As the waning moments of Saturday’s snow-laden game between Michigan and Indiana dripped away, thousands of fans draped in maize and blue filled the Big House with two words: “Beat Ohio.”
Less than 75 miles away, Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer told reporters less than a minute into his postgame news conference, “It’s officially rivalry week. Our eyes are forward. Let’s go.”
This weekend yields the biggest matchup — in scale and implication — of college football’s regular season: No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan, programs that have met every year since 1918. This will be the 113th installment, pitting two of the three highest-paid coaches in the country against one another. Want more, narrative-wise? Thirty years ago, Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh, then the team’s starting quarterback and the opposite of a milquetoast public figure, guaranteed his team would beat Ohio State. It did. His team has one loss this season, just as it did 30 years ago when he called his shot.
So, what rides on the 2016 matchup? For Michigan, a chance to play for a conference title for the first time since the Big Ten championship game was introduced. Should Penn State lose to Michigan State, Ohio State would claim a berth with a win.
Perhaps more importantly, the matchup will move one team close enough to taste the desired College Football Playoff while likely pushing the other out of contention. Ohio State’s chances of advancing to the playoff spike to 91 percent with a win and drop to 12 percent with a loss, according to FiveThirtyEight. For Michigan, a win elevates the team’s chances to 81 percent, while a loss shrinks those odds to 4 percent.
That it’s college football’s premier rivalry — one that has drawn 105,000-plus fans to each meeting over the past 15 years — only augments the spectacle.
Here’s why the Wolverines should win the matchup for the first time since 2011.
Ohio State hasn’t played a defense like Michigan’s
Behind Ezekiel Elliott, whom you may have heard of, the Buckeyes carved up Michigan’s defense last year for a season-high 369 rushing yards. Elliott is gone, and gone, too, is the defense that he raced through and around, carry after carry.
Michigan’s defense, now under the direction of Don Brown, whose touch has turned units to gold everywhere he’s landed, is the cream of the conference, if not the entire country.
“We want you to feel us when we hit you,” do-it-all football savant Jabrill Peppers said earlier this month. His message is an accurate one: Quarterbacks are lucky to make it through four quarters against Michigan without suffering an injury. Ohio State’s Meyer was asked Monday whether he knew that the Wolverines had injured five opposing quarterbacks this season.
Using Brown’s blueprint, the Wolverines lead the country in yards allowed per contest (245.6) and scoring defense (10.9). Opponents generate 4.06 yards per play, which, if maintained, would be the best single-season mark for the program since the turn of the century.
Not only does Michigan set the tone for the rest of the country, but it deftly defends what Ohio State does best — namely, running the ball on short-yardage situations.
Behind the tandem of Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel, Ohio State is amassing a Big Ten-leading 263.1 yards per contest on a Big Ten-leading 5.67 yards per carry. Offensive coordinator Ed Warinner’s group has nine games this season of at least 200 yards and 4.9 yards per carry, the most of any Power Five-conference team.
Ohio State picks up a robust 5.64 yards per carry on third down, and behind a relentlessly physical offensive line, the Buckeyes lead the nation in power success rate, or the percentage of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go that result in a first down or touchdown. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in third-down offense (51.5 percent), largely because each play is moving the ball forward — just 12.3 percent of team carries have been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, the third-best mark in the country.
Conversely, Michigan’s defense rarely cedes yards on the ground, yielding a Big Ten-low 3.02 per carry. Just ask Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, the conference leader in rushing and all-purpose yards, who was held by the Wolverines to 59 yards (one shy of a career low) on 3.9 yards per carry.
Michigan’s defense leads the nation in tackles for loss (9.3 per game), ranks seventh in power success rate (54.8 percent) and third in stuff rate (27.8 percent). And while Ohio State is setting the tone for the conference when it comes to third-down offense, don’t expect those figures to stay afloat Saturday; Michigan leads the country in third-down defense (21.1 percent) and has allowed the fewest total first downs (148) of any team.
Should Ohio State revert to a pass-heavy offensive scheme, Michigan’s nation-leading pass defense will be waiting. With all-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis spearheading the secondary, the Wolverines allow the fewest passing yards per contest (137) and the lowest completion percentage (44.2).
Michigan’s rushing attack is hitting its stride
After some tough sledding against Iowa, Michigan rebounded for a 225-yard rushing effort in last week’s win, giving the team four instances of 220-plus yardage over its past six games.
Senior De’Veon Smith set a career high with 158 rushing yards in the team’s win over Indiana, netting 6.87 yards per carry and accounting for more than half of the team’s total offense. With Michigan’s quarterback situation in flux, Ohio State should expect an onslaught of running plays.
Speaking of the Buckeyes: Meyer’s team allowed 207 rushing yards last Saturday, the second most in any game this year. It’s just the 10th time since he came to Columbus that Ohio State has allowed more than 200 rushing yards. “Come out next week playing kind of flat, giving up some runs like that. You obviously won’t win like that,” Ohio State defensive end Tyquan Lewis said.
What’s more, as ESPN Stats and Information pointed out, the way in which Michigan runs the ball — with a quarterback under center — is effective vs. the Ohio State defensive line. Michigan State and Wisconsin, the two teams that have rushed for 200-plus versus the Buckeyes, predominantly ran the ball with the quarterback lined up under center. All told, 75 percent of Ohio State’s allowed rushing touchdowns have come with the opposing quarterback under center; more than 80 percent of Michigan’s running plays this season have come with a quarterback under center, the fifth most of any power conference team.