“The Game” returns Saturday.
Having already punched its ticket to the Big Ten Championship game, No. 9 Ohio State (9-2, 7-1 Big Ten) will travel north to take on its rival, No. 24 Michigan (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten), to finish the regular season. The two teams will clash for the first time since the first-ever overtime game between the rivals last season in which Ohio State won 30-27 on a walk-off touchdown in double-overtime by H-back Curtis Samuel.
Ohio State offense vs. Michigan defense
One of the top offenses in the country will square off against one of the top defenses in the nation Saturday, with Ohio State’s potent offense (third in the nation in scoring) and Michigan’s stout defense (11th in the nation in fewest points allowed) pinned against one another.
The heart and soul of the Wolverines’ defense this season has been its ability to stifle opposing aerial attacks. Michigan’s top-ranked pass defense has allowed 144.4 yards per game and the third-fewest yards per attempt at 5.7. Only once this season has Michigan allowed more than 200 passing yards and it has yet to allow multiple passing touchdowns in a single game.
That passing defense has been carried by the performance of two of its starting safeties, Khaleke Hudson and Tyree Kinnel. The pairing are No. 2 and 3 in total tackles on the team, respectively, and both have a pair of interceptions so far this season. Hudson also has forced two fumbles while Kinnel returned an interception for a touchdown.
This secondary will be tested Saturday, however, against the top passing offense it will face all season. Before Ohio State, only Penn State cracked the top 25 in passing yards per game at No. 24, and Ohio State sits firmly six places ahead of them at No. 18. The Penn State offense put up 282 passing yards and a touchdown against Michigan’s defense.
Michigan’s front seven, led by Butkus semifinalist linebacker Devin Bush, defensive tackle Maurice Hurst and defensive end Rashan Gary, will apply pressure to the offensive line and quarterback J.T. Barrett. The Wolverines are tied for seventh in sacks per game with 3.27, and Bush, Hurst and Hudson all have more than five sacks.
However, Ohio State’s offense has gone away from the passing game lately, posting its two fewest pass attempts over the past two games.
That is why so much of this game will come down to Michigan’s ability to stop the run. The Wolverines have been one of the top teams in the nation at stopping the run, allowing the 15th-fewest yards per game (116.8) and 17th-fewest yards per carry (3.41).
However, that rush defense has been either boom or bust for the Wolverines this season. It has often been suffocating, allowing just 11 yards on 27 attempts to Florida and less than 100 yards in five other games. At times, it also has been exposed. Michigan has allowed more than 150 yards on the ground five times, including a 224-yard, five-touchdown outburst from Penn State, led by its star running back Saquon Barkley. That has been a trend for the Wolverines this season. They have have allowed an average of 3.13 yards per carry to unranked opponents, but 4.9 yards per carry to ranked opponents.
And against the Buckeyes, they will be tasked with trying to stop the second-best rushing offense they have faced all season. Ohio State has the 12th-most rushing yards per game and is tied for seventh-most yards per carry. The Buckeyes also are an offense that is clicking as of late, having put up its two highest rushing totals of the season at 335 and 325 yards against Michigan State and Illinois, respectively.
Ohio State defense vs. Michigan offense
The flip side of the matchup does not appear to be quite the same battle. Michigan’s offense has struggled this season, posting only the 101st-most yards per game at 360.4 and is tied for the 82nd-most points per game at 26.3. Ohio State’s defense, on the other hand, has done its part to keep opposing offenses at bay, allowing the 22nd-fewest points (19.8) and eighth-fewest yards per game (291.5).
If the Wolverines are to find any success, it will have to come on the ground. Their rushing offense ranks 35th in the nation in yards per game at 194.2 and has the 52nd-most yards per carry at 4.64. The bulk of that production has come from junior running back Karan Higdon, who has rushed for 874 yards on 136 carries and 10 touchdowns. Michigan also will lean on running backs Chris Evans and Ty Isaac,who have both rushed for more than 500 yards and have combined for eight touchdowns.
Unlike Michigan, Ohio State has been consistent in stopping the run this season. The Buckeyes have only allowed more than 150 rushing yards three times and have held teams to under 100 six times this season. Even matched up against ranked opponents like Penn State, Michigan State and Oklahoma, Ohio State has only allowed 2.4 yards per carry.
Where Ohio State struggles most defensively also happens to be where Michigan struggles the most offensively. Ohio State has looked incapable of defending against the pass at times, even if the 15th-fewest passing yards per game appear to tell a different story. But the Wolverines also have struggled to pass with any consistency. They have only three games with more than 200 passing yards, and they have just eight touchdowns to seven interceptions.
The biggest question mark for the team will come down to the man under center since Brandon Peters had to enter concussion protocol after taking a hit against Wisconsin. Peters had shined in his five games played, throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions. And with last season’s starter Wilton Speight still questionable for the game, Michigan might have to turn to John O’Korn, who has a 53.2 percent completion rating and one touchdown pass to five interceptions.
The latest edition of the rivalry does not appear destined for a shootout. Michigan’s offense does not appear to have the firepower to rack up gaudy point totals, but its defense could provide Ohio State with one of the Buckeyes’ toughest challenges of the season.
Edward Sutelan: Ohio State wins 28-20
Colin Hass-Hill: Ohio State wins 34-21