Three Keys to Ohio State-Michigan: Can Harbaugh, Wolverines End Skid vs. Buckeyes?

Can Michigan's offense match Ohio State's Chase Young-led defense? How will Justin Fields perform? And what if Jim Harbaugh goes 0–5 against the Buckeyes?
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It’s Thanksgiving week, which is also known as Rivalry Week in the college football world. Perhaps the most anticipated matchup this year comes down to No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 13 Michigan at The Big House. “The Game” is always one of the most intense clashes, but this time the storylines seem bigger than usual. Can Jim Harbaugh beat Ohio State? He’s 0–4 against the Buckeyes, a fact that drives the fan base crazy. Ohio State, meanwhile, has looked like the most complete team in the country, even after a rocky performance against Penn State last week. Can first-year head coach Ryan Day refocus his guys and correct any underlying problems to knock off their archrival?

For Michigan, a win would not just get the monkey off of Harbaugh’s back, but it could also vastly shake up the College Football Playoff picture. Ohio State has won every game by double digits, was recently rewarded with the No. 1 ranking by the playoff selection committee and clinched its spot in the Big Ten championship game. A loss here could potentially derail a dream season.

It’s going to be cold in Ann Arbor—it might snow—and there’s a lot on the line here. With all of that in mind, here are three things to keep your eye on as you watch this weekend:

1. Can Michigan Excel Against Ohio State’s Nasty Defense?

This is the big one. First of all, know that Michigan has drastically improved and been a different team since the Penn State game. After a near second-half comeback, the Wolverines have won four straight—including wins over Notre Dame and Michigan State—by an average of more than 30 points. Quarterback Shea Patterson has been sharper and takes shots downfield to a deep group of talented wide receivers including Nico Collins, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Ronnie Bell. Freshman Zach Charbonnet, who has the third-most rushing touchdowns in the Big Ten (11), leads the running game. In other words, this offense is not short on playmakers.

But can it keep rolling? What will be the Wolverines’ answer for a guy like Chase Young? Ohio State has the No. 1 defense in the country due in part to its star defensive end, who is not only projected to be a top pick in the 2020 NFL draft but is also impacting the Heisman Trophy discussion with his 16.5 sacks this season. How will Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis find ways to get Patterson, who can sometimes be shaky in the pocket, to evade Young and the Buckeyes’ pass rush? Or will Young and guys like Pete Werner and Malik Harrison force the QB into making mistakes? Patterson will need to get the ball out quickly and play smart. That will put the onus on Ohio State’s secondary—also ranked No. 1 in the country—and its coverage.

2. Will Justin Fields Make the Big Plays to Win?

The last time we saw Fields, he was gingerly jogging off the field after taking a sack late in the fourth quarter of the Penn State game. The Ohio State quarterback did not immediately get up, which briefly knocked the wind out of all Buckeyes fans. Athletic trainers went onto the field and after a quick evaluation, Fields ran back to the sideline on his own. Day said earlier this week he expects his QB to be fine.

Fields has been spectacular in his first season starting for Ohio State after transferring from Georgia in the offseason. His passing stats are unbelievable, with 33 touchdowns passes to just one interception in 252 attempts. He makes plays with his feet too—just last week against the Nittany Lions, Fields carried the ball a career-high 21 times.

Those weren’t all designed runs, although some were. Penn State forced Fields to use his legs more often and he did fumble twice, once at the goal line, showing he’s not invincible. As it has all year, Ohio State will rely on him to be effective on the run against Michigan’s fourth-ranked defense (a unit that undoubtedly will be looking to make up for the 62 points it gave up last year in Columbus).

The weather in Ann Arbor on Saturday won’t be favorable, with temperatures in the 30s and a forecast of rain and maybe snow. Fields never planned on playing for a cold-weather school and doesn’t have much experience playing in it other than the wet conditions he’s already slogged through this season (like Wisconsin and Penn State). Patterson, meanwhile, does have that experience. This will also be Fields’s first time playing in the rivalry. Can he make the plays he’s made all season in his biggest game to date?

3. What If Jim Harbaugh Goes to 0–5 vs. Buckeyes?

You may have heard that Harbaugh is 0–4 against Ohio State as Michigan’s head coach. You also may have heard that Michigan is 1–14 against Ohio State since 2003. Under Harbaugh, the Wolverines have flirted with the playoff race and looked like a championship caliber team. But Ohio State is always in the way.

Harbaugh has to figure out how to beat his divisional rival and he’s yet to do that. He’s made a lot of necessary changes over the years, especially by tinkering with his coaching staff. He hired Gattis away from Alabama in the offseason, changed the scheme, and gave the first-time coordinator play-calling responsibilities. Things got off to a very rough start, but now Michigan’s offense looks about what people expected when Harbaugh hired Gattis.

But what if this offense, no matter how good it is, just can’t shake Young and the Buckeyes' top-ranked defense? While no one is expecting another 62–39 blowout, what will the optics be if Harbaugh goes 0–5 against his program’s greatest threat? One argument is that Harbaugh should be judged by more than his record against Ohio State. He’s 47–16 and 32–11 in the Big Ten in almost five years back at his alma mater. He’s been more successful than many other top coaches at other top schools, he’s just not at the level of Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State.

Another opinion, however, is that this game means everything, and Michigan needs to win to feel better about the overall direction of the program and halt (at least for now) criticisms. Especially since Michigan returns the bulk of its talented skill players, the game is in Ann Arbor and Ohio State has both a first-year head coach and a first-year starting quarterback.

Michigan is 9–2 and has finally found its identity. The problem is, Ohio State happens to be the better team. Until Harbaugh’s team wins, the narrative will be driven by this game, whether that’s fair or not.

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