In the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the home of the Ohio State football team, there is always a timer ticking down. Through the Buckeyes’ 27-26 road win against Penn State and the 49-20 road loss to Purdue, the timer continued to tick down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until what they consider the biggest game of the year.
The Ohio State players and coaches did not come to Ohio State to play Penn State. They did not come to Ohio State to play Michigan State or Purdue. They came for one game.
“The Game,” which many consider the greatest rivalry in all of sports, has arrived: Ohio State vs. Michigan.
But Ohio State is in a different spot than it usually is heading into the Saturday after Thanksgiving. After the Buckeyes’ 52-51 overtime win on the road against Maryland, Ohio State opened as 4-point underdogs to Michigan, the No. 4 team in the country and the Big Ten team in the driver’s seat for the College Football Playoff.
This will be the first time the Buckeyes, under head coach Urban Meyer, will come into a game as an underdog since the 2014 National Championship against Oregon — a game Ohio State won handily 42-20.
That’s a 51-game streak of being favored snapped. But, based on the history of the rivalry, especially during Meyer’s tenure, it’s been one-sided. Ohio State has not lost to Michigan since Meyer took over as head coach, winning by an average of 10.5 points.
Since Jim Harbaugh took the Michigan head coaching job in 2015, the deficit in losses for the Wolverines has not been close other than a 3-point, double-overtime loss in 2016.
But this game is different.
Harbaugh leads a Michigan team with the No. 1 total defense in college football, with opponents averaging 234.8 yards per game and allowing 3.97 yards per play. In the passing game, the Wolverines have allowed the least amount of yards through the air, giving up 123.2 yards per game, 18.5 yards more than any other team in the country.
However, Michigan has not faced a passing offense ranked nationally in the top 30. In the first game of the season, the Wolverines faced Notre Dame, who now has the No. 39 pass offense in the nation, and allowed 170 yards passing to senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, giving up one touchdown and getting one interception.
Ohio State has the No. 4 pass offense in the country. With redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins leading the way, the Buckeyes average 359.5 passing yards per game, throwing 37 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions.
This is the matchup that will allow Ohio State to win this game: Haskins taking advantage of a top-ranked pass defense that really has not seen much trouble this season from a quarterback of his caliber.
But this is only one matchup. The rest is what needs to have the Buckeyes worried.
The Ohio State defense, which has allowed a combined 100 points and more than 1,000 yards to Maryland and Purdue combined, is facing a Michigan offense in which Harbaugh, after three seasons, found his quarterback. Harbaugh found the player he wants to lead Michigan to its first win against Ohio State since 2011: junior quarterback Shea Patterson.
Patterson leads a Michigan offense that is the most efficient passing game Ohio State will face this season, No. 14 in the country. The former Ole Miss quarterback is completing a career-high 65.9 percent of pass attempts, throwing 18 touchdowns compared to four interceptions.
If Ohio State wants to stop Patterson and the Michigan offense, including senior running back Karan Higdon, who is recording his first 1,000-yard campaign, the Buckeyes will have to rely on the only consistent aspect of the defense: the defensive line.
Despite allowing 237.4 passing yards per game, the No. 77 Ohio State pass defense is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 52.8 percent completion rate against the unit, No. 2 in the Big Ten behind the Wolverines.
Redshirt junior defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones and sophomore defensive end Chase Young will have to consistently be in the Michigan backfield, disrupting both Higdon and Patterson to find any success on Saturday.
But the reality is, Patterson will get some passes off and test the Ohio State corners and safeties just like the teams before them, lobbing deep throws to sophomore wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.
The big test for Ohio State will be whether Haskins, sophomore running back J.K. Dobbins and a room full of veteran receivers, including redshirt seniors Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin and Johnnie Dixon, can keep up with the Michigan offense even against the best defense in the country statistically.
Meyer said Monday that talent differential has never been an aspect of this game in particular and that it’s always been close.
This is the game Ohio State has prepared for all season. No matter where the Buckeyes are at, Meyer and company have found a way to win.
Will it happen for the Buckeyes on Saturday? Yes, and there is a blueprint to do it.