Under snowy skies, Michigan celebrated. Celebrated both a comeback victory over Indiana and the completion of a perfect home season. But if you were one of those who stayed long enough to see Wolverine players frolicking on the snow-covered field Saturday night, you got a sense that the celebration was as much driven by relief as it was by joy. Relief that the season's pre-season, if you will, was over. Relief that the Wolverines had successfully navigated the first 11 games of the season and put themselves in position to play Ohio State with a shot at the conference championship still in play. Because for as often as Jim Harbaugh and his players downplayed it over the previous weeks and months, this season was always about the Ohio State game. Of Michigan's goals this season, none was larger than winning the Big Ten Championship, and the road to the championship game in Indianapolis always went through Columbus.
Over the summer, Michigan players talked about the importance of the upcoming season, particularly the seniors. Jake Butt said that he came to Michigan to win, and win big, and acknowledged that neither he nor his teammates had done that yet. Jourdan Lewis expressed similar sentiments, adding that he wanted to win, almost felt a responsibility to win, for those who came in the classes before him that never got the chance to experience that kind of success. Each added that the opportunity to go out on a high note was a large part of why they spurned the NFL and returned to Ann Arbor for their senior seasons. What neither said, but didn't have to, was that beating Ohio State was part of their reason for returning.
Michigan isn't the only team to have this game circled on its calendar, however. Ohio State doesn't give out gold pants for every win, and you can bet that the Buckeyes are approaching this game with an equal amount of zeal.
But while each team enters the game with a 10-1 record and a top-five ranking, neither is exactly peaking. Three weeks after suffering its first defeat of the season, Ohio State struggled to turn back Michigan State last week. The Buckeye's had some success on the ground, as Mike Weber topped the century mark, and in doing so became just the third Buckeye freshman to eclipse 1,000 yards, but had difficulty containing Michigan State's LJ Scott, who accounted for 226 total yards and two touchdowns. Perhaps more concerning, JT Barrett struggled against the stout Spartan defense, completing just 10 of 22 passes for 86 yards, as the Buckeyes escaped East Lansing with a one-point victory.
The Buckeyes aren't the only team entering the game firing on fewer than all cylinders. It wasn't long ago that Michigan looked like an offensive juggernaut, with Wilton Speight directing what had become a big play offense, Michigan was outscoring its opponents by more than five touchdowns a game through eight games. But against Indiana, with Speight sidelined due to injury and John O'Korn making his first start in two years (and first for Michigan), the Michigan aerial attack was limited to seven completions for a mere 59 yards. O'Korn's 30-yard scamper in the third quarter kick-started the Michigan offense, but he had little success through the air.
Fortunately for Michigan, De'Veon Smith was there to carry the load, rushing for a career-high 158 yards and two long, game-breaking touchdown runs. Michigan can't count on Smith to do it all by himself again this weekend, however. Against Indiana, with little threat of a passing attack, the Hoosier defense crowded the line of scrimmage. Urban Meyer and Ohio State certainly took notice, and running against a stacked box will not be as easy against Ohio State, even for a hard runner like Smith. It may be stating the obvious, but Michigan will need better quarterback play against Ohio State.
Ohio State enters the game as a touchdown favorite, and given that the game is in Columbus and JT Barrett will be under center for the Buckeyes, that sounds about right. Barrett may be coming off a sub-par performance against Michigan State, but he's one of college football's most dynamic players and most elusive runners. Barrett hasn't accounted for 99 career touchdowns by accident, and it will be no small feat for Michigan to keep him from adding to that total.
But if there has been one constant for Michigan this season, it's been its defense. Michigan's offensive struggles over the past two weeks have been well-documented, but Michigan's defense has had no such difficulties. Blessed with an abundance of talent, depth and experience, Michigan's defense entered the season with the potential to be special, and through ten games, the Wolverines haven't disappointed. Entering the Ohio State game, the Wolverines rank as the nation's top defense. Led by a harassing, two-deep defensive line and Bednarik Award finalist Jabrill Peppers, Michigan has an attacking defense that leads the nation in tackles-for-loss, at over nine a game. Ohio State is elite offensively and is not lacking for playmakers, but with its pressure up front and strong secondary led by Thorpe Award finalist Jourdan Lewis, Michigan should be more successful keeping the Buckeyes in check than they were last season, in a game that turned ugly.
But even if Michigan can slow down Barrett and company, will O'Korn (assuming that it's O'Korn and not Speight that gets the nod) and the Wolverine offense be able to do enough to propel the Wolverines past the Buckeyes? Michigan doesn't need to return to the high-flying, big-play offense it was a few weeks ago, but it does need to establish enough of a passing game and manufacture enough big plays to keep the Buckeyes from overloading the line against Smith and the Wolverines. The degree to which Michigan is able to do so will go a long way toward deciding this weekend's game - and each teams' season.