The Ohio State-Michigan football rivalry is the greatest in all of sports. I don’t need an ESPN poll to tell me that, I’ve lived it.
A child of the “10 Year War”, I was born on raised on the front lines of this exquisite rivalry; two and a half hours from Columbus, yet only 45 minutes from Ann Arbor, in Toledo, Ohio. However, it could have easily of been in Toledo, Michigan.
The animosity between these two states goes all the way back to 1836, when Michigan and Ohio nearly went to war over the land known as the “Toledo Strip”. Ohio kept Toledo, while Michigan ended up with the land that became the Upper Peninsula.
Growing up, loyalties were split evenly. One side of the family rooted for Michigan. We went there to watch “The Game” on years it was played in Ann Arbor. The other side wore Scarlet colored glasses, and played host when the rivalry was held in Columbus.
Fridays before the game (by the way, can we please go back to playing this thing the weekend before Thanksgiving? I didn’t think so), schools could not function properly. Everyone was dressed in either Maize and Blue or Scarlet and Gray. The game was all that was talked about, and more often than not, in less than civil tones.
A wave of nostalgia hit me this week. I attended my first Ohio State-Michigan game 30 years ago, a 24-14 Buckeye victory in Ohio Stadium. I still remember the stark contrast of the red-hued home team, and the white and faded yellow uniforms of the visitors, cast against a steel-clouded November afternoon with soaked astro-turf.
I also remember watching the "10 Year War"
special produced by WBNS-TV the morning of the game at my Aunt and Uncle’s house. That iconic documentary resonated deeply in my 10-year old soul. Little did I know that I would someday be producing similar shows for that very same television station.
In fact, Friday night’s Buckeye Blitz special will be the 20th OSU-Michigan preview or pre-game show I’ve produced in my career. It’s something I’m proud of, and it’s something that never, ever gets old.
That string goes back to my first in 1996. Sadly, it is not consecutive. It’s still the bitterest moment of my career (I sound like Bo Schembechler looking back on the 1973 tie) that the Michigan special in 1998 was taken away from the sports department, and handled by news instead.
But enough about me; these memories came rushing back listening to Urban Meyer this week talk about getting to be the head coach at Ohio State in this game. It’s all he knew growing up; it’s his frame of reference for what college football is supposed to be. He is just like nearly every one of us.
The Lead Up
Meyer’s first season will come to an end around 3:30pm on Saturday, with no bowl game, or Big Ten Championship game appearance, thanks to NCAA sanctions. Yet, the Buckeyes are still playing for history. There have been just five undefeated teams (1916, 1944, 1954, 1968 and 2002) ever at Ohio State. Only the 2002 and 2006 squads reached the 12-0 mark.
The Buckeyes are looking to avenge a 40-34 loss last season, snapping a 7-game winning streak against “That Team Up North”, counting the 2010 victory that was later vacated. In that same vein, OSU could win its sixth straight (again, counting 2010) against Michigan in Ohio Stadium, matching the Wolverines from 1989 through 1999, and early in the 20th century) for longest such streaks in the rivalry.
This season marks the 13th time since the game began being played on the final weekend of the season (1935), that Ohio State came into the contest without a loss or a tie. The Buckeyes are 8-3-1 in those games, with the losses in 1969, 1995 and 1996. The tie was in 1973, and the victories came in 1944, 1954, 1968, 1970, 1975, 1979, 2002 and 2006.
While I get the sense from Buckeye fans that there is a bit of destiny in play here, this promises to be the toughest game of the season for OSU, and this is coming off of a hard-fought 21-14 overtime win over Wisconsin.
The Wolverines are 8-3, with losses to Notre Dame (currently ranked #1 in the AP), Alabama (#2) and Nebraska (#17). Michigan hasn’t been overly impressive this season, but are playing its best ball the past few weeks.
When Ohio State Has the Ball
The inconsistency for Ohio State took it to another level last week at Wisconsin. Normally, we see the Buckeyes struggle for a quarter, or a half, but the Badgers had the Bucks playing at 2011 levels.
Meyer admitted that the play-calling needed to have been better against Wisconsin, and that poor field position often caused too much conservatism. No argument here. Additionally, Braxton Miller looked lost, tentative and quite frankly slow. Watching on TV instead of seeing it live in the press box, I couldn’t tell if Miller had receivers open and didn’t see them, or if the Badgers had things covered. Regardless, he’ll need to be better.
Carlos Hyde needs to be more involved as well. I think OSU’s biggest advantage in this game could be the match-up of its offensive line against the defensive front of Michigan. The Wolverines rotation up front only has 2 seniors and 2 juniors listed among 10 linemen. The Buckeyes have worn down nearly every defense they’ve played this year, and if they can consistently get Michigan on its heels, and Hyde can run downhill, the game is over.
Glancing at the stats, Michigan boasts the top-ranked pass defense in the country, and that is impressive. However, dig a little deeper, and you’ll see that none of the 11 Wolverine opponents are currently ranked higher than 67th in passing offense:
69th Michigan State
79th Notre Dame
101st* Massachusetts (does not qualify yet for FBS stats, but would be here if it did)
117th Air Force
It bears mentioning, though, that Ohio State is currently 100th, however.
Michigan’s defensive coordinator is Greg Mattison, who coached under Urban Meyer at Florida. He has the Wolverines playing sound, fundamental defense, and they won’t beat themselves very often. Collectively, they might not have as much talent on D as even Ohio State does, but they don’t give up big plays. The Buckeyes will need to be patient.
When Michigan Has the Ball
Ohio State might wear Scarlet and Gray, but the real gray area on Saturday will be the quarterback position at Michigan. Devin Gardner—who has started six games this year at wide receiver—has been the one under center the past three weeks. Denard Robinson has been out (or limited) with an injury suffered in the Nebraska game.
I’ll say this…Michigan is a much, much more dangerous team with Gardner taking snaps instead of Robinson. Gardner is a passer who can run, while Robinson is a runner who can (sometimes) throw. In the first 8 games (with Denard starting at QB), the Wolverines averaged nearly three turnovers a game. The past three weeks, it’s been four total.
I don’t think there’s any doubt both are going to play. My guess is that Michigan will try to get them both on the field together as much as possible, depending on what Robinson is able to do. Last week, he couldn’t throw, or even hold the ball in his right arm.
That dynamic is even greater with the loss of tailback Fitz Toussaint last week to a gruesome leg injury that required immediate surgery. He torched Ohio State for 120 yards last season, and while there are capable back-ups, we saw how Michigan struggled without Toussaint in the opener against Alabama.
Going with the thought process that Gardner will take most, if not all the snaps, the Buckeyes will need to get pressure on him. He’s played well against Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa, none of whom are Ohio State’s caliber. How he reacts with lineman in his face, or blitzes will be critical. Most of it is on Robinson, but Michigan has thrown 17 interceptions this year.
It make some sense to see Robinson lining up mostly at running back, although I don’t see him getting more than 15 carries or so. I don’t think he has the durability to last in a game like this fighting for hard physical yards.
The Silver Bullets have come on strong the past month, since that embarrassing 49-points allowed to Indiana incident. Ryan Shazier has developed into one of the league’s top linebackers. John Simon was in beast mode against the Badgers. The secondary will determine how this game goes as well. Leave UM receivers open, and Gardner won’t miss nearly as much as Robinson will. Completed passes would soften up the run defense, and well…we saw what happened last year.
I honestly don’t get a real feel for how this will play out. I can’t decide if it will be an offensive shootout, or a defensive struggle. It could go either way.
I do think the Buckeye offense will bounce back from its performance against Wisconsin, Braxton Miller included.
I think for just the second time this year (Nebraska night game), the Ohio Stadium crowd has a chance to make a major impact on the game. There’s a 12-0 season on the line, the 2002 team will be honored on the field between the first and second quarters, and oh, yeah…it’s the Michigan game.
If Ohio State can capitalize on opportunities to gain momentum, and see those chances through, the Buckeyes will be in good shape. That will be especially important early on. The Wolverines are 0-3 when trailing at half this year, and 8-0 when leading or tied.
Urban Meyer is a master motivator. I can only imagine what this week has been like behind closed doors, and final frenzy that will come in the locker room moments before kick-off. The seniors who have been through so much, fully embraced a new coaching staff, and have a chance to go out on senior day and finish off a perfect season.
I’ll take the Buckeyes, 31-27.
The coverage on 10TV will continue all weekend long. Dom Tiberi and Beau Bishop will anchor Friday’s Buckeye Blitz special, with live reports from David Wilkinson at the reunion for the 2002 National Championship team.
On Saturday, we’ll post game pictures and analysis on our Buckeye Blitz web page, and wrap-up the game with our “Gameday” coverage at 7pm and 11pm, as well as Wall to Wall Sports at 11:35pm. Former Buckeye Roy Hall will join Dom and Beau to break things down.