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Michigan Wolverines @ Ohio State Buckeyes: Preview, Predictions & Prognostications

J.T. Barrett, Ohio STate Buckeyes

When: Sat. Nov. 26, 2016; 12 pm ET
Where: Columbus, Ohio; Ohio Stadium (104,944)
TV: ABC
All-Time Series: Michigan leads 58-47-6
Last Meeting: Ohio State 42-13 win, in 2015
Line: Ohio State (-6.5)

The Game. It hasn’t had this much national significance since the memorable 2006 showdown of two undefeated teams sitting at #1 and #2 in the country. Although there have not yet been any countdown clocks put in the bottom corner of our cable screens, the full press is on with BTN airing a documentary remembering the 2006 game and all other media outlets posting long-form stories about Jim Harbaugh, Urban Meyer, and the state of this historic rivalry.

All in all, it’s a fun time to be a Wolverine or a Buckeye.

Michigan finally broke the hex Michigan State had on them a few weeks ago, and this series with OSU has been even more lopsided. Ohio State is 13-2 in the rivalry since Jim Tressel’s first season of 2001, and Michigan has not won in Ohio Stadium since 2000. If the Wolverines want to change that and begin to even up the series in current times, a better effort will be needed than what was shown the past two weeks against Iowa and Indiana. However, Michigan does appear to have the defense to stifle this Buckeye offense and keep the offense close, even if that unit is led by backup QB John O’Korn.

The Buckeyes come into this game with a strong defense of their own, albeit filled with young talent that sometimes plays inconsistently. The Wolverines have a huge edge in upperclassman and senior leadership, and it would be a good way to leave this football program if the OSU hex can be cast aside just like the MSU hex was earlier in 2016. That’s always easier said than done, especially when looking at an opponent like Urban Meyer and his Buckeyes.

Who will emerge from this huge spotlight game in the East Division, to win outright or share the division championship with Penn State? Let’s take a look at the keys to The Game, 2016 edition.

1 Burning Question: Will these Defenses Take Over and Decide this Showdown?

Michigan and Ohio State bring two of the best defenses in the country into this regular season finale. To this end, Michigan ranks 1st nationally with only 246 yards per game given up, while OSU is 4th nationally at 280 yards per game. These two also rank in the top 3 nationally in scoring defense. That would seem to add up to a defensive slugfest, much like when both of these teams took on Wisconsin in the month of October (the Badgers having a similar defense).

Of course, that was also the story when Lloyd Carr and Jim Tressel brought their teams into the 2006 game, which ended up in a 42-39 shootout, surprisingly. Perhaps nothing can be taken for granted with these two, especially when you consider that Ohio State has also scored 42 against the Wolverines in each of the last three meetings.

However, there are signs that this won’t end up anything like that 2006 contest.

J.T. Barrett may be a perfect fit for the Buckeye offense, but his throws have been inconsistent in quality this season, plus he does not have great proven receivers like Troy Smith relied on a decade ago. The Wolverines have given up more than 14 points only twice: against Colorado and Michigan State. So even though OSU has broken the 50-point mark four times in 11 games, and has only been held under 30 points three times, Michigan should be able to load up against the run game and make it tough for Ohio State to move the ball and achieve the normal point production.

Michigan does not have a Chad Henne either, as John O’Korn did not look great in admittedly unfavorable snowy conditions last week. Whether he starts or a dinged-up Wilton Speight does, one would figure that the Wolverines won’t find much room to throw against the ball-hawking OSU secondary. Despite Michigan’s hot start with many blowout wins at home, the team struggled against better defenses like Wisconsin and Iowa. OSU has not surrendered more than 24 points in any game, plus this unit boasts one of the best turnover margins in college football (+14). If Ohio State can get pressure by just rushing the defensive line, this will turn into a bunch of short drives for Michigan as well.

If one of these defenses is not as good as expected, then this game could turn lopsided very quickly. If both defenses are championship-caliber as advertised, then the game will potentially be decided by small things like mistakes and special teams play. Every score would be critical if this comes to pass and the defenses dominate.

2 Key Stats:

— 21.1% and 5.0%. That’s the third down conversation rate for opponents against Michigan, overall and then in third-and-long (8+ yard) situations, respectively.  The Buckeyes and the Wolverines both hold opponents under 30% conversions on third downs, but Michigan is a step ahead when a deep dive is taken into the specifics. For example, in those third-and-long situations, Michigan is nearly flawless at stopping opponents, while OSU gives up a more reasonable 21% conversions. Thus, a key for OSU will be avoiding any negative plays and keeping “on schedule” so as to avoid the third-and-long conundrum entirely. Michigan simply needs to force OSU into this situation to make the game easy to control.

— 90 and 44. That’s the number of 10+ yard runs achieved by Ohio State and Michigan in 2016, respectively.  Just looking at the overall offensive run statistics, the Wolverines and Buckeyes look pretty even on paper. To this end, OSU averages 263 yards on the ground while UM averages 235, easily the best two marks in the Big Ten. However, Ohio State has generated this offense using twice as many explosive run plays as Michigan. Considering that the running game and defense appear to be key in this game, breaking off more big runs could make all the difference. To this point, the Buckeyes have shown much more capability in that regard.

3 Key Players:

Jabrill Peppers, Michigan LB/DB/KR/RB/etc.: A lot has been made about Peppers and the incredible number of positions Michigan has used him at during the season. Indeed, his return game prowess demands the Heisman candidate be listed as a key player in this contest. But during the Indiana game, Peppers took 45 snaps at his (new) primary position of linebacker, which more than doubles his season average for snaps at that position.  That is likely more indicative of what Michigan plans to do with Peppers against the Buckeyes than scheming against the Hoosiers. Peppers likely will serve two roles: bring pressure to disrupt J.T. Barrett on occasion, and cover OSU’s best weapon Curtis Samuel on most plays. If Peppers is successful in this defensive role, Ohio State will need to prove it can rely on other athletes to make plays and generate scores, not something seen often from the Buckeyes so far in 2016.

Curtis Samuel, Ohio State H-Back: If Peppers is mentioned because he must likely contain Curtis Samuel (along with star CB Jourdan Lewis), then it is no surprise to see the best player on the Buckeye roster listed as a key contributor in this game. Ohio State has fluctuated back and forth almost every other week between giving more touches to RB Mike Weber or Hybrid-Back Samuel. Last week against MSU and the Maryland game included heavy doses of Weber, which means Samuel could be the centerpiece of offensive game plans against the Wolverines. No other receiver has really distinguished himself for OSU, and Samuel provides the best potential for busting big plays running or passing if he gets to open space. Samuel also plays a key role in the return game, just like Peppers. If Michigan wants to keep OSU’s score in the 20’s or less, Samuel (who has 650 rushing and 790 receiving yards to go with 14 touchdowns) must be contained as the first step.

Malik Hooker, Ohio State S: Despite J.T. Barrett’s struggles with finding touch on deep passes in 2016, Michigan comes into this game with bigger question marks at quarterback: either start John O’Korn, who went a paltry 7 for 16 passing last week for fewer than 100 yards, or a dinged up Wilton Speight. The Buckeye defense has been generating sufficient pass pressure with rushing four linemen only, which frees up linebackers like Raekwon McMillan and safeties like Hooker to roam around and help with the aggressive man-to-man pass defense OSU plays. That scheme is the formula which has produced 17 interceptions and 6 pick-sixes for the Buckeyes in 2016. 5 of those interceptions and 2 scores have come from Hooker, making him the most dangerous man to the Michigan QB. If Hooker and the Silver Bullets improve on their already-amazing +14 turnover margin thanks to Michigan mistakes, that will likely be what turns this rivalry contest.

 4 Staff Predictions:

Andy: Michigan 28-17
Dave: Ohio State 24-14
Phil H.: Ohio State 27-24
Philip R.: TBD
Zach: TBD

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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