Rapp Around: Winning Formula For The Game

By Jeff Rapp, November 24th, 2018

History says to throw the records out when it comes to the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. One also can make the case that the games leading into the regular-season finale aren’t always an accurate predictor for The Game.

Who’s favored, who’s “due,” which team is home, who has more reason for motivation, they sometimes play a role in the final outcome, but not always.

A couple UM players have popped off and basically guaranteed victory, a ploy that blew up in the face of wide receiver Walter Smith in 1994 (who didn’t even play that year). Then again, OSU star wideouts Terry Glenn and David Boston tried to denigrate The Team Up North in the ill-fated 1990s, which still is a sore spot for Buckeye fans.

In recent years alone, we’ve seen inexperienced coaches, veteran coaches, wild shootouts, defensive struggles, ejections, heated postgame comments, a game that went down to a two-point conversion attempt in Ann Arbor and a double-overtime nail-biter in Columbus.

Some things are constant with this series. It’s always the home team’s Senior Day, a national television audience is always glued to it, bragging rights and, usually, a date in the Big Ten Championship Game are on the line. Sure enough, the winner will face West Division champ Northwestern in Indianapolis on Dec. 2.

And while all of that pressure and those external forces seem to heap much more onto this series, it still, eventually, becomes a game – one which goes down to blocking, tackling, toughness, execution and fundamentals. Yes, it’s about making plays, but also getting stops.

There’s a reason why Michigan is favored this time – the Wolverines have been more consistent in all of the above categories and they have a nasty defense that has held up throughout the entire campaign. When you add in that UM hasn’t won in Columbus since 2000 and is on a self-proclaimed “revenge tour,” it appears the visitors are extremely poised to take care of business.

The Buckeyes have an identical overall record of 10-1 but are No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings compared to UM’s No. 4 showing, which is based, again, on the strength of Michigan’s defense as well as the fact that Jim Harbaugh’s lone defeat was at No. 3 Notre Dame while Ohio State was barbecued at Purdue a few weeks ago.

Considering the Buckeyes also looked extremely mortal in a wild 52-51 triumph at Maryland last week and that their offensive line suddenly is springing leaks, it’s downright sensible that oddsmakers have UM -4 or -4.5 depending upon where you look.

The last time the Buckeyes were the underdog in The Game was in 2011 when coach Luke Fickell brought an extremely flawed team into Ann Arbor. Urban Meyer replaced him days later and has amassed a 6-0 record as OSU head coach in the series.

So history tells us a lot, mostly that assuming a certain outcome based on traditional factors is unreliable at best. However, the Buckeyes are going to have to rediscover some success in the trenches and take advantage of opportunities to even think about winning this game.

The following are a few key factors for Ohio State entering the big tussle on Saturday (noon Eastern, FOX):

1. Get the UM offense off the field.

This may sound obvious but it will be doubly important in this contest. Michigan wants to run clock, pound the football and hit a deep shot or two to stretch out a suspect secondary. Harbaugh wants this game to feel like the one he won in 1986, with Michigan absorbing a few blows and controlling the football.

His play-calling will have intent to keep Shea Patterson and the offense in good down-and-distance situations. If UM converts at a 50-percent clip or better, Michigan’s chances at victory go up considerably. Plus, long sustained drives would be frustrating to Meyer and the Buckeyes, who were under major duress in recent weeks and appear ready to crack.

But there is even more hidden importance in not allowing Michigan to win the time of possession – and that is making sure an elite Michigan defense doesn’t play with fresh legs all afternoon. As good as the UM defenders are as a unit, they still will be challenged by an Ohio State offense that is among the best in the nation and a quarterback, Dwayne Haskins, who has been magnificent all season.

Any defense – even a very physical, connected, swarming defense – can be worn down. That’s exactly what the Buckeyes need to do to this unit.

Which leads to …

2. Run the ball effectively.

That, by the way, includes Haskins, who found some sea legs at Maryland and said he wanted to prove he could hurt the Terrapins with his legs as well as his arms. The Buckeyes also just got a 200-plus-yard day from J.K. Dobbins last week and would like to keep springing him for big gainers.

That won’t be easy against UM, of course, but abandoning the running game, even if the Buckeyes fall behind, figures to be doom against a Michigan team that knows what to do when it smells blood. In fact, making Ohio State one-dimensional is probably already on the chalkboard in the team meeting room in Ann Arbor.

Even though Haskins is Ohio State’s top weapon, he can’t just hurl it all over the lot on Saturday. Holding up in the trenches is essential, and the OSU offensive line can do everyone in scarlet a lot of good by coming through with at least an adequate run-blocking day.

Detroit product Mike Weber is healthy according to Meyer and could be a huge key as he was against that other team from Up North. Weber averaged 5.6 yards per carry compared to Dobbins’ 4.7 and is much more than just a changeup back.

Michigan is disruptive defensively, but a solid rushing attack by the Buckeyes can offset much of that pressure. So can solid field position, which leads to …

3. Win the special teams.

There are a lot of ways the Buckeyes can swing the game in their favor on kicking plays. They have dangerous returners and have improved on kickoff coverage this year. Also, punter Drue Chrisman has been borderline spectacular, especially when it comes to downing the ball inside the 10-yard line.

