The national championship game has arrived, albeit a month or two early. When #2 Michigan takes the field against #1 Ohio State, the national champion will be on the field this Saturday. How would you describe this game in one or two words? Championships, border war, Heisman, greatest rivalry, explosive offenses, strangling defenses, coaching masters, amazing, passionate... All are possibilities. After attending this game for the past five seasons, I would characterize this game with these words: Big Ten.
“The Game” embodies everything the Big Ten is every season, and it always showcases at least one of the best two teams in the conference. A de facto championship game, Michigan and Ohio State always seem to have a Big Ten championship on the line when these titans meet in November. It does not matter if the other nine teams in the conference play wide-open football all season, the Buckeyes and Wolverines will undoubtedly get into a defensive showdown where the best running game makes all the difference.
The history behind this game and both teams is staggering, as the universities combined have 72 Big Ten Championships, 18 National Championships, 9 Heisman Winners, and 1646 total victories. With both teams entering the game undefeated for the first time since 1975 and the teams being ranked #1 and #2 coming into The Game for the first time in history, this will be one of the most important games ever in this rivalry. This showdown is almost like Woody and Bo playing for the Rose Bowl in the 60’s and 70’s, and indeed this game will send one team to the Rose Bowl this year also. Unfortunately, tradition has been shunned for a crappy BCS championship system and the loser of this historic battle will play in Pasadena, while the winner gets to play in Glendale, Arizona for the title.
For those not native to Big Ten country, the importance of this game may seem similar to other rivalries such as Alabama-Auburn, USC-UCLA, Army-Navy, and the like, but somehow those all pale in comparison to this one. While the nation has admittedly shifted to a BCS-centered world where the only championships that seem to matter are national championships, the system we have creates arbitrary national champions at best most seasons (2005 Texas and 2002 Ohio State being notable exceptions). The only real championships that have not changed are conference championships. I think based on the total year that the winner of this game is the true national champion whether or not they win in Glendale, but the real prize here is the Big Ten championship. That’s something tangible on the line every year and something to brag about.
Ohio State has not claimed an outright conference title since 1984, and make no mistake that this is the season goal of the Buckeyes (not a national championship). The Wolverines would like nothing more than keeping that streak going while winning the outright title themselves for the first time since 2003 (and 1997 before that). Both coaches have success in this streaky rivalry, as Jim Tressel holds a 61-13 overall record in six years at OSU with a 4-1 bowl record and a 4-1 record against Michigan. Lloyd Carr holds a 113-34 overall record in twelve seasons at UM with a 5-6 bowl record and a 6-5 record against the Buckeyes. As quickly as Carr escaped the hot seat of a 7-5 season last year and a 1-4 record against OSU in the last five years by starting 11-0 this year, he will be right back on the hot seat if the undefeated Wolverines do not ruin another undefeated Buckeye season as they did in the 1990’s. There’s a lot more than a trip to Glendale riding on this game!
One final interesting note about this game you may not know: the greatest spectacle and the loudest cheers Saturday might be for “The Best Damn Band In The Land,” the OSU Marching Band. When TBDBITL takes the field to do their signature Script Ohio, the band will be performing it in front of the creator of Script Ohio. The Michigan band performed the first Script Ohio in 1932 and OSU adapted it to what it is today in 1936. It may surprise some that on some levels, Michigan and Ohio State can get along, and Script Ohio is proof of this. Just don’t expect the football teams to be so congenial!
Turning to the X’s and O’s of the top game of the week, the most hyped matchup will be Michigan’s great defense against Ohio State’s prolific offense. Ohio State has a balanced attack, gaining around 220 passing yards per game and 180 rushing per outing. The leader is undoubtedly QB Troy Smith, who has become more of a pocket passer this season after ripping up defenses like Michigan in past years with his running ability. Smith has two great tailbacks to rely on in Antonio Pittman and Beanie Wells, and the best set of wide receivers in college football to throw to, featuring well-known Teddy Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez as well as improving Brian Robiskie and Roy Hall. The only unit to stop this offense was Illinois, who put up an amazing effort to hold the Buckeyes to 25 yards of offense in the second half of the close 17-10 OSU win.
