Ohio State is ranked at number-three in the country and playing to keep their dreams of a national title alive, while Michigan needs a win to go 4-4 in the conference. Clearly, there is more on the line for Ohio State, but this rivalry has broken the hearts of favorites in the past.
With Michigan entering the game as huge underdogs in their own building the question has to be asked. Can Michigan win this game?
MICHIGAN DEFENSE VS OHIO STATE OFFENSE: Carlos Hyde is the heart and soul of the Buckeye offense, and I don't think Greg Mattison needs to watch much film to figure that out. Michigan needs to limit Hyde to as little damage as possible on the inside, and take their chances with Braxton Miller outside the tackle box. Ohio State is a power-running team first and foremost, and Hyde is the hammer behind one of the best offensive lines in the country. If Ohio State can establish Hyde between the tackles and he's gashing the Wolverine defense, the Buckeye offense is going to score a lot of points. Michigan must make Miller beat them, preferably by making him throw more than he wants to and in situations he's not comfortable with. Miller is like most quarterbacks, in that he's more successful throwing the ball when he wants to, not when he has to. Carlos Hyde keeps Ohio State out of many third-and-long situations. Michigan must find a way to create third-and-long, or it's going to be a long day. The Michigan defense is solid and Mattison has proven to be a creative coordinator. They will need to commit defenders to Hyde and hope their defensive backs can hold up against the Ohio State skill weapons.
MICHIGAN OFFENSE VS OHIO STATE DEFENSE: Michigan has lost three of the last four, with the lone win coming in overtime against Northwestern. Their offense has been beyond awful in all four games, and if that group continues their poor play this game is over. The key for Michigan is running the football, and that won't be easy against the Buckeye run defense. They don't need to pile up huge rushing numbers in this game, and probably won't, but they need to stay ahead of the sticks and avoid negative plays. They cannot be predictable, and have to run when Ohio State is playing pass, using delays and draws to keep the Buckeyes off balance. Much like Ohio State needs to avoid third-and-long, it is even more critical for Michigan. Devin Gardner has been hit a lot this year and has been turnover-prone. If both happen this Saturday, Michigan will lose big and Gardner might not finish the game. They have to protect Gardner and he has to protect the football. If he has to throw it 40-50 times, Michigan has no chance. They need to keep the football, play down and distance, and not be afraid to punt the football away. Keeping field position in their favor is a must for Michigan. Giving Hyde and Miller a short field will be suicide. In the passing game, Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess have to win their individual battles, the line needs to give Garner time, and he needs to be on time and accurate. This is not going to be easy, but it's the only chance they have. Ohio State might be able to overcome a bad day by Miller, but Michigan will not win if Gardner is off his game.
MICHIGAN INTANGIBLES: The Wolverines have played well at home this year, and they will certainly need a boisterous senior day crowd on their side. For this to happen, Michigan must get off to a good start to keep the crowd engaged and give the team much needed confidence. If Michigan falls behind quickly, it could suck the life out of both the team and the crowd, and the route could be on. Brady Hoke needs to find a way to have his team embrace the rivalry and learn from the history of upsets in this series. They will need to play their best game of the year to win, and that is Hoke's job as head coach to produce that type of performance. Even with all the great players that have participated in this rivalry, this series has been known as a battle of great coaching minds. Urban Meyer's record in rivalry games over the years speaks for itself, almost as much as the two national titles. Brady Hoke does own a win over the Buckeyes in his first crack at Ohio State, but a victory in this game would do more for his national reputation. He has proven to be able to recruit at Meyer's level the past few years, but it has to translate to wins on the field. If Hoke can win this game he can put a stop to the sea of negativity surrounding his team currently. A loss to Ohio State only keeps it alive.
CAN MICHIGAN WIN? They have earned the right to be two-touchdown underdogs, so this is not going to be easy for Michigan, and their window to victory is small. There are three battles they have to win to even think of winning the game, and all are must wins.
1- TURNOVERS. There is no chance of Michigan winning if they lose the turnover margin, and that has been a big problem area for them in their losses. Ohio State has taken care of the football for the most part, so simply put: Gardner has to out-perform Miller in this area. Michigan will need to play error free, and get a little help from Ohio State turning it over.
2- PENALTIES. There will be high emotions on both sides, and execution will be paramount for Michigan. They aren't good enough offensively to overcome false starts and holding calls. From a defensive standpoint, they cannot extend Ohio State drives with penalty yardage. They cannot afford to lose this statistic decisively and win the game.
3- BIG PLAYS. I'm not sure Michigan has enough of a running game to produce many 12-play, 80-yard, drives. They must hit Ohio State with plays over 25 yards, and that could come from Gallon in the passing game or Gardner getting loose running the football out of the pocket. They must limit the big play ability of Ohio State, and make the Buckeyes go on long drives to score. Can Michigan win the battle of plays over 25 yards? To win this game they have to.
THE OUTCOME: I think this game is going to be a close, low-scoring, affair. Why do I think that? Only because I've seen this movie before. I think the winner will have less than 30 points, with the loser scoring around 24. If they played ten times, Ohio State might win eight or nine. To win this game, Michigan doesn't have to be the better team. They just have to be the better team for three hours. In the end, I see a brawl in Ann Arbor with Ohio State winning a 27-24 thriller, scoring in the last minute to stay undefeated.