Just one game stands between No. 1 Ohio State and an undefeated regular season and that game is “The Game.”
The Buckeyes travel to Ann Arbor Saturday for the 116th meeting with the No. 13 Michigan Wolverines (9-2) looking to further cement their firm positioning in the College Football Playoff rankings.
There will be no conference championship implications as Ohio State locked up the Big Ten East division with its win over Penn State last week. Regardless, any time these two teams meet, no added juice or hype is needed as the two bitter rivals are never short on emotion for this one.
Ohio State has won 15 of the last 18 games dating back to the turn of the century in a series that has become decidedly one-sided. Ryan Day will look to continue the run of dominance his predecessors Jim Tressel (9-1) and Urban Meyer (7-0) put together with his first win as a head coach in the rivalry.
On the flip side, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is desperate to see his team win “The Game” for the first time under his leadership. Harbaugh is 0-4 against Ohio State, including the disastrous 62-39 dismantling he and his team suffered in Columbus last season.
A nine-point favorite, Ohio State has looked seemingly incapable of being beaten by anyone other than themselves this season. But Michigan, after teetering on the brink of complete irrelevancy earlier this season, has rallied to put itself in position for a third 10-win season under Harbaugh.
Here is a look at the Michigan team that will attempt to turn the tides in this lopsided rivalry on Saturday.
After struggling mightily through the first half of the season to create any type of identity, the Michigan offense comes into the regular-season finale playing its best football of the year.
When offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was hired in January, the expectation was for the Michigan offense to finally get out from under the prehistoric, run-heavy brand of football that Harbaugh was so comfortable in implementing and that had hindered an overly predictable offense for years.
The results have been mixed, as the Michigan offense looked inept at times through the first half of the season. But the Wolverines come into Saturday’s contest with Ohio State and the nation’s top-ranked defense having played their best football of the season over the past four games.
Over that span, Michigan is averaging more than 41 points per game. In their two most recent games, wins over Michigan State and Indiana, the Wolverines have racked up 920 yards of total offense, led by quarterback Shea Patterson.
Patterson has been solid, if unspectacular, since transferring to Michigan from Ole Miss ahead of last season, but he comes into Saturday throwing the ball as well as he has since arriving in Ann Arbor. Patterson threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns in Michigan’s blowout win over Michigan State two weeks ago, and he followed up that performance with a 366-yard, five-touchdown performance last week in a win at Indiana.
In addition to making big plays in the passing game, Patterson has avoided making mistakes through the air, throwing just one interception over the last four games and only five on the season.
Michigan has a trio of quality targets for Patterson to work with in receivers Ronnie Bell, Nico Collins, and Donovan Peoples-Jones.
Bell leads the team in receptions with 37 catches on the season, and Peoples-Jones has 30 catches and five touchdowns despite missing the first two games of the season. While those two are solid, it’s Collins who will pose the biggest threat to the Ohio State secondary.
Collins has a team-high seven touchdown catches on the season, and Ohio State should be very familiar with the 6-foot-4-inch junior after his two-touchdown performance in Ohio Stadium last season. Last week, he put together the best performance of his career with a six-catch, 165-yard performance that included three touchdown catches.
While the Michigan pass offense has taken off of late, nothing can wreck a game plan quicker than a defensive line creating consistent pressure on the quarterback, and the offensive line will be up against its biggest test of the season against the Buckeyes.
An experienced group that includes four upperclassmen, the Michigan offensive line has allowed 20 sacks this season, including four each in their games against Army and Michigan State. Patterson’s ability to maneuver in the pocket and extend plays has helped to bail both himself and the offensive line out from those totals being higher.
Against an Ohio State team that is the best in the country at getting to the quarterback, the unit will simply need to play its best game of the year to give its quarterback the time to make the requisite throws that will be needed to extend drives.
A quality running game can also go a long way in slowing down the pass rush, but Michigan has had only mild success running the football this season.
The Wolverines rank 76th in the country in rushing yards per game, averaging 155 yards per contest. Carries have been split primarily between freshman Zach Charbonnet and sophomore Hassan Haskins, and each has had their moments and nothing more.
The duo has combined for 1,118 yards and 14 touchdowns, decent production at best, and whether or not they are able to at least be viable and take some of the pressure off Patterson and the passing game will likely go a long way in deciding whether Michigan can win the game.
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown has his guys playing at a high level once again despite several key departures from last year’s unit.
The Wolverines rank fourth in the country in total defense, yielding just 267 yards per game, and their 16 points allowed per game ranks 10th.
In particular, the unit is stout against the run, giving up an average of 106 yards per game. Michigan has allowed just one 100-yard performance by a running back, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, who gashed the Wolverines for 203 yards in the Sept. 21 loss.
Linebackers Khaleke Hudson and Jordan Glasgow lead the Wolverines’ front seven with 89 and 72 total tackles, respectively. Hudson, who plays the hybrid “viper” position in Michigan’s defense, might be the team’s best defender and is used in a variety of ways to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
Any defense led by Brown, nicknamed “Dr. Blitz,” is going to specialize in bringing pressure on the quarterback, and this year’s unit is certainly no different.
Michigan ranks 12th in the nation in both sacks per game, averaging a little over three per contest, and in total sacks with 35. Senior linebacker Josh Uche leads the team with 8.5 sacks, and defensive lineman Kwity Paye has recorded 6.5. Three other Wolverines have recorded at least four sacks this season.
Uche will be a player to watch as Brown will often send him to bring pressure off the edge, and his blend of size and quickness allows him to beat offensive tackles with both power and speed moves.
Of course, with Brown’s propensity for dialing up pressure, Michigan runs the risk of being exposed if it isn’t able to get home on those blitzes. That fact was very evident last season as the Ohio State offensive line did a spectacular job of neutralizing pressure, allowing no sacks and enabling Dwayne Haskins and his plethora of weapons to feast all day against man coverage.
Cornerback Lavert Hill, who was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season, leads the team in pass breakups with seven and is tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
Opposite him, Ambry Thomas has also nabbed three interceptions and, as one of the fastest players on the field at all times, is capable of running stride for stride with any receiver. However, he was victimized at times last week at Indiana and could be a potential focal point for Justin Fields and the Ohio State passing game.
The status of safety Brad Hawkins for Saturday’s game remains unknown as he was held out of the Indiana game. Starting in his place was true freshman Daxton Hill, who was one of the most highly-coveted recruits in last year’s cycle.
Hill made the first start of his career a memorable one, recording his first collegiate interception. Should Hawkins be unable to go, the ultra-talented freshman will make his second career start in the biggest game of the season, a notable development to keep an eye on.
Michigan has used two kickers throughout this season in Quinn Nordin and Jake Moody, but it has been Nordin who has received all the chances over the past two weeks.
Nordin is just 5-8 on the season, although he has connected on his last four attempts, including a 49-yarder against Michigan State two weeks ago. Moody hasn’t attempted a field goal since Nov. 2, a miss against Maryland, and is 6-9 on the season.
Punter Will Hart is averaging 45 yards per punt this season with a long of 61 yards.
In the return game, freshman Giles Jackson has shown explosiveness. Jackson has accounted for 443 return yards on 18 kickoffs, including a 97-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff of their game against Maryland on Nov. 2.