November 15, 2006

Point/Counterpoint: Michigan vs. Ohio State

Three days and counting. Are you ready? Both Ohio State's and Michigan's fans think their team will win Saturday. Only one of them will be right. In this point-counterpoint, TheWolverine.com's Michael Spath explains why U-M will win, while BuckeyeGrove.com's Kevin Noon lists the reasons OSU will come out on top …

TheWolverine.com's Michael Spath on why Michigan will win:

Every year the players and coaches say the same thing - throw out the records and the rankings. None of that matters. So throw out the fact that Ohio State is No. 1. Throw out the fact that Buckeye coach Jim Tressel is 4-1 in his career versus Michigan, and that the Wolverines have lost two in a row. All that matters will take place Saturday when these two rivals meet in Columbus in a game that Michigan is going to win.

The experts this week predicting an Ohio State victory are doing so based on the presumptive thought that the Buckeyes will be able to move the football on Michigan, and that quarterback Troy Smith will make the key plays, like he has in each of the past two seasons. However, OSU's offense can be slowed if the running game can be stopped, which is good news to a U-M defense allowing an NCAA-low 29.9 yards per game on the ground.

Don't let the score fool you. In Ohio State's 28-6 victory over Penn State - against a defense weaker in the front seven than Michigan - the Buckeyes managed just 253 yards of offense, including 138 yards running the football. As a result, the Buckeyes scored only 14 offensive points. They scored an additional 14 points off two interception returns. Then just two weeks ago, in a 17-10 win over Illinois, Ohio State had 224 yards of total offense and a mere 116 yards on the ground.

As much as OSU supporters and those in the media believe the Buckeyes are a passing machine and Smith cannot be stopped, Ohio State relies heavily on its running game and without it, this offense isn't as productive. All season long, Michigan has stopped the run first and teed off an opponent's quarterback, and that will be the formula again.

That puts the onus on Smith to make far more plays, both running and passing, than is in the game plan. Two years ago, when he ran for 145 yards that was no problem. But the defense he will face Saturday is not the same defense he faced each of the past two years. The Wolverines are older, wiser, stronger and faster. The defensive line, under second-year coach Steve Stripling, is more disciplined, while U-M's linebackers have grown up immensely since last season. The linebackers are in the right place at the right time and rarely miss tackles.

Smith won't have the luxury to just sit back in the pocket, waiting for the Michigan defenders to take themselves out of position. They will come after him with everything they have, challenging Smith to make decisions much more quickly than he desires. Containing Smith is the challenge, but this time around U-M will be up for it.

Offensively, the Wolverines feature a balanced attack better than anything the Ohio State defense has faced this season. The Buckeyes haven't faced that many good offenses all year, unless you count Iowa (three points against Michigan) and Michigan State (13 points against U-M) as good offenses.

About the best competition OSU's defense has matched up with was Texas, in the second week of the season, and the Longhorns - employing a quarterback in only his second career start - had 326 yards of offense, including 172 on the ground.

Ohio State has been able to pick between loading up in the box to stop the run or dropping into coverage to limit the pass because its opponents haven't been able to do both. That ends Saturday. Michigan can run, featuring the conference's best rushing attack (195 yards per game), and the Wolverines can throw, connecting with sophomore wide receiver Mario Manningham, redshirt sophomore wideout Adrian Arrington and fifth-year senior Steve Breaston.

U-M will try to establish its ground game, daring OSU to bring an eighth defender into the box. That's what Notre Dame did, what Wisconsin did, Michigan State and Minnesota … and each team was burned by the Wolverines' passing attack. The Irish, even after Manningham went for 69 yards over the top of them, stacked the box and Super Mario made them pay with additional touchdown receptions of 22 and 20 yards.

The Maize and Blue will have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, which will predicate their success or failure. If there has been a weakness offensively for the Wolverines it has been their inability to consistently get the push they need up front. However, when confronted with seven defenders, Michigan's offensive line doesn't lose that battle. The key for U-M's offense will be forcing Ohio State to play with only seven in the box, creating room to run, and thus setting up play-action.

