How can you preview a game when you know – inherently know – that what is written on paper matters little once the whistle is blown? How do you predict the outcome? How can you write about a match-up when frankly, an early injury in a physical game could immediately unbalance everything?
Maybe you really can't, but you have to at least give it a shot.
So, here it goes: We'll break down the match-up between Ohio State's defense and Michigan's offense.
First, the key to this game is not just the Michigan defensive line vs. the Ohio State offensive line; their opposing counterparts will play just as large a role. Can Ohio State's defensive front of Quinn Pitcock, David Patterson, Vernon Gholston, and Jay Richardson handle Jake Long and his cohorts? If they can't then this game is all but over; Mike Hart will run freely through the secondary and Chad Henne will carpet bomb the corners with Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington, and Steve Breaston.
"I'm probably a little biased being a defensive lineman, but in the trenches is where it's won," said Richardson. "If they can't pass the ball because of our pressure then it doesn't matter what receivers they have. If we can't run the ball because of their line they have it doesn't matter what backs we have or what Troy does, so I think it all starts up front. Michigan has probably the best offensive line that we're going to see all year. They have a couple of big-name guys on there, they have Jake Long who is supposed to be one of the top upcoming draft picks that I've been hearing about so I know we have a big challenge in front of us. It's an opportunity to play against one of the better players in the country, so what more could you ask for."
The question is – just how can this defensive front stop a Michigan line which averages over 6-5, 306 pounds (and those are the listed weights)? How do you match up with five angry men of that size, giving away nearly 30 pounds a man?
According to Richardson, "The biggest thing to stop the zone play, like any running play, is penetration. If you can get guys upfield, if you we can get Quinn and Dave attacking their guards and getting in the backfield then we've got a chance to stop them."
That is the first step. Penetration kills the blocking for a rushing attack.
Any great defense must first make their opponent one dimensional before they can finish them off in the mind of Antonio Smith, "Probably the biggest thing, we talk about it as a defense, is first thing we have to do is be able to stop the run. Just play together as a unit and be able to swarm the ball wherever the ball carrier is. Their offense is good and they'll try to attack us running and passing."
The problem of course is this is easier said than done. In the past, Michael Hart has been if not fragile then at the very least easily (and oft) injured. Ohio State hasn't had to face him at full strength at any point in his career because he was often left to hobble through the season after the midway point. This year, Hart is healthy and ready to rip free. Hart has been held under 100 yards only twice this season, and those two occasions (Wisconsin and Northwestern) were not the result of being stopped by opponents but rather by his own coaches. His yards per carry average never dipped below 4.0 for any game, and on the season he has tallied 1,373 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
Antonio Pittman, his Buckeye counterpart, opined on what makes him so difficult to stop, "He's a good running back, he's shifty. He's a little guy; he can squeeze in and out of tackles. He can hide behind those big guys, that helps a lot if you can hide behind a guy who's 6-6, then you can make your move and bust out of it."
Brandon Mitchell, who will be expected to help in run support as a safety, said he believes Hart will be tougher than Garrett Wolfe, "His ability to break tackles and just run people over is amazing. He doesn't turn the ball over at all and that's pretty incredible to me and we know that so we're going to prepare hard this week because we know he's unlike anyone we've ever faced."
Nor does the change in Michigan's offensive blocking scheme benefit Ohio State, "From my standpoint it's not that different, but talking to defensive lineman it's a huge difference," continued Mitchell. "They were upset about it because they've been playing against Michigan for three years and they thought they knew what to expect. But now Michigan is running an entire different scheme. Before it was more man on man blocking. Somebody's going to hit you right in the face and it's up to you to get off a block. Now with the zone scheme, it's more about staying in your gaps. So it makes the defensive line think a lot more. It makes them play a little more fundamentally sound."
Supposing Ohio State can and does stop the rushing of Hart, their next challenge is to put an end to the passing effectiveness of Chad Henne. Again, easier said than done. According to Pitcock, "What helps him is he has a great offensive line up front. They give him a lot of time to sit back and take his time and concentrate. He can go down to his last check. That's helped him become a precision passer and improved his game."
So we are back where we started – Ohio State must break through the offensive front of Michigan, but the problem for the Buckeye front is even if they do break through, stop Hart, and pressure Henne – it may not be enough.
Patterson didn't have enough compliments to dole out when reporters questioned him about the Michigan signal caller, "Any time you can go into a program like Michigan and be a three-year starter and start as a freshman – that is just tremendous. I don't know how many people can do something like that. When I watch him on film I see maturity, I see him making great decisions, getting the playmakers the ball, getting rid of the ball quick, not taking a lot of sacks. He's really a general commanding that offense. I see him making checks at the line and doing things right."
A smaller, but physical, back with great vision behind a massive offensive line that protects their quarterback is a recipe for disaster, so now what? Will the Buckeyes blitz? Will they sit back and wait for Henne to pass and try to force Hart to take the short yards using a ‘bend but don't break' mantra?
That might work – were it not for Michigan's wideouts. Not since Braylon Edwards have the Wolverines had a receiver with the physical presence of Manningham. In fact, he may be the best pure talent they have had at the position since Anthony Carter.
Not only that, Henne and Manningham enjoy that singular sense of timing great offensive duo's create; Pitcock noted, "I think it's the chemistry they have built and how hard they have worked in the off-season. You can tell when he is running routes; Henne knows where he's going to be. He's going to get him the deep ball."
Ahh…but Manningham is dinged up and probably not 100 percent for this game – right?
It doesn't matter according to Patterson, "We've watched a lot of their games. They run the same plays regardless of who's in there. Breaston and those other guys can really get it done for them also."
