Ten Pressing Questions:Michigan at Ohio State

As always with the big games, we provide our look at Ten Pressing Questions. Here, we pose those 10 questions in regard to Saturday's showdown between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan, set for 3:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium (ABC). Click this free link for more.

As we all count down the hours until kickoff for Saturday's game between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan (3:30 p.m., ABC), I came up with my usual game day theme, Ten Pressing Questions, to think about what we may look for during the season opener.

As always, I'll come back on Sunday with my thoughts on how each of these questions were answered during my Sunday Morning Quarterback column.

Without any further adieu, here we go:

1. Can Ohio State establish the run against Michigan's staunch defense? -- Everything has been discussed about UM's incredible run defense. The Wolverines have allowed just 29.9 yards per game on the ground, which leads the nation. Only one team, Minnesota, eclipsed the century mark with 108 yards rushing.

Ohio State's rushing offense has steadily improved throughout the season with the Buckeyes averaging 179.5 yards per game. The thought is that OSU will try and establish tailback Antonio Pittman. But the Buckeyes may also need backup Chris Wells and quarterback Troy Smith to come through. Smith has only rushed for 221 yards this year. Perhaps even flanker Ted Ginn Jr. could figure here with a gain on a reverse.

2. Can Troy Smith continue his string of stellar play against Michigan? -- Smith has enjoyed some of his best success in his two wins against UM. In 2004, he rushed for 145 yards and one TD and also threw for 241 yards and two scores in his team's 37-21 win. Last year, Smith rushed for 37 yards and a score and threw for a then-career high of 300 yards and one TD.

This is clearly the best Michigan defense Smith will have faced. He is on target as the Heisman Trophy front runner. He can cement that award with a third win over the Wolverines. He comes in off a four-touchdown game at Northwestern. On the year, he has completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 2,191 yards with 26 touchdowns against just four interceptions.

Michigan LB David Harris will be charged with spying Smith. He and DE LaMarr Woodley (11 sacks) could make it a long day for Smith.

3. Will OSU's receivers find a way to exploit UM's secondary? -- UM cornerback Leon Hall is considered one of college football's top corners. But the Wolverines have been susceptible to some big plays in the passing game. UM is sixth in the Big Ten in pass defense at 201.5 yards per game.

Provided Smith has some time to set up and go through his progressions, he may find one or more receivers open in the pattern. Ginn (51 catches, 677 yards, 8 TDs) remains the lead target, but Anthony Gonzalez (45 catches, 673 yards, 7 TDs) has also come through with some big games against OSU's best competition. Brian Robiskie (22 catches, 4 TDs) and Brian Hartline (13 catches, 2 TDs) are also coming into their own.

4. How will the OSU offensive line hold up against Michigan's stellar front four? -- This is a biggie. The OSU line is in a state of flux at left tackle, one of the most important positions. Starter Alex Boone has missed the last two games due to a reported knee problem. Earlier this week, Jim Tressel said that Boone would be back in the lineup after Tim Schafer and Jimmy Cordle split time there against Northwestern.

Boone will need to be on top of his game when he goes up against Woodley, one of college football's top ends. Michigan DT Alan Branch is also an impact player. This UM defensive line sets the tempo for the defense, which ranks third nationally in total defense at 231.5 yards allowed per game.

5. Can the OSU defense contain UM tailback Michael Hart? -- Hart is Michigan's biggest offensive weapon. He has rushed for 1,323 yards and scored 11 TDs for the Wolverines, who love to run Hart behind a strong zone blocking scheme.

Hart has reverted to the form he showed as a true freshman in 2004. He is averaging nearly 125 yards rushing per game. OSU had problems stopping the run early in the year with four opponents going for 140 or more yards on the ground. Keeping Hart in check will be key as OSU tries to thwart UM's ball control plan.

6. Will the Buckeyes apply pressure to UM quarterback Chad Henne and force him into some mistakes? -- Henne will make his 36th career start, so there is little he has not seen in his career. Before he leaves Michigan, he will probably earn all of the career passing records.

But there are times when he falls into lapses. He has completed 61.9 percent of his throws for 1,932 yards with 18 TDs against seven interceptions. OSU will try and pressure Henne with its front four, keyed by DT Quinn Pitcock (8 sacks) and DE Vernon Gholston (7-1/2 sacks).

The Buckeyes will need to get after Henne so he is unable to get the ball to star receivers Mario Manningham, Steve Breaston and Adrian Arrington.

7. Will turnovers play a role in deciding this game? -- Each of these teams has been stingy with the football this year. UM has lost three fumbles and thrown seven interceptions, while OSU has lost nine fumbles and thrown four picks.

Much has been made of Chris Wells' problems fumbling the ball. He has lost four fumbles this year, although he had 11 carries for a career-high 99 yards and a TD without fumbling last week against Northwestern. It will be interesting to see how early Wells gets into the game and what situations he is utilized.

For Michigan, Hart had a fumble for a safety against Ball State two games ago. But, technically, he has not lost a fumble since early in his freshman year – a period taking in nearly 700 touches.

