After losing its first game in 23 tries against Michigan State last Saturday, No. 8 Ohio State (10-1, 6-1) has to recover quickly before a meeting with No. 10 Michigan (9-2, 6-1). Here are five things The Lantern’s sports editors Ryan Cooper and Kevin Stankiewicz will be keeping an eye on starting at noon on Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Zeke backing up his words
After the loss to Michigan State, it was well-publicized that junior running back Ezekiel Elliott went on a rant in which he criticized the play calling and announced he would be leaving Columbus after the season.
In that emotional press conference, however, the St. Louis native also made a declaration that the sting from the loss would have the Buckeyes show an intensity not seen before to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“We’re hungry. I’m personally not going to let anyone slack off,” Elliott said after the game. “This game means the world to us and everyone in Ohio, and we represent everyone in Ohio. We’re going to come out, and we’re going to play a hell of a ballgame, you’ll see. It’s going to look like a new team.”
It is certainly reasonable to expect Elliott to receive more than the 12 carries he did against the Spartans, but what he does with his workload will be an intriguing storyline to watch on Saturday.
Elliott’s Heisman Trophy aspirations took a major hit with the loss and only 32 yards in Ohio Stadium, but he still has a chance to make a major statement in The Game, especially given the microscope he will be put over by OSU and national observers alike.
Elliott needs 170 yards to pass Eddie George for the second-most rushing yards in OSU history. While that is certainly the furthest thing from his mind heading into Saturday, if he backs up his words, he could very well get there and help keep OSU’s slim playoff hopes alive.
Will there be a rivalry moment?
As anyone knows, the rivalry between OSU and Michigan is one of the most heated in college football, if not all of sports.
With that rivalry territory comes a fair share of moments that capture just how much the teams dislike each other beyond being two of the most storied programs.
Taunting, trash-talking, shoving and all-out fighting is always on the table when the two teams meet.
The last time the game was played in Michigan Stadium in 2013, it turned out to be a fight that highlighted the afternoon. In the second quarter, OSU then-freshman running back Dontre Wilson got into a skirmish with a group of Michigan players after a kick return, which turned into a brawl. Wilson was ejected for his role in the incident, as was former OSU offensive lineman Marcus Hall and Michigan then-sophomore linebacker Royce Jenkins-Stone.
Hall made a memorable exit with a double-handed gesture toward the fans at The Big House.
OSU senior linebacker Joshua Perry said he and other veterans on the team have taken measures to make sure the young players don’t let the emotions of the game overwhelm them, but it still would not be an OSU-Michigan game without some memorable moments to accentuate just how little the teams care for each other.
Salt in the wound
As Perry said earlier in the week, the team knows Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is going to use redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers one way or another across the field.
The question is just how much the Wolverines lean on the do-it-all star.
Peppers will obviously be lined up in the secondary throughout the game, while also getting rush attempts, lining up as a receiver, returning punts and stepping in to play linebacker or even moving all the way to the defensive line.
Harbaugh has shown in the past that he is not afraid to rely heavily on the former top recruit in the country from East Orange, New Jersey. And in The Game, which coaches keep in the back of their minds throughout the entire season, he could be saving Peppers’ best performance for last.
On the year, Peppers has 40 tackles, including 5.5 for a loss, 11 rushes for 43 yards and two touchdowns, six receptions for 54 yards and 17 punt returns for 194 yards.
Peppers is arguably the best athlete in the country, and Harbaugh might use every ounce of that athleticism to keep the Buckeyes on their toes throughout the afternoon.
Jake Rudock vs. Ohio State’s secondary
All season long, the narrative surrounding the OSU defense was that it can impede offenses manned by pocket-passers, but as soon as a team quarterbacked a mobile player — like Maryland’s Perry Hills, Indiana’s Zander Diamond or Michigan State’s two backups from last week — the defense, especially the secondary, became vulnerable.
On Saturday, that narrative will be tested for accuracy.
Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock is playing some of the best football in the country over the last three weeks. The redshirt senior has thrown for an average of 344 yards and three touchdowns, including a school-record six scores against Indiana.
On top of that, Rudock, a graduate transfer from Iowa, also has the ability to move a little. He by no means will be confused with a scrambling quarterback, but the 6-foot-3 Floridian has caused secondaries issues with his improvising skills. For the season, Rudock has gained 222 yards on the ground, with a net yardage of 145.
Michigan will rarely call any designed runs for Rudock, but Harbaugh likes to get him on the move a little bit with bootleg plays. Then, factor in his ability to step up in the pocket and pick up chunks of yards with his highly efficient performance in the throw game, and there is reason to have concern for the OSU secondary.
The matchup between Rudock and the OSU secondary could potentially be the most important factor in deciding which team wins The Game.
Seniors playing their final regular-season game
Last week, the OSU seniors played their final game inside Ohio Stadium.
It didn’t go as they planed.
But now, they will play their final regular-season game with a shot at redemption and a fourth pair of gold pants.
Some of the seniors who will be playing in The Game for the final time include left tackle Taylor Decker, right tackle Chase Ferris, H-back Braxton Miller and Perry. Others include tight end Nick Vannett, defensive end Adolphus Washington and defensive tackle Tommy Schutt.
With it being their final regular-season game, it can be expected that there will be some added pep in their step as they try to avoid a two-game skid to end the season.
Their senior day at the ‘Shoe did not go according to script, but for many of them, a win over Michigan could help alleviate the bad memories from last week. The performance of the seniors — and whether or not they bounce back or fall flat — will have a huge impact in The Game.