The Michigan Wolverines will have a simple formula when they travel to Columbus, Ohio, to face the No. 1-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes: control the clock by using their ground attack and keep the Buckeyes' high-powered offensive weapons watching from the bench.
Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith could cap off his Heisman Trophy campaign with a big effort on Saturday. He has passed for 2,191 yards and 26 touchdowns, but more importantly, he has thrown just four interceptions. In two career contests against the Wolverines (both victories), Smith has three touchdowns passes, accounted for five total scores and has yet to commit a turnover.
Smith will count heavily on the big-play skills of wide receivers Ted Ginn, Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez, but keep an eye on the ever-improving Brian Robiskie, who has proven to be just as sure-handed as his more marketed teammates.
The Buckeyes' offensive line will have its hands full with Michigan's great run-stuffing presence in junior defensive tackle Alan Branch, whose ability is complemented by outside pass rushers LaMarr Woodley and Rondell Biggs. The Wolverines' defense, however, could be susceptible to hard pounding early with junior running back Antonio Pittman, who is not the flashiest ball carrier but has been able to grind out games for Ohio State. Saturday could also showcase the arrival of heralded freshman runner Chris Wells, a powerful back who possesses great size and impressive straight-line speed.
Michigan has its own collection of offensive firepower. Junior running back Mike Hart has rushed for 1,373 yards and 11 touchdowns, but the key to the contest will be the Wolverines' use of their key asset – an offensive line led by junior offensive tackle Jake Long to pound the Buckeyes between the tackles with a combination of Hart, Brandon Minor and Kevin Grady.
Junior quarterback Chad Henne has shown great composure this season as well as improved accuracy and decision-making skills, but in past years, he has gotten a little antsy if he's pressured early and has thrown some bad interceptions. An early ball-control offense will help quiet the Ohio State crowd and open up one-on-one opportunities down the field where Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington can take advantage of their size, leaping ability and vertical speed.
Senior wide receiver Steve Breaston has started to make some big plays for Michigan, but where he could become a critical factor is on special teams, as he is averaging 25.1 yards per kickoff return and over 11 yards per punt return. If you are looking for a relatively unknown name to make an impact for the Wolverines on the offensive side of the ball, watch out for freshman tight end Carson Butler, who has made 13 catches over the last five games.
Linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman have given the Buckeyes the speed and big-play potential that most felt they would miss after graduating A.J. Hawk, among others, to the NFL last season. The strong play of cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and safety Brandon Mitchell, who has really come on in recent weeks, and a defensive line led by seniors Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson gives Ohio State a set of playmakers at each level of its defensive unit.
If Michigan is able to control the time of possession (even if the total rushing yards or yards per carry aren't great), that should keep the Buckeyes' offense sidelined enough to make this a low-scoring affair. That would benefit the Wolverines because if you can turn Ohio State into a one-dimensional team, you eliminate Smith's cushion and force him to make plays on his own.
Smith has been a magician this season in pulling out plays when needed, but with defenders like linebackers Prescott Burgess and Dave Harris and cornerback Leon Hall, Michigan could stifle a late surge if it prevents big plays from occurring in the first three quarters.
A close contest could feature critical field goals, and although the Wolverines would seem to have the edge with senior kicker Garrett Rivas, the Buckeyes counter with redshirt freshman Aaron Pettrey, who nailed a 50-yarder two weeks ago against Illinois. So if the game comes down to a battle of nerves, it will be the experienced veteran against the strong-legged rookie who has made eight of 11 field goals and pounded two-thirds of his kickoffs for touchbacks.
- Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long has a medical redshirt year that would allow him to return as a fifth-year senior in 2007, but the junior is likely to make himself eligible for next year's NFL draft after proving to be 100-percent healthy this season. Evidently, the knee injury suffered by Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas in the Badgers' bowl game last January and the slight chance to improve a possible first-round grade are two reasons for Long to investigate making the jump to the NFL. Long and his family have kept themselves very grounded, saying they will not interview or speak to agents until after the season, but word has leaked out to the player rep community that his father has started to research the draft process.
- South Carolina sophomore wide receiver Sidney Rice, who is three years removed from his high school graduation, and senior tight end Andy Boyd, who has a medical redshirt year, have told the team's coaching staff that they intend to return to school next season. Their presence could boost the Gamecocks toward becoming one of the favorites to capture the SEC title in 2007. Rice could enter next season as the odds-on favorite to be the top-rated wide receiver in the nation if Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson forgoes his senior year, as expected, and enters the draft.
- Virginia Tech could have a loaded squad in 2007. Each of the Hokies' highly rated junior prospects have announced that they intend to come back to Blacksburg, Va., for their final year of eligibility. Running back Branden Ore (the ACC's leading rusher), linebacker Vince Hall (the league's top tackler), offensive tackle Duane Brown, defensive end Chris Ellis and linebacker Xavier Adibi have all said publicly that they intend to return in order to make a serious run at next season's BCS championship.
- South Florida offensive tackle Theodric Watson has been suspended two games for violating team rules, but the senior could rejoin the Bulls if they become bowl eligible. Watson has made great strides towards earning a late-round NFL grade, so this current setback is one that could become just a bump in the road if he is able to get himself back on the right path, according to team officials.
