Michigan Man Rich Rodriguez and family
It's a weird and unfamiliar feeling heading into this 105th edition of The Game. My formative years were destroyed every November thanks to a nail-biting coach that routinely found ways to squander talent advantages, but here I am just hours before kickoff as calm as I've ever been before one of these.
Perhaps it's because of the 8 losses coming in or the 20½ point spread -- the highest in the history of the series. Maybe it's because Tressel owns this team or the fact that only three times before have the two powers met with such a disparity in conference standing and on each occasion the bottom-feeder was shutout.
The truth is, it's a little bit of all of that, but the biggest reason I'm feeling so confident is because I think Michigan finally made that bad hire that every program makes at one point or another. I guess there's that part about the team being dinged-up and terrible, but let's stick to the coach.
The Wolverines have been playing football since dirt sat atop the food chain and never before had a team suffered more than seven losses in a season. This guy is staring down the barrel at number nine.
His hiring has been nothing but drama since day one and although his supporters will gladly point out his coaching curve in which teams stink the first season, progress in year two and then explode in year three, I stand firm in the belief that good coaches do not go .250, regardless of team, era or any other circumstances.*
Injuries, defections, losses on the recruiting front, the three decade bowl streak over -- Rodriguez year one has been nothing short of a comedy of errors. With each passing day his own fanbase loses confidence in his ability and he hasn't done himself any favors with curious press conferences the week of the biggest game on his schedule.
So I eagerly look forward to the game Saturday, but with a hint of sadness. I want the good Michigan back. I want this game to mean something big again for both teams. As crazy as it sounds, I kind of miss the jitters that normally accompany me into this game.
And I have a feeling Woody would feel the same way.
Earlier in the week, Rodriguez reflected on the chase to land Pryor, the freak of nature that's currently starting as a freshman for the Buckeyes. He would have fit nicely into his system and started from the opener and this game would perhaps have a lot more riding on it. Instead, thanks to an injury to starter Steven Threet, the Wolverines will be pinning their hopes on the shoulders of redshirt sophomore Nick Sheridan. Never more than an honorable mention all-conference selection in high school, Sheridan brings 48.7% completion percentage and two touchdowns against five interceptions into the biggest game he's ever played in.
In the loss to Northwestern last week, you can only describe his play as "terrible". 8 of 29 for 61 yards. To be fair, the weather was not exactly conducive to throwing the ball, but let's not forget that he was the backup to Steven Threet, himself a mediocre quarterback, before being thrust into starting duty.
There's word that freshman Justin Feagin will see the field and you have to think that will be true whether it's in the form of relief for a poor-performing Sheridan or mop-up time at the end of the game. He brings different skills to the table, most notably in the form of his mobility, but Juice Williams he is not.
The offense is a little more diverse than the run-first schemes employed by Rodriguez at West Virginia, mostly because there's not a Slaton or Smith on this team, but it's still a running offense at heart. Leading rusher Sam McGuffie did not play last week against Northwestern and after transfer rumors broke earlier in the week, Rodriguez mentioned that he hoped to have him available for Saturday's game.
Junior Brandon Minor is slated to get the start and he's had a couple of good performances on the season, including 117 against Penn State and 155 against Purdue. Brittle Carlos Brown was the horse last week with 115 in the Northwestern game and he'll expect to see a handful of touches against the Buckeyes.
When Sheridan (or Feagin) puts the ball in the air, he'll be looking towards junior Greg Mathews and freshman Martavious Odoms. Odoms, part of the first wave of Rodriguez's Florida haul leads the team in receptions with 44, but has yet to find his way into the end zone. Mathews leads the team in receiving yards with 409 and has two touchdowns on the season. Bottom line: neither are a threat given the guy lining up behind center. To further underscore the situation Michigan's passing game finds itself in, tight end Mike Massey, a captain, enters the game with zero receptions.
