This Week in Ohio State Football: 5 keys to The Game

COLUMBUS — This week in Ohio State football we’d like to think we know what is going to happen Saturday.

I am sorry to report that we don’t.

That is almost always the case with Ohio State-Michigan, but perhaps it has never been more so than this week.

Numbers tell one story. The eye test another. One could be lying. Maybe both?

Perceptions can sometimes take on a life of their own, especially through the course of the season.

The simplest thing to say is one team is trending up while the other is trending down, but does that mean anything?

Well, nobody really knows.

Ohio State’s 62-39 drubbing of Michigan in 2018, the Buckeyes’ best performance in this game since the end of the Jim Tressel era, came after a game the Buckeyes won by one point in overtime at Maryland.

The Buckeyes rolled into The Game in 2021 having incinerated Purdue and a Michigan State team that was actually ranked. Then they got whipped physically in Ann Arbor and have been paying mentally ever since.

No other week comes close to matching this one for the mental gymnastics one can go through to try to figure out what is going to happen at noon Saturday.

So many variables, so little time!

After two close games, Michigan could revert to the dominant form it showed earlier in the season, but it is pretty easy to conclude some of that was a result of the level of competition.

After back-to-back wins by more than 30, Ohio State could go back to being inconsistent in multiple areas, struggling to complete drives or create big plays.

Working in Ohio State’s favor is the personnel on the field the last two weeks is also the best personnel the Ohio State offense has had available at one time since early in the year. First the Buckeyes got TreVeyon Henderson back. Then Emeka Egbuka. Then Cade Stover. That all made the quarterback’s job a lot easier, as did improving play from the offensive line. The job, though, still must be done, and there is little margin for error.

On the flip side, Michigan was dealing with some key injuries last week at Maryland, and perhaps their overall struggles against the Terrapins are largely tied to that. If the Wolverines get their left tackle and top receiver back, and quarterback J.J. McCarthy really is closer to full health, then that might make a big difference, too, and make November Michigan look more like the September and October version.

I’m not making any predictions today, but here are a few things I’ll be keeping an eye on:

1. Defensive splash plays

Statistically, Michigan has the advantage here both offensively (the Wolverines allow fewer sacks and tackles for loss) and defensively (they create more). That could be huge in terms of stopping Ohio State from getting going and/or finishing drives, an issue for the Buckeyes much of the season.

Success rate is similar for both teams on offense and defense, but Ohio State has been much better at preventing explosive plays, especially in the passing game. Here Michigan might actually have a weakness waiting to be picked on.

2. Ohio State has a slight advantage in explosive play rate on offense.

The Buckeyes rank 68th to Michigan’s 92nd.

Will those numbers hold up? Ohio State created plenty of big plays last year, but they did not add up to the number of yards and points Michigan got from its explosives, and that was the difference in the game. Michigan did not have too many big hits, per se, but the ones they did were too big for the Buckeyes to overcome because five went for touchdowns.

3. Offensive line play

Neither of these units has been as good as recent seasons, though Ohio State has gotten much more bad pub (and deservedly so). That said, the Buckeyes have been improving, and the honest truth is having more playmakers lessens the need for the line to be absolutely dominant. This is tied to No. 1.

Both defensive lines are elite. Michigan probably gets an edge inside while Ohio State is better on the ends, but that is relative in both cases.

4. Quarterback intangibles

This is a story of contrasts: While Kyle McCord needs to stay on schedule for Ohio State, Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy is at his best outside of structure.

5. Ohio State looks better in the secondary.

No one knows if the clock strikes midnight on this Ohio State secondary after it struggled so much last season, but the group has looked good so far this year.

No one knows if Michigan can cover anyone because they haven’t really been asked to much, but Maryland got them a couple of times last week.

About the Author