Defenses leading the way for Ohio State, Michigan
The stage is finally set for Michigan and Ohio State, and if their most recent work is any indication, points will be hard to come by next weekend at the Horseshoe.
The Buckeyes edged Michigan State 17-16 on Saturday, and then the Wolverines had problems of their own in a 20-10 victory over Indiana. What enabled Ohio State and Michigan to persevere was their defenses - specifically their ability to limit the passing game.
''Coming around this time in November, wins are hard to come by,'' Ohio State linebacker Chris Worley said. ''We'll take any win that we can.''
The Buckeyes stayed at No. 2 in Sunday's AP Top 25 , while the Wolverines moved up a spot to No. 3.
For a while this season, it looked as if Ohio State and Michigan might both be undefeated heading into the regular-season finale Saturday at Ohio Stadium. Both teams ran into roadblocks, however. The Buckeyes lost at Penn State on Oct. 22, a defeat that could keep Ohio State out of the Big Ten title game even if it wins next weekend.
Michigan, meanwhile, lost at Iowa on Nov. 12 and had to play backup quarterback John O'Korn against Indiana because of an injury to Wilton Speight. The Wolverines (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) managed only 59 yards passing against the Hoosiers, and Ohio State (10-1, 7-1) had just 86 against Michigan State.
So the defenses may be a step ahead in Saturday's matchup. Ohio State and Michigan are ranked 1-2 in the nation in passing efficiency defense, and Michigan is No. 1 in total defense and scoring defense.
The Wolverines are led by Jabrill Peppers, who roams as a linebacker, drops back as a slot cornerback and blitzes from the line. He also gives the defense a vocal and demonstrative leader.
''I'm kind of the energizer bunny,'' Peppers said after the win over Indiana.
The Wolverines also have an outstanding cornerback tandem in Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling. They rotate eight players on a deep and talented defensive line, which makes a lot of big plays but has struggled at times to stop running backs and quarterbacks from running to the outside and up the sideline.
That could be an issue against Ohio State running back Mike Weber and quarterback J.T. Barrett, both of whom rushed for over 100 yards against Michigan State.
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, feature a secondary that's stellar in its own right, with cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley and safeties Malik Hooker and Damon Webb making it tough for opponents to throw. Ohio State has returned a school-record six interceptions for touchdowns this season.
What hurt the Buckeyes against Michigan State were big plays. In the first minute of the game, they allowed a 64-yard touchdown to LJ Scott on a catch-and-run. Later in the first half, Scott broke free for a 61-yard run that set up a field goal.
''Come out next week playing kind of flat, giving up some runs like that, you obviously won't win like that,'' Ohio State defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis said. ''I give credit to Michigan State. That's a very, very good team, very physical team. You just have to correct the little things.''
The Spartans also had some success on the ground late in the game, scoring a touchdown with 4:41 remaining on a run by Scott. But Michigan State's 2-point conversion attempt failed, leaving Ohio State up by one, and when the Spartans got the ball back at the end, they were in their own territory and tried to pass. The result was a sack and an interception by Conley to seal the Buckeyes' victory.
A little while later, Michigan wrapped up its low-scoring, run-heavy game against Indiana on a blustery day with strong winds and snow. Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh sounded nostalgic.
''It felt like an old-fashioned slobberknocker,'' he said.
Next weekend's matchup might look and feel like one, too.
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25 .
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister