After his team had thoroughly mauled Ohio State in the trenches last November, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh unleashed a verbal uppercut to the breadbasket of his counterpart Ryan Day.
The jubilant Harbaugh was reveling in his first victory over the Buckeyes since assuming control of his alma mater in 2015 and fired a shot across the bow that added another layer of rhetorical rocketry to this storied rivalry.
“Sometimes people that are standing on third base think they hit a triple, you know?” Harbaugh said after his team’s 42-27 win at Michigan Stadium. “But they didn’t.”
Harbaugh’s quip seemed to insinuate Day was rather fortunate to be named head coach at Ohio State after two years as the team’s offensive coordinator. And earlier this week, Harbaugh acknowledged the remark carried retaliatory motives for Day’s comment about wanting to “hang 100” points on the Wolverines in 2020. Tit-for-tat, apparently.
This year, Harbaugh sang a far different tune in his weekly news conference to preview the first undefeated matchup between Ohio State and Michigan since 2006. He pushed aside an opportunity to expound on the third base comment in favor of more respectful comments about the Buckeyes, their players and the spectacle of two unbeaten teams vying for a trip to the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. The Wolverines, he said, were a collection of “happy warriors on a happy mission.”
“It’s a tremendous team,” Harbaugh said, “and we’re very grateful to be in this position, to be able to play in this game. Winner takes the East, winner takes all right there. Strong opponent. It’s the kind of situation that gives you the opportunity to display how strong our team is. There’s no need to hate. Be grateful for the opponent. It’s like superheroes: It’s through a strong opponent that you get to find out who you are.
“They’ve got great players; we’ve got great players. They have great coaches; we have great coaches. They have players with Heisman habits, we have players with Heisman habits. Congratulations. Be grateful to have the opportunity to play in this kind of big game.”
The Game: Ohio State, Michigan to square off
RJ Young is joined by Geoff Schwartz to preview the biggest game of the college football season between Michigan and Ohio State.
So with that as the backdrop, here’s a scouting report for The Game:
When Michigan has the ball: So much of Michigan’s identity has centered on its tremendous running back Blake Corum, who ranks fourth nationally in rushing with 1,457 yards and tied for second in rushing touchdowns with 18. Between rushes and receptions, Corum has touched the ball on 57.1% of his 448 snaps this season.
This is why the entirety of Michigan’s fan base felt their stomachs drop last Saturday against Illinois when Corum crashed to the turf grabbing his left knee shortly before halftime. And while he made a brief return at the start of the second half, Corum removed himself from the game because of lingering discomfort. Harbaugh told reporters there was no structural damage to Corum’s knee and hasn’t provided any updates since.
“He’s a great player,” Day said earlier this week. “We’re going to prepare for him to play, we expect him to play. We will do the best we can. They are a good offense and have plenty of running backs, plenty of good players. While he is very, very good, we will continue to prepare for all of them.”
If Corum is unavailable or inhibited, the preferred replacement would be former five-star prospect Donovan Edwards — a player averaging 6.7 yards per carry on 70 attempts this season, and someone who offers a legitimate threat in the passing game. But Edwards sustained an undisclosed injury in Michigan’s win over Nebraska earlier this month and missed last week’s home finale against Illinois. As with Corum, his status for the showdown in Columbus is unclear.
That heaps even more pressure on sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy to pass with better accuracy than he’s exhibited the last few games. McCarthy completed at least 69% of his passes in the first seven starts of his career but has topped 53% just once in the last month. His series of pressure-packed throws in the final minutes against Illinois gives McCarthy something to build from.
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When Ohio State has the ball: The last two games for freshman tailback Dallan Hayden quelled the nerves of a program hampered by injury woes at running back. Primary ball carriers TreVeyon Henderson (foot) and Miyan Williams (lower-body injury) have bounced in and out of the lineup seemingly all season, but Hayden proved just how deep the talent runs in Columbus by gaining a combined 248 yards and four touchdowns in wins over Indiana and Maryland. Watching Illinois tailback Chase Brown carve out 140 yards and two touchdowns against a stout Michigan defense should offer the Buckeyes a boost in confidence.
The more interesting matchups are in the passing game, where Day and quarterback C.J. Stroud should be able to dictate the looks they prefer. Michigan’s co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale prefers keeping his cornerbacks to one side of the field for an entire possession rather than having them follow certain wide receivers. The strategy protects the Wolverines from getting caught out of position against up-tempo offenses, but it also affords opposing teams the chance to influence defensive assignments.
Michigan rotates three players through its two perimeter corner spots, with veterans DJ Turner and Gemon Green earning most of the snaps. Turner and Green have combined to allow just 38 catches on 85 passes thrown their way for 492 yards and three touchdowns. Quarterbacks have a better NFL passer rating targeting Green (87.2) than Turner (59.6) this season, according to PFF.
How well the Buckeyes push the ball downfield to their talented receiving corps figures to be an interesting subplot. Stroud has completed 23 of 51 passes traveling at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage for 836 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception. The defense of Michigan defensive coordinator Jesse Minter has only conceded 22 passes of 20-plus yards all season.
“I talked about players who have Heisman habits,” Harbaugh said. “They have players who have Heisman habits; we have players who have Heisman habits. No question C.J. Stroud and (wideout) Marvin Harrison Jr. have Heisman habits. Tremendous players.”
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Players to watch
Michigan edge rusher Mike Morris: The two storylines that emerged from Michigan’s snow-swept win over Ohio State last season were the bludgeoning running of tailback Hassan Haskins (169 yards, five TDs) and the unblockable performances from edge-rushing tandem Aidan Hutchinson (15 pressures, three sacks) and David Ojabo (four pressures, one sack).
With Hutchinson and Ojabo now plying their trade in the NFL, the alpha role was passed down to Morris, who leads the Wolverines in both pressures (35) and sacks (seven) so far this season