Ohio St.-Michigan Preview
It's rare for either side of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry to consider the outcome of another game as or more important than their annual regular-season finale. That's undeniably the case this season as Michigan's former quarterback returns to the rivalry, albeit nearly three decades later as a coach no longer interested in the guarantee he famously made good on as a player.
The winner of Saturday's meeting at Michigan Stadium will go to the Big Ten championship game, but that statement comes with a significant asterisk: The fine print reads Michigan State must lose at home to Penn State roughly three hours later for either the emerging Wolverines or the defending national champion Buckeyes to play the following week.
The Spartans moved into the East Division driver's seat with Saturday's 17-14 win at Ohio State (10-1, 6-1), dropping the Buckeyes to eighth in the latest AP poll and putting their chances of a repeat national championship, much less a Big Ten title, very much in doubt.
A few hours before, the now-12th ranked Wolverines (9-2, 6-1) kept hope alive with a 28-16 win at Penn State. Now, a second straight week of watching a game entirely out of their control could be in order if they can take care of Ohio State for just the second time in 12 years and first time since 2011.
There hasn't been this much on the line in the rivalry since then-No. 1 Ohio State knocked off No. 2 Michigan 42-39 at Ohio Stadium in 2006 to earn a date with Florida in the national title game. Then-Florida coach Urban Meyer ended that Buckeyes season in disappointment, and part of this year's storyline is Meyer, now leading Ohio State, squaring off with first-year Michigan coach and former quarterback Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh, however, isn't making much of the a potential coaching rivalry of two men born in the same Toledo hospital less than a year apart now coaching at schools they attended in some capacity.
"I always say my reaction to the coach-versus-coach buildup is he's not going to be blocking anybody, he's not going to be tackling anybody, I'm going to be over there standing on the sidelines blocking and tackling nobody," Harbaugh said.
Meyer, now in his fourth season with the Buckeyes after flipping them into an unbeaten, albeit bowl-ineligible team in his first season in 2012 following a 6-7 2011, didn't expect Harbaugh to need a buffer period to get the Wolverines back to this level of relevance after they went 5-7 in 2014.
"Oh, I'm not surprised at all," Meyer said. "I think they have excellent players. They are well coached. I have always, you know, checked the recruiting. I remember hearing, 'Well, they just don't have the personnel.' I am thinking, 'Wait a minute, they have great personnel.' They always have great personnel. Whether they are always playing great or whatever, that's a different answer, and obviously, they are playing very well right now."
Winning at the Big House hasn't been a problem for Ohio State in recent years with five victories in its last seven trips, but it could be tough to overcome a dismal offensive showing at home against Michigan State, particularly so on the road against a Michigan defense that ranks sixth in the FBS in scoring defense (14.9 points per game) and second in total offense (263.1).
Against the Spartans, the Buckeyes finished with five first downs and 132 yards of total offense, despite not turning the ball over. It led to running back Ezekiel Elliott criticizing the team's play calling. Meyer didn't disagree with him and said it won't carry over into the next game or be met with discipline.
"It's sealed, as far as our team and the team room is concerned in the locker room," Meyer said. "That kid you're talking about, he's one of my favorite of all times. He's good to go. And we're going to do our best to get ready to play this week."
Elliott had 12 carries for 33 yards after running for at least 101 in the previous 10 games this season, but Michigan also expects for the issue and any offensive concerns to be a thing of the past before the game.
"I think you see a bunch of guys that are passionate about winning over there," Michigan tight end Jake Butt said. "They're going to get that squared away."
The Wolverines held the Nittany Lions to 207 yards after being exposed the previous week by Indiana, and their offense did enough to get by with Jake Rudock throwing for 256 yards and two touchdowns to give them their fourth straight win following a heartbreaking last-second loss at home to Michigan State.
The graduate senior will be up against an Ohio State defense that operates on a level similar to Michigan's - second in points allowed (14.1) and eight in total offense (298.0) - bur Harbaugh has full confidence in the signal caller his teammates call "dad."
"Tough as a $2 steak doesn't do it real justice," Harbaugh said. "He has been a godsend for our football team."
The Wolverines, however, might also now need a divine favor from the Penn State team they just beat. And that'll only matter if they're able to shift the Big Ten's greatest rivalry back in their favor, which hasn't been the case since winning consecutive games at the end of the millennium.
Farther back than that, Heisman Trophy finalist Harbaugh helped Michigan win 26-24 at Ohio State in 1986 with the Buckeyes missing a field goal as time expired after Michigan's senior quarterback guaranteed a victory and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Meyer, then a graduate assistant with the Buckeyes, watched as Harbaugh narrowly made good on that. He didn't go as far with a prediction 29 years later.
"Beating Ohio State," Harbaugh said. "That's our mindset."