Michigan is a 4-point favorite at Ohio State in what’s turned out to be college football’s biggest game of 2018. As Jim Harbaugh’s team sets out to win the Big Ten East and crush a bunch of narratives about things it can’t do, it’s in a stronger position than normal. The Wolverines haven’t been favored to beat Ohio State since they’ve last time they actually did: in 2011, when they were 8.5-point faves.
If Michigan were playing at home and not in Columbus — and if it didn’t have so much history of falling flat against this opponent — it’d probably be favored by about a touchdown. UM’s looked better all year. While their failure-packed past against OSU is a legitimate thing to think about, the Wolverines should win this game.
Emphasis on should.
They’ve had chances before. They were millimeters away from doing it in 2016, when they almost made the Playoff. But stacking up the teams pregame, Michigan hasn’t looked this good in a long time.
1. Michigan’s run defense >>>>> Ohio State’s ground game.
This is not your father’s Ohio State running game. Urban Meyer’s spread-to-run scheme has defined his career, but this team’s just not that good at carrying the ball. Ohio State is 57th in Rushing S&P+, a number dragged down by being 114th in Rushing Marginal Explosiveness.
The Buckeyes get stuffed way too often (19 percent of the time, No. 67 in FBS), and when they do get positive yardage, they don’t get all that far. It’s safe to blame a bad offensive line that hasn’t found answers despite having [checks notes] like a million four- and five-star line recruits on the depth chart. JK Dobbins is great, but defenses have gotten to him too quickly because he’s had poor blocking in front of him.
The entire Michigan defense is amazing. More on the secondary in a moment, but the run-stopping front is fearsome. Rashan Gary would’ve been playing in the NFL two years ago if the rules let him. He has a bunch of great players around him, and nobody exactly gets yards against this group. An injury last week to senior end Chase Winovich is a variable, though he seems like he might play.
2. Michigan’s pass D will test Dwayne Haskins more than anyone else has.
Ohio State’s QB is great. He was strong in relief at the Big House last year, in the first meaningful action he’d gotten in college. Michigan’s pass defense was great then, too, so it wouldn’t be right to say Haskins has never faced a unit like this one.
But it would be fair to point out these things:
- Against the two elite defenses he’s seen this year, Penn State and Michigan State, Haskins hasn’t averaged better than 6.9 yards per throw or put up better than a 137 passer rating. (His season-long numbers: 8.7 and 184.)
- Michigan’s better than both of those defenses, particularly against the pass, ranking No. 6 in S&P+ (compared to No. 9 vs. the run)
Haskins might have a great game. His receivers might get free from corners David Long and Lavert Hill, whose aggressive deployment in man coverage might leave them on islands with Ohio State’s Parris Campbell, K.J. Hill, and others.
Haskins might be able to control linebacker Devin Bush and safeties Tyree Kinnel and Josh Metellus by using his eyes and the RPO and screen games. That might be Ohio State’s best offensive hope, as Bill Connelly writes in outlining how the Buckeyes could win:
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.
Ohio State has an experienced, sometimes innovative staff. It should be able to put Haskins in positions to succeed, relatively. Screens in particular will be important, as they were when Ohio State dealt with Penn State’s pressure to win in October:
Haskins was 11-for-11 for 164 yards on screen passes against Penn State. It’s the reason the Buckeyes won the game, and it was a huge halftime adjustment. The Buckeyes ran three screens in the first half and eight in the second half. Penn State didn’t have a counter to the adjustment, and that was clearest on Ohio State’s go-ahead drive.
But Brown is a smart tactician in his own right. Given the likelihood OSU won’t be able to run much, Haskins has to make plays with the deck stacked against him. And he’ll have to do it against a brick wall of a defense. If he does enough to win this game, his next trip needs to be to Manhattan for the Heisman ceremony.
3. Ohio State’s defense doesn’t just have a big-play problem. It has a big-play nightmare.
Days ago against Maryland, the Buckeyes gave up two touchdown runs of 75-plus yards on the Terps’ first three plays. They gave up a 52-yard run in the next quarter, plus 56- and 60-yard passes and a buffet of chunk plays.
Ohio State is an astonishing 121st out of 130 FBS teams in Marginal Explosiveness allowed. They’re 86th in scrimmage plays of 10-plus yards allowed, 87th in 20-plus-yard plays, 119th in 30-plus-yard plays, 123rd in 40-plus-yard plays, and 118th in 50-plus yard plays.
Ohio State is basically East Carolina when it comes to allowing big gains.
Michigan isn’t all that explosive offensively, but it’s not not explosive, and the Wolverines thrive on efficiency. They also have enough athletes at QB, running back, and receiver that they’ll be well positioned to take advantage of any breakdowns.
Perhaps Ohio State will get some splash plays in its own favor, but in addition to Michigan’s tight defense, the Wolverines almost never turn the ball over.
Put these things together, and Michigan should — should — win.
S&P+ says the Wolverines have a 60 percent chance to win, projecting a 4.5-point margin that’s not much out of line with what Vegas thinks.
None of these factors will comfort Michigan fans who won’t believe a Michigan win until three weeks after it’s actually happened, and none will convince Ohio State fans who’ve gotten used to winning this game every year, no matter how close it might get.
More critically, if Jim Harbaugh doesn’t do it now, against a version of Ohio State that looks about as gettable as a one-loss team could, it’s not clear when he will.