Ohio State-Michigan: Can Jim Harbaugh get over the hump against Urban Meyer?

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Michigan should take the words of Yoda (21) with it to Columbus on Saturday, because simply trying to win won’t be good enough. The Wolverines must win, or a successful season crumbles into dust. They must win to take the Big Ten East for the first time, to play for the Big Ten title, and to remain in the College Football Playoff hunt.

But more specifically, Jim Harbaugh (22) must win.

This is why they paid him all that money to come home and resurrect the alma mater. This is why they indulged him with foreign trips and facilities and gave in to his every eccentric whim. This is a moment all Wolverines fans wished had happened earlier, but now it has arrived at last.

This is what a Harbaugh-led Michigan team is supposed to do. When it has the better team, and Ohio State (23) is the opponent, and Urban Meyer has beaten That Team Up North six times in a row, Michigan must win.

Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (L) has had the upper hand on Jim Harbaugh and Michigan since his arrival as head coach. (AP)
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer (L) has had the upper hand on Jim Harbaugh and Michigan since his arrival as head coach. (AP)

This is the first time Harbaugh has the better team against the Buckeyes. In 2015, in a talent mismatch, an Ohio State team that would put five players in the first round of the subsequent NFL draft romped in the Big House, 42-13. In 2016, with so much on the line, the Wolverines outplayed the Buckeyes most of the day but lost a 10-point second-half lead and were controversially defeated in double overtime — the game that produced Harbaugh’s famed bitterly disappointed (24)” press conference. Last year, a flailing Michigan team put a scare into Ohio State, jumping to a 14-0 lead and taking a 20-14 advantage deep into the third quarter before the Buckeyes took over.

Now? Things are different.

Now Meyer is wobbling around the Ohio State sideline like a tortured savant, seemingly clinging to his composure by a thread. Now the Buckeyes defense is putting up no resistance — OSU is on pace to surrender the most yards per play (5.91) and yards per game (398.6) in school history. (Meyer said Monday that he’s had “uncomfortable and direct” conversations with defensive staff about the performance of that unit.) Now Ohio State is careless with the ball, committing seven turnovers in three November games.

The Buckeyes offense certainly has been potent, currently ranking second nationally in yards per game (541.8). Quarterback Dwayne Haskins (25) has had a brilliant season and showed some necessary toughness in what was an unexpected pressure scenario against Maryland, running for three touchdowns to go with three TD passes. He has big-play receivers. The running game has been better in November than it was in October. If injured Mike Weber is back as expected, that takes some of the load off J.K. Dobbins, who ran an exhausting 37 times against the Terrapins.

But that OSU offense meets up with a Michigan defense that is the best in the nation overall (234.8 yards allowed per game) and against the pass (an 88.7 pass efficiency rating allowed). Ace coordinator Don Brown (26) will dial up pressures on Haskins while expecting his vaunted secondary to win the matchup with Ohio State’s receivers. (The X-factor for the Wolverines will be the health of disruptive rush end Chase Winovich; Harbaugh said Monday he is under evaluation after being injured against Indiana on Saturday.)

Offensively, Michigan will try to adhere to its established formula: nearly two runs for every pass, with leading rusher Karan Higdon (27) getting 20-plus carries and quarterback Shea Patterson continuing his evolving role as a change-of-pace alternative in the running game. Patterson’s 28 passes against Indiana on Saturday were the most he’s attempted since throwing 30 in the season-opening loss to Notre Dame. In Harbaugh’s ideal scenario, Michigan will run it 50-plus times against Ohio State and throw it fewer than 25 times while methodically marching up and down the field.

Comparative scores (28) certainly favor Michigan. Against six common Big Ten opponents, the Wolverines have won by an average of 27 points while the Buckeyes have won by an average of 16.5. Michigan beat all six (Nebraska, Maryland, Michigan State, Penn State, Rutgers and Indiana) by double digits; Ohio State beat one by five points (Nebraska) and two by one point (Penn State, Maryland).

Still, Las Vegas is cautious in its appraisal of this one. Meyer hasn’t been a home underdog since 2003, his first year at Utah. The pressure resides on the visiting sideline. The Monday afternoon point spread was the Wolverines by 4½ points.

A victory at Ohio State, if followed by a victory over Northwestern in the Big Ten championship game, would protect the Wolverines’ playoff spot from all but one scenario (29). If an 11-1 Georgia team beats 12-0 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game, that could knock Michigan — and the Big Ten, again — out of the four-team bracket. But nobody else is getting past Harbaugh’s team if they finish 12-1 — not Oklahoma, not Washington State, not Central Florida.

Will it happen? Will the Wolverines slay the Urban dragon and fulfill the school’s Harbaugh Prophecy? Or will Coach Khaki be the most disappointing guy ever to record three 10-win seasons in a four-year span?

Do or do not, Jim Harbaugh. There is no try Saturday at noon.

Dash pick (30): Michigan 35, Ohio State 21.

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