Eleven Warriors Roundtable: "The Game" Is Upon Us

By Chris Lauderback on November 25, 2022 at 10:10 am
C.J. Stroud

Michigan Versus Ohio State. Ryan Day Versus Jim Harbaugh. No. 2 versus No. 3 in the CFP standings. Good versus evil. Revenge.

I don't need to tell you what tomorrow means for anyone who gives a damn about the greatest rivalry in sports. You already know. That's why you're here. 

So let's get on with it.

The 11W Roundtable is proud to present staffers Griffin Strom, Johnny Ginter and George Eisner as the Buckeyes get set to tangle with Michigan tomorrow at high noon in Ohio Stadium. 

Whether or not Blake Corum can play Saturday, job one for Ohio State's defense is to stop the run. Can they? What kind of success will Michigan have running the football? Any concern with quarterback JJ McCarthy's ability to run the football regardless of Corum's, or even Donovan Edwards', status? 

Griffin: Ohio State’s run defense is much improved under Jim Knowles, but I find it unlikely the Buckeyes will shut down Michigan’s ground game entirely. The Wolverines have relied on the rush too heavily throughout the season to abandon their Plan A on offense in The Game. Ohio State’s game prep won’t change based on its perception of Corum or Edwards’ health status, but the Buckeyes should have more success stopping the run if both are limited. If not, it will be a problem. Point blank.

 The quarterback run with McCarthy is a legitimate threat, given that Ohio State’s been gashed by the likes of DeQuan Finn, Brendan Sullivan and Taulia Tagovailoa at times this season, but McCarthy hasn’t rushed for more than 57 yards in a game this season. However, he hasn’t had to in order for Michigan to get the job done so far.

Johnny: The entire Michigan offense goes through Blake Corum. Whatever success they've had offensively in 2022, whether it's been on the ground or through the air, has been predicated by that one guy being a threat to do what he does so consistently. My guess is that he does play, but is limited, and that's actually a worse-case scenario for the Wolverines; a hobbled, ineffective Corum running the same plays Michigan opponents have seen all year is much less scary than an ersatz gameplan with J.J. McCarthy running RPOs or whatever. But that'd require Harbaugh and company to change their offensive approach, and that's something they've refused to do for two seasons in a row.
Ultimately, all of this depends on the health of Corum and Edwards. If one or both are somewhere near game shape, Michigan has a good chance of being successful running the ball and staying in the game. If not, well...

George: Michigan's offensive identity has largely gone through its ground attack, and the Wolverines should make a handful of successful runs over the course of the game regardless of Corum's status. That said, I would expect Ohio State's defense to get the better of Michigan in rushing situations more often than what U-M has experienced over the course of the season, which could go a long way towards disrupting the Wolverines' offensive rhythm. Among the six stats Football Outsiders tracks for defensive linemen stopping the run, the Buckeyes own top-25 rankings in all categories. Michigan has not faced that sort of formidability from any opponent all season, and this game also serves as only the fourth road trip for the Wolverines in their 2022 campaign.

However, I would be much more concerned with the escapability of J.J. McCarthy if not necessarily the threat he presents running the football. Ohio State currently ranks 23rd in the nation in sack rate (8.4%) and owns the top sack rate on standard downs across all FBS teams (9.7%), but in obvious passing situations, the team sits much further down the list at 50th overall. Getting stops on third down will prove crucial towards securing a victory, and McCarthy's ability to extend plays has enormously helped Michigan avoid disaster throughout this season. The team with the greater total of sacks on Saturday will almost certainly be the one heading to the Big Ten Championship.

Similarly, Ohio State would love to be able to run the damn ball to take some pressure off C.J. Stroud and the OSU passing game. Dallan Hayden has been a breath of fresh air while Miyan Williams and TreVeyon Henderson didn't play or played hurt. Can the Buckeyes have any success on the ground versus the Wolverines? Will Stroud be a factor on the run at all? 

George: I made a point of emphasizing in the roundtable prior to the Northwestern game that Ohio State's offensive Achilles heel had been generating conversions in short-yard rushing scenarios on 3rd down, 4th down, and in goal-to-go situations. Over the last three weeks, the Buckeyes' ability to do so has only gotten worse. OSU ranked 94th out of 131 FBS teams in converting on the aforementioned power running situations at the start of November, and has since fallen to 117th on a success rate of just barely 58% of the time.

Michigan's defensive line sits at 25th overall for stuffing such rushing attempts at 60% of the time, and I would expect that difference in performance to unfortunately make itself apparent several times over the course of this game. Elsewhere, the Wolverines' only area of below average performance in defending the run rests with their ability to get stops behind the line of scrimmage, ranking 70th on a rate of just 17.8% against all opposing carries.

Ohio State's path to victory likely travels further through the air than it does on the ground, but having a healthy rotation of backs would go a long way towards keeping Michigan's defense honest. As for Stroud, I suspect the original plan prior to the debacle with the Wildcats was to not unleash him as a runner until this game, so I would expect the Heisman candidate to only use his legs when absolutely necessary or at times when Michigan gets caught entirely off guard.

Griffin: Ohio State must approach The Game as if there’s no tomorrow, and if that means Stroud sees more action as a runner than ever before, so be it. As potent as Ohio State’s aerial assault can be, the pass attack hasn’t been quite as lethal as of late. The Buckeyes averaged just 213 passing yards per game across the past three, and five of their six passing touchdowns in that stretch came against Indiana alone. Not to mention, none of those defenses are Michigan-caliber. 

