In a game filled with years of ill-will and hatred for the other side, the stakes are high in the 112th all-time meeting between the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes and the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines. Some of college football’s most recognizable names — Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Charles Woodson, Troy Smith, Desmond Howard, Archie Griffin to name a few — have been a part of the most storied rivalry in college football.
When asked about his earliest memory of the rivalry, OSU coach Urban Meyer talked about having to skip watching the game for a trip to the mall with his mother. Even from a young age, he knew he was a Buckeye.
When asked if there was ever any doubt in which side he would cheer on, Meyer said, “None.”
Playoff implications are on the line in Columbus, and each team has arguably its best group on the field in recent history. Michigan, with the dynamic ability of junior linebacker Jabrill Peppers and the hard-nosed running of senior running back De’Veon Smith, have been a dominant force on defense and in the run game all season. A loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes hurt playoff aspirations, but did little to deter the Wolverines and coach Jim Harbaugh from the ultimate goal of the team’s first national championship in nearly 20 years.
OSU, with a memorable national championship run just two seasons ago still fresh in the minds of fans, is led by the steady hand of redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett. The cool head of Barrett, mixed with the freak athleticism of redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker on defense, has thrust the Buckeyes into the No. 2 spot in the College Football Playoff poll.
It’s about more than just pride and bragging rights for a year. It’s about playoff hopes, a chance to hoist a golden trophy and the right to call yourself the best in the country. This time, The Game is more than just a rivalry.
While Michigan has struggled at times in the passing game, the experience of redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight has helped guide the Wolverines down the field and into the endzone on 16 occasions. The 6-foot-6 Virginia native has thrown for 15 scores, and even trotted in for his first touchdown of the year against Maryland earlier this season.
The problem for the Buckeyes in preparation for The Game has been decided which quarterback to prepare for. Senior transfer quarterback John O’Korn started last Saturday for Michigan after Speight reportedly broke his collarbone in the team’s lone loss of the season against Iowa. In his fill-in role, O’Korn was far from impressive, picking up just 78 total yards without a score.
OSU redshirt junior defensive end Tyquan Lewis remained defiantly confident, no matter who is in at quarterback for Michigan on Saturday.
“It doesn’t really matter to me because every team has their scheme with what they’re going to do,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about who’s going to put their hand in the dirt and just (go). You can play whatever formation you want to play, we’re going to play whatever defense we have to to dominate.”
Regardless of who is chucking the ball down the field for Michigan, Harbaugh’s team benefits from a group of wily veterans at wide receiver with Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson. Darboh, a redshirt senior born in Sierra Leone, leads the team with six touchdowns and will test OSU’s secondary with his large frame and physicality.
Chesson, also a redshirt senior, was a force for Michigan last year with nine touchdowns. Since then, the 6-foot-3 wideout has been quiet in terms of scoring with just two touchdowns in 2016, but torched the Buckeyes last season with 111 yards and a score. These two receivers, paired with the ability of redshirt senior tight end Jake Butt to get open downfield, could cause OSU to play catch-up all day long.
Against Indiana last weekend, Michigan took to the ground instead of the air, and leaned on one of the team’s best players in Smith. Smith, an Ohio native, is a bruising force out of the backfield and has picked up 22 career touchdowns with the Maize and Blue. Smith has carried the ball 25 times over the last two weeks, compiling 186 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
A darkhorse in the run game for Michigan is senior fullback Khalid Hill. With 22 carries for nine touchdowns this year, he truly embodies the nickname of “Michigan’s Human Battering Ram.”
It’s difficult to label Peppers as just a defensive player with his ability to line up basically anywhere on the field. The jack-of-all-trades lined up in 10 — no, that is not a typo — positions against Michigan State, and plays multiple positions in nearly every game. He is predominantly a linebacker but causes matchup problems wherever Harbaugh places him, so expect to hear his name a few times on Saturday.
Even with his big play ability, Barrett said he will not be concerned with just Peppers.
“I think he’s a really good player but I mean I guess last year I didn’t seek him out,” he said. “This year, I know he’s playing a different position, but I think what we’re going to do is going to be effective. It’s not going to be me trying to figure out where he is at all times.”
Senior cornerback Channing Stribling leads the Wolverines with four interceptions in 2016, while he and senior safety Delano Hill have each returned picks for touchdowns this season.
“It’s going to be man coverage,” Meyer said. “There’s no secret. It’s what they play, and they’re very good players.”
Michigan’s secondary is filled with quality players, but this unit is far from the most intimidating group on the Maize and Blue defense.
The defensive front-seven of the Wolverines has been as dominant a unit in the NCAA as any this season. Senior defensive end and Ohio native Taco Charlton has taken the quarterback to the turf six times this year, with Peppers right behind at five sacks. Allowing just 108 yards rushing per game, Michigan’s defense will be an interesting test for an OSU offense that racks up an average of 263 yards on the ground per game.
What Michigan’s defense has in keeping opposing offenses from moving the ball, it lacks in creating turnovers. The Wolverines average just 1.5 turnovers per game, grabbing one pick in each contest. While OSU has been careful with the ball for most of the season, the Buckeyes should have no problem in giveaways on Saturday.
Calling this game is never easy and this year makes things that much more difficult given how well each side has played. With Speight in, Michigan’s offense has functioned at a much higher level. Without him, the Wolverines lose a dynamic ability. Whether or not the redshirt sophomore plays could dictate the outcome.
OSU has struggled to slow run games as of late, and having a running back like Smith who can carry a team might give the Buckeyes a nightmare scenario. Expect Harbaugh to put it on the ground as much as possible.
Michigan’s defense is hungry to get to quarterbacks, and has injured an astounding five starting signal callers for opposing teams this season. That, paired with the implications of the game, would make any player nervous. That is, except for Barrett, who has his eyes set on the Wolverines.
“I don’t even think that far,” he said. I’m just trying to play my best so we can win the game.”
Even if Barrett brings his best game, and the Silver Bullets can create a few turnovers, it might not be enough to overcome a powerful Michigan team. Look for a game to remember, but one that might end the playoff hopes for the Buckeyes.
Prediction: Michigan 21 – OSU 17