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Varsity Blue

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What do we know about The Game?

Over the course of the year, Michigan fans have seen what the Wolverines have been offering on the field. What they may not be quite as familiar with is their counterpart down South, the Ohio State Buckeyes. Fortunately, I've been scouting the Bucks all year for the "Across the Border" series with Buckeye Commentary. What has each game showed us that is relevant to Saturday? Take a look:

Youngstown State
Not much, aside from serving as a stark contrast to Michigan’s opener. The two programs are starting off on a completely different plane, and a dominant performance from Ohio State puts the fear of God in Wolverines fans.

We do know that Michigan fans will probably grumble discontentedly when Terrelle Pryor does something of note against Michigan on November 22.

One area that might actually be relevant is also the offensive line of Ohio state being rather underwhelming. Presumably, however, they will cut down on penalties and other mistakes over the course of the year. Of course, there were also other occasions where the OSU line gave Boeckman about 3 weeks to throw the ball downfield. We’ll see which is more indicative of the actual quality of the offensive line when the Bucks see some better competition.

Again, there are caveats about quality of competition, but OSU was also able to harass YSU’s quarterback all day long.

Not much, really. Again, Ohio State faced a team that was nothing like Michigan, and the level of competition was very low. Unless Beanie’s foot injury is a lot more severe than the public currently is aware (which I doubt), Michigan will not see an Ohio State team that is minus its offensive catalyst and best player.

However, the pass protection problems persist from last week. Maybe with a more reliable running threat to take some additional heat off the QB, the Buckeyes will be able to settle down and protect the passer, but for now, I wouldn’t be confident they can do this. Of course, Michigan’s offense is terrible bordering on pitiful, so it is likely that, even if Michigan finds itself with a lead in the Shoe on November 22, Jim Tressel will keep pounding away until 3rd and long. With little threat of Michigan building (or extending) a lead, Tresselball will likely be in full force for the greatest rivalry in all of sport.

The other thing noticed was the success of the Bobcats’ spread offense. Even with a backup quarterback in the game (note: still better than either of Michigan’s starting QB options), the OU offense ran pretty smoothly, carrying an upset bid into the fourth quarter. Of course, Jackson could run and not throw, and Michigan’s QBs can hardly do either. Is OSU the new Michigan in terms of inability to defend the spread? Wolverine fans are certainly hoping so. Also, they are hoping that their own offensive line stops sucking.

USC gave us the blueprint for beating Ohio State: play them when they don’t have the services of their best player, and have more talent than them at nearly every position. OK, so maybe that doesn’t realistically tell the 2008 Michigan Wolverines how they can beat Ohio State, but it does show us that the Buckeyes can be beaten, and handily.

Several flaws with Ohio State’s team were accentuated: the quarterback(s), the offensive line, and to a lesser extent, the play calling. Of course, Jim Tressel always saves his most creative gameplan for the Wolverines, but if nothing else, this has given the Michigan coaching staff an idea of what buttons they can press to stress the weaknesses of Ohio State.

There are a few key notes that Michigan fans should have taken from this game:
1. Terrelle Pryor is likely to be OSU’s starter for the remainder of the year. The Wolverines had better get some practice stopping a running quarterback.
2. The Ohio State offensive line’s struggles early in the year might speak to an actual problem with the unit, rather than shaking out some early-season cobwebs.

I’m not willing to say that Michigan is likely to beat Ohio State this year, but it is starting to seem like Jim Tressel is approaching becoming a new Lloyd Carr. Letting clearly overmatched opponents stay in a game much longer than they should be, laying an egg on national TV last week with arguably his most talented team ever. Of course, some of these problems will be solved with the return of Beanie Wells, but the trajectory isn’t favorable for The Senator.

First things first, it tells us that the Ohio State offense is far better with Beanie in the backfield. If he can stay healthy through the entire year, OSU shouldn’t have any more struggles like they did in the three game stretch between Ohio and Troy.

It also gives us our first chance to see an opponent that Michigan and Ohio State will have in common in 2008. Sure, you can’t compare boxscores side-by-side, but you can (eventually) see who actually played a better game against the Gophers, taking all factors into account.

