Ohio State has spent much of this season on the brink. There has been a searing investigation into a former assistant coach, high-profile suspensions of the head coach and athletic director and the most drama-filled 10-1 season in recent college football history. Head coach Urban Meyer has spent portions of games looking anguished on the sideline, and his future in the coaching profession appears to be hanging in the balance.
Nothing has been easy for Ohio State, as it has been magna cum laude drama majors this year. It began with the firing of wide receiver coach Zach Smith and subsequent investigation that resulted in suspensions for both Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith. Things got harder on the field in Week 3 when star defensive end Nick Bosa, the best player in the program, was lost for the season and later announced he was leaving school to prepare for the NFL draft.
On the field, Ohio State’s season has played out as a series of escapes.
The Buckeyes ground out two victories in one-score games in regulation – Nebraska and Penn State – that easily could have been losses. They came one air-mailed two-point conversion pass away from losing at Maryland in overtime last week, a game where the Buckeye defense yielded 339 rushing yards. Even victories over TCU (40-28) and Minnesota (30-14) played out with all the aesthetics of four quarters of nails dragging down a chalkboard.
This all makes the No. 10 Buckeyes’ matchup with No. 4 Michigan such an intriguing contrast. Michigan will arrive in Columbus with the same record (10-1), achieved with a distinctly different tenor. Michigan rebounded from an opening loss at Notre Dame and has won with a numbing and punishing efficiency. The addition of quarterback Shea Patterson, some key staff additions and the perpetual brilliance of defensive coordinator Don Brown have ratcheted these Wolverines from inconsistent and underachieving to drama-free dominators. Even coach Jim Harbaugh, who has long had an affinity for the bizarre, has managed to let the winning go viral instead of his antics.
On the field, Michigan’s only true test since the Notre Dame loss came when it overcame a 17-0 deficit at Northwestern to win 20-17. History may loom as a bigger barrier than the Buckeyes lining up across from them, as Michigan has lost six consecutive games and 13 of the past 14. How will this edition play out? Yahoo Sports spoke to a half-dozen coaches and scouts familiar with the programs, and there’s an overwhelming feeling that Michigan will win. Why? Here are five key points:
1. Consistency – Sounds boring, right? One game at a time. Execution. Focus. We hear those coach verbal insomnia cures all the time. But there’s no argument that Michigan has strung together long stretches of dominant play and maximized its talent. Here’s the take of one assistant familiar with both teams:
“It’s their rivalry and everyone has really good players. But I think it’s going to be difficult for Ohio State. When you watch Michigan on tape, they’re playing so much like a team, they’re playing incredibly hard all the time and they’re very physical. We didn’t feel that way with Ohio State.”
The coach added that the collective failures of Michigan against its rivals – aka why this season is dubbed the “Revenge Tour” – makes this group ready to take the step. “They’re just a team. They’ve been through a lot, a lot of failing. Ohio State, during times of adversity, looks like they lack that true leader.”
2. Shea Patterson – The most glaring statistic that highlights Michigan’s catapult into national contention comes on third down. These Wolverines have converted exactly half of their third-down opportunities – 78 of 156 – to rank No. 9 nationally. Last season, Michigan converted less than 33 percent of those chances – 62 of 190 – and finished No. 115 nationally.
Opposing defensive coordinators credit the versatility of Patterson, an Ole Miss transfer, for that uptick, as he has created enough with his legs (4.3 yards per rush) to convert third-and-short and stress defenses on the edges.
“Previously, they didn’t have guys who could scramble around on third downs,” said an opposing defensive coach. “The difference is the quarterback.”
Another coach called Patterson “the missing puzzle piece,” and credited him for “managing the game.” He has thrown 18 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
3. Strength on weakness – Ohio State’s defense is giving up 4.6 yards per carry, which is No. 66 nationally and a significant drop from being ranked No. 6 nationally and yielding 2.94 yards per carry last season. Michigan averages 5.03 yards per carry and has the country’s No. 23 rush offense, which puts a definitive strength against a glaring weakness.
