The best rivalries transcend stats and paper. They make college sports truly unique. They are the one (or so) game a year for a team when the past truly seems to play as much of a role as the present.
At least you hope so, if you’re Ohio State.
With the way Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes have played of late, and with the way rival Michigan has played since a season-opening loss to Notre Dame, it has almost begun to feel like leaning on the past is the only true reason to believe OSU is going to beat the Wolverines in Columbus.
That’s overstating it, though. Trends point toward Michigan, but Ohio State is still very good, and there are still matchups for the Buckeyes to exploit.
That we’re so down on Ohio State reveals how high the bar is in Columbus. The Buckeyes are still 10-1 and eighth in S&P+. Their run game has been disappointing, but they’re still fifth in Off. S&P+. Their defense has suffered spectacular glitches, but they’re still 38th in Def. S&P+.
Mind you, this is disappointing. Aside from Clemson, Ohio State entered the season as maybe the only team that could rival Alabama in combined potential and experience. The Buckeyes should be in the top three, not the top eight. There are plenty of reasons to wonder about the state of the team and its head coach.
Still, S&P+ only projects them as a 4.5-point underdog against the Wolverines. Vegas has it about the same. That’s basically one bounce from an Ohio State win.
So instead of following the narrative, let’s look at how an Ohio State victory might come to pass. It’s not like it’s inconceivable.
Step 1: Michigan falls behind schedule a lot
The Wolverines’ offense has rounded into form. They are up to 23rd in Off. S&P+, easily the high mark of the Jim Harbaugh era (they were 38th in 2015, 41st in 2016, and 85th last season). They have pulled off this improvement while still looking like the offense Harbaugh wants.
- They’re among the most run-heavy non-option teams in the country. They run 68 percent of the time on standard downs, 20th in FBS and nearly nine percentage points above the national average.
- They move at a snail’s pace — 124th in adjusted tempo.
- They don’t move backward — 11th in havoc rate allowed, 25th in sack rate allowed, 30th in stuff rate allowed (run stops at or behind the line).
However, their run game still isn’t all that efficient. They don’t move backward, but they’re still only 66th in rushing marginal efficiency and 89th in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least four yards). And while they’re excellent at avoiding third-and-longs (only 35 percent of their third downs require seven or more yards to go, third in FBS), they’re not all that great in short yardage. They’re 70th in power success rate and and 56th in third-and-short success rate.
Big plays are becoming scarce as well. While the Wolverines have 20 rushes of 20-plus yards (36th in FBS), only three have come in the last four games.
That offers Ohio State an opportunity. The Buckeyes are 19th in opportunity rate allowed and fifth in stuff rate. The trio of linemen Dre’Mont Jones and Chase Young and linebacker Tuf Borland has combined for 37 run stuffs. Big plays have been a massive issue for the Buckeyes, but play-to-play run defense has not.
If they can leverage Michigan behind schedule, they’re in potentially excellent shape. In the passing-downs marginal efficiency, the Wolverines are 76th on offense, while the Buckeyes are 45th on defense.
The Maryland game was an extreme encapsulation of Ohio State’s issues. The Terrapins ripped off five plays of 50-plus yards (two passes and three Anthony McFarland rushes). Those five plays gained 324 yards. But the Terps’ success rate for the overall game was just 40 percent, slightly below average. Their other 57 plays gained just 211 yards (3.7 per play).
You have to avoid an “if not for the bad plays, things were great!“ logical trap, but if Ohio State can hold Michigan to just a couple of gashes, the Buckeyes can force a lot of passing-downs throws by Shea Patterson and a few three-and-outs.
Step 2: Score touchdowns and force field goals
Sometimes the most obvious factors are the most important ones, huh?
In part because Michigan is only decent at running the ball, Michigan is also only decent at finishing drives with touchdowns. The Wolverines are averaging just 4.6 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the 40), 68th in FBS.
The Buckeye defense isn’t great in this regard (4.21, 44th), but it might not have to be. Even if you give up some big plays, making tackles short of the end zone and forcing field goals can still win you the game.
If your own offense is struggling — most do against Michigan — allowing field goals will still keep the game close. And the longer this game is close, the longer Michigan is thinking, “Oh god, we’re not going to lose this game again, are we?”
For all of Michigan’s incredible defensive strengths, the Wolverines are only 79th in points allowed per scoring opportunity (4.65). It is a slight weakness you have to take advantage of.
While red zone failures were a primary factor in Ohio State’s loss to Purdue, the Buckeyes have been solid in the red zone despite some run issues. They average 5.05 points per scoring opp, 24th in FBS, and if they’ve got any red zone trick plays, now’s the time to whip them out. That, or give speedy backup QB Tate Martell an extended package to run here. Or, hell, maybe both.
In games in which teams’ success rates are within 5 percentage points of each other (as should be the case here), teams that win the points-per-opportunity battle in 2018 are 129-55, a win percentage of 70. It can’t be overstated how important finishing drives is.
Step 3: WING IT
Ohio State’s struggles in the run game have been baffling. The Buckeyes are 57th in Rushing S&P+ — 49th in rushing marginal efficiency and 114th in marginal explosiveness. Even when they carve space for the ultra-talented J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, open-field opportunities have been limited to a startling degree.
We can debate why — the lack of QB run threat (departed QB J.T. Barrett was tremendous on the ground), the shaky offensive line, etc. — but OSU stinks at running the ball. Meanwhile, almost everyone stinks at running the ball against Michigan (ninth in Rushing S&P+).
In a way, this is freeing. OSU coordinator Ryan Day has, at times, not even felt the need to pretend to establish the run. Ohio State runs just 56 percent of the time on standard downs (83rd in FBS) and 26 percent on passing downs (114th).
The Buckeyes have frequently used the horizontal passing game as a run substitute, and while it’s hard to pull off one-dimensionality, well ... again ... Ohio State is 10-1 and fifth in Off. S&P+.
Haskins was asked to throw 73 passes against Purdue, and while that was probably too many, it wouldn’t be hard to see him throwing 50 times on Saturday. In fact, in terms of being honest with yourself, it would be a logical play-calling tactic.
Mind you, Michigan’s pass defense is ridiculously good. The Wolverines are sixth in Passing S&P+, first in completion rate allowed, and third in sack rate. They invade your backfield and force your QB to make passes before he wants to.
That won’t be exactly how it works against Ohio State, though. Haskins is as accurate as anyone in the quick screen game, and Buckeye receivers block quite well on the perimeter. Receivers Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill are incredibly good at turning short passes into punt return-type situations — make one guy miss and follow your blocker for eight to 12 yards.
It is inexcusable how average Ohio State is at running the ball, but that doesn’t mean the Buckeyes aren’t great in the quick passing game. They can neutralize Don Brown’s aggressive blitz game in this regard, forcing the Wolverines to play left-handed.
That beats the hell out of running the ball just to run the ball. Hell, maybe throwing 73 times isn’t too much in this game.