Harbaugh is going to be more patient and less inclined to gamble if he’s backed up in his own end at the start of several possessions, and that could lead to point No. 1.

Meyer isn’t real keen on settling for field goals and knows his bread is buttered with big plays in the passing game, but he’s going to have to take three-pointers when warranted, and that means Blake Haubeil could become very important. Haubeil has taken over for an injured Sean Nuernberger and is 7 of 9 on field-goal tries this season.

I’ve seen a lot of games in the Horseshoe in the last three decades and one of the most electrifying plays I’ve ever seen was when Teddy Ginn Jr. took a punt return to the house against UM in 2004. The Buckeyes were underdogs in that game, by the way, and knocked off a very good Michigan team.

Which leads to …

4. Play off a capacity crowd that knows it needs to offer some extra encouragement.

Kirk Herbstreit said it the other night – the OSU fans have to rev up Ohio Stadium and help the effort. He knows of which he speaks, of course. In 1992, Ohio State was not expected to hang with Michigan but the crowd was phenomenal that day and the Buckeyes played their guts out in a game that ended – famously or infamously – in a tie.

I will never forget the spent expression on the face of Herbstreit when the game ended. He wept because he didn’t get to savor a victory in the series but he left it all on the field.

The 2018 Buckeyes need to have that same attitude. They may think it’s their birthright to always win this game but they are in for a rude awakening if they don’t play with some fierce desperation this time. Michigan has a quarterback now. And a coach. And a plan. And a solid offensive line. And a nasty defense.

Just pulling on buckeye-covered helmet alone isn’t going to get it done, which leads to …

5. Fundamentals, folks.

Press clippings about recruiting classes and highlight reels from September don’t mean much now. Plus, the Buckeyes aren’t a light-switch team, anyway.

Certainly, they have ample talent and the performances in the second half of some of the bigger games this year have been admirable and shown an ability to adapt. But this is The Game. You can’t just show up for part of it. You can’t forget how to block and tackle for half the game. You can’t, as a linebacking corps, for example, wait until late in the second half to make any sort of mark on the game, which is what the Buckeye ’backers did last week.

The Wolverines are going to be hungry. They are going to be focused. They are going to be physical. And they are going to come after Haskins every chance they get. The Buckeyes can’t take plays off, jump offsides, arm tackle and get lost in coverage and think they are going to live to tell about it.

They can win this game, but they are going to have to match their opponents on the attention-to-detail dial, which leads to …

6. Make the timely plays.

That’s this series in a nutshell. The talent almost always is equivalent. And the outcome doesn’t necessarily depend on recent weeks or recent years.

The Buckeyes will need to make the right plays – both momentum-building and momentum-quashing – at the right times. That can be a key defensive stop, a big sack, an important kick return, a timely takeaway, a goal-line stand, a tiptoe catch near the sideline, a screen pass called at just the right time, a QB run when the defense wasn’t expecting it, etc.

Michigan appears to have on-paper advantages up front and that isn’t easily overcome, but the Wolverines haven’t seen a defensive line that includes Chase Young and Dre’Mont Jones or a QB who can sling it like Haskins.

Plus, their heartbeat player on defense, defensive end Chase Winovich, is hurting. UM won’t give many specifics but we are hearing it’s an upper-body injury that is causing him lots of discomfort. Defensive tackle Aubrey Solomon also is questionable and there are reports right tackle Juwann Bushell-Beatty also is dealing with an injury.

Fewer healthy players could mean fewer chances for UM to make the timely plays, but the Buckeyes still will have to seize the moment and somehow overcome their issues along the offensive line and in the back seven defensively.

The again, as good as Michigan is on that side of the ball, they can be hurt by the OSU passing game, which includes a fleet of receivers who can do damage in space down the field. We’ve seen the UM secondary get a little too handsy at times, so how the game is officiated could be important.

Also, it’s worth noting that UM hasn’t always been a fast starter this season. Early problems and the occasional inability to finish drives will give the Buckeyes even more chance to stay in this game and feed off of their crowd.

Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown has reached God-like status in Ann Arbor and is the odds-on favorite to win the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. But he’s got one more major challenge in front of him before anyone up north can think about punching tickets to the playoffs.

Meanwhile, running back Karan Higdon is one of the Wolverines who has promised a Maize and Blue victory and no doubt will receive some attention from the OSU defense.

Michigan is loaded with all-conference talent including left guard Ben Bredeson, defensive end Rashan Gary, linebacker Devin Bush and safety Josh Metellus. The UM wideouts are playmakers and their corners are about to make money in the NFL.

Gary is an absolute load who has amassed 114 tackles, 22 TFLs and 9.5 sacks in three years. But if Winovich doesn’t play and the UM offensive line isn’t up to snuff, that star power won’t be a guarantee of success.

On the other hand, if the Buckeyes struggle to block anybody and can’t slow down the UM run game then Patterson’s confidence will reach a Harbaugh level of cockiness and OSU is in for a painful day.

Can they beat Michigan for the 16th time in 18 tries? Yes, they can. But it will be far from easy.