“This is a perfect storm,” said an assistant coach who has faced both this season. The big question will be whether star Wolverine tailback Karan Higdon can run wild, as he’s averaging 5.3 yards per carry and has 10 touchdowns this season.
The precipitous drop in Ohio State’s defense has been one of the season’s biggest curiosities. The Buckeyes lost the country’s most dominant player, Bosa, and have had nine defensive players drafted the past two years. Four of those were defensive backs selected in the first round, a massive talent drain they haven’t recovered from.
Where have opposing coaches looked to exploit? One mentioned a consistent effort to try and isolate sophomore linebacker Tuf Borland in space, as they found his mobility limited. There’s been a confluence of issues that have led to the decline of Greg Schiano’s defense, but coaches predict that OSU’s inability to consistently stop the run will be what Michigan will attempt to exploit on Saturday.
4. One-dimensional offense – In fairness, there’s been a moderate rebirth of the Buckeye run game as they ran for 283 yards against Maryland on Saturday and for 229 against Nebraska on Nov. 3. Those came in the wake of Ohio State throwing the ball a program-record 73 times against Purdue, a blowout loss that exposed Ohio State’s weaknesses on the offensive line and in the run game. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins is shattering Ohio State single-season records each week, as he has thrown for a program-record 36 touchdown passes and 3,685 yards. Some of that has been by necessity, as Ohio State is averaging just 4.4 yards per carry. One coach familiar with both teams identified Ohio State’s ability to establish some sort of run game as key.
“Ohio State struggles to have an identity right now,” the coach said. “They want to throw it, and the big guy can throw it. You have to be able to run the football, and Michigan’s front seven is one of the best I’ve seen the past few years. If Ohio State struggles and abandons [the run], that’ll be a problem. The best thing Michigan can do is score early and make them one-dimensional by forcing them to throw it.”
Ohio State tailback J.K. Dobbins is coming off a career-high 203 yards against Maryland, but his rush average has dipped to 4.7 this year from 7.2 last season. Fellow tailback Mike Weber, who should return from a quad bruise after missing Maryland, has also dipped this season (5.6) from last season (6.2).
The biggest storyline for Michigan heading into the game will be the health of defensive end Chase Winovich, who has a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss and plays as if he’s on a Peloton on full speed. Winovich has some sort of upper-body injury, and the general feel around the program is that he’ll play. This will be bad news for Ohio State’s offensive line, which has been a mess of pre-snap penalties (particularly tackle Isaiah Prince) and lacked cohesiveness this season. One scout predicted Prince to jump offside, as his penchant for penalties has transcended opponent and venue.
5. The chess match – It’s not infrequent that coaches have history facing each other. It’s rare to have the extent of history Ohio State offensive coordinator Ryan Day and Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown have. Day played against Brown as a player at UNH, coached against him multiple times as a position coach at UNH and Boston College and then worked with at Boston College in 2013 and 2014. (Both worked as coordinators under Steve Addazio.) Day’s brother, Tim Day, even played quarterback for Brown at UMass. This goes far beyond typical schematic familiarity, as the two are also close friends and their matchups include games featuring UNH, UMass, Northeastern (which no longer has a program), Maryland, Temple, Boston College and UConn. Then there are the hundreds of practices, dozens of spring practices and even a pair of spring games where their units went up against each other.
What will that all mean? It’s nearly impossible to say, except no one will be surprised by much. Day has been pass happy in his first full year calling Ohio State’s offense. Brown has been his typical blitz-happy self, although Michigan’s front four has allowed him to be a bit more judicious. (One opposing assistant still estimated he blitzed more than half the time in their game.) Michigan’s defense is ranked No. 1 at 234.8 yards per game. Where could Day find some cracks?
“When you watch the tape, there’s some space on slants and quick game passes,” said a coach who has faced Michigan’s defense. “They play outside leverage on the slot receiver, so leverage-wise they gave you that. But there’s a small window because the ball has to get there quick.”
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