Michigan’s defense, though, will be a whole new level of competition for the OSU offense. Only Texas had a defense of championship caliber, and that experience was 10 weeks ago. Michigan only gives up 231 total yards per game on defense (3rd in the country), and the most impressive stat is the less than 30 yards per game rushing allowed by this unit. You do not stop the run without a great front seven, and the defensive line, including DE LaMarr Woodley, is one to remember at Michigan. Michigan also has help stopping the pass from their shut-down corner Leon Hall. The OSU offensive line is good (and will be intact for the first time in weeks with Alex Boone coming back), but Michigan will certainly have a slight advantage in the trenches here. If Woodley and company can get to Troy Smith quickly enough, Smith will have a tough decision between taking hits from good UM linebackers or risking interceptions by forcing the pass. With a talent like Smith who can run the ball, Michigan will not be able to hold Pittman, Wells, and Smith under 100 yards rushing, let alone 30. The key will be can Michigan stop the prolific passing game, which has hurt them a little in Big Ten play. Michigan will shut the Buckeyes down more than usual, but do not expect the Buckeyes to become one-dimensional, and do not expect them to score fewer than 17 points on offense.
Perhaps the more critical battle is the other side of the ball, where Ohio State’s “silver bullet” defense takes on Michigan’s offense and the familiar duo of QB Chad Henne and RB Mike Hart. Henne is not a threat like Smith on the ground, but when he gets time, he is just as accurate throwing the ball. Henne also has a great group of wide receivers to throw to, including superstar Mario Manningham as well as Steve Breaston and Adrian Arrington. The key to the Michigan offense is not the quarterback though; it is the running game and Mike Hart. With Hart not healthy for last season’s battle in Michigan Stadium, UM was stifled by the Buckeye defense and only gained 32 rushing yards. This ended up being crucial as Michigan could not put the game away with a two-score lead in the fourth quarter and had to give the ball to Smith, Gonzalez, and company who drove down the field twice to lock up a 25-21 victory. Hart is not injured this year though, and the offense runs a lot better with his presence.
The Buckeye defense replaced 3 first-round draft choices and 9 starters this season, but the Silver Bullets are statistically better than last year. The Buckeyes have won the turnover battle more often than not, grabbing 21 interceptions and a 1.27 turnover margin this season (3rd in the nation). The top scoring defense in the nation has given up quite a few rushing yards from time to time (but still only 90 YPG, 11th in the nation) and let teams drive across the 50 yard line many times, but the cliché “bend but not break” truly defines this defensive unit. DL Quinn Pitcock and LB James Laurinitis are the undoubted leaders of the team, but the Buckeyes also feature what may be the best corner in the game in Malcolm Jenkins. Despite the speed of the linebackers, the only big plays on this defense have come by option plays, draw plays, and screen passes. Assuming Henne will not run the option, the key becomes how the Michigan offense blocks for Hart in draw and screen plays. I think Hart gets over 100 yards, but Michigan will have to find a way to pass on the Buckeye defense to win.
There are lots of intangibles in this game, and I’ll start with the turnover battle. Both teams have more than a +1 turnover margin per game, and the mistakes will be even more crucial in a game like this. For Michigan, the film from last week’s Northwestern game should be telling. NU turned the ball over on their first possession and the Buckeyes went in for a score, and you just get the feeling that this got into Northwestern’s heads as the problem snowballed into two more quick turnovers and a fast 21-0 Buckeye lead. Michigan has had trouble beating the Buckeyes in the past five years, and make no mistake that they are subject to the same mentality if the Buckeyes get an early turnover and grab an quick two-score lead. This happened to the Buckeyes many times in the 90’s and might happen to the Wolverines this weekend.
