Ohio State continues finding stride before heading to Michigan

Nov. 19—COLUMBUS — In a week the promises to have plenty of predictions regarding who prevails between Ohio State and Michigan, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck got maybe the first chance to make one.

Like the former Jim Tressel graduate assistant he is, Fleck punted.

"I think you're splitting hairs," said Fleck, who was on the Ohio State staff in 2006 when Tressel was leading the Buckeyes to an undefeated regular season. "I mean, what color Ferrari would you like, a red one or a white one? Just based on preference, what one do you want to pick in the lot? I think that's why I think next week is going to be a heck of a matchup."

The head Golden Gopher made some headlines in early October when he declared Michigan the best team he had seen as a head coach after the Wolverines stomped his squad 52-10.

After Ohio State beat his team 37-3 on Saturday, Fleck said "that is what a national championship team looks like" before making his Ferrari simile and presumably hoping to move on to his own rivalry week with Wisconsin.

The way this season is shaping up, one team's national title hopes will be dashed Saturday in Ann Arbor when the third-ranked Wolverines host the second-ranked Buckeyes.

Both Ohio State and Michigan made the College Football Playoff last season, but a fair amount of chaos would be needed for them to both get in again with Georgia, Washington and Florida State all undefeated heading into the final week of the regular season.

Of more immediate concern is bragging rights in a rivalry that began 126 years ago and annually captures the attention of the nation.

The 119th edition of The Game will also be the third in a row that determines the champion of the Big Ten East.

Michigan won the last two, and the Buckeyes are eager to get a chance at revenge.

"We're here. We're here now," Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. "There are always things you can get better at, but I think you're seeing the identity we're looking for. You're seeing the runs, the pass, the explosiveness. That's what we want. So, we're 11 games in. Time to go play."

The Buckeyes scored more than 30 points for the third straight game after doing so only twice in their first five conference contests, and they held an opponent below eight points for the fifth time this season.

Next will be their biggest challenge to date.

Michigan is 11-0 for a second straight season, and the Wolverines have a statistically dominant defense that ranks No. 1 in the nation in points per game (9.0) and yards allowed (234.8).

They are second in red zone defense and passing yards allowed while ranking third in passing efficiency defense.

The Ohio State offense had a few dicey moments against the Golden Gophers but finished with an efficient scoring drive before sending the starters to the bench.

With a full complement of healthy skill players and a line that has been on the upswing after a rough start to the season, quarterback Kyle McCord expressed optimism prior to his first start in the rivalry.

"To be 11-0 right now and exactly where we want to be, this is kind of the way everybody in the Woody (Hayes Athletic Center) envisioned this season going to get to this point," McCord said. "This is what we work for."

He is No. 2 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency and tied for the lead with 22 touchdown passes.

Michigan's J.J. McCarthy is No. 1 in the passing efficiency, but he has thrown for only 201 yards combined the past two weeks with head coach Jim Harbaugh suspended by the Big Ten over an alleged sign-stealing scheme perpetrated by a staff member.

Which quarterback is better figures to be one of many debates this week, but there will be no shortage of storylines.

"I feel like we've been making strides in the right direction," McCord said. "There were times especially early in the year where everything was clicking and we looked really good, and I think now we're starting to be more consistent, which is big. I think the challenge now with the opponent we have coming up is how can we just continue to elevate our game, continue to play on a consistent basis. I think that's been the mindset all year so just continuing it this week."


Ohio State at Michigan, Noon, Fox, 1410