Saturday will be the 109th meeting between #19 Michigan (8-3, 6-1) and #4 Ohio State (11-0, 7-0) all-time, and the 95th consecutive year that the two teams have played.
Michigan leads the all-time series 58-43-6, and 27-23-2 in Columbus. The Wolverines, however, have won just two of the last 11 games in this series.
Since 1951 when Woody Hayes was hired, the Buckeyes lead the series 31-27-2.
When both teams are ranked, Michigan is 20-17-4.
When Michigan Has The Ball
Quarterback Devin Gardner will likely be making his fourth start of the season this week, and not just because Denard Robinson isn't 100% healthy, but because of the way Gardner has played the position.
Of Michigan's five best total offensive yardage performances in conference play, Gardner was at the helm for three of them, including the two best these past two weeks.
Gardner has thrown for 234 yards, 286 yards and 314 yards in his three starts, and combined with his rushing, has accounted for 13 touchdowns.
He's carried the ball at least nine times in each start, but most of those are scrambles. He's mobile, but he's also long, so he's able to stretch and reach for extra yards, especially near the pylon.
The Wolverines will throw the ball downfield, and cornerbacks Travis Howard and Bradley Roby will need to time their jumps, because there will be footballs thrown up for grabs.
The wildcard in Michigan's offensive deck is Robinson. He played for the first time in three weeks last week, rushing for 98 yards and caught two passes for 24 yards. He started the game at running back, and also lined up at quarterback, but never threw a pass.
Starting tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint was lost for the season with an injury last week, so as long as Robinson's nerve issues with his right arm will allow it, expect him to be on the field in some fashion for the entire game. When he comes off of the field, the Buckeye safeties will not need to respect the Michigan running game and can focus on helping out down the field.
Urban Meyer fully expects Robinson to throw the ball at some point, though it may look more like a halfback option than a typical quarterback throw.
Without Toussaint, the talent drop at tailback is significant. Offensive coordinator Al Borges likes to run out of the I-formation, but that's not something that Robinson has done before, and it's doubtful that he can start now.
That means the power running game between the tackles will have to come from Thomas Rawls, who has rushed for all of 68 yards in Michigan's last five games. That also means there will be very little of that type of running attack in this game.
The Wolverines have struggled running inside all season long, and it wasn't going to come easy for them this week even with Toussaint available.
The Ohio State defense is allowing just 116.8 yards rushing per game, and the defensive line is leading the way in that charge. Defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel command immense attention, leaving linebackers Ryan Shazier and Zach Boren free to pick up the pieces.
Without that ability to run inside, expect the Wolverines to move both Gardner and Robinson outside quite a bit, and use them both together. Borges is going to have to figure out new ways to move the ball, and he'll be using his two best players to do it.
If the Ohio State defense can limit what Michigan does by containing the edges, then their offense may simply become Gardner standing in the pocket coupled with Robinson running called QB carries. In other words, it could become very predictable.
However, the Buckeyes will still need to tackle and cover, because both Gardner and Robinson are elusive, and Gardner has done a very good job at keeping his eyes downfield, and has shown a great arm this season.
Defensive end John Simon had four sacks last week, and leads the conference with nine. When he is matched up with right tackle Michael Schofield, he should win plenty of battles. However, that's also the side that Gardner will bootleg to, so if Simon gets caught inside, Gardner will be able to make a play.
The Wolverines have had a solid season on special teams, led by placekicker Brendan Gibbons, who is 14-16 in field goals this season. Punter Will Hagerup is averaging 44.7 yards per punt, which leads the conference.
Michigan's return game has been average this season. Jeremy Gallon is averaging just 6.1 yards per punt return. The Buckeyes are allowing just 6.8 yards per return. Dennis Norfleet is averaging 23.3 yards per kickoff return on 33 returns. His long is just 38 yards. Ohio State is giving up just 20.8 yards per return, but have allowed a 100-yard touchdown return this season.
When Ohio State Has The Ball
Last week the Wisconsin Badger defense gave Michigan the blueprint for containing quarterback Braxton Miller. They attempted to keep him from getting outside, and more often than not they were successful doing it. They brought safeties toward the line of scrimmage to help and dared the Buckeyes to throw on them, and Miller couldn't.
This Saturday, however, he'll need to.
Wisconsin started out in the nickel and simply used the safeties as linebackers for most of the game. You can expect strong safety Jordan Kovacs to spend most of his afternoon looking into the backfield waiting to attack.
