This season has always been about this game. For Michigan. For Ohio State. And now, after 11 weeks of preliminaries, the day - and the game - is finally here.
It’s often said that you can throw away the records when it comes to rivalry games. But in this case - this year - the records only add to the intrigue. Michigan and Ohio State each come into the game undefeated. Ranked #2 and #3 in the country. Since the two played each other last November, they’ve combined to go 24-1. And as each team inched its way through its respective undefeated season, it has done so with an eye toward Saturday. The road, for each team, has always led to this game.
For Michigan, however, it goes even deeper. Michigan was built for this match-up.
Physical, power-running football is in Jim Harbaugh’s DNA. It was at the core of his teams at Stanford and San Francisco, and it’s always been at the core of his teams at Michigan. But it’s even more than that. Harbaugh came to realize that his best chance to compete with Ohio State wasn’t to try to beat the high-flying Buckeyes at their own game and win a shootout, but rather by being the more physical team. Winning the battle in the trenches, Harbaugh realized, was the key. So he doubled down.
It took Harbaugh awhile to build the team he wanted, more time than most anticipated, but it finally came together last season. On a day that was a long time coming for Wolverine fans, Michigan’s physicality finally tipped the scales in the Wolverines’ favor. Michigan controlled the ball on offense, rushing for nearly 300 yards, and kept pressure on Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud all afternoon, en route to a convincing 42-27 victory.
But it’s not just Michigan that’s developed its team with an eye toward beating its rival. Ohio State has done so as well, albeit to a lesser extent.
Ohio State is viewed as being a wide open, offensive juggernaut, and not without reason. The Buckeyes come into this weekend’s game with the nation’s second highest scoring offense (just one point behind Tennessee). Ohio State has become Wide Receiver U in recent years and Stroud has reaped the benefits of quarterbacking a team with as much skill position talent as any in the country. Through 11 games, Stroud has passed for nearly 3,000 yards and 35 touchdowns.
It’s an explosive offense to be sure, one that throws the ball all over the field. But if you’ve watched closely, you noticed that the Buckeyes have focused on the run a little more this year. Last season, Ohio State averaged 32 rushes for just over 180 yards a game. This season, those numbers are 37 rushes for more than 200 yards a game. On the surface, that may not seem like very significant change. After all, it’s only an increase of roughly 15%. But it’s more than just numbers.
Former Georgia All American and current ESPN analyst David Pollack noted this week that, “They (Ohio State) are running the ball at a higher clip and into more heavy boxes (this season) because they know against Michigan at the end of the season, when physicality matters most, they have to be ready for that moment.” Pollack added, “Ohio State called its game plan this entire year with Michigan in mind.”
After a year of waiting - a year of preparing - the day and the game is finally here. So which team will emerge victorious? Which team will advance to Indianapolis and which team will see its season end in bitter disappointment? Will Michigan make it two in a row over the Buckeyes? Or will Ohio State wrest back control of the rivalry? We’ll find out soon. But it’s safe to assume that the team that prevails will be the one that wins the battle up front.