It wasn’t supposed to play out this way. Not this year. Not this team. Sure, Ohio State entered the season ranked in the top five, but the Buckeyes were joined there by Big Ten rival Wisconsin, not Michigan, with Penn State further down the top ten and Michigan State just outside. It wasn’t supposed to be Michigan’s year.
Michigan brought back the majority of its starting line-up in 2018, including the lion’s share of what was a top five defense the previous season, but Michigan had an elite defense in 2017, and issues up front and under center derailed the Wolverines, leading to a season-ending, three-game losing streak. Would this season be any different?
Michigan believed it had its quarterback in transfer Shea Patterson, but when the Wolverines dropped their season opener to Notre Dame, a game that wasn’t as close as the 24-17 final score might suggest, it looked more like a continuation of last season than the beginning of a new one. The same old problems plagued the Wolverines, namely difficulties at the point of attack on offense and the inability to get off the field on defense. Michigan’s performance in South Bend did not bode well for a turnaround in Ann Arbor, and the loss dropped the Wolverines out of the top 20.
After the Notre Dame game, Michigan’s Karan Higdon said the loss was just one game. That it was just the beginning and not the end for the Wolverines, and that the loss would not define Michigan’s season. It sounded good, but what was Higdon supposed to say? At the time, few put much stock into Higdon’s words. But as the season progressed, a funny thing happened, the Wolverines started to prove Higdon right.
At a time when few people outside the Michigan locker room could have anticipated it, Michigan started playing better. Most importantly, the Wolverines started blocking better. After the Wisconsin game, Higdon described Michigan’s offensive line as the best in the country. It was a statement that would have been laughable last season, but became less funny, less absurd, with each passing week. And after amassing 285, 183 and 259 yards on the ground in consecutive weeks against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State respectively, Michigan’s men up front were starting backing up their tailback’s claim.
As the offense was finding its footing, Michigan’s defense, to borrow a phrase from Penn State’s James Franklin, was making the leap from great to elite. Long dominant, defensive coordinator Don Brown’s charges have been nothing short of suffocating this season. After struggling to get off the field at key moments in prior years, this year’s Wolverine defense flipped the script and has applied a stranglehold on opposing offenses. Michigan fields the nation’s top ranked defense and is among the leaders in third down conversions, allowing opponents to convert just over 30% of all third downs.
Michigan’s defense has been described many ways by many people, but perhaps never more colorfully than by ESPN’s David Pollack, a former All-American linebacker who simply called Michigan’s defense “filthy.” It’s that filthy defense that gives Michigan its best chance to win in Columbus since, well, the last time they were there, when a senior-laden Wolverine team came inches, or a fraction of an inch to be more precise, short in a double-overtime loss to the Bucks. In that game, the Wolverines had to contend with three-time all-conference quarterback JT Barrett and a talented supporting cast, and they’ll have their hands full again this year.
Michigan enters the game as a road favorite and is playing as well as any team in the country. And last week’s Indiana game notwithstanding, the Wolverines are peaking at the right time. However, despite being the favorite, the Wolverines shouldn’t be overconfident. Because while much has been made of Ohio State’s struggles this year, the Buckeyes still enter the game at 10-1 and possess the most prolific passing offense Ohio State or Urban Meyer has ever had. Ohio State may have been embarrassed by Purdue and struggled to get past Michigan State, Nebraska and more recently and famously, Maryland, but the Buckeyes are still loaded, especially on the offensive side of the ball. And this is the Game. This is Michigan. There is little doubt that Meyer and the Buckeyes will give the Wolverines their best effort of the season.
So here we are. The Game. Two top ten, 10-1 teams. ESPN’s gameday crew in Columbus. A shot at the conference championship and a likely spot in the college football playoff hang in the balance. A lot on the line, to be sure. But for Michigan, all of that is secondary. For Michigan, this is about beating Ohio State. Higdon was right, Michigan’s season opener didn’t define its season. But this game will. The final – and most important – stop on Michigan’s Revenge Tour.