The second intangible is special teams play. Both teams employ top kickers, OSU's Aaron Pettrey and UM's Garrett Rivas, who have only missed three field goals all season. Both have plenty of leg to kickoff through the endzone, and both can make 50+ yard field goals if necessary. Both punters are also decent, but the key here will be not making mistakes in punting to Steve Breaston or Ted Ginn. Ginn has been bottled up this season except for one punt return at Michigan State, but do not think he is less of a threat to take it to the house than Breaston. I am sure both teams drilled the punt and punt return stop tons this week, as one mistake in this aspect of the game could win or lose the contest. I think both punt returners have decent days, but I do not see any momentum changing returns like Desmond Howard’s “Heisman” return in 1991. The kickers will be crucial as both will certainly have to come up with big field goals when the great defenses stifle the two offenses within the 35 yard line.
The final three X-factors can be covered quickly: coaching, home field, and weather. Both teams field wonderful coaching staffs, and both Carr and Tressel have been preparing for this game for the entire season. This is an opportunity for Carr to fully get off the hot seat after a 7-5 season a year ago, as another crushing defeat of an undefeated Buckeyes team would bring back the Michigan swagger of the 90’s as well as send the Wolverines to the national title game. To do so in the Horseshoe where Tressel is 2-0 against UM and 37-4 at Ohio Stadium would be all the more legendary in a game which will automatically be at the top of the historical list in this rivalry. Both coaches are fantastic, but Carr might get the boot nevertheless if his record against Tressel drops to 1-5 and he loses this game with so much at stake for the Wolverines.
The final factors are home-field advantage and weather. The Buckeyes have struggled offensively in bad weather, barely getting by Illinois 17-10 and Penn State 28-6 (it was 14-6 late in the fourth quarter) this season, and their last loss was 17-10 in awful conditions at Penn State last season. Fortunately for the Buckeyes, the weather forecast looks nice with temperatures in the mid to upper-40’s, partly cloudy skies, and a less than 10% chance of rain. The home field advantage plays a big role in this rivalry, as it is very hard to play in front of 100,000-plus hostile fans in both stadiums. The last time Michigan came out of Columbus with a victory was 2000, but the talent level of the Buckeyes was not as good as it is now and John Cooper had serious issues as coach of the Buckeyes getting over the Michigan game and mystique. Michigan is forced to come out swinging early in this game to get the crowd out of it, and this may open them up to mistakes and turnovers. UM cannot afford to get behind and get the crowd into the game, as Ohio Stadium has been dead in the previous home blowouts this season and the fans are dying to get loud and crazy for a close game. No doubt the weather and home-field are going to help the Buckeyes.
While writing that last paragraph, I forgot to mention the one (truly final) thing that may mess with the home-field advantage. Ohio State has had trouble with the natural grass field this season and may be looking to change to the field turf Michigan and many other stadiums have chosen recently. The field was replaced mid-season before the Bowling Green game, but it was not ready and not good in October. The field was replaced after the Minnesota game 3 weeks ago, and nobody will know if the grass has had time to grow into the surface at Ohio Stadium until Saturday. If the field is a mess, then the running game will be even more paramount as the wide receivers will struggle to make tight cuts on the field. I think the field will be in good shape, but if it is not, then the Wolverines will have an advantage based on the matchups.
Before I get into my selection for the Big Game, let’s switch gears for a moment to cover the other important games of the week and what happened a week ago. Last weekend was perhaps the best weekend of the year alongside September’s “Separation Saturday.” The Rutgers comeback was amazing on Thursday night (and I’ll brag about saying Rutgers would hold Louisville under 30 points and win the game by 3 in last week’s column because sometimes even I can get a game right), and the door was open for all the one-loss teams to make a statement. They certainly did, as Texas lost to Kansas State, Florida got lucky beating South Carolina at home, California got caught looking ahead by Arizona, and Auburn got unbelievably stomped at home by Georgia.
There were teams that took advantage though, and Arkansas (big win over Tennessee), Rutgers, USC (big win over Oregon), and Notre Dame seized the moment and won convincingly. Each of these teams were all but out of the national title picture last week, and now they are the frontrunners. I put all of them in my top 6 as I think all are playing more deserving football than Florida. Time will tell which of these teams will take advantage of all the others falling down last weekend.
