Michigan vs. Ohio State – This One is for All of the Marbles
Ohio State. Michigan. The number 2 and 3 ranked teams in the country will battle it out on Saturday for a spot in the Big Ten title game and a likely spot in the College Football Playoff. While these teams seldom require extra motivation to win this game, the stakes could not be higher in this anticipated slugfest. This rivalry is often regarded as the best in sports, and while Ohio State has dominated in recent years, winning 4 of the last 5 and 11 of the last 13 matchups between the two teams, there is a feeling among Michigan fans that this is their year to break through and score a huge win in a monumental matchup.
Michigan Keys for the Game:
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh will be coaching in his second ever Michigan-Ohio State matchup, and has arguably the most talented roster Michigan has fielded in years at his disposal. With the 1st ranked total defense in the country, Michigan is hoping to slow down Ohio State’s dynamic offense and control the pace of the game. Keeping the ball away from J.T. Barrett and Ohio State’s playmakers offense will be a key in Harbaugh’s game plan, as the more chances you give Barrett to make plays both in the air and on the ground, the harder it is to contain the Buckeye offense. Michigan is ranked in the top ten in both passing and rushing defense for the season, and will need to be particularly stingy in the red zone to prevent touchdowns, which they have had success with thus far as they rank 6th in the country in red zone defense.
On offense, Michigan must hope that backup quarterback John O’Korn can play an Alex Smith type role, controlling the game without making bad decisions and turning the ball over. Amara Darboh, Jake Butt and Jehu Chessen should be the most targeted receivers, with Butt and Chessen moving the chains and Darboh looking to make the big plays out wide. The Michigan run game should be the focal point of the offense, as a game this important should not be placed in a backup quarterback’s hands making his second start of the season. De’Veon Smith and Jabrill Peppers can make plays out of the backfield and chew clock to control possession, and there should be opportunities for Jabrill Peppers in particular to break a few runs to change the progression of the game. It only takes one big run to shift momentum, and that cannot be understated in a college game of this importance.
On Defense, the defensive line, led by Chris Wormley, and linebacker/safety hybrid Jabrill Peppers set the tone. The line is both powerful and athletic, and they have dominated opposing offensive lines this season. They have generated pressure, with eight players having at least 3 sacks, allowing corners, such as Jourdan Lewis, to make plays and hold the top ranked passing defense in the nation to this point. Peppers is flashy when making defensive plays, much like on offense, flying around and making tackles from anywhere on the field. He is top ten in the nation in tackles for loss, and you will often see him behind the opposing line, wreaking havoc on opposing running backs.The top ranked defensive unit will have a tall task in slowing down the Ohio State offense, as J.T. Barrett poses a threat that most offenses they have faced did not possess. He can make a broken play into a big gain, and uses designed run plays to devastate the defense in short yardage situations. Harbaugh’s defense will have their hands full, and the game will likely be decided on the performance of this unit.
Jabrill Peppers – RB/LB/S/KR/PR
Swiss army knife and possible Heisman Trophy candidate Jabrill Peppers headlines Michigan’s group of playmakers, lining up everywhere from safety on defense to running back on offense. Peppers has served as the team’s running back, punt returner, kickoff returner, linebacker and safety throughout the season, and when he is on the field, everybody on the other team knows where he is. He lives in the backfield on defense, making tackles for loss that stall drives and change momentum, and on offense, he averages over 7 yards per carry and shows elusive moves that few possess. His impact cannot be understated and the game may come down to how many game breaking plays he can make on both sides of the field.
De’Veon Smith – RB
Smith has been Michigan’s bellcow this season at running back, taking the lion’s share of carries and producing at more than 5 yards per carry thus far. Smith can be effective running both inside and outside the tackles, and Ohio State will have to contain the running game to force John O’Korn to beat them with his arm. Smith was huge last week against Indiana, with 158 yards and 2 touchdowns, and will look to ride that momentum into this matchup with an Ohio State defense that was gashed by Michigan State’s L.J. Scott last week.
Jake Butt – TE
Butt is arguably the most integral part of the Michigan passing game, as he brings toughness and versatility to the group and has had great success against Ohio State in the past. Butt had a huge game in 2013, with 85 yards and a touchdown, and has 460 yards and 4 TD’s so far this year. Butt can post nightmare matchups for opposing defenses with his size and speed combination, and is regarded as a top tight end prospect in the 2017 NFL draft. Ohio State has had issues defending the tight end this year, and Butt’s ability to gain yards after the catch should be an important aspect of the Michigan game plan. Watch for Butt to make a few gritty first down catches and possibly one or two long gains to spark the Michigan offense.
Jourdan Lewis – CB
Lewis is regarded as a first round draft talent, and his prowess in the secondary has led the Michigan defense to its #1 ranking in pass defense. Lewis has been targeted 31 times this season, and has only allowed 8 catches for 78 yards. He has 2 interceptions and 9 pass breakups, and has played overall like a true shutdown corner. He should play a large role in shutting down Ohio State’s inconsistent passing offense, and will have his hands full if tasked with covering Curtis Samuel, Ohio State’s main playmaker and best receiver.