It's not clear whether Michigan will start out in the nickel or not, but the Buckeyes need to be able to counter whatever it is that the Wolverines throw at them.
The good part about the Buckeyes having to deal with their struggles last week is that they know what they should have done differently, so when they face the same issues this week, they'll have a better idea of how to get out of it.
The short passing out wide will be available as long as Michigan is willing to give it up. Where there will be plays to be made is over the middle on the linebackers. The Buckeyes have three very solid tight ends, and all of them can beat middle linebacker Kenny Demens down the seam. However, Michigan knows they are weak here, so don't be surprised if they dupe Miller into an interception at some point over the middle.
If Kovacs is indeed focused on the backfield, there will be only one safety back to stop any deep balls. Cornerback J.T. Floyd is beatable, so the Buckeyes need to take more than one shot at him with Devin Smith in this game. Smith should be able to win that battle with a decent throw.
Tailback Carlos Hyde only carried the ball 15 times last week, and it nearly cost the Buckeyes the game. After the game, Urban Meyer was upset that Hyde didn't get more carries. Don't expect that to be the case this Saturday. If Hyde needs 35 touches in order for the Buckeyes to win, then he'll get them. Ohio State has no other game to save up for. This is it.
For whatever reason, the Buckeyes ran very little downhill read option last week, but if the usey it this week, it should be pretty successful.
The Wolverines have a solid defensive line, but they haven't had any playmakers this year. Their best pass rusher is linebacker Jake Ryan, who sometimes lines up at defensive end.
Of course, a playmaking defensive line isn't always necessary in order to sack Braxton Miller. The Buckeyes are 11th in sacks allowed in the Big Ten, giving up 2.27 per game. Michigan is averaging about half of that, but sometimes Miller just holds the ball too long looking to make a play.
Michigan's defense struggles when it has to run sideline to sideline. The Buckeyes have an offense that can make that happen, and then the power tailbacks to exploit a softened middle.
Against both Air Force and Northwestern this season, the Wolverines have been gutted by option football, particularly the pitch. The Buckeyes haven't done much pitching this season, but they've shown a bit of adeptness at it when they do do it. Expect them to break it out a time or three in this one as well.
Michigan will want to force Miller to give the ball up in every type of scenario, so when Miller does run a read option, he will need to make the right reads and not decide before the snap what he is going to do with the ball.
Miller has only rushed for 100 yards in one of his last four games, and hasn't had a carry of longer than 14 yards in his last two games. Defenses are obviously catching on, and there's no reason to not expect Michigan to catch on as well.
The Ohio State special teams continue to be an enigma. Last week, Corey Brown had a 68-yard punt return for a touchdown, his second of the season. Even with two touchdown returns, he's still only averaging 13.6 yards per return, which means there's not much else other than his two touchdowns.
The Buckeyes' longest kickoff return this season is just 36 yards, and Michigan's long given up is just 45 yards. If you're looking for an area where Ohio State has an advantage, you should probably look elsewhere. The Buckeyes did have Bradley Roby back returning kickoffs last week, so that may continue this week as well.
Punter Ben Buchanan is averaging 40.9 yards per punt this season, and will need to better that number against the Wolverines. Placekicker Drew Basil is 4-6 on field goal attempts this season, and just 2-4 on kicks from 30 yards and beyond.
How It Will End Up
Brady Hoke is just 4-4 in true road games as Michigan's head coach. If you're keeping count, Urban Meyer is now 4-0 in road games as Ohio State's head coach.
What that means is that Michigan is a different team on the road than they are at home. Those four wins have come against Northwestern and Illinois in 2011, and Minnesota and Purdue in 2012. Not exactly murderer's row.
This will be Devin Gardner's first experience in a hostile environment, as well as his first experience against a defense with a pulse. He is prone to one or two mistakes per game, and the Buckeyes will capitalize on at least one of them.
As long as Braxton Miller is accurate with the ball, the passing offense should be fine. Corey Brown should have a nice game in the slot, especially when matched against a linebacker or nickel back Courtney Avery.
Offensive coordinator Tom Herman knows Carlos Hyde didn't get the ball enough last week. Wisconsin never truly stopped him. This week, Herman will make the Wolverine defense stop Hyde, because he won't do it for them.
The Wolverines will have to pick their poison. Do they stop Miller or do they stop Hyde? They will choose Miller.
Hyde, 176 yards short of 1,000 yards rushing on the season, won't be short of 1,000 yards by the end of the game.
Ohio State 35 - Michigan 20
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