The Wolverines lost one of their best offensive lineman before the season when Justin Boren transfered to Ohio State of all places. On Saturday, there's a chance they could be without the only other standout on that unit as right tackle Stephen Schilling is listed as questionable. The system doesn't yield a lot of sacks as Michigan enters having only allowed 19 on the season, but the running game won't exactly be looking forward to wide lanes either.
You don't mess with the Zoltan
The Wolverine defense, long thought to be the one safe commodity heading into this season, has underperformed as well. Five opponents have put up 35 or more against Scott Shafer's unit this season, including Notre Dame and Purdue of all teams.
The front is decent, led by seniors Terrance Taylor, Will Johnson and Tim Jamison. Taylor, in particular, has excellent size and Jamison checks in with 7.5 sacks on the year from his end spot. Junior Brandon Graham has 18 TFLs from the other end spot.
Linebacker Obi Ezeh, a freshman All-American in 2007, is a tackling machine and is one of the few Michigan defenders that would see time as a Buckeye. Mouton and Thompson, the other backers are good but not great.
Corner Morgan Trent and his blazing speed is the leader of the secondary despite registering an off year thus far. Sophomore Donovan Warren starts opposite trent and he already has 22 starts under his belt though he is small enough for Dane to punk, so that has to bode well.
The best player on Michigan's roster may be the guy that's seen the most work. Punter Zoltan Mesko, the Graham Harrell of punting, has NFL potential and the Wolverines are second in the nation in net punting. He should get plenty of chances to show off in front of a national audience.
At the beginning of month, Tressel challenged Beanie Wells to top the number of rushing yards he put up last November: 467. With only three games in the month, it was a tall order, but heading into the game, Beanie is just 184 yards short of that total. Or 38 less than he put up against a better Wolverine defense last season.
Beanie has played huge in every Michigan game of his career and there's no reason to doubt he won't find a way to do the same this weekend. Though he may not top 200 this time (but it wouldn't shock me if he did), he should be in store for a big day. He is one of the guys on this team that definitely gets this rivalry. He was the vocal leader in the locker room last fall in Ann Arbor and as an Ohio kid, he's dreamt about Michigan games since he was able to walk.
It will be interesting to see how Pryor responds in this game. This is the second game he's started this year that will have a little bit more riding on it than the outcome. The first was against Penn State and his home state power. Although he played well in that game, things did not end as he envisioned and he suffered the first loss of his career as a starter at Ohio State. On Saturday, he'll square off against the coach that came closest to snatching him away from Tressel and I'd be surprised if he gets much sleep at all Friday night.
I'm a little concerned about how the offense comes out at home. For whatever reason, the team seems to play a lot looser on the road, but as Pryor has progressed with each week, I'm still eager to see what they'll do.
Quite a few seniors will be playing in their final home game and they will be looking to go out with (one hell of a) bang. It should be a special day for Boone, Robiskie, Rehring, Person, Smith, Nicol, Abdallah, Laurinaitis, Freeman and Jenkins. Although things haven't exactly gone as planned for this group, they have a chance to leave as the winningest group of seniors in program history and that's saying something.
We've piled on plenty, but we all owe them a debt of gratitude for deciding to return for their senior seasons. May Animal get one more bone-crushing hit in the Shoe, Jenkins another punt block or interception and Robo a bomb or three.
One senior, who has been largely forgotten since the USC debacle has displayed class beyond anything I could comprehend. Boeckman handled his demotion with grace and a team-first attitude that should be emulated by any future Buckeyes coming into the program. I don't think I'm alone in hoping for a quick early lead so he can get some extended playing time.
Michigan knows that this game is their season and they will come out and punch the Buckeyes in the mouth. In the end, the horses just aren't there and at risk of sounding like the captain of the Titanic, I just don't see a way for the Buckeyes to lose this game. My only fear is that Tressel won't hang 50 on them because if he gets up by about 17 or so, it'll be run-city for the remainder of the game. Unless Evil Tressel makes an appearance, that is.
Ohio State 31, Michigan 6