Ohio State and Michigan finally play for the first time since 2019.
Last year, Michigan had to cancel the game due to COVID-19 issues, marking the first time in a century that there was not a game between the Buckeyes and the Wolverines.
Even though Ohio State has dominated Michigan in the 21st century, Michigan is fielding one of the best teams they have had under Jim Harbaugh. The Wolverines are ranked number six in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings, which would make this the third matchup between top-10 teams in the last six years.
Meanwhile, Ryan Day is a perfect 1-0 against Michigan as a head coach. He was the offensive coordinator for two wins in 2017 and 2018. Day was the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach when Dwayne Haskins came off the bench to erase a 10-point deficit after J.T. Barrett was injured. He was the offensive coordinator when Haskins scored 62 points and ended Michigan’s “revenge tour.” Finally, he was the head coach for Ohio State’s last win over Michigan, a 56-27 win.
If Day knows anything, it’s how to score points on Michigan.
Michigan keeps waiting for Harbaugh to win the last game of the season. Will he finally get over the hump?
More importantly, is Harbaugh finally starting to take this rivalry seriously?
There Are Three Things to Know About This Edition of “The Game”
Jim Harbaugh is a Known Quantity
As long as Harbaugh is wearing the khakis in Ann Arbor, Michigan will be the underdog in any big game.
Harbaugh has the hardest time against top-10 teams, especially his rivals Ohio State and Michigan State. He has a 3-9 record against the Buckeyes and Spartans (and all three wins came against Sparty).
Your updated Jim Harbaugh stat lines:
2-13 vs. Top 10 (54-10 vs. everyone else.)
3-9 vs. OSU/MSU (35-8 vs. rest of the Big Ten)
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) October 30, 2021
This was made evident when Harbaugh blew a 16-point lead to Michigan State in October. The Wolverines lead 30-14 midway through the third quarter, but only scored three points in the final 20 minutes in a 37-33 loss.
So far, Michigan’s biggest win was against Wisconsin early in the year when they were still finding their identity. Other than that, they beat a Penn State team that has been knocked around by the heavyweights of the Big Ten (and also Illinois). That’s it for quality opponents on Michigan’s schedule.
Since Ohio State’s loss to Oregon, the Buckeyes have only grown stronger. They have had roughly the same schedule, though Ohio State has played knock-off artists Purdue while Michigan has not. Ohio State won convincingly against Purdue, and then thoroughly demolished the Michigan State team that spoiled Michigan’s perfect season.
Day will always have the advantage in this rivalry because he can win big games. Harbaugh cannot.
Michigan’s Defensive Front
That said, Michigan still has a chance to upset Ohio State.
This Michigan team is still good, and it all starts with the defensive front.
Two names that the announcers will call on Saturday over and over are Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Both are extremely talented defensive ends and are tied with the Big Ten lead in sacks with ten each.
For reference, Ohio State’s leader in sacks is Haskell Garrett with only five and a half.
Hutchinson stands out as one of the top defensive ends in the country, and for good reason. He has even been compared to the Bosa brothers, which may be a stretch since that bar is so high. Nonetheless, he can make for a long day in the pocket for C.J. Stroud.
The problem is, if Ohio State keys in on Hutchinson, then Ojabo can come off the other side of the line. Ohio State hasn’t seen a pair like this all year.
Look for a lot of options against this front. It will be difficult to block both Hutchinson and Ojabo, so why not remove one of them from the equation by reading him?
Michigan only has nine sacks between the rest of the defense, however, so if Ohio State can take care of Hutchinson and Ojabo, then they will be able to keep Stroud safe.
In comparison, Ohio State has 15 players with at least one sack, while Michigan has only seven. There are eight Buckeyes with multiple sacks, while Hutchinson and Ojabo are the only two of three Wolverines. This shows how important the two starting ends are to Michigan’s defense.
Not only is Michigan’s front dangerous because of who is on it, but also the way they line up. The Wolverines like to stand six or seven up at the line and have some drop back after the snap. Sometimes they rush seven; other times they only rush three. In that way, they look more like John Harbaugh’s defense than Jim’s.
For a young quarterback like Stroud, this might lead to some issues if he’s not prepared.
Ohio State Will Keep the Same Gameplan
Against Michigan State, the Buckeyes knew they had to take away the ground attack. They did, and the plan worked much better than Day could have imagined.
Ohio State needs to do the same thing to Michigan. This time, instead of one Heisman Trophy candidate running back, the opponent has two solid ball carriers.
Neither are quite as good as Kenneth Walker, but they have led Michigan to the second-ranked scoring offense in the conference.
Michigan is a run first, run second, and play-action pass third kind of team. As a result, Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum have combined for 346 carries, 1,841 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, and 23 touchdowns.
Cade McNamara, while a talented passer, is not much of a deep threat. He is more of a game manager, so passes of 15 or more yards are rare coming from McNamara. Two of his three favorite targets are a tight end and a running back, which tells you what kind of routes he is looking for.
This plays out perfectly for Ohio State, who has the second-best rushing defense and the third-worst passing defense in the conference. The thing Michigan does best is what Ohio State stops best.
Just like the Michigan State game, Ohio State will want to stop the run and make the quarterback beat them.
Michigan’s answer might be J.J. McCarthy. He is a five-star recruit who is just a freshman but is an all-around better athlete than McNamara. McCarthy can pass deeper and run faster, and he has played some meaningful snaps this year. Harbaugh doesn’t just bring him in for garbage time, but when he wants to throw a curveball at the defense. When McCarthy is in, the Wolverine’s offense is different. Ohio State needs to watch out for that.
This game will be a test for Harbaugh and for Ohio State’s defense. Can Harbaugh finally put together a winning game plan? How much has Ohio State’s defense improved this year? There’s only one way to find out.