You often hear, “the most anticipated matchup.” Well, this could actually be the most anticipated game of the season between two undefeated teams, the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes and the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines. This big-time regular season finale decides who will face the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten title game. If either the Buckeyes or Wolverines win out, then a spot in the College Football Playoff is likely.
Michigan’s recent lack of protection
The Wolverines can handle business if the offense does a good job of protecting quarterback J.J. McCarthy. He’s been sacked 10 times in his last five games compared to three times in his first six; he's also been pressured on 46 of his dropbacks compared to 32 in those same splits. A factor in their offensive line issues is right tackle Karsen Barnhart. Out of qualifying tackles, Barnhart grades out 609th out of 667 players, allowing 21 total pressures this season but 10 in just his last three games alone. It’s why we saw Michigan revert to a heavy dose of the run game against Penn State with 32 straight run plays.
The protection goes beyond Barnhart. Both LaDarius Henderson and Myles Hinton have been playing through injuries. If the Michigan offensive line is not where it needs to be, McCarthy could struggle for the second straight week. He's coming off his worst performance of the season, completing 52% of his passes with zero touchdowns and one interception.
Ohio State grades as the seventh-best pass rush team in the country. The Buckeyes may not get home with many sacks (just 21 total), but the pass rush does create stress to the opposing quarterback with pressure forcing hurries and scrambles.
Ohio State’s improvement on offense
The Buckeyes defense is every bit as strong as Michigan’s. A result of the defense being so dominant is that it's allowed the Buckeyes offense time to get healthy and improve as a unit. The eye test will tell you quarterback Kyle McCord is no CJ Stroud. Still, he is top 26 in passing yards, completion percentage and yards per pass.
McCord is fortunate to have a stellar cast of playmakers around him to push the offense forward. One such player is receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. Michigan cornerback Will Johnson has allowed just eight receptions all season as the primary cover player. However, Johnson has not come even close to covering someone like Harrison, who is arguably one of the best players in the country. Harrison is 10th in the FBS in receiving yards (1,093), yet has the fewest receptions from that group (62) and is tied with the second-most scores.
Harrison aside, the Buckeyes also have running back TreVeyon Henderson, who is top five in the conference in yards after contact and designed runs of 15-plus yards. There’s also receiver Emeka Egbuka, who may not be the first option, but he’s been the go-to option in big-time moments, like a third-and-19 catch against Notre Dame.
With the offensive line issues piling up for Michigan, and the Ohio State offense having multiple options to turn to, the play is backing the Buckeyes to cover. Not only is it the first time in five years Michigan is favored over Ohio State, but if history is any indication, the Wolverines have a steep hill to climb — they're 7-24-1 in top-five matchups in the poll era.