Before each week's Ohio State game, Eleven Warriors catches up with a media member who covers the opposing team to get his or her perspective on the Buckeyes' upcoming opponent.
This week, we caught up with Kyle Rowland – a former Eleven Warriors beat writer who now covers both Michigan and Ohio State for the Toledo Blade – to get his insight on the Wolverines and how they stack up against the Buckeyes ahead of Saturday's rivalry game.
Are the Wolverines, who have won 10 straight games entering The Game, bringing a different level of confidence to Columbus than they have in years past? How big of a difference have new Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson and offensive line coach Ed Warinner made in their first seasons in Ann Arbor? And having covered both teams this season, how does Rowland believe the Wolverines and Buckeyes stack up?
Rowland answered all of those questions and more in this week's edition of Across The Field.
Q: Michigan is favored to win The Game for the first time in seven years. Is there a different level of confidence in Ann Arbor this week than there has been in past years?
Rowland: Without question. It's interesting because Ohio State is also 10-1 and the game is in Columbus, but it feels like Michigan is an overwhelming favorite. I haven't heard too many people predict a Buckeye victory. This Michigan team is different than past years – it's a veteran-laden group, there's leadership at every turn and they're battle-tested. I think the lows of last season actually helped this team mature and strive to get as far away as possible from that level of disappointment.
Q: In Jim Harbaugh's first three years as Michigan's head coach, he had a reputation for not being able to win the game. He's started to change that reputation this year, though, with wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. What's made the difference this season?
Rowland: He's shed that label to a certain extent, but he still has to beat Ohio State. Michigan deserves credit for its record and taking care of business, and most of the time they've clobbered teams, but Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Penn State are not near as good as many expected before the season started.
But this team is different, you can just tell being around them. They're in sync with each other and they're on a mission. Now, I know that's the case for all 130 teams in June, July and August, but Michigan's seniors have managed to turn the cliches into reality. The Outback Bowl was utter rock bottom. They blew a big second-half lead in an irrelevant bowl game on a cold, dreary day in Florida. It was the worst of the worst. When they got home, they had a new strength coach and a new quarterback. Ever since Shea Patterson was ruled eligible on the first day of the Paris trip there's been an aura around this team that's been different than any other team during the Harbaugh era.
Q: What are the things Shea Patterson has done best to make a difference for Michigan's offense this year?
Rowland: There's no question he was the missing link. Sure, he's not putting up numbers that you'll confuse with Tua Tagovailoa, Dwayne Haskins, or Kyler Murray, but he's every bit as valuable to his team. His efficiency is crucial and his lack of turnovers. In an offense where time of possession and sustaining drives is paramount, Patterson is the perfect engineer.
I wouldn't categorize him as a true dual-threat quarterback. That said, he's picked up some important first downs with his legs this season. It just feels like when a big play is needed, he's been able to execute. And his leadership is invaluable. Patterson really is one of those types of quarterbacks teammates respond to.
Q: Ed Warinner has drawn a lot of praise for his work with Michigan's offensive line in his first season at Michigan. In what specific ways has Michigan's offensive line improved under the former Ohio State assistant coach's leadership?
Rowland: Across the board. Aside from Patterson, Warinner's presence is without question the biggest positive on the team. The offensive line was abysmal last season and just completely lost. By the end of the season, you could see the frustration and bewilderment. Warinner came in and simplified things. He hasn't reinvented the wheel, but he's given them so much confidence and kept things relatively easy. Their holding penalties and false starts have plummeted. The most obvious and noticeable change, though, is protecting the quarterback and creating space for the running backs.
Former players talked about incorrect techniques being used under Tim Drevno. That is no longer the case. It's actually been eerily similar to Warinner's first line at Ohio State. They were not very good at the beginning of the season, but steadily progressed week-by-week until they were one of the team's strengths. The same trajectory has occurred at Michigan. And one thing I do know: Warinner cannot wait for Saturday.
Q: Michigan's defense leads the nation in yards allowed per game and has not allowed more than 24 points in any game this season. What makes the Wolverines so effective on that side of the ball?
Rowland: Good players obviously matter. Chase Winovich, Rashan Gary, Josh Uche, Devin Bush, Khaleke Hudson, Lavert Hill, David Long – these are All-Big Ten caliber players and some are All-Americans. There is a tremendous amount of talent on that side of the ball. But Don Brown, my goodness, the guy is an unbelievable coach. He truly is one of the best assistants in the country and possibly the most valuable to his team.
Every single year he builds a great defense. Doesn't matter if it's at Boston College, doesn't matter if it's at Michigan, doesn't matter if he loses half his players. Brown likes blitzing, hence the Dr. Blitz nickname, but Michigan can clog running lanes and impact quarterbacks without blitzing every play. They lead the nation in total defense and passing defense and rank fourth in scoring defense and 14th in rushing defense. It's a well-rounded group.
Q: You've covered both Michigan and Ohio State this year. In your opinion, how do the two teams stack up with each other going into this game?
Rowland: Talent-wise it's really close and purely on recruiting rankings, Ohio State has the edge. But as we've seen this season, especially Ohio State's defense, talent doesn't always win out. There are scheme issues, coaching issues and maybe a few personnel issues on that side of the ball that haven't worked out. So in a pure at this moment how are they looking, well, I think Michigan looks way better. Both teams are 10-1, but a lot of times you wouldn't really think it.
I still think one of the most underrated factors of OSU's season is Urban Meyer missing the entirety of fall camp. That's a time when teams mesh and come together. Leaders are identified and as cliche as it sounds there's a real brotherhood that's established. I just think it was totally different for the Buckeyes not only with Meyer absent but with so much controversy and uncertainty swirling. I see a team that isn't totally together and doesn't have the same type of leadership it's had in recent seasons. Michigan, meanwhile, is the opposite. It's almost like these two teams swapped roles from the previous decade.
Q: What's your prediction for how Saturday's game will play out?
Rowland: I think there are three possibilities – Michigan winning close, Michigan winning big and Ohio State winning close. I just don't see how Ohio State could win in a blowout. The first quarter is important, in my opinion. If I'm either team and I win the toss, I take the ball and try to score. For Michigan, you can get up, take the crowd out of the game and prove early that they are the better team. For Ohio State, you can send the crowd into a frenzy, maybe Patterson gets a little antsy and makes a mistake and the psychology of past seasons could impact the Wolverines.
I honestly envision a somewhat boring game, similar to the 2009 edition when Ohio State won 21-10. The margin could have been bigger, but the Buckeyes controlled the entire game. I just think it'll be in reverse this season. Michigan is the better team and I have a hard time thinking Ohio State's defense is all of a sudden going to play a great game. I think Patterson and Karan Higdon will get the job done on offense, and the Michigan defense will settle down in the second half. Michigan 30, Ohio State 17