Offensively and defensively, Ohio State has been beating up on inferior competition all season long, besting only one team ranked in the top 25 - No. 11 Texas. The Buckeyes haven't faced a defense like Michigan's all year long, and defensively hasn't had to pick between stopping the run or stopping the pass all season either. U-M is battle-tested, and hungry to prove itself. And minus one great player for Ohio State, the Wolverines are more complete, more balanced … the better team.

BuckeyeGrove.com's Kevin Noon on why Ohio State will win:

Jim Tressel's coaching record against the Wolverines will not play any factor in the outcome of Saturday's game between the Buckeyes and Wolverines. Neither will the ghosts of the Horseshoe, Troy Smith being Michigan's kryptonite, or any off-field gamesmanship. This game is going to come down to two talented teams playing in 2006 (not 1997, or 2002, or even 2005) with everything on the line, and when the clock strikes :00 it will be the Buckeyes who come out on top.

The Buckeye offense grabs the headlines with the No. 19 offense in the nation, but it will be the defense, which leads the nation in scoring defense and ranks No. 8 overall, that will seal the fate of the Wolverines. Ohio State will find an answer to slow down the Michigan running game. Mike Hart has run for less than 100 yards in his past two conference games against Indiana and Northwestern, while the Ohio State run defense has not allowed a 100-yard rusher since week four to Penn State. In league play the Wolverines have scored nine touchdowns by the ground and 12 by way of the pass.

The Buckeyes would rather see if Chad Henne can beat them with the pass than let the Wolverine ground game chew up the clock and slow down the tempo of the game. No Michigan rusher will break the century mark and the Buckeyes will hold the Wolverines under 150 net rushing yards as a unit and limit the Maize and Blue to one score on the ground.

No team has tested the Buckeyes deep this year and the defensive backfield will be ready for Michigan's best. During conference play the Buckeyes have allowed two touchdowns by way of the pass. That means more when the Buckeyes have had most opponents down big quickly and forced teams to try and get back into the game via the air. Malcolm Jenkins is the latest in the long line of great Ohio State cornerbacks and fellow cornerback Antonio Smith is a semifinalist for the Thorpe award.

Mario Manningham will have a major height advantage over Smith but the 5-foot-9 cornerback has slowed down bigger receivers against Indiana and Minnesota. Opponents have found moderate success in underneath passes, including screen passes and short slants to the slot receiver but it has never amounted to more than 17 points, and it will take more than 17 points to beat the Buckeyes. Michigan will do most of their damage by the air and will find the end zone when they get to the red zone and match their bigger receivers against the smaller Ohio State defenders.

Offensively it will all come down to if the Buckeyes can protect Troy Smith. The Buckeyes will look to take advantage of the Michigan pass defense and even with Leon Hall locking down one position of the secondary, the Buckeye pass game will attack anywhere at anytime. Even if Ted Ginn or Anthony Gonzalez are covered, that will not account for receivers Brian Robiskie, Brian Hartline or tight end Rory Nicol. The Wolverine depth at secondary will come into play when the Buckeyes force Michigan to make a decision on playing a nickel back or dropping a linebacker into coverage.

The Buckeyes may be forced to keep an extra blocker back if protection breaks down, but Smith outside of the pocket may be more dangerous than in the pocket. Smith has not run as much this season as in season's past but don't believe that the heart of a runner still doesn't beat and that Troy won't tuck the ball and run if that is all the defense is giving him. The line will hold and Smith will pick on Morgan Trent and the Buckeyes will score three touchdowns via the air.

There is no arguing the fact that the Michigan run defense is stout and will give the Ohio State players and coaches fits but Ohio State will not just give up on the run. Antonio Pittman has had a solid season and will find limited success against the Wolverine front. Equally important to the Ohio State running game will be the return of left tackle Alex Boone to the offensive line. Will his undisclosed injury or time off from the past two weeks cause him any rust going against the best line unit in the nation?

Chris Wells will be the wildcard of the game and his ability to hold on to the ball will speak volumes if the Buckeye running game will continue to have the success they have shown most of the season. Pittman will go for at least 70 yards and a touchdown while Beanie Wells will run for 30 yards but more importantly will pick up a couple of big first downs on third-and-short.

The Buckeyes will play their best game of the season and not turn the ball over and punch their ticket for the desert with a 31-21 win.




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