Michigan football must capitalize on running game advantage over Ohio State

Michigan's strong rushing attack matches up with Ohio State's weakness

Karan Higdon escapes the tackle of Rachad Wildgoose during a run on Oct. 13, 2018, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The feeling nationally around Michigan and Ohio State is that the two teams are heading in different directions. The reality is the teams are similar in a lot of ways.

Michigan and Ohio State head into "The Game" at 10-1 with the Big Ten East Division on the line. The winner will play Northwestern for the conference title and a chance to get into the College Football Playoff.

Many of the teams' strengths match up. Ohio State has the country's third-best passing offense, while Michigan has the best pass defense.

Both teams are excellent on third down. Ohio State holds opponents to a 30.32 percent success rate while converting 46.91 percent of its own attempts. Michigan holds opponents to a 31.08 percent success rate while converting 50 percent of its own attempts.

Michigan wins by controlling the pace, averaging nearly 35 minutes of possession time per game, fourth in the country. Ohio State holds the ball for about 33 minutes for game, 14th in the nation.

Ohio State is considered an underdog because of close games against Nebraska and Maryland and a blowout loss to Purdue.

But when these two teams take the field Saturday, there will be one glaring advantage for the Wolverines: the running game.

Ohio State's struggles against the run

Maryland running back Anthony McFarland perfectly demonstrated Ohio State's struggles stopping the run, as he gained 298 yards on just 21 carries last weekend.

The freshman was averaging 7 yards per carry going into the game, but he averaged 14.2 yards per carry against the Buckeyes.

McFarland wasn't the first freshman to torch the Buckeyes, as Mohamed Ibrahim gained 157 yards on 23 carries for Minnesota. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry, well over his current season average of 5.6 yards per carry.

Head coach Urban Meyer of the Ohio State Buckeyes reacts after a play against the Maryland Terrapins during the second half at Capital One Field on November 17, 2018 in College Park, Maryland. (Will Newton/Getty Images)

Even pass-happy Purdue ran the ball effectively against Ohio State, gaining 128 yards on 16 carries for an 8-yard average.

The result is an Ohio State rush defense that ranks 91st in the country in terms of yards per opponent rushing attempt. The Buckeyes have allowed 20 rushing touchdowns in 11 games, 81st in the nation.

It's not just the raw rushing numbers that condemn Ohio State, either.

The Buckeyes have allowed 21 rushing plays of at least 20 yards, 14 rushing plays of at least 30 yards and 11 rushing plays of at least 40 yards. Those all rank outside the top 100 nationally.

Ohio State has allowed seven runs of at least 50 yards, five runs of at least 70 yards and four runs of more than 80 yards. No team in the country gives up more of those massive runs than OSU.

How Michigan can take advantage

Michigan isn't among the nation's best in terms of yards per carry, but it does rank in the top 30.

The Wolverines are averaging 5.03 yards per carry this season while attempting the 18th-most rushes in the country.

Jim Harbaugh loves to run the ball, and Michigan has seen much tougher tests than Ohio State in that regard. Against the No. 1 rush defense in the country, Karan Higdon carried the ball 33 times for 144 yards in East Lansing. Michigan State allows about 2 fewer yards per carry than Ohio State.

READ: Michigan running back Karan Higdon guarantees victory over Ohio State

When Michigan moves the ball on the ground, it allows the offense to wear down the defense and run the clock, thus feeding into the elite time of possession numbers.

Running back Karan Higdon runs for a touchdown against Rutgers at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 28, 2017, in Ann Arbor. (Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

If Michigan can run the ball, it can also keep Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins off the field, and he's by far OSU's best chance to pull off an upset.

Higdon has rushed for more than 100 yards in eight of his 10 games this season. If Ohio State's previous games are any indication, his sights should be set much higher this weekend.

Michigan would be higher on the national rushing rankings if it broke more big plays. Despite attempting among the most runs in the country, Michigan ranks 58th, with just 61 rushes of at least 10 yards.

The Wolverines do have eight runs of at least 40 yards this season, so if Ohio State continues to provide wide running lanes, Michigan can take advantage.

Ohio State's rushing attack

Ohio State's rush offense is marginally better than its rush defense, ranking 66th in the country in terms of yards per carry.

J.K. Dobbins, who has earned the majority of the carries for Ohio State this season, is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, while Detroit native Mike Weber averages 5.6 yards per carry.

Weber had success in Ohio State's toughest test in East Lansing, gaining 104 yards on 22 carries. Despite receiving 67 fewer carries, Weber has been better than Dobbins this season.

Urban Meyer will likely pull out all the stops against Michigan, perhaps allowing Haskins to run more often and even using backup quarterback Tate Martell in certain spots.

While the rushing numbers aren't particularly impressive for Ohio State this season, it has an incredible amount of talent that could explode at any moment.

Michigan's rush defense

Two weeks ago, Michigan had one of the best rush defenses in the country, but after games against Rutgers and Indiana, that has been called into question.

Rutgers averaged 5.8 yards per carry and rushed for nearly 200 yards against Michigan. Yes, Isaih Pacheco ripped off an 80-yard run, but he also averaged more than 4 yards per carry on his other 15 touches.

Devin Bush #10 of the Michigan Wolverines tackles Jafar Armstrong #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Don Brown's defense also allowed Indiana's Stevie Scott to have one of his best games. He picked up 139 yards on 30 carries for an average of 4.8 yards. Peyton Ramsey also scrambled for 51 yards on seven carries.

Now, Michigan has dropped to 14th in the country, allowing 3.28 yards per carry and 111.64 yards per game. That's no reason for alarm, but it's possible the last two weeks have given Ohio State a blueprint to attack the Wolverines on the ground.

Overview

Michigan has a distinct advantage against Ohio State's rushing defense, and Brown will have a plan of attack against the OSU running backs.

Harbaugh's team absolutely has to capitalize on that advantage because Ohio State has a much more lethal passing game, and also has the home crowd and mental edge that comes from years of dominating the rivalry.

This is also the way Michigan has stormed through a difficult Big Ten schedule: by controlling time of possession and wearing out defenses throughout the course of a game. If Minnesota and Maryland could beat down Ohio State's rush defense, Michigan certainly needs to be able to do the same.

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