Ohio State-Michigan: Kirk Herbstreit shares some potential keys to victory in The Game

Centerville grad played in rivalry, is long-time CFB analyst for ESPN

Credit: Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images

Credit: Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images

What is going to happen Saturday when Ohio State hosts Michigan in a battle of unbeatens?

Kirk Herbstreit sees a game that could come down to emotion.

“I was just saying, can (Michigan) go on the road to Columbus and be able to deal with the energy that they had last year behind them in Ann Arbor? Can they take that on the road and deal with not having that energy and now Ohio State will have it? I think that’ll be a big one last obstacle to be able to overcome,” Herbstreit said Tuesday during a teleconference with reporters.

While Ohio State-Michigan interests him as an ESPN college football analyst, The Game is also personal.

The son of an Ohio State football captain Jim Herbstreit, Kirk grew up dreaming of leading the Buckeyes to wins over the Wolverines and to the Rose Bowl.

He rubbed elbows with Woody Hayes and many other Buckeye legends as a young boy, and he even lived the rivalry as an Ohio State player and captain himself after starring at Centerville High School.

“I’m a fan of the rivalry. I lived it my whole life,” Herbstreit said. “I was fortunate enough to be actually a participant in it and then left it as a player and became an analyst. And to me there’s nothing greater than when Ohio State and Michigan get on the field together. For me, just how I was, my lens. I always go back to being a kid. If you could be 42 degrees and overcast, it’s like perfect for me. I don’t like the sun to be out on that day with the uniforms on the field together. For me, I think it just pops. Last year was perfect with the snow. So I love it. I think it’s great.”

Like many CFB analysts, he is surprised to see Michigan undefeated and back in the top five after losing headliners such as Aidan Hutchinson, Dax Hill and David Ojabo from their 2021 Big Ten championship squad that snapped an eight-game losing streak, but he is not discounting the Wolverines now.

“They lost so much off of that team — especially defensively — and here they’ve come back this year as strong, if not stronger,” Herbstreit said. “Not to mention they lost both their coordinators. Aiden Hutchinson to me was the heartbeat of that team last year. And here they are. You can make a strong case for them being maybe even a stronger team. So it’s awesome. It’s what you dream about I think if you’re a fan of this game. And here it is, great week.”

He credited offensive line coach and assistant offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore with crafting another strong unit after bullying the Buckeyes last year.

“Everybody gets caught up in the quarterback play and everything else. To me, look at the line play of Michigan,” Herbstreit said. “(In past seasons), they didn’t look the way they look right now so clearly, (head coach) Jim Harbaugh through recruiting and development, hiring Sherrone Moore, they have gone to another level with their offensive line play. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”

Ohio State countered Michigan’s improvement by making a major change at defensive coordinator in the offseason, bringing in Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State to revamp a disappointing unit that gave up almost 300 yards to the Wolverines last time out.

“Ohio State went out and hired Jim Knowles, in my opinion, for this game,” Herbstreit said. “So here we go. I mean, it’s impossible to sit here on Tuesday and know, ‘Yeah, Ohio State’s going to do a good job.’ The one thing I can guarantee you is the energy from the crowd – this is college football – will impact the Ohio State defense more than anything on the field. Will it be good enough to stop their Michigan running game? I don’t know. But I promise you — because if you look at the film right now, Ohio State’s defense is pretty good. But this will be a game that all of a sudden they’re getting off blocks that they haven’t gotten off in the past. All of a sudden those linebackers are coming down a little bit harder. Safeties are making plays just like Michigan’s defense last year. So the crowd can impact this game.”

That could make the ultimate wild card Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy, a sophomore who was a five-star recruit two years ago. He is a first-year starter who has had some misfires in recent weeks but has the potential to change the game with his arm and his feet if he is on.

“I’m really excited to see the J.J. McCarthy effect of this game,” Herbstreit said.

“How does his play action game, his ability to create, play into this game? Because I think if Michigan wins the game, it’s not just going to be their ability to run the ball. It’s going to be J.J. McCarthy creating, buying time. It’s third-and-6, he scrambles for eight, just becomes that thorn in the side of the Ohio State defense. He’s going to have to do that, I think, for them to win this game.”


Michigan at Ohio State, Noon, Fox, 1410

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