Still, Ohio State didn’t look overly physical yet again (though better than they did against Troy), and I wonder if they’ll snap out of it during the course of the season. If not, is it possible that they’ll lack physicality against the Wolverines, or (the more likely scenario) be a little TOO physical and aggressive, either being susceptible to misdirection or liable to commit penalties (the “Sparty, No!” syndrome, as it’s known in Ann Arbor).

The Ohio State offense is much better when they have both Beanie and Pryor available. Assuming those two are in the game against Michigan, Ohio State will definitely manage to score some points. However, The Buckeyes somehow managed to score less against the Badgers than did Michigan’s dysfunctional offense, so the Buckeyes are far from unstoppable. However, given Michigan’s troubles stopping Illinois, it could be a long night when there are more talented players plugged in.

Defensively, there is going to be yardage available against Ohio State. Michigan’s weakness is in the interior offensive line, and Ohio State’s defensive tackles, while they’re pretty good, did not dominate by any means against the Badgers. The Wisconsin offense also did its best when relying on misdirection, which is essentially the cornerstone of Michigan’s offense.

Offensively, the Buckeyes really shouldn’t worry. If the offensive line plays well one game all year, they’ll save it for Michigan. However, there is something of a disturbing trend developing here.

Defensively, the Buckeyes showed what they’re capable of doing if they play up to their potential. If they’re in peak form against the Wolverines, maybe Michigan should just punt on first down every series. Wait – then the Buckeyes might just block it for a TD

Michigan State
If last week showed us that, with a little bad luck and some inconsistency, the Buckeyes are beatable, the game against Michigan State did the exact opposite. Whereas last week the offense sputtered and a blocked punt provided the only points on the day, this week the fumble returns and such were just the icing on a particularly delicious cake in the eyes of OSU fans.

Alas, this is the effort Michigan is more likely to see out of Ohio State (the Wolverines and Buckeyes always get the other’s best effort), instead of the Purdue sleeper. However, Michigan fans can look at the last two Ohio State games and see that it is indeed possible to beat the Buckeyes if they don’t show up to play.

Penn State
Though the Buckeyes have only lost two games so far, a couple teams have given a blueprint for what Michigan needs to do to beat Ohio State. First, stopping the run is paramount. Penn State and USC both did this, and it led to their success. Not letting OSU’s WRs behind the defensive secondary will give Pryor more difficult throws to make, and he has shown that he doesn’t yet have the experience to hit covered guys with regularity. Purdue was an example of Pryor’s occasional freshman struggles bringing the team down, though Ohio State’s defense and special teams still managed to win the game for them.

Of course, the offensive line is Ohio State’s key. If they put it all together for one more game this entire year, it will be against Michigan. Therefore, Michigan likely has to commit a few more guys to stopping the run, and hope that Pryor makes enough freshman mistakes to hold his offense back.

The Buckeye offensive line is bad (a relative term in this case, of course), and probably isn’t going to get any better this year. Michigan will provide the best defensive line Ohio State has seen since USC, or maybe Penn State. Michigan should be able to get into the backfield. However, Ohio State has had success this year because of Wells’s and Pryor’s abilities to make plays even when there are players in the backfield. Michigan has been a terrible tackling team this year. I foresee a pretty good offensive day for Ohio State.

Defensively, Ohio State has shown they are capable of shutting down unconventional offenses – though it sometimes takes them a quarter or two. All year, Michigan has shown they can score – but only in the first quarter. The Wolverines will have to pull out all the stops to get a lead early in The Game if they want to stand a chance. The Buckeyes do face their second of three consecutive shotgun-option offenses this week, however, so they may come out pre-adjusted.

Well, considering my prediction above [ed. - OSU pounds Michigan], I don’t think Michigan stands too much of a chance in this game. However, we did learn a couple things (relevant, hopefully) about Ohio State from this game. I’m not sure how many tackles the Buckeyes will be missing against Michigan, though.

First, they are definitely susceptible to the run, especially when there’s an option look mixed in. Michigan has less talent for running that type of offense than does Illinois, but if Brandon Minor is healthy, Michigan should at least be able to move the ball a little bit.

Considering Nick Sheridan will likely start for Michigan, I expect to see something more like the offense against Utah or Northwestern (bad) than against Minnesota (good).

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“What do we know about The Game?”