With No. 13 Michigan set to host top-ranked Ohio State on Saturday, the season-defining outcomes have come into focus.
For Jim Harbaugh, Wolverines’ play over the last month suggests this is a golden opportunity to score his first win in the rivalry. For this year’s team, it would be a fitting way to further flip the script on a regular season that once looked destined for disaster. For the program at large, it’s another opportunity to dispel the narrative of flopping on the big stage.
For Buckeyes’ first-year coach Ryan Day, it’s a chance to show the country that his program hasn’t missed a beat. For this year’s Ohio State team, a win in Ann Arbor could become a signature notch on the belt en route to a national title. For the Buckeyes’ program as a whole, it’s another opportunity to continue its thorough dominance of Michigan into the Day era.
So, what must U-M do to beat Ohio State for the first time since 2011?
Make Justin Fields uncomfortable
With Buckeyes’ quarterback Justin Fields already nursing a thumb injury, the Wolverines have to make him as uncomfortable as possible. The sophomore transfer from Georgia leads the Big Ten in pass efficiency, while Ohio State’s offense as a whole ranks No. 1 in the nation with 49.4 points per game.
On Saturday, U-M’s pass rush represents its best chance of rattling Fields. If they can get to Fields, defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye and Mike Danna give themselves a chance to make a game-changing play. Hutchinson, in particular, has shown an ability to read plays, sniff out screens and wreak havoc in the backfield.
While playing on the road in Ann Arbor is already uncomfortable enough, the forecast could make it interesting for Fields, a Georgia native. The 1-3 inches of snow in the forecast, coupled with Fields’ thumb injury, could give Michigan the edge it needs.
Michigan must start fast
Ohio State, which is averaging 11.1 points per first quarter this season, scores at the fifth-highest opening-quarter rate in the country. Michigan, on the other hand, ranks 40th-best nationally in the same category.
If the Wolverines are going to give themselves a shot, they have to give themselves a lead to protect rather than a deficit to erase. While the home crowd helps, Ohio State’s defense — headlined by star defensive end Chase Young — has surrendered the third-fewest points in the nation. Against Penn State a week ago, the Buckeyes’ defense held the Nittany Lions to just 17 points on 227 yards.
If Michigan can come out strong and established a two- or three-score lead, the game takes on an entirely new complexion — one that favors the hosts.
This has become a one-sided rivalry both on the field and the recruiting trail. The Buckeyes’ supreme talent has put them in the thick of the national title race, and Saturday’s trip to Ann Arbor is just another stop on the road.
While Jim Harbaugh’s experience trumps Ryan Day’s, the more talented team won’t fall short on the field.
Final: Ohio State 35, Michigan 27