8. What impact will special teams be in this game? -- OSU kicker Aaron Pettrey has yet to be in a situation where the Buckeyes needed him to make a game-winning kick. His counterpart, Garrett Rivas, is wrapping up his four-year run as the UM kicker.

This game also features two of college football's top return men in Ginn and UM's Breaston. If one of them can get loose and turn the field position battle – or even better, score a touchdown – then it could factor in the outcome.

9. What impact will the sellout crowd of 105,000 play in this game? -- In 1995, I saw Notre Dame wilt under the immense noise generated by a sellout crowd at Ohio Stadium. Earlier this year, the South Stands erupted before a fourth-and-goal situation with Penn State, causing the Lions to commit a false start penalty.

So we know the crowd can factor in the game – even if it's just a little bit. Many of the folks in this crowd will have paid several hundred dollars for their tickets to this game. You assume they did not pay that money to sit on their hands.

10. Will Ohio State still be in the national championship hunt? -- This is the biggie. A win puts OSU in the BCS national title game. A tight loss may allow OSU to fall only as far as No. 2 and remain in the hunt for that championship game and a rematch with Michigan.

Anything else likely means that OSU would be ticketed for the Rose Bowl as a replacement for Michigan. This truly is a winner-take-all situation, especially when the Big Ten title is factored into the equation.

More Notables

Here are a number of notables as Ohio State and Michigan prepare to collide:

* Ohio State will be in search of its 31st Big Ten title, while Michigan has 42 conference championships to its credit.

Fifteen of OSU's 30 Big Ten titles have been outright titles. This would be OSU's first outright title since 1984.

* Michigan still leads the all-time series 57-39-6, including 27-21-2 in Columbus.

* With last year's 25-21 win at Michigan, Tressel joined Francis Schmidt as the only OSU coach to win four of his first five games against UM.

* Michigan built its commanding lead in the series by going 13-0-2 in the first 15 meetings between 1897 and 1918.

But over the last 50 years, the series is dead even at 24-24-2.

* UM coach Lloyd Carr is 6-5 against Ohio State. Under

* Under Tressel, OSU is 37-10 in Big Ten games, 37-4 at home, 24-7 against ranked teams and 7-2 against top-10 teams.

* OSU has won 18 straight games, the nation's longest streak and the third-longest in the modern era. OSU had a 22-game streak in 1967-69 and a 19-game streak between 2002-03.

* OSU is a perfect 3-0 in match-ups between the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 teams. Top-ranked Ohio State downed No. 2 USC 27-16 in the 1969 Rose Bowl. No. 2 OSU upset No. 1 Miami (Fla.) 31-24 in two overtimes in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. And, No. 1 OSU downed No. 2 Texas 24-7 in Austin on Sept. 9 of this season.

* Michigan is 0-3 all-time in one versus two games. UM was No. 2 in all three games, losing to Notre Dame in 1943 (35-12) and in 1989 (24-19) and also at Iowa in 1985 (12-10).

* Michigan is 3-15-1 all-time against the nation's No. 1 team including losses in its last seven games against top-ranked teams.

* This is the 10th time OSU and Michigan have met with each team in the top five. OSU owns a 5-3-1 edge in those games, although No. 5 Michigan won the last time it happened with a 35-21 win over then-No. 4 OSU in 2003.

* The last time two Big Ten teams ranked first and second in the national polls met on the field was on Oct. 19, 1985, when top-ranked Iowa defeated second-ranked Michigan, 12-10. The Buckeyes and Wolverines have never met when both programs appeared first and second in the national polls.

* The last time two Big Ten teams were undefeated in conference play and squared off in their season finale was on Nov. 22, 1980, when Michigan defeated Ohio State, 9-3. The Wolverines entered the game 8-2 overall and 7-0 in conference play while the Buckeyes were 9-1 overall and 7-0 in Big Ten action.

* The last time two Big Ten teams were undefeated in overall play (but not untied) and matched up in the regular season finale was on Nov. 22, 1975, when Ohio State defeated Michigan, 21-14. The Buckeyes were 10-0 overall and 7-0 in the Big Ten heading into the game while the Wolverines boasted a record of 8-0-2 overall and 7-0 in conference.

* The last time two Big Ten teams entered the season finale with unblemished records in overall play and faced off was on Nov. 24, 1973, when Michigan and Ohio State played to a 10-10 tie. The Wolverines were 10-0 overall and 7-0 in the Big Ten entering that weekend while the Buckeyes were 9-0 overall and 7-0 in conference play.

* For the seventh straight season, the Michigan-Ohio State season finale will have a direct impact on the Big Ten Championship race. In every year since the 2000 campaign, at least one of these two teams has entered this game with a shot at the conference crown.

* OSU will bid adieu to 19 seniors, including 16 fifth-year seniors. They will be recognized prior to the game. This class has amassed a 40-8 record and will play in its third BCS bowl game in four years.

* Once again, former OSU players will construct the Tunnel of Pride to welcome the team on the field. The list of returnees this time includes 94-year-old former Buckeye Tippy Dye, who was a quarterback for OSU in the mid-1930s.

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