STORY FROM: LAND OF 10
Vegas doesn’t trust John O’Korn anymore than you do right now. The betting line for The Game has hovered between 12 and 13 points all week, which means, according to Oddsshark, that Michigan’s a double-digit underdog for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh Era.
The Wolverines (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten) have landed as a double-digit ‘dog five times against Ohio State since 2008 — and lost all five straight up, while covering just twice. The last time was Brady Hoke’s farewell bow against the Buckeyes in Columbus three Novembers ago.
Of course, Iowa was a 21-point home underdog to the Buckeyes (9-2, 8-1) back on Nov. 4.
And we don’t need to remind anyone how that movie turned out.
Which begs the question: What it would it take for the Wolverines to put together a sequel?
Land of 10 got on the horn and polled the experts, who broke down the Hawkeyes’ stunning 55-24 upset at Kinnick Stadium, analyzed the Wolverines and helped us put together the following 5-point plan:
1. Keep quarterback J.T. Barrett on the sidelines as much as possible
You pass for show, but run for dough. Under Harbaugh, Michigan has netted fewer than 105 rushing yards as a team just six times over its last 24 contests.
The Wolverines lost all six tilts.
“Offensively, the Wolverines have to be able to run it,” CBS Sports analyst and former coach Rick Neuheisel told Land of 10 this week. “Last week they ran for 53 yards [at Wisconsin]. That is a loser.”
2. Find defensive or special teams points that no one saw coming
Iowa opened the Big Ten’s Upset of the Year by taking a pick-6 to the house on the very first play — shocking the Buckeyes and putting them on the back foot for the rest of the afternoon.
The Wolverines have the defensive goods to do the same. They’ve also got the wheels to run a punt back for a big gain or a score, as Wisconsin’s Nick Nelson did to open the scoring for the Badgers last weekend against Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium.
“The first thing is, [you think about], is something that Michigan can’t duplicate, unless they pick off the first pass for 6,” DiNardo laughed. “I mean, think about it. The Kinnick atmosphere, and then [that’s] the first play of the game — so that’s hard to duplicate going into the game.”
3. Don’t get too far behind the chains, or you’re toast
The Buckeyes’ ideal plan is rooted in common sense: Push the sticks back into repeated second- and third-and-longs when you’re on offense, then break your spirit with explosion plays when they’ve got the rock.
If the Wolverines can avoid the down-and-distance trap, it’ll go a long way toward keeping the scales balanced. Back on Nov. 4, the Hawkeyes were forced into third-and-7-plus only three times — the fourth was a targeting penalty on Nick Bosa that wiped out the play and got him ejected from the game — over the entire contest.
The next weekend, Michigan State faced those comparative third-and-longs seven times in the first two quarters alone. They never recovered.
4. Show ’em something on offense they’ve never seen before
Predictability is going to get you punished. Ohio State boasts the Big Ten’s No. 3 rush defense on first down plays (3.27 yards per opponent attempt) and the league’s No. 1 rush defense on third-down and-3-yards-or-fewer (1.08 per attempt).
“[Iowa offensive coordinator] Brian [Ferentz] was about 62.5 percent run on first-and-10 [going in to that game] and he was 60 percent pass on first-and-10 versus Ohio State, with a lot of success,” DiNardo explained. “And I think that it neutralized [the Buckeyes’] defensive line success. So, obviously, that was part of it.
“So, can Michigan repeat it? [Hawkeyes quarterback] Nate Stanley had a really good game, obviously, and we don’t even know who the Michigan quarterback is going to be. So that’s an issue in itself. So again, when we say ‘duplicate it,’ there are just going to be certain things we’re not going to be able to duplicate.”
While the Buckeyes also rank No. 3 in lowest opponent completion percentage on first down (52.1; Michigan tops the Big Ten with 47.6), they’re just 12th — third from last — in opponent completion success on third-down-and-3-or-fewer (71.4 percent). And they’ve allowed 9 of 14 opportunities on short third-down throws to be converted.
“O’Korn will probably be the starter and he needs some schemed first-read throws,” Neuheisel said. “Nothing can be called that has him holding the ball past 3 seconds. Pressure on O’Korn results in sacks and picks.”
In other words, be quick, be precise, and don’t be afraid to mix it up. After all, at this point, what have you got to lose?
5. Don’t let J.T. Barrett escape and improvise
In the 47 contests in which Barrett has played since 2014, the Buckeyes are 41-6 (.872). When he’s thrown more than 1 interception during those contests, Ohio State is just 3-3 (.500). In the Buckeyes’ wins over that stretch, the senior signal caller has averaged 5.5 yards per rushing attempt; during the rare defeats, that number drops to only 2.7 per tote.
“Michigan needs to play fantastic run defense and force Barrett to throw the ball,” Neuheisel said. “In games where Barrett is off, Ohio State loses.”
To wit: In contests in which he’s completed fewer than 58 percent of his throws, the Buckeyes are 5-5 (.500). During the 10 tilts in which his passer rating was under 102, Ohio State has won six and dropped four (.600).
Barrett goes into the weekend with a 154.1 passer rating against Big Ten foes, but his 112.2 lifetime passer rating against Michigan is the second-lowest against any conference opponent. He’s also only thrown one pick in three games against the Wolverines, which is a big reason why his personal won-loss record in the series is, so far, perfect.
The only league opponent against whom Barrett’s got a lower lifetime passer rating? Iowa, with a 109.9.
“[Michigan] was going to look at the Ohio State-Iowa tape, regardless of the outcome,” DiNardo said. “I think it intensifies because of the success that Iowa had.
“I made a note today, if I was asked, ‘How does Michigan beat Ohio State?’ The Iowa tape came right into my mind. I don’t know if they unlocked the secret, but certainly, no one else has done it.”