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Sticks and Stones, or Why on Paper Michigan Has a Fighting Chance

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We're two full days into the bloodbath, and amidst a degenerate cycle of slurs and mind-games one thing has become painfully clear:

Michigan and its hot-shot counsel (Graham) don't seem to want to make this duel about the only thing that matters: the strength and weakness of the men who will take the field in four days.  So far we've heard ad nauseum about Ohio State's annoying traditions: Hang on Sloopy, the four corners state cheer, the O-H-I-O international salute, the violation of cars with Michigan license plates, and the sex-toys we wear around our necks, but when it comes to the proficiency of the Eleven Warriors, the opposition has been embarassingly mum.

Can you blame them?  it's been 2187 days since the team up north has tasted victory against the scarlet and gray.  In between, there's been five insufferable defeats, characterized by physical dominance, and lopsided spreads.  Half a decade of inconsistency and irrelevance has resulted in a sort-of Ann Arbor inferiority complex, marked by limited self-esteem, apathy, and doubt.  Yet, if the fear can be concentrated and spun into something moderately positive, it's the freedom that comes from low expectations, and the simple belief that it can't get much worse.  For a program that's reached rock-bottom, there's nowhere to go but up.

True.  But for a moment in time, let's move on from the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) in hopes of turning this debate into something probative.  Yes, this is an olive branch of sorts from a Buckeye that's not just about kicking a rival when he's down.  I imagine myself storming into the basements where the hearts of Michigan fans have been hiding, streaming light into the darkness, and kicking past a pile of empty Miller Lite cans and grease-stained pizza boxes, to tug on the flannel-shirt shoulders, and unshaven faces of the fat, drunken, and disheveled enemies to demand they pull themselves together.

You, Wolverine have something to live for and that something is statistics.

Michigan is ahead of Ohio State in 15 of 41 relevant statistical categories.  They are:

Scoring Offense: 1st in conference versus 4th

Rushing Offense: 2nd in conference versus 3d

Passing Offense: 9th in conference versus 11th

Total Offense: 5th in conference versus 8th

Punt Returns: 2nd in conference versus 5th

Kickoff Returns: 3rd in conference versus 4th

Punting: 1st in conference versus 9th

Field Goals: 3rd in conference versus 9th

PAT Kicking: 5th in conference versus 6th

First Downs: 6th in conference versus 7th

Tackles for Loss: 2nd in conference versus 5th

Opponent Punting: 1st in conference versus 11th

Opponent Penalties: 2nd in conference versus 8th

Kicks/Punts Blocked: 1 versus 0

Opponent Fourth Down Conversions: 7th in conference versus 9th

Ohio State, by contrast, leads in penalties, turnover margin, sacks, interceptions, fumbles recovered, fumbles forced, third down conversions, fourth down conversions, red zone conversions, kickoffs, scoring defense, rushing defense, total defense, opponent punt returns, opponent kickoff returns, opponent field goals, opponent PAT kicking, opponent first downs, time of possession, sacks allowed, tackles for loss allowed, passes defended, fumbles lost, opponent third down conversions, opponent red zone conversions, and opponent kickoffs. 

What does all this mean?

Well, on paper it looks like this game pits a good Michigan offense against a great Ohio State defense.  If Michigan can avoid penalties, turnovers, and sacks, convert on third and fourth down, control time of possession, and finish what it starts in the red zone, it might just earn a program defining upset.

But before you say, thank you, Captain Obvious, remember that Michigan and Ohio State have shared seven opponents.  That means that these numbers aren't just casual fodder -- against predominately identical competition the Wolverines have beaten the Buckeyes on the scoreboard. 

If Rich Rodriguez can motivate his team for long enough to establish a rhythm, the confidence and swagger we saw in the first four games of the season might blossom in front of a home town crowd.  If Ohio State, on the other hand buys into its superior record, and gets caught looking ahead to Pasadena it just might lay a golden egg.

Here's how I see an upset developing: 

Michigan takes the ball on the opening kickoff, and with a few misdirection runs, screen passes, and mobile quarterback keeps, moves down the field for a 7-0 lead.  Terrelle Pryor and the Ohio State offense get the ball down, and after a few predictable delayed handoffs behind the lukewarm guards, stall out and punt.  The Ohio State defense tightens up, and forces Michigan to consecutive three and outs, but Pryor's arm is cold and the Buckeyes are wholly unable to sniper the Wolverine Secondary.  Late in the second quarter, Michigan gets a big punt return, and after Denard Robinson breaks into open space gets into field goal position.  The points put them up 10-0.  Ohio State succeeds into getting down to the UM 30 in hurry up mode, but is forced to kick a field goal as time in the second quarter runs out.  The Wolverines get to the lockerroom up 10-3, and suddenly, they start to believe they can win.

Was that so hard?

I encourage Michigan fans to turn their attention to the merits of the game.  There are more than a few silver linings.


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