Finally we turn to the three games of the week, and my first selection is Maryland at Boston College. While Wake Forest seems to be running away with the Atlantic division, these are the only two teams left that can stop the Demon Deacons from meeting Georgia Tech for the BCS bowl slot. Maryland just seems to keep getting lucky, as six of their wins (8-2 record) have come in very close games. UM is not the kind of team that blows you out, especially on the road. Boston College is led by a good offense and QB Matt Ryan, and all of the BC losses have been close. Both teams will have to avoid mistakes to win this game, and I think Boston College is ready to recover from tough losses and knock the luck out of Ralph Friegden’s Terrapins. BC wins by 3.
The games following the UM-OSU game are both great battles, but I think California at USC is far more relevant than Virginia Tech at Wake Forest (really Wake Forest has been unbeatable at home and the Hokies are not playing for anything now). California had been rolling through the Pac-10 easily and had won all their games following a disappointing opener at Tennessee, but then the Golden Bears fell victim to Arizona last week. USC is back on top of the world, #3 in the BCS after all the upsets again just two weeks after losing to Oregon State and dropping from that spot. This game is still for the Pac-10 title, and both might be playing for the Rose Bowl considering USC’s tough game against Notre Dame next weekend. California’s two losses have come when QB Nathan Longshore is pressured by the defense, but Cal RB DeSean Jackson has been effective in all games this year. If USC can get pressure on Longshore and not give up the big plays down the field, the Trojans will win easily as their QB John David Booty and RB Chauncey Washington are playing very well now. You have to like Pete Carroll’s chances at home, but I doubt the Trojans have enough to get through this three week gauntlet unscathed. California will recover to ruin the Trojans’ season, and I project a 4 point upset.
And finally, we get to the heart of the matter above, Michigan at Ohio State. The Wolverines will have a decent day offensively, but I question if they can keep up with Troy Smith and company. If Antonio Pittman has a good day running, then Michigan’s defense has failed and the Wolverines will probably lose. Michigan has had trouble stopping Troy Smith in the past, and I really think his decision-making as a pocket passer this season makes him even more potent against Michigan. Two keys to a Wolverine victory are Mike Hart and Steve Breaston. If Breaston avoids dropping passes like he has all season and gives the Wolverines good field position on punt and kick returns, the task will become much easier for UM. If Michigan can establish a running game and control the clock, they can not only ice the game if ahead but also keep the pace of the game slow enough to limit Buckeye scoring opportunities. Michigan is tough to beat in close games, and I see this becoming another defensive battle like 2002 (OSU won 14-9 on a last-second goal-line interception). Michigan has been perfect at ruining Ohio State seasons with the exception of 2002 in the past 15 years and OSU has not been able to return the favor to good Wolverine teams in 2003 and 1997. I think Michigan therefore continues the history and...
Not so fast my friends! This is a different Buckeye era. The Buckeyes have won 4 out of 5 over their rival and didn’t choke in 2002. Jim Tressel is a much better coach than John Cooper was, and all of a sudden the Buckeyes have the unbeatable swagger. There’s no way Troy Smith and the Buckeyes let Michigan come into their house and leave undefeated while shattering OSU dreams. OSU grinds out a big win after Michigan makes one critical turnover to change the momentum in the second half. OSU wins by a 24-20 margin.
GOTW 2006 Record to Date: 23-10
Fitzy’s Top 10 - Week 12
Perhaps the only thing sweeter than getting to attend the OSU-UM game this weekend is the fact that I only had to pay $58 for two tickets to the game (that’s $29 apiece). No Nickelback, while I love your music I do not care how much rock star salary you guys are willing to pay me to see the game. I personally wouldn’t miss it for the world. Some years it pays to be a Buckeye (student). Depending on how the game goes (in other words, if it is a good game), I will return to this game next week to discuss the possibility of a rematch in Glendale and show a little blog from the game for those who cannot get in Saturday. Have a great week, and we’ll see you here again soon!