What we learned last week:
Never get too comfortable when a rivalry is at hand. Yeah, I know, we should have known – but we learned again.
While I started last week thinking the usual “Anything can happen in a rivalry” stuff, by the end of the week I had convinced myself that was mostly silly superstition.
It’s not that I thought Michigan had no chance of winning, it’s that I felt like my projections about what would happen had become more pragmatic, and I was kind of proud of that. I mean anyone can say, “Expect the unexpected when! Throw out the records when these teams get together!” and stuff like that, so why bother, right?
The real deciding factor for me was looking at the line play of both teams and concluding that was something that usually translates pretty well from game to game with more regularity than anything else.
And when it comes to the Ohio State offensive line and the Michigan defensive line, that was certainly the case Saturday. The Buckeyes ran through, around and over the Wolverines with a combination of great blocking from the line, power and speed from Carlos Hyde and elusiveness from Braxton Miller.
That was why I had no doubt the Buckeyes were going to score again after Michigan tied the game at 35.
What was surprising was how well Michigan managed to block Ohio State, although that was partly a matter of offensive coordinator Al Borges picking his spots well. He probably still tried to go off tackle or up the middle from the I formation a few too many times, but the Wolverines did have some success with misdirection and even simply cleared a few holes for their running backs.
Michigan’s running totals (152 yards on 35 carries) were not spectacular, but they are notable when a team has been as bad at running the ball as Michigan was for most of the season.
For the most part, Borges drew up exactly the type of plan Michigan needed to be successful against Ohio State, and the Wolverines executed it at a high level. Spread the defense out, let quarterback Devin Gardner distribute it and hope for the best. That’s not the type of identity Borges and head coach Brady Hoke want for the Wolverines, but it’s what their personnel dictates can work.
As I wrote last week, there are talented players on the Michigan offense, and they came to play last Saturday.
Of course, this probably should have been just a good day and not a historically great one for the Michigan offense. Ohio State allowed far too many big plays because of missed tackles and failure to get off blocks. There were some nice gains that became huge ones and conversions that should not have happened if someone finished a play.
The absence of Christian Bryant and later Curtis Grant was not hard to see, though the defensive line continued to be a strength even as miscues behind that unit hurt the Buckeyes over and over.
I don’t think Ohio State overlooked Michigan, but the Buckeyes might have panicked when they saw the Wolverines draw first blood. Then they pressed, playing right into a Borges game plan built on taking advantage of the aggressiveness Ohio State has been adding to its attack for the past month or so.
The unit stabilized and played well for most of the second and third quarters then might have taken its foot off the gas once the Buckeyes took the lead. By then Michigan had been successful enough it could play with some confidence, and Hyde’s fumble seemed to liven up the Wolverines.
That’s not unusual for any game, but where the rivalry aspect probably came into play was during the week. It’s not hard to drift during a long regular season, but Michigan obviously looked like a team that prepared well during the week for how it wanted to attack Ohio State and executed its plan.
It bodes well for the future of the program, and I don’t think either team on the field in Ann Arbor on Saturday showed how good it can be ultimately.
What we can expect to learn this week:
Which unit is the best in the Big Ten: The Ohio State offense or the Michigan State defense?
This is a delicious matchup, and it comes as part of the rare occasion that a conference championship game actually serves as a useful tool. There is a tie in the standings that needs breaking with two undefeated teams left in the Big Ten, and unlike the first two years, this one cannot undue the result of a regular season matchup.
I believe both the Ohio State offense and Michigan State defense are legitimately great outfits, but it is fair to question just how tested either of them is. That’s probably true of a lot of units across the country based on the way talent is distributed and schedules are laid out, though.
The Spartans have shown over the past few seasons they know how to deal with a spread offense, not just beat up people in a box. They gave the Buckeyes fits in East Lansing last season, though that was an admittedly one-dimensional attack compared to what Ohio State has been able to do this season.
We’ll also find out how hard it is to bounce back quickly from a game as emotional and physical as the Ohio State-Michigan game. The Buckeyes have not had to worry about since before Woody Hayes roamed the sidelines in Columbus, but they will probably be able to handle it given the mood they were shortly after The Game was over.
Judging by their reaction to the end of the Iron Bowl, they should have an emotional lift from having their dreams of making the BCS national championship game looking as tangible as ever, too.
With two strong units coming together when Ohio State has the ball, might it come down to whether or not the Michigan State offense or Ohio State defense has the better night in Indianapolis? That is a possibility for sure.
Although watching them get shredded in Ann Arbor was a bit shocking, I think the Buckeye defense can bounce back, especially if Grant is back to shore up the middle linebacker spot.
Given its youth and Meyer’s talent for developing players, the defense could be less of a liability – putting aside the potential talent of the competition – in a national championship than it is this week in Indianapolis. A month to rest and work on weaknesses could mean we see a different version of the Silver Bullets by the time January rolls around, but that is getting ahead of ourselves.
First there is a game to be played for a Big Ten championship.