As Ohio State and Michigan get set to play for the 115th time, many of the usual questions swirled this week.
The biggest just might be these: Will the real Ohio State football team show itself? Or is there nothing more to these Buckeyes than we have seen all season?
Ohio State has the best offense in the Big Ten and one of the tops in the nation, as usual under seventh-year coach Urban Meyer.
The winning formula is different, though, as Dwayne Haskins has led a pass-first attack in his first season as a starter.
Along the way, the Buckeyes have uncharacteristically struggled running the ball, contributing to issues in short yardage and the red zone.
Whatever problems the offenses possess pale in comparison to a defense that has been more bad than good since the first game of the season when Oregon State scored 31 points and put up 392 yards.
The latter figure is actually a tad lower than the average Ohio State has allowed through 11 games (398.6), underscoring what a season-long struggle defense has been for the Buckeyes.
All will be forgiven, though, if the defense puts together a strong performance Saturday against the Wolverines — if that is possible.
Players and coaches have insisted all season the problems with assignments and tackling are correctable, but the 52-51 win at Maryland last week counts as a major strike against that argument.
The Terrapins, far from an offensive powerhouse, piled up 535 total yards, averaging an eye-popping 8.6 yards per play (the most ever for an Ohio State opponent).
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“I thought that we started to crack the rock the last few weeks as far as playing good defense, elimination of big plays, and obviously it was not good,” Meyer said. “So we’re not blaming people, whether it be missed tackle, alignment, scheme, whatever it is. It’s a matter of getting ready for this one.”
Michigan is a defense-first squad, first in the nation in yards allowed per game (234.8) and fourth in scoring (13.5 points per game), but coach Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines have more than enough offense to take advantage of the Buckeyes if they aren’t on top of their game.
Unless the top of their game just isn’t very impressive this season.
Here are four more subplots for The Game:
1. Ohio Stadium is the last stop on Michigan’s “Revenge Tour.”
The Wolverines have been using that rallying cry since they stomped Wisconsin 38-13 in mid-October.
Michigan went on to dominate Michigan State 21-7 a week later then blew out Penn State 42-7 for a third straight win over a team that beat the Wolverines last season.
That leaves only the Buckeyes, though the playing status of the man who coined the term is unknown heading into The Game.
Senior defensive end Chase Winovich leads the Wolverines with 13.5 tackles for loss, but he left last week’s win over Indiana with an upper body injury. Harbaugh has been coy about whether or not he will be able to play Saturday.
2. Ohioans in Maize and Blue have tormented Ohio State for decades, and one of the top candidates this season is from the Miami Valley.
Starting safety Tyree Kinnel, a Wayne High School grad, is second on Michigan with 62 tackles.
Eleven more Wolverines hail from Ohio, including Lakota West offensive lineman Nolan Ulizio.
Ohio State has four players from Michigan, including two from Detroit Cass Tech: Running back Mike Weber and offensive lineman Josh Alabi. Starting center Michael Jordan is from Canton while backup long snapper Bradley Robinson is from Troy.
3. Running back Karan Higdon guaranteed victory for Michigan on Saturday.
He needed some prodding from a reporter but went on the record nonetheless.
When asked if he would following in the footsteps of Harbaugh, who guaranteed (and delivered) a victory over Ohio State in 1986 when he was the quarterback for the Wolverines, Higdon replied, “Yeah, I do. That’s how I feel.”
“I believe firmly in my brothers and this team and this coaching staff, and as a captain, I’ll take that stand. Why not?”
If the Buckeyes were upset, they didn’t let it show during interviews during the week.
“That’s cool, that’s good to hear that from him,” Ohio State defensive lineman Dre’Mont Jones said with a smile when told about what Higdon had said. “I like his confidence.”
4. Upsets have been a hallmark of the Ohio State-Michigan series, but the higher-ranked team has won every game since 2005.
Historically, Meyer has been one to pounce on any outside slight to motivate his team — never more famously than in preparing his No. 2 Florida team to thrash No. 1 Ohio State for the 2006 national championship — but he didn’t sound eager to play up the Buckeyes’ role as underdogs this time around.
“I don’t think I will,” he said. “I don’t usually go in those directions when — depends on what kind of team you’re dealing with. One side is about getting everybody healthy; one side is about getting confidence and playing your very best in the biggest game of the year.”
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