The Big Ten East race is over. Ohio State is going to the Big Ten title game, and Michigan is not.
Yet only people who make abodes beneath boulders would believe neither team has anything to play for.
“We live it every day. The Team Up North is something that we talk about every single day,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “And the best way to respect a rivalry is to work it every day.”
No. 2 Ohio State (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten) travels to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for its regular-season finale against No. 13 Michigan (9-2, 6-2) in the 116th edition of The Game.
Seasons can be made or broken on the back of The Game’s results, and Day will witness first-hand that phenomenon for the first time as head coach Saturday.
“This was a hard-fought win, a top 10 team, really well-coached,” Day said following the Saturday game against No. 8 Penn State. “But quickly, we transition to that rivalry game, which means everything to us.”
The Wolverine defense, currently No. 6 in total and No. 4 against the pass nationally, has mauled opponents all season, while Michigan’s pass rush could provide the most concern for Ohio State’s offense. Wisconsin and Penn State recorded five and three sacks, respectively, against the Ohio State offensive line, forcing sophomore quarterback Justin Fields to scramble many more times.
Both the Badgers and Nittany Lions mixed in a variety of defensive fronts and blitz packages. Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown is nicknamed Dr. Blitz.
The Wolverines are No. 4 in the Big Ten with 35 sacks. Senior linebacker Josh Uche leads the way with 7.5, trailed closely by junior defensive end Kwitty Paye.
Redshirt senior offensive tackle Branden Bowen said establishing a rushing attack is key to opening up the air, as the Buckeyes gained 229 of their 417 yards on the ground against Penn State.
“If you don’t have a good run game, you’re not gonna pass the ball,” Bowen said. “Being able to do that is key to running the offense how we want to.”
Day, then co-offensive coordinator, used Brown’s own schematics against him in 2018. Michigan’s blitzes often leave defensive backs isolated in man coverage.
Day ran passing concepts that emphasized the athleticism of Ohio State’s receivers, crossing routes being a prime example, and the Buckeyes piled up 396 yards through the air against the nation’s No. 1 pass defense en route to a 62-39 victory.
Ohio State has distributed passes to a wealth of receiving weapons that can generate similar mismatches, with five different wide receivers over 230 yards in 2019, and three over 450.
On offense, Michigan redshirt senior quarterback Shea Patterson took his limp of five straight games under 50 percent completions to a full sprint with more than 360 passing yards in his past two contests against Michigan State and Indiana.
Ohio State boasts the No. 1 pass defense in the country, pounding quarterbacks into submission with the second-best sack total in college football and holding them to 51.9 percent completions when they do get the ball away.
Co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, brought over from the San Francisco 49ers to help revamp Ohio State’s worst-in-school-history total defense from 2018, said he is looking forward to scheming for his first game against Michigan.
“Since the day I got here, I’ve heard about it, and I had to throw all my blue away,” Hafley said. “I’m excited to be part of it. Very excited. I’m blessed to be part of it. College football, 11-0, playing your rival in the last game of the regular season? I can’t ask for anything else.”
Junior defensive end Chase Young returned from suspension against Penn State and recorded three quarterback takedowns, bringing his season total to 16.5 — No. 1 in the nation and better than the sack total of 24 teams. He was suspended for two games by the NCAA after it was found that he accepted a loan from a family friend in 2018, which he later repaid, according to previous Lantern reporting.
Young said he was already mentally preparing for the Wolverines prior to the Penn State victory.
“If you can’t get hype for this, you’re just not that type of dude,” Young said. “We’re gonna go to the drawing boards and prepare the best we can.”
While it could still backdoor in with a Big Ten title if it lost to Michigan, winning out all but secures a bid to the College Football Playoff for Ohio State.
The Game kicks off at noon Saturday.