|#8 Ohio State 9-2, 6-1 Big Ten Roster | Schedule||November 21, 2009 12:00 PM ET - ABC —— Michigan Stadium Ann Arbor, MI||Michigan 5-6, 1-6 Big Ten Roster | Schedule|
For the second time in three years, tragedy has struck one of the programs on the eve of The Game and we're reminded that there are many, many things that rate ahead of football on life's priority list.
In 2006, Michigan fans grieved the loss of Bo Schembechler, who passed away the night before one of the greatest games in the long history of the series. Last night, the Ohio State family lost one of their own when Stefanie Spielman passed away after a courageous 12 year battle with breast cancer.
As is often the case, these events touched both sides. Buckeyes mourned the loss of Bo because he played for Woody at Miami, followed him to Ohio State and was responsible for jolting some life back into The Game after a decade of futility for the Wolverines. Likewise, though Chris Spielman tormented the Wolverines on the field, most Michigan fans grew to respect and admire him due to his stellar play with the Lions in the NFL.
Another thing that Chris and Bo shared is a deep respect for this game and all that it stands for. Even with Michigan on the ropes, likely sputtering towards a second-straight bowl season at home and the Buckeyes with a Rose Bowl berth already in hand, this is still the most important game of the season.
It sounds like a bundle of platitudes, but you really can throw out the records and expect one of the hardest hitting games of the year tomorrow in the 106th matchup between the two storied programs. Every year, you hear the same thing from players after taking part in their first edition of The Game: the speed and intensity is unlike anything they've seen before and from the first play, you quickly find out what it's all about.
It will be Senior Day in Ann Arbor and besides the curious concept of naming permanent captains during the final week of the season, the Wolverines will be honoring two of their best players before kickoff. We've already established defensive end Brandon Graham to be a beast, but another senior, punter Zoltan Mesko is also extremely good at what he does. The Twinsburg native is currently sixth nationally in punting with a sterling 44.7 average and if the 24 punts he contributed in the past two meetings are any indicator of what to expect, he will need to have a solid day.
While there are many things for the Wolverine faithful to complain about this season -- most notably the current six game conference losing streak (mercifully broken up by the pounding administered to Baby Seal U) -- one thing Rodriguez's detractors and supporters can agree on is that there has been improvement on the offensive side of the ball. The Wolverines are leading the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 31.3 points per game and their rushing attack is good enough for 2nd in the conference by way of 195.8 yards per game on the ground. By and large, even during the six game conference skid, the offense was doing it's part.
The unit suffered a setback, however, when running back Brandon Minor -- also known as the only Wolverine to score a touchdown on the Buckeyes in the past two years -- was ruled out for the game with a shoulder injury. Michigan is one of a handful of schools to issue injury reports and they can't be considered 100% truthiness, but we're going to assume "out" means "out". It's a big loss for Blue (Minor ran with authority against Iowa, putting up 95 yards and two touchdowns on the ground) and Carlos Brown (also banged up) and freshman Vincent Smith will look to pickup carries Minor's absence.
After a good start, wunderkind quarterback Tate Forcier has slowed down a bit. He was an efficient 20/26 against the Badgers, but he has just three touchdowns against the same number of interceptions over his last six games. Little Man Tate takes a lot of sacks and his line, particularly senior center David Moosman will face some heat, especially after calling out the Buckeye defensive front earlier in the week.
Denard "Shoelace" Robinson will enter the game to spell Tate and provide a different look for the offense. Though he's the team's third-leading rusher with 320 yards on the ground, he's not much of a threat throwing the ball, having attempted only 27 passes on the year. Still, he's quick and shifty, and you can expect Rodriguez to maybe have something up his sleeve to get Robinson into the gameplan.
As a team that trends towards running the ball, Michigan has a stable of receivers that are decent, but not really a threat to break the game open. You have the usual suspects like Roy Roundtree, Greg Mathews, Martavious Odoms, Junior Hemingway and tight end Kevin Koger, but I'd be really surprised if one of them blew up Saturday.
