ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Game is now just a day away, and even though Ohio State will bring one of its best teams in program history to Ann Arbor, many believe Michigan could still pull off an upset. But do the Wolverines really have a chance against their rival, or is this simply another week of false hope?
Ohio State has been by far the more dominant team this season, coming into the weekend 11-0 with only one game -- an 11-point win over Penn State -- finishing within 24 points. The Buckeyes have topped 70 points twice and scored fewer than 34 points just once. The defense ranks No. 1 in the country in terms of yards allowed per game and per play.
In other words, Michigan is hosting what appears to be the obvious No. 1 team in the nation -- a team that has yet to show a weakness in any phase of the game.
But anyone who says Michigan doesn’t have a chance hasn’t been watching much college football.
The Wolverines have won seven of their last eight games. They’ve been particularly dominant since mid-October, beating Notre Dame and Michigan State at home and Maryland and Indiana on the road by an average of more than 30 points.
Michigan is playing its best football in years. That doesn’t mean it will beat Ohio State, but it certainly has a chance.
Shea Patterson has looked like a completely different quarterback the last two weeks, completing 44 of 65 pass attempts for 750 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception. Accuracy and turnover issues that plagued him in the early weeks have mostly evaporated as Patterson’s season-long numbers start to round into form.
At the beginning of the season, Michigan’s offense was an unorganized collection of talented players. Patterson wasn’t on the same page as his receivers. Nobody was taking care of the ball. The play calling was suspect. It brought into question the ability of new coordinator Josh Gattis to run an offense.
But his vision has finally started to coalesce. Nico Collins looks like the elite receiver he’s always teased, both in terms of big plays and drawing pass interference penalties. Ronnie Bell and Donovan Peoples-Jones are difference-makers in open space. Tarik Black, Giles Jackson and Mike Sainristil have found important roles in the offense.
Meanwhile, Michigan should have a well-rested running back tandem heading into the game. Hassan Haskins, who rushed for 125 yards against Illinois and 149 yards against Notre Dame, has just 32 carries in his last three games, including 13 last week against Indiana. Zach Charbonnet, the team’s leading rusher on the season with 635 yards and 11 touchdowns, has just 23 carries in the last month, including eight against Indiana.
It’s been difficult to run the ball against Ohio State, but Michigan has two healthy options to open up the passing attack.
Ohio State is going to score points Saturday -- there’s no doubt about that. With Justin Fields at the helm, J.K. Dobbins in the backfield and an embarrassment of riches at receiver, Michigan can only hope to slow down the Buckeyes.
After giving up 77 points in their first three games, the Wolverines have slowly risen up the national defensive rankings. Heading into The Game, Michigan ranks No. 4 in terms of yards allowed per game and No. 3 in terms of yards allowed per play.
The rush defense has been particularly strong, allowing just 2.77 yards per run on the season. That, along with Michigan ranking No. 12 nationally with 35 sacks, is a bit of a surprise, considering the question marks surrounding the interior of the defensive line at the start of the season.
Michigan has also been solid against the pass, allowing 6 yards per attempt and just 161.1 passing yards per game.
Keep in mind: Ohio State ranks top five nationally in just about every single one of these categories. But Michigan is at least in the same stratosphere.
Ohio State showed its first hint of vulnerability against Penn State, fumbling three times and putting up just 28 points. Michigan has some hard-hitting defenders, such as Josh Metellus and Cam McGrone, and it might need some of that fumble luck to win this game.
Michigan has leaned heavily on its special teams this season, and that unit has come through time and time again.
Jim Harbaugh has dialed up a pair of fake punts that worked to perfection -- one a pass from Michael Barrett to Daxton Hill against Army and another a Barrett run against Maryland. The conversion against Army likely saved Michigan’s season.
Jackson and Peoples-Jones are also settling in as weapons in the return game. Peoples-Jones ranks 35th nationally at 7.86 yards per punt return and looks due for a special teams touchdown. Jackson ranks 21st with 26.06 yards per kick return. He returned the opening kickoff against Maryland 97 yards for a touchdown.
Field goal kicking has been shaky at times, but Quinn Nordin appears to be gaining some confidence. In the last three games, he’s made all five field goal attempts and all 11 extra points attempts. His most impressive kick was a 49-yarder against Michigan State.
Punting is always an important part of the Michigan-Ohio State game, and Will Hart has been formidable in terms of average distance. Hart ranks 17th in the nation with 44.8 yards per punt.
Before we break down what it will take for Michigan to win this game, understand that there is a scenario in which the Wolverines play their best game and still lose. When both teams are at their best, Ohio State is the better, more talented team. Michigan will need to force the Buckeyes into some mistakes.
Speaking of mistakes, Michigan cannot turn the ball over, even though conditions are expected to be sloppy. The offense has been much more secure with the ball in recent weeks, and that absolutely needs to continue. Ohio State is good enough without being awarded extra possessions.
Patterson and his receivers need to continue to connect at an elite level. Collins, Bell and Peoples-Jones are three of the best players on the roster, and when they have the ball in space, Michigan is one missed tackle away from a touchdown.
Will Haskins and Charbonnet be factors? Michigan hasn’t been able to effectively run the ball with consistency, but last time they played in wet conditions, the duo ran all over Notre Dame. Even though the passing attack has to carry the load, Michigan can’t win unless the running backs at least keep Ohio State honest.
Defensively, it’s all about the pass rush. As good as Michigan’s secondary has been, nobody can hold up for long against Ohio State’s speedy receivers. If Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye, Josh Uche and company can’t get to Fields, he’ll pick the defense apart like Dwayne Haskins did a year ago.
At the same time, Don Brown can’t commit too many players on blitzes because Fields will make them pay with his legs. Much like he did against Sean Clifford and Ian Book, McGrone will have to keep an eye on Fields throughout the game and make sure he can’t move the chains on the ground. That type of play has demoralized Michigan in the past.
Michigan’s main advantage is that Ohio State hasn’t played a ranked team on the road this season. The Buckeyes certainly haven’t had to go through much adversity, though Penn State made last weekend’s game close for a quarter.
If Patterson makes good decisions and the defense can get a few stops early, Michigan could take advantage of being at home and perhaps make Ohio State feel uncomfortable. It’s been a long time since the Wolverines played their best game against Ohio State, but there’s no other option this weekend if they want to have a chance.
Ohio State might be the best team in the country, but Michigan is playing its best football. Will that finally be enough? We’re about to find out.