Ohio State Keys for the Game
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer comes into this game with a 4-0 career record against Michigan as the coach of Ohio State, and will look to keep the undefeated streak going. Ohio State has been a well-balanced team this season, with the 21st ranked offense and 4th ranked defense in the country. Quarterback J.T. Barrett leads the team with his dynamic quarterback play, using his rushing ability to keep defenses guessing and create large gains out of broken plays and seemingly bleak situations. If the offense can fire on all cylinders and overpower the Michigan defense, the game could get out of hand early if the defense can force Michigan backup quarterback John O’Korn into mistakes. Ohio State is coming off of a close and uncomfortable win against rival Michigan State, and cannot be feeling as confident as they would like to be coming into such an important game. If they want to beat Michigan, they will have to defend the run much better than they did last week, where L.J. Scott gashed them repeatedly and gave the defense fits.
On offense, J.T. Barrett is the leader and star, and he will set the tone for the offensive flow. Wide Receiver/Running back Curtis Samuel is the equivalent to Jabrill Peppers for Ohio State, as he is the only player in the FBS with over 600 yards rushing and receiving this year. He is most effective as a receiver, flashing quick cuts and dynamic routes primarily out of the slot. He can change the game at any moment, and Michigan’s defense will have to contain Samuel if they wish to stop the Buckeyes’ offense. Mike Weber will also be a factor out of the backfield, as he has performed as the team’s primary running back and contributed over 1,000 yards and 8 touchdowns this season. Look for Ohio State to pound the rock and try to soften up the Michigan defense with early down runs to set up the play action pass on second and third down. If they are unsuccessful, the Michigan defensive line will have a field day in the Ohio State backfield and give J.T. Barrett headaches all day long.
On defense, Ohio State will be the less heralded group out of the two, but still a formidable unit, ranking 4th overall in team defense. The defense is led by Tyquan Lewis, and Nick Bosa up front, who have 7.5, and 4 sacks so far, respectively. At linebacker, Raekwon McMillan leads the team in tackles and will be all over the field making plays on Saturday. In the secondary, Gareon Conley is a first round NFL talent who has 3 interceptions and 7 pass breakups so far this season. At each level of the defense, there are playmakers, and Ohio State will have the talent to stop Michigan’s John O’Korn led offense. The key will be stopping De’Veon Smith and Jabrill Peppers from breaking big runs and keeping Jake Butt to short gains in the passing game.
J.T. Barrett – QB
Barrett is a modern college quarterback prototype, a player who can throw the ball well but also makes plays on the ground, giving defenses one more thing to worry about. If Barrett is on, he will dice up the Michigan defense and keep their talented defensive line in check. Barrett has 3,026 yards of total offense to this point to go along with 32 total touchdowns, and will look to get the ball into Curtis Samuel’s hands to create big plays and attack the Michigan secondary.
Curtis Samuel – WR/RB
Samuel is a weapon in every aspect of the offensive game, and should be in consideration for the Heisman award. He is the only player in the FBS with over 600 yards rushing and receiving, and can change the game single handedly when he gets the ball in his hands. His potential matchup with shutdown corner Jourdan Lewis will be one to watch, and whoever gets the better of their battles could decide the outcome of the game.
Raekwon McMillan – LB
McMillan is a prototypical middle linebacker in both the college game and in what NFL scouts are looking for, and he will be key to Ohio State stopping Michigan’s running game. While McMillan excels in defending the run, he is not a one-dimensional defender, as he is athletic enough to run with tight ends and make plays in the passing game as well. He is the heart and soul of the Ohio State defense and will set the tone with big hits and tough tackles on Saturday.
Tyquan Lewis – DL
Tyquan Lewis has picked up where he left off in 2015, leading the team in sacks this year with 7.5 and spending most of his time in the opponent’s backfield. Lewis will give the Michigan offensive line a lot to worry about when protecting unseasoned quarterback John O’Korn on Saturday, as Lewis has the potential to ruin the Michigan game plan with his constant barrage on the quarterback. Lewis is a mid-round draft talent but has been a key player on the Ohio State defense this season.
Prediction: Michigan 24, Ohio State 23
This is finally the year that Michigan breaks through. They seem to have the momentum on their side and they are well past due for a big win in a big game against Ohio State. Jabrill Peppers seems to rise to the occasion for these games and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him with over 100 yards of total offense and a game-changing return of some sort to change the momentum in the game. If Michigan’s defense can put their offense in good field position and allow John O’Korn a shorter field to work with, they should be able to squeeze just enough out of their offense to win. However, if O’Korn starts out shaky and Ohio State puts up a quick touchdown or two, the game could get out of hand and it would be very difficult for the undermanned Michigan offense to mount a comeback.