding the PRs and KRs to a minimum and winning the net punting (field position) game could each point to the eventual winner. The only disparity coming in on special teams seems to be in long distance FGAs – Michigan is a modest 2-of-4 from beyond the 40, while Ohio State is 6-of-9 (3-of-5 from 50+) and not afraid to pull the trigger. Michigan senior PK Garrett Rivas is a hair over .500 from 40+ and has never tried from 50+ in his collegiate career. OSU’s 26-year old sophomore, South African Ryan Pretorius, has a 52 yarder, while regular PK Aaron Pettrey is 2-of-3 from 50+ and 5-of-7 from 40+. A close game late will more likely be won by OSU – both from this special team’s aspect and because they are the home team.

 

 

Overall Breakdown

This is the game of the year, by far. Even the BCS championship isn’t likely to be as even a matchup. Most already feel this is possibly the true championship game, that whichever one-loss team (unless it’s Rutgers, somehow) makes it to Glendale to face the winner of this one is already outclassed and just a product of a flawed system. However you slice it, the country will have its eyes on this rivalry like never before.

Tressel seems to have Carr’s number, delivering on his promise to alumnus and boosters when he was initially hired in 2001, before he had ever played game-one in Columbus – that he would beat Michigan after they had went 4-13-1 to their nemesis over the prior (pre 2001) 18-year span. In 1993, ’95 and ’96, the Buckeyes were undefeated heading into this season ender, only to lose or tie (’93) each time.

Carr has (especially on offense) a crew loaded with veteran upperclassmen who have quietly done everything asked of them. The Michigan defensive line is the highlight on a team that both rushes (No.12) and stops the rush (No.1) best in their conference. Their one weakness, if it even is that, has been their pass defense. Rated 11th for efficiency, the UM secondary is 65th overall, allowing over 200 yards per game and 11 TDs with only 11 INTs all year. Ok, so teams pass it due to Michigan’s staunch run defense. But the holes seem to be their in the DB schemes for Troy Smith to find his targets. And if he doesn’t find guys open, Michigan will again struggle to stop Smith from scrambling to safety and big yards. Michigan hasn’t been able to stop Smith in the past two meetings, so until we see they have a new wrinkle to stop his variables, believe the past will be repeated.

Ohio State is at a bit of a disadvantage, not having seen an offensive machine of this caliber yet. The Buckeye’s No.8 total D might not be able to stop UM from methodically grinding down the field with time-consuming drives and no-frills results. The OSU seniors on defense have stepped up and provided the nation’s top scoring results (opp. avg. 7.8 ppg), but they haven’t faced an offense this good since week two versus Texas, when Colt McCoy was starting just his second game ever. We will have to see how well Laurinaitis and Freeman do at stopping the UM runners, for if they can do that, the oft-running Wolverines are at a marginal disadvantage.

Michigan has to play flawlessly on defense and stop Smith from improvising his third straight win with a season-best game. Smith threw for his first-ever 300 yard game in last year’s 25-21 win in the Big House, while it was his career-best 145 rushing yards in 2004 that sealed the win 37-21. Michigan is capable of fireworks on offense, too, but Heisman hopeful Smith just gives Ohio State the nod it needs to win a close one like this.

We really have a great game in store, no matter who wins. It may be more likely that the Buckeyes prevail, but that doesn’t mean Michigan has no chance – they could easily pull off the upset and do the same to OSU that they did to Notre Dame in South Bend, when they whooped them 47-21 in week three. But Michigan looked pretty vulnerable two weeks ago, when a game Ball State squad almost upset UM, but eventually bowed 34-26 in Ann Arbor. OSU likewise struggled away against Illinois two weeks ago, narrowly escaping 17-10. Both teams have weaknesses that mean this contest could go either way depending on how the ball bounces this Saturday.

I foresee State in a close 22-19 battle, but it could be a blowout by either squad, too, so all bets are off as to how anything goes in this one. The Horseshoe will be hopping, and bet that a frenzy of red screams from the 101,000+ gallery, along with an advantage in long distance FGs, gives the Buckeyes the edge in a close one. But I cannot deny what I said before the season started when asked who would be in the BCS championship game. My two teams were Michigan and Notre Dame, so we get to see if foresight or current logic prevails in my world...I can’t lose either way, eh?