Turning to defense, you find the unit that has most often let the team down and as a result, is receiving most of the incoming hate from the faithful. The hiring of Greg Robinson in the offseason to be defensive coordinator was interesting, given the relative lack of success he's had at all but one or two stops in his career. Put quite simply, teams are able to run on and control the clock against Robinson's unit. Whether that's an indictment of Robinson, much celebrated S&C coach Mike Barwis, or a combination of the two, I'm not sure, but there's definitely a problem.
Sophomore end Mike Martin turned in a solid game opposite Graham last week, but the Buckeyes should be able to do some damage up the middle (DAVE!). Linebackers Obi Ezeh and Jonas Mouton have each been exposed repeatedly on the run and over the top in the passing game, and the third backer, senior Stevie Brown is pretty undersized for his position and could be fun to exploit.
Like the linebackers, the Wolverine secondary has been a bit of a hot mess. Smallish walk-on Jordan Kovacs, a redshirt freshman is responsible for stopping home run plays up the middle. This should bring a smile to your face.
Being obsessive Buckeye fans, we all have a pretty good idea of Jim Tressel's MO by now. Especially with this team, he's going to want to come out and run the ball and establish field position in the hope of wearing down the Wolverine defense and maybe getting some easy short drive scores. It can be incredibly frustrating -- when all most of us want is for him to drop the hammer on Michigan, you can be assured of a probable close score at the half. After all, a much superior team took a 14-7 lead into the half before exploding for 28 second half points last year.
The word is everyone is back to healthy for this weekend, which even if not true, we would be told, anyway. With injuries to Adams, Shugarts and others, the line has been a grunting set of musical chairs for most of the season, but they have stringed together a series of nicely played games over the course of the last month. They're playing well to finish the season and should continue that progress tomorrow, but with the intensity of this game and Brandon Graham on the other side of the line, they will need to step up. An afternoon off could be trouble against a team playing a one game season.
If the line is on, both Boom and Zoom have proven in recent weeks that they are: capable of carrying heavy loads and breaking off long runs when they have a window. Tressel has been running the
wildcat Buckwild, and always to the right with Herron over the past handful of weeks, so you can bet he'll have something different in store when the team lines up in that look.
For Pryor, it needs to be more of the same that we've seen the last four weeks. He (and Tressel/Bollman) were hammered by some for not throwing downfield against the Hawkeyes, but it really takes a herculean effort to hate on a 14 of 17 afternoon. In his toughest stretch of conference play, he's made smart decisions and, more importantly to Tressel, he's taken care of the ball. He has just one turnover since Purdue Harbor and you're starting to see some poise and decisiveness creep into his play. He'll likely be up for the game, so it's important to keep a cool head on his shoulders.
The defense will be in for a challenge taking on offense that likes to mix it up with runs to all corners of the field. On the flip side, this front will easily be the best the Wolverines will see this year and hate should propel Heyward, Larimore, Williams, Gibson and company upfield and into Forcier's face. He certainly has moxie, but he's also tiny and one solid early lick could put him into a tentative mindset for the rest of the afternoon.
It will be the last regular season and Michigan game for Spitler, Russell and Coleman. Coleman has been steady all season, but it's been nice to see Spitler and Russell turn things on a bit lately. The Wolverines don't exactly stretch the field through the air, so expect to see plenty of Hines and the secondary playing closer to the box. Also, look for Rolle to make up for the Chekwa interception he broke up last week against Iowa.
Michigan is a very difficult team to figure out. The hot start. The sudden swoon. The fact that they lose a lot but are often in games with a chance at the end. The crazy stat that indicates they actually have a better record this season when losing the turnover battle than they do when winning it. Really perplexing.
Though the Wolverines are 5-2 at home this season and parts of Tresselball can be thoroughly maddening, one thing you can count on out of him is he will have his team focused and ready for the Michigan game. He understands it. He typically saves some of his ballsiest stuff for this game and weather permitting, we will get to see some of that Saturday. Not only will one more win push the streak to
seven six in a row, it will seal the school's best mark against the Wolverines for a decade, passing the 7-3 mark the team compiled in the 1960s.
Just hope the new uniforms aren't a curse. Nah...
Ohio State 28, Michigan 13
Finally, if you haven't already done so, please consider joining us and donating to Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research.