Eleven Warriors Roundtable: You Play to Win "The Game"

By Chris Lauderback on November 29, 2019 at 11:30 am
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh enters tomorrow's contest with an 0-4 record against the Buckeyes.
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Winners of seven straight against Michigan, and 14 of the last 15, Ohio State takes on No. 13 Michigan tomorrow in Ann Arbor in a continuation of the greatest rivalry in sports. 

Favored by less than double-digits for the first time all season, Ryan Day will look to gain his first win in The Game as a head coach while Jim Harbaugh is desperate to beat Ohio State for the first time in five tries as Michigan's shot-caller. 

Can Michigan's Shea Patterson move the ball through the air against Ohio State? Will Justin Fields be forced to play another huge role in the run game? Will the Buckeyes remain perfect? 

For answers to those questions and more, our own Colin Hass-Hill, Jake Anderson and Matt Gutridge offer their insight in this week's roundtable. 

Justin Fields enters his first Michigan game after losing two fumbles versus Penn State, giving him four lost fumbles in eight total instances of putting the ball on the ground this season. Is that anything to be concerned about against a stingy Wolverines defense that ranks No. 14 in the country with 10 fumbles gained? What kind of day do you expect from Fields both on the ground and through the air?

Colin: Try to figure out a position at which Michigan has more talent than Ohio State. It’s difficult, if not outright impossible. For that reason, the Buckeyes simply cannot afford to beat themselves on Saturday in a similar fashion to the fumbles that nearly sank them against Penn State. Given that the lack of turnovers from the quarterback position has usually been a boon for Ohio State this season, it all begins with Fields holding on to the ball.

Fields hasn’t thrown more than 25 passes this entire season, and that likely won’t change against a Wolverines defense that holds opponents to 161.1 yards per game. Michigan’s defense nationally ranks near the top in most categories, including when defending the pass. Yet Ohio State doesn't need to rely on its aerial attack. Fields’ efficiency and his legs combined with J.K. Dobbins’ rushing prowess have turned the Buckeyes into a balanced offense.

I wouldn’t expect Fields’ stat line to look much different to what it has throughout the season. Around 20-25 passing attempts for 200-225 yards with 2-4 passing touchdowns. If there’s any notable change, it might difference it might come with his amount of runs. Last week, he carried the ball 21 times, and I expect he’ll easily top his average of 9.5 runs per game once again on Saturday.

Jake: If we’re going to talk about a fumbling quarterback in The Game, we have to start with Shea Patterson. The Michigan quarterback has fumbled ten times and has lost four of those in eleven games. As for Fields’ recent struggles with holding onto the pigskin, I am not overly worried. He played a poor game in poor weather against a great defensive line that was in desperation mode. 

With that, I am not sure what to expect of the offense after last week’s performance. Fields had an efficient day against a bad pass defense, yet the Bucks insisted on running the ball on nearly 75% of their offensive plays. If Ryan Day did not want to test the 79th-best pass defense in the nation, why would he want to test the No. 4 pass defense? 

I would expect a somewhat similar gameplan, although I think the game will be more competitive, forcing Fields to push the ball through the air more often than not. I expect around 225 passing yards and as many rushing attempts. 

Matt: Probably foolish on my part, but I'm more concerned about the weather causing fumbles than I am about That Team's defense. Early reports are calling for, “Cloudy with snow showers changing to rain showers as the day progresses. Some sleet or freezing rain is possible, winds E at 10 to 20 mph.” Not ideal conditions for ball security or the passing game. The good news is that both teams have to play in it.

With the weather conditions mentioned above, if Fields can throw for 180 yards, I'm hoping that should keep the Wolverines' defense honest enough to enable the Buckeyes to do some damage on the ground. In this year's biggest games, Wisconsin and Penn State, Day showed his inner Urban and used Fields as a dual-threat quarterback.  

Against Wisconsin, in monsoon conditions, Fields had 13 carries for 28 yards and a touchdown. Penn State? 21 carries for 68 yards. Both games were played in less than ideal weather conditions and against the best competition to date. Digging deeper, of Fields' 21 runs against PSU, 4 were designed QB runs, 12 were QB keeps on the read option and 2 were scrambles on passing plays and 3 were sacks. I expect Day to use Fields the same way tomorrow.

Hoping for Fields to get 50 rushing yards drive extending plays and 180 in the air. With J.K. Dobbins being the driving force for the offense. 

Ohio State’s pass defense has been stellar all season. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson hasn’t been stellar all season but he’s damn sure been great the last two weeks lighting up Michigan State and Indiana for a combined 750 passing yards via a 68% completion rate with nine touchdowns against just one pick. He has a handful or legit targets too in Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Will Ohio State’s defense be able to bring Michigan’s aerial attack back to earth?

Matt: Yes. Chase Young, Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith, Davon Hamilton and the defensive linemen will keep Patterson on his toes. I'm more concerned about Patterson's running game than his throwing ability on Saturday. Looking forward to the new rushmen package feasting during passing situations.

The Silver Bullets have held the previous 11 opponents to under 300 yards of total offense (a program first). When they hold the 12th straight team to under 300 yards, they will become the 10th Ohio State team to finish the regular season with an undefeated and untied record. If you are wondering, the other nine teams are 2013, 2012, 2002, 1979, 1975, 1968, 1954, 1944 and 1916.

Colin: Patterson and a cadre of skilled receivers should concern Ohio State, especially since Shaun Wade might not play. Yes, the Buckeyes have a talented defensive backfield. Jeff Okudah might be the top cornerback selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, Wade could be a first-round pick, Damon Arnette has looked significantly improved and Jordan Fuller is a reliable safety. But the Wolverines bring a group of wideouts deeper than any the Buckeyes have faced yet, and Patterson’s playing well enough to endanger them – provided Chase Young doesn’t get to him first.

With that in mind, though, neither Michigan nor any other team can beat Ohio State with a one-dimensional offense. It has to figure out some way to pick up enough yards on the ground that Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison have to account for that aspect of its offense. The Wolverines have won the past three games without any running back account for more than 60 yards on the ground, but that likely won’t be possible on Saturday.

Jake: If Michigan beats Ohio State, it will have a lot to do with Patterson and his fantastic trio out wide. Collins and Peoples-Jones are two of the best receivers in the Big Ten that pose a challenge for any cornerback, even the elite ones in Columbus. The Buckeyes will have to bring pressure to force Patterson into bad decisions while the secondary keeps everything in front of them. As long as Ohio State prevents the big plays, the visitors should be more than able to handle their rivals. 

Jim Harbaugh has yet to beat Ohio State in four tries as Michigan’s head coach while Ryan Day is looking to start his head coaching tenure with a win, keeping the Buckeyes’ perfect season intact. If it’s even possible to separate, is a win tomorrow more important to Harbaugh’s legacy or Day’s?

Jake: The Game has to mean more for Harbaugh’s legacy than Day’s. I mean, Harbaugh may be coaching for his job tomorrow. If the home team loses tomorrow, the Michigan Man will own the worst record of any Wolverine head coach in the history of the rivalry with just one bowl win. How could he come back from that? 

Ryan Day, on the other hand, has his whole career ahead of him, Sure, a loss against Michigan would be detrimental, but much of the discussion this week has been about the importance of The Game versus a playoff berth. Day likely has a long career ahead of him and even if he takes a wrong step the first time, there is little doubt in my mind that he would be able to overcome it. 

Matt: Harbaugh. A loss on Saturday will be his fifth loss to Ohio State. He is already their only coach to start 0–4 in The Game. The great Rich Rodriguez was only given the opportunity to lose three to the Buckeyes. The sweet schadenfreude will run through me when “their savior” loses five straight. Five straight, man. Unreal.

When Day wins, he will become Ohio State's seventh coach to start 1– 0 in the game. He will join Sam Willaman (1929), Francis Schmidt (1934), Carroll Widdoes (1944), Earle Bruce (1979), Jim Tressel (2001) and Urban Meyer (2012)To test your wits on That Team and the series history, go here.

With a victory on Saturday, Day will also join Carroll Widdoes, Earle Bruce and Urban Meyer as the program's only first-year coaches to finish the regular season undefeated.

Colin: I think it’s more important to Harbaugh’s legacy – though there’s a simultaneous argument to be made that it’s more important for Ohio State to win rather than Michigan.

Harbaugh needs a win to give his fan base confidence that he’s the man for the job. Should he lose for a fifth time against Ohio State with this coming against a first-time head coach, it would be further evidence that a win might never come. How long can Harbaugh remain Michigan’s coach if he can’t ever beat the Buckeyes?

If Day doesn’t pick up a victory, the questions of whether or not he’ll have issues against the Wolverines would persist for the next 365 days. But regardless of Saturday’s outcome, he still has a chance to redeem himself by winning the rivalry game next year – he’d be 0-1, not or 0-5 like Harbaugh – and leading this team to the College Football Playoff this year.

The Game’s tradition and history is unmatched in sports. Which version stacks up as your favorite and why?

Colin: My knowledge of Ohio State-Michigan history doesn’t go too far back in comparison to most. However, it’s difficult for me to choose anything other than the 2016 rendition. It had everything you could want in a rivalry game. The stakes were high, the atmosphere within Ohio Stadium was unmatched and the double-overtime game matched the hype.

What’s the purpose of college football if not to have years-long debates about the spot of a ball?

Matt: The 2016 2 OT thriller was great, but I'll go with 2002. It marked the second time in my lifetime, and the first time in 20 years, that Ohio State won consecutive games against That Team. The victory also led to the first Buckeyes' championship I was able to witness. Something, to that point, that I was genuinely concerned would not happen...see 1998.

Jake: I’ll be the young one and say last year’s game was possibly the most entertaining sporting event I have ever witnessed. It was my first year working for the site and witnessing the blowout first-hand was the ultimate culmination of the up-and-down season. 

All the students stayed for the full 60 minutes and rushed the field after the game. It was simply the best atmosphere for a college football game I have ever experienced. 

For the first time all season, Ohio State is favored by less than 10 points. Day’s squad clocks in as an 9-point favorite in Ann Arbor. Do the Buckeyes cover? Give us your final score and game MVP. 

Matt: Despite the expected poor weather conditions, Ohio State should cover. The Buckeyes' defense is elite and the offense has too many play makers. After getting cross-routed to death last year, Don Brown slimmed down his defense and made it smaller and faster. Looking forward to Day using the power running game to plow right over the sleeker and somewhat faster Wolverine defense.

Barring turnovers, the Buckeyes will win a program best eighth straight in this series. J.K. Dobbins runs wild and Ohio State wins 31-14.

Man, winning 15 out of 16 and 17 out of the last 19 will be pretty damn sweet.  

Colin: I picked a 38-27 win for Ohio State earlier this week, and I’m sticking with it. So, yes, I’m picking a cover.

In reality, the Buckeyes have enough talent to beat the Wolverines by multiple touchdowns. Yet with them playing on the road, Michigan’s passing game coming alive, it being a rivalry game and Ohio State making a few too many unforced errors last week, I’m picking them to win by 11 points for the second week in a row. As for a game MVP, I’ll take Justin Fields to win the quarterback battle and the game.

Jake: My score prediction was Ohio State 31, Michigan 20, earlier this week, and I’m sticking to that. Malik Harrison had a great game last year, and I’m going to pick for MVP once again. He’ll get eight tackles and a forced fumble to seal the game.

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