- Senior tight end John Carlson, who actually has one year of eligibility remaining at Notre Dame, will be out two to four weeks with a right knee injury, but he expects to return for the Irish's bowl game. Carlson has 46 catches for 621 yards and four touchdowns during a breakout campaign, but by most accounts, he had not seriously thought about declaring early for the NFL draft. His senior backup, Marcus Freeman, caught a 23-yard touchdown pass against Air Force, and although he has not seen much action and been used mostly as a spare blocker, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Freeman (4.7-second range in the 40) is more athletic than advertised. Area scouts will surely keep an eye on his progress over the next month.
- Senior offensive tackles Doug Free of Northern Illinois and Levi Brown of Penn State could sit out potential postseason all-star games in order to rest, rehab and even possibly surgically repair their respective injuries from this season. Free has played with a stress fracture in his right foot since the Huskies' second game. Playing cannot make the injury worse, but it can aggravate it and prohibit the proper rehabilitation. Resting four to six weeks so he can post idea numbers at the NFL combine makes good sense for Free, who has struggled at times because his movement skills have been restricted by the injury. Brown, who missed two games with a left knee injury, actually had surgery in early October to repair a torn meniscus in the knee. He has returned to action with the Nittany Lions, but some feel it would be wise for him to rest the leg and increase his conditioning and get his weight in order before the combine. If either or both prospects decide to pass on postseason all-star action, their absences will open the door for several unheralded linemen to step up.
- Senior defensive back Michael Griffin may follow in the footsteps of former Texas teammate and 2006 top-10 pick Michael Huff by skipping the postseason all-star game circuit in order to prepare himself fully for the scouting combine in Indianapolis. Early word out of Austin, Texas, is that Griffin could pass on the chance to play in the Senior Bowl to get a head start on training and gearing up for the chance to run 4.4s for scouts at the combine. Also, the Longhorns should see the return of all of their underclassmen talent, especially defensive tackle Frank Okam, offensive tackle Tony Hills and wide receiver Limas Sweed. Sweed, though, could be the one guy that actually requests his current draft grade from the NFL advisory committee.
- Senior offensive lineman Justin Blalock could miss Texas' regular-season finale against Texas A&M on Nov. 24 and possibly the team's bowl game after injuring his left knee against Kansas State. The Longhorns have not publicly announced the extent of the injury, but according to one team source, the potential first-round pick has a sprained MCL that will not require surgery and should heal on its own with rest and rehab.
- Connecticut running back Terry Caulley could miss the rest of the regular season after having surgery to repair the ring finger on his left hand. The senior may be just 5-7 and 187 pounds, but thanks to his blazing 4.3 speed in the 40 and ability to find the crease and hit it with greater authority than most players his size, area scouts still think Caulley can find a place in the NFL draft. Senior fullback Deon Anderson, who sat out last season after being disciplined by the team for an off-field incident, has bounced back nicely by leading the way for both Caulley and freshman Donald Brown II. Anderson is just under 5-11 and 249 pounds, which is the perfect size for his lead-blocking skills. An underrated area of his game that will impress scouts in the postseason are his hands; he has 42 career receptions.
SMALL SCHOOL WONDERS
- Alma (Mich.) College senior quarterback Josh Brehm, a Michigan Tech transfer, has quietly made a name for himself among area scouts. He has an incredible 30-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio while passing for 3,448 yards and adding an additional 636 yards and nine scores on the ground. A bright scrambler with good size (6-2, 220), he has made scouts go back to review his earlier game tapes thanks to his ability to make plays on the run and his impressive velocity and accuracy on his passes. Brehm has passed for over 6,000 yards and rushed for over 1,000 yards the past two years, while improving his completion percentage to 66 percent and cutting down his interceptions from 11 last season to just three as a senior. Brehm is slated to participate in the Nov. 25 East Coast Bowl, which will welcome players in Petersburg, Va., next Wednesday.
- South Carolina State running back DeShawn Baker is leading the MEAC with 1,136 yards rushing, while averaging 6.3 yards per carry and scoring eight touchdowns. The senior has gained over 1,000 yards in each of the past three years and is on a streak of six straight 100-yard efforts. At just over 6-foot and 222 pounds, he has very good size, runs with authority and has a nose for the end zone (32 career rushing touchdowns). Baker will close out his career against North Carolina A&T on Saturday before heading to the East Coast Bowl next week. Several NFL teams have visited to watch his games recently, including Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.
- Montana Western wide receiver Jake Larson set a new career record for receiving yards with 2,966 on 176 catches, including 23 touchdowns. The senior has 42 catches for 584 yards and six scores this season, but had a career-high game of 230 yards against rival Montana Tech as a junior. Larson is a crisp route runner with better-than-advertised speed. One team official expects him to run sub-4.5 times in the 40 and come close to the 40-inch mark in the vertical jump during workouts next spring. He is roughly 6-1 and 190 pounds and hails from the same conference that produced tight end Casey Fitzsimmons from Carroll College.