It's Michigan week.
World War III could break out in Pennsylvania, but the focus of the Ohio State and Michigan football teams would still be focused on THE Game. Kentucky could be invaded, but the populace of Ohio would be more concerned about THE Game. The United States could cede the Great Lakes to Canada, but folks in Michigan would be more upset if their starting quarterback went down with an injury right before THE Game.
Last week was yet another disappointing loss for the Buckeyes. Two trips into the red zone came up empty when the Buckeyes turned the ball over. That turned out to be the difference in the game once again when Purdue came out the eventual winner by a touchdown.
According to the probable starter at quarterback this week Troy Smith, "I think one of the things that first and foremost happened against Purdue is that we didn't come out and attack them and get on top of them as much as we should have early. Offensively, I don't think we are going to do anything much different other than coming out with the mentality that we need to jump on these guys early and get on them and really give our fans something to cheer about."
That would be a welcome change and a sure way to get over 100,000 fans on their feet tomorrow. If the Buckeyes could in fact claim a lead and be the first team to come out swinging, it would force Michigan to react and be the hunted instead of the hunter.
Can it be done?
The first thing the Buckeyes must do is focus and execute – something this offense has not been adept at in 2004.
"I think a lot of guys are losing focus during the course of a game," admitted Santonio Holmes. "We just have to get out there and go with what is called…Regardless of what was called – he can make any call he wants but you have to get out there and run the play to perfection."
The second thing that must happen for the Buckeye offense to be successful this week is to not beat itself. That sounds perhaps easier than what it is for this unit given its track record in the ten previous games.
Dropped passes, tipped passes that turn into interceptions, missed blocks, fumbles after wicked hits, fumbles after not even having the ball hit, interceptions from throwing into double coverage, botched snaps, and botched option pitches have all been ways this offense has found a way to either kill a drive or turn over the football this season.
Michigan by way of contrast has only been defeated once, and they learned after playing Notre Dame that beating themselves is simply unacceptable.
"They don't make a lot of mistakes," said Smith of the Maize and Blue. "Pride and tradition also play a part in it. Michigan – from the jump, from the beginning of the season, I'm sure just like every other team set out with goals they wanted to achieve and conquer and obviously they are doing some of that. They are doing some of what they set out to do. Michigan regardless of if they are having a bad season or a good season, when we face each other it's always going to be a battle, the clash of the titans, the two so-called best teams in the Big Ten."
Third, the Buckeyes must be able to run the football. For the second straight season the rushing attack for Ohio State has been largely hit or miss. Other than the annual breakout game when playing the Hoosiers, Buckeye tailbacks have struggled to run the football and the offensive line has not dominated the line of scrimmage.
Despite his desire to pass the football, Smith understands that running is the key tomorrow.
"I think the last couple years the team who has won the game is the team that has been able to run the ball, who has been able to rush for a substantial amount," he said.
Third, this offensive unit must play with toughness. Unless someone has a broken femur, they should suit up, suck it up, and play if the Buckeye offense expects to carry the day.
Buckeye head football coach Jim Tressel noted, "I mentioned to the Quarterback Club downstairs, the Michigan week has unbelievable healing power. There's guys running around faster than they've run for a while."
Smith also knows it is going to be a slugfest and the offense better come ready to deliver a few blows of their own if they expect to win.
"I think it will come down to who wants it more," he said. "Also in the sense of understanding this game and understanding what it takes to win – toughness…"
Does this all sound cliché? Jumping out on the opposition first and being the aggressor? Not making mistakes? Running the football to win? Toughness?
Since Jim Tressel took command in 2001:
- The team with the most rushing yards is 3-0.
- The team with fewer turnovers is 2-0 (2003 each team had the same number of turnovers)
- The team who scores first is 2-1
You would be right in saying it sounds cliché, but there is a reason why those clichés exist in the first place. They exist because of games like this one.
Oh and how about one more cliché – throw out the records… When asked if it mattered that OSU was 6-4 and Michigan 9-1, Smith replied, "Not really. Not really because if you look at every players' eyes and the staff's eyes – there's still that same fire, there's still that same drive that we have to beat Michigan."
That's what it is ultimately all about at Ohio State. In his weekly press conference, Coach Tressel showed clearly understands not only the challenge of the team he is facing but also the importance of this game.
"As we approach Michigan, who I think is a fantastic football team, I think all you have to do is look at a lot of the statistics now that you've played so many games, seven of which are in our league we've played, you can see that they do the things that you need to do to win," he said. "I think in four or five of the special teams categories, they're in the top three in the conference, whether it be top three in net punt, top three in kickoff coverage, top two, I think in both punt return and kickoff return, they're in the top two in the conference. They do the things you need to do on offense. They do the things you need to do on defense. They obviously have an excellent coaching staff. They have great players. They get after it. They play their best game of the year in the Ohio State/Michigan game. We need to play our best game of the year in the Ohio State/Michigan game."
Keys to watch for:
Can Ohio State get yardage on the ground? The rushing attack has been slowly coming around recently and with the new offensive sets designed to utilize Ginn, Smith, and Pittman out of the backfield the coaches are trying their best to find a winning combination. Whoever runs the ball well for four quarters is not automatically going to win, but they will have a tremendous advantage.
Who will control the line of scrimmage? Neither side of the football has controlled the line of scrimmage well for Ohio State this season. Even in victories, the Buckeyes have found themselves on their rear ends too often for this to be a fluke. The problems for this team start up front. Defensively the linemen must hold the point of attack instead of allowing 3, 4, and even 5 yards per carry in short yardage situations. Offensively the tailbacks in Scarlet and Gray must have holes through which to run, and that means no more missed blocks.
Ball security. The Buckeyes must stop throwing and fumbling the football to the defense as if it were a hot potato they didn't want to touch lest they burn themselves. They have burned themselves alright – burned themselves to the tune of at least three losses directly attributable to lack of ball security. What might have been a clash of 9-1 powerhouses has become the 9-1 powerhouse and the 6-4 ‘what might have been' team.
Ohio State must play its best game of the season. Dropped passes and fumbles must become phantoms of the past. Missed assignments and a lack of mental focus cannot happen.
Given Michigan's talent, I just don't see it happening. I do not see a defensive line for Ohio State that cannot hold Northwestern's rushing attack down stopping Michigan and Hart. I do not see an offense that can't move hang onto the ball and lost against Northwestern beating a team that simply pasted the Wildcats last week.
Michigan 38 – Ohio State 24