Breaston did exactly that. Likely awakened from a lethargic end to his career several weeks ago after a few remarks by Kirk Herbstreit, he broke the century mark on just three receptions against the Hoosiers last week and reverted to his early form in returning kicks by returning a punt 83 yards for a touchdown.
"That may be the reason why we haven't seen too much Manningham," said Richardson. "Steve (Breaston) has had great couple of games."
In short, "They're big play guys," claims Mitchell. "Whether it's a 5-yard pass or a 50-yard pass, anytime those guys get the ball in their hands, they're able to make plays. As a defense, that creates a lot of problems for us. We know we have to tackle well in space and we know we can't let them get behind us. I think that's their biggest asset."
The one silver lining for Ohio State fans is this secondary has been tried and tested and is ready for any challenge.
Smith isn't so sure, pulling a Lee Corso, ‘Not so fast,' with his statement, "We had some challenges, maybe not as many as you would expect – but definitely some challenges. Some people threw deep. When our defensive unit is playing complete and together, our defensive line is getting great pressure and causing the quarterback to get around in the pocket and throw the throws he wouldn't normally throw. Our linebackers are doing a great job, of course the secondary doing a great job being in position and being deep. With that, teams have probably not been able to execute their deep throws. Again, we probably haven't been tested as much as you would have thought in the beginning of the year."
In short, the secondary and defensive backs have cleaned up this season not because they are the best cover men of the last decade in Scarlet and Gray but because quarterbacks lacked the time to make great decisions. The type of athlete they had playing at wideout mattered little since they were running for their lives.
In a separate interview, Richardson echoes and reiterates those remarks, "I've got all the confidence in the world in Antonio Smith and Malcolm Jenkins, but at the same time I know that the biggest way I can help them and help this team out is to be in Henne's face as much as possible. It's going to be tough getting through that line they have but I think we've got a shot."
The Buckeye defenders clearly have a terrific challenge ahead.
How it will go
These two titans are going to square off in less than 24 hours. Ohio State's defense, yielding just over 7 points per game will try to stop a Michigan offense which is putting up 29 points and change. The Michigan offense will attempt not to turn over the football or throw an interception to a defense which has thrived on making big plays at big times in big games – taking the ball and giving it back to their own offense.
What will happen?
Expect the game to be full of emotions early. Both teams may score quickly or even turn over the football; it's really anyone's guess at this point. Ohio State's seniors will be all atwitter with their final game in the Horse Shoe. Michigan's players will of course be remembering a legend in Bo.
Then the teams will begin battling in earnest. The physical nature of the football game will see players limping, hobbling, and yes – bleeding – on the field. Not a single one will come out unless they must, but it is likely at least one or two will be injured. The human body can only take so much.
This is when someone will step up and etch their name in history. It will probably be someone not really thought or written about. While the stars often get the attention in these and occasionally one will just rise above despite the coaching schemes, the real heroes are more regularly the unsung ones who come into the contest. They are the wildcards, X-factors, or whatever you wish to label them.
Run back through the years…especially in recent history. It was Craig Krenzel in 2001 and Maurice Hall and Will Allen in 2002 that unbalanced everything. In 2003 Michigan's stars – Edwards, Chris Perry, and much maligned John Navarre simply rose above and whipped Ohio State. In 2004, Troy Smith and freshman Ted Ginn, Jr. provided the fuel for the Buckeye fire while in 2005 – a clutch catch by Anthony Gonzalez and the defense of Mike Kudla helped elevate Ohio State to their third BCS Bowl in four seasons.
"In a game like this it could be anybody who can kind of step up and make a name for themselves," said Richardson. "If you play great in the Michigan game you're a legend and you're a hero and all that stuff. Just look at Troy from two years ago when we were having kind of a rough season and we came back in that Michigan game and beat them here.
"It was something special and he did it again last year. I couldn't tell you specifically what guy could have a standout game this year, but I believe we have a lot of standout player on this team. Big games is a time where guys can make plays. Maybe it will be me this week. Who knows?"
For Ohio State to win, it will need to be someone like Jay Richardson or perhaps Jamario O'Neal or Brandon Mitchell on defense to play their best game of the season. Great teams pressure the points considered to be most vulnerable and as such – it is often not the star but the nickel back or newest starter, etc. who is tested. Michigan will go after Antonio Smith and O'Neal early to see if they can be passed on, and their play action pass will force O'Neal to play disciplined. If he fails, then it could be a long afternoon for the Buckeyes. Richardson and Gholston will be tested on screen passes and delays – will they play their position or bite on the football?
Michigan's offense features not just Manningham and Hart as primary concerns, the most dangerous players may just be Arrington (the third receiver) and Breaston (emerging from the doldrums).
Offensively for Ohio State, one of their lesser known players such as Brian Robiskie, Brian Hartline, Chris Wells, or Rory Nicol must step up to the plate and be ready to earn a place in history. Michigan will be intent on stopping Smith, Ginn, Gonzo, and Pittman. Their entire scheme will be designed to limit these players' effectiveness, and therefore – to win -- either one of these players must overcome the odds and just physically and mentally beat the Wolverine defense, or they will have to rely on teammates.
Given this approach to The Game, one has to appreciate the advantage provided by the depth of Ohio State. While Michigan has mostly relied upon their front line and top offensive players, the Buckeyes have rotated their way to the top position in the nation in polls and scoring defense and are among the leaders in multiple other categories. Ohio State likely has more players who can fulfill that ‘X factor' role or take up the slack in the case of an injury.
Couple this with coach Tressel's penchant to win big games late in the season, and you have a Buckeye victory. Only the Buckeyes can stop the Buckeyes this season.
Two scoring possibilities:
Both teams play to their full capabilities – Ohio State 31 Michigan 17
Both teams play well but make mistakes – Ohio State 23 Michigan 16