If Ohio State can’t consistently make plays downfield in the passing game, it had better get the run game going, no matter who’s toting the ball. I think a steady diet of Williams and Hayden will allow Ohio State to have some success on the ground, but I don’t imagine Ohio State gets the job done without a rock-solid performance from Stroud, at minimum.

Johnny: While I really like Dallan Hayden's running style and think he's going to eventually be an excellent featured back, I also think that part of why people are so high on him is because he was merely very good instead of dominant against Maryland. The good news is that "very good" is plenty, and while I really, really hope that Chop is available, Hayden should be able to at least get enough yards to keep the Michigan defense honest. Williams really is the kind of back that you want in this kind of game, but either way, the less C.J. has to run, the better.

The Game has a tendency to produce X-factor performances - often from big stars but also sometimes from guys not quite as established. Excluding the big names, certainly guys like Stroud, Corum and Harrison Jr. for instance, give us a player that could be in line to etch his name in the rivalry's history book either for Ohio State or Michigan.  

Johnny: I think Jack Sawyer is about to have a monster game. It feels like he's been building to a ridiculous, J.T. Tuimoloau kind of performance for the past few games now, and I wouldn't be surprised if McCarthy tries a few keepers only to get utterly blown up on the edge by Sawyer.

George: Zach Harrison has had a largely underwhelming tenure at Ohio State concerning production consistency, but has shown up in several key moments throughout the last two seasons. He sealed the victory for the Buckeyes against Maryland last week in the final minute with back-to-back sacks and a forced fumble on plays that saw the defense rush only three linemen at the quarterback. How poetic would it be for the Delaware county native if he made yet another game-changing play during his final appearance in Ohio Stadium? I could also see Jack Sawyer having a similar impact, though his story at Ohio State still remains largely unwritten compared to the former team captain.

Griffin: Given the injuries at running back, Hayden is the obvious choice here. The true freshman has been excellent over the past two games, and even though Ryan Day still seems hesitant to give him RB1 status, the health of Williams and Henderson may necessitate another big game for the first-year Buckeye. If Hayden can replicate his Maryland performance against Michigan, or anything resembling it, he’ll be remembered forever in Ohio State lore. That is, as long as the Buckeyes walk out of the Horseshoe with a win.

As you scan the matchups in the one, is there a specific position group you feel gives Ohio State or Michigan a significant advantage? If so, which one and why? 

Griffin: Matchup-wise, The Game feels like a wash in many respects. While Michigan’s receivers have been far from stellar this season, the Buckeye secondary still seems susceptible to giving up some big plays downfield. While Ohio State’s run defense has mostly been stellar, the Wolverines have one of the best rushing offenses in the country. Both teams have multiple injuries at running back, but neither defense has been tested by a truly elite offense. It may seem like low-hanging fruit, but perhaps the biggest difference is in the caliber of play at quarterback. If both passers resemble the form they’ve taken for most of the 2022 season, one would think Stroud and the Buckeyes will come out with a better day than the Wolverines. But as seen in last year’s game, the battle may very well be won at the line of scrimmage.

Johnny: An underreported storyline to come out of Michigan's close win against Illinois was that the Wolverine d-line got next to zero pressure on Illinois quarterback Tommy DeVito. DeVito didn't have great numbers against Michigan, but he had a ton of time in the pocket and Michigan's defensive backs were badly out of position on several plays. Marvin Harrison, Jr. is obviously going to draw a lot of attention on Saturday but guys like Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming are going to have a lot of chances for yards.

George: These teams are both extremely well-rounded and much more similar with respect to talent than fans of either side would like to admit. Ohio State's room of receivers has so much ability and depth that the Buckeyes will almost always have an advantage over any secondary they face, but I can't say with confidence that either school possesses a pronounced advantage over the other on any area of the field. Both sides should make plays against their opposition across all four quarters, which figures to bring forth a highly competitive and thrilling football game.

And now to the biggie.. Ohio State enters The Game as an 8-point favorite. Do the Buckeyes cover? Give us your final score and MVP.

George: I have Ohio State winning 27-23. Michigan has five wins against the spread in seven previous November games and all but one of the Wolverines' last six road trips, so I do not expect the Buckeyes to win by more than a touchdown in what should be a close contest throughout. J.T. Tuimoloau shows up for a big second half to steal game MVP honors away from C.J. Stroud.

Griffin: I have Ohio State ekeing out a 33-30 win over Michigan to avenge last year’s loss. If Ohio State doesn’t put up a better defensive effort than the one it had in 2021, the overhaul of the Buckeyes’ defensive coaching staff will all be for not, and it helps that Michigan’s best offensive player may be limited, if not unavailable. But given Ohio State’s own quagmire at running back, much of the onus will be on Stroud to deliver a vengeful performance, which could effectively win him the Heisman Trophy by game’s end. For that reason, give me the California native for MVP.

Johnny: I see a lot of chatter from Michigan fans about how they locked down C.J.Stroud last year, and... the dude still threw for almost 400 yards. He probably won't do that again this year, but I also think that the running game will be more of a factor. I'm calling it 35-21 good guys, with Stroud getting a signature win for his Heisman campaign.

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