Breaking down the 104th installment of The Game.
1. Last week's lossess by both teams took away some of the luster, but there's still a ton on the line at The Big House. For the first time since 1959, both teams lost the game before their annual clash -- Juice Williams and Illinois put a major kink in the Buckeyes' BCS title game plans, while Wisconsin snapped the Wolverines' eight-game winning streak. But considering how unappealing this matchup was looking two weeks into the season (with conference favorite Michigan losing to Appalachian State and Oregon), having this one decide the Big Ten title for the 43rd time and a Rose Bowl bid -- which the BCS era has turned into a possible consolation prize for the Buckeyes, a notion that's enough to make Woody Hayes turn over in his grave -- brings fitting drama to college football's best rivalry.
2. Lloyd Carr's future is the biggest underlying story. The vultures have been circling the Michigan coach since that 0-2 start, making one wonder if The Clash's Should I Stay or Should I Go is running on repeat in the Michigan coach's Schembechler Hall office. According to MGoBlog, which cites three unnamed sources, Carr will announce his retirement next week. Whether there's any validity to those rumors or not, this is the biggest chance the Wolverines have to show the program isn't crumbling beneath Carr's feet. Michigan's heralded seniors repeatedly mentioned one huge goal before the season: beating the Buckeyes for the first time. They'll be focused on either sending Carr off in a blaze of glory, or reaffirming his coaching chops, whether he opts for retirement or not.
3. Ohio State's defense faded at the end of 2006. Should we be worried about that happening again? Last season, the Buckeyes entered the Michigan game allowing 7.8 points and 261 yards a game, then proceeded to yield 39 points and 397 to the Wolverines. Seven weeks later, they gave up 41 points to Florida in the national title game. Ohio State went into last Saturday's game No. 1 in scoring defense (9.7 ppg), rush defense (65) and total defense (221), then watched Illinois put up 28 points, 260 rushing yards and 400 total yards. Most alarmingly, the Illini exposed a front four that had just one tackle. (Though it was the first time this season the Buckeyes had faced a spread option team and a run-first QB.) But unlike last season, when the Buckeyes had a long break between their regular season finale and the national title game, they have a chance to atone for their lackluster performance immediately. They face a Wolverines attack that's far different and more conventional than the Illini and could be without RB Mike Hart (high right-ankle sprain) and QB Chad Henne (right shoulder injury). In a move fitting the Cold War tactics that come with the matchup, Carr has been non-committal on each player's status.
How do you stop a balanced Buckeyes offense led by running back Chris Wells and quarterback Todd Boeckman? We asked an assistant coach from one of Ohio State's opponents to give us an anonymous scouting report. Here's what he had to say:
"They're not a spread team, they're still pretty traditional, so it allows you to load up in the box a little bit and commit your resources and concentrate on, really it's just the one running back.
"Chris Wells, something we noticed on film, if you hit him straight on, you can't tackle him. You gotta hit him on the side. You have to hit him low and you have to grab cloth. We really worked and emphasized on not taking direct shots at him. The other backs are just traditional kinds of runners and not as hard to get down, but Wells ... you gotta really concentrate on bringing him to the ground.
"You gotta stop the run on first down. Once you get them in a situation where it's not a 50-50 down, you can come after them a little bit. [Boeckman] is a good quarterback. He's real accurate. He stands tall in the pocket. But like a lot of guys, if you make him move his feet, he's not nearly as effective as he can be. You have to take away his first choice. If you can get after him or make him look to his second choice, he's probably not playing as effective.
"Michigan's got the athletes and the talent up front to neutralize them up front, collar them and then, obviously, get after them. But the key will be to neutralize or stop Wells on first down. If they can do that, and can get Boeckman in a predictable passing situation, you have a better chance of slowing that offense down, because it is a multi-faceted offense that has a lot of talent."
Ohio State 27, Michigan 24. Carr used to own this rivalry, winning five of six against John Cooper, but he has seen his record sink to 6-6 since Jim Tressel came to Columbus in '01. It would be one of the biggest stories of the year if Carr turns the Wolverines from punchline to Big Ten champs in a matter of 12 weeks. But Ohio State has been dominant against more traditional offenses this season, allowing 16 points and 268 yards. That, of course, could mean little in this rivalry game, but OSU's defense should rebound and book Tressel's fifth BCS ticket.