The Buckeyes always circle that game on the schedule, but there is an extra urgency this year coming off a humbling 42-27 loss against the Wolverines last season.
Yes, every season might be College Football Playoff or bust now for OSU, but last year is also a reminder getting by their oldest active rival is still a pretty much a prerequisite for that (at least until the playoff expands).
The next edition of The Game figures to be one of the bigger ones with both teams ranked in the top five and neither set to face anyone it won’t be favored against between now and Thanksgiving.
But to avoid their first losing streak against the Wolverines in more than two decades, the Buckeyes have a few things to do over the next five games, a process that starts this weekend when they are off.
Here are five more goals for Ohio State in the season’s second half:
1. Get and stay healthy.
Injuries are a part of college football, but that doesn’t mean a team doesn’t want to be as healthy as it can be as the season wears on.
Head coach Ryan Day said all of the starters who have been in and out of the lineup in the first half of the season are aiming to be back when they take the field against Iowa next week, so that would be a good place to start.
This task also involves re-integrating Jaxon Smith-Njigba into the lineup.
Youngsters Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka (along with finally-healthy junior Julian Fleming) have thrived in Smith-Njigba’s absence, but he could make the offense even more dangerous because he is a matchup nightmare in the slot and capable of playing on the outside or even coming out of the backfield.
2. Get better play from the cornerbacks.
This is the most glaring weakness Ohio State showed in the first half. The secondary has been mostly reliable, but the opponent’s passer rating is propped up somewhat by the struggles of senior Cam Brown and especially sophomore Denzel Burke to win one-on-one matchups.
“Ultimately, their production on game day is my responsibility, right?” Knowles said. “So if we’re taking shots at that position, I have to look at myself and say, ‘Well, are we showing our hand too much? Am I giving those guys every chance to be successful through disguise and coverage variation?’ So that’s my responsibility and something we’ll look at hard over the bye week.”
This is an area that could also improve with the return of Jordan Hancock, a redshirt freshman expected to push for playing time who had an injury setback in the preseason, and the further development of redshirt freshman JK Johnson and true freshman Jyaire Brown, who were thrown into the fire against Wisconsin in Week 4 and held their own.
3. Improve the short-yardage offense.
Ohio State is running for 228 yards per game (up from 180.6 last year), and the offensive line is No. 1 in the nation in Football Outsiders “average line yards,” which measures only the effect of the blocking at the line of scrimmage on a given run. The Buckeyes have also avoided runs of no gain or loss better than any team in the country so far, but another FO metric shows room for improvement.
Ohio State is 44th in “power rating,” which measures short-yardage success on third and fourth downs.
New offensive line coach Justin Frye said the key to getting the job at those time is situational awareness.
“Just the understanding what the defense can maybe bring to you: pad level, urgency, gap control,” Frye said. “Understanding a first-and-10 may look a little different than a third-and-one or third-and-two. And so you may tighten up a technique. You may have a different call that carries in that situation. And it’s just reps.”
4. Get to the quarterback more.
Ohio State has been able to pressure opposing passers, but they are still looking for more finishes that could allow the cornerbacks to have fewer plays to make.
“It’s my job to make sure that that quarterback holds the ball for that extra split second so that he can’t be decisive about the coverage that we’re in, and that leads to more production up front and it’s better for everybody,” Knowles said.
5. Bring the tough every week.
Day made this a focus of the offseason, and all indications are that has paid off.
The real test will come Nov. 26, but there are five quizzes on tap between now and then.
“You have to bring that every week,” Frye said. “You don’t play tough one week, and then forever, you’re a tough team.
“You can’t just put a stamp on it and say, ‘Well, now we’re tough because we did X, Y and Z.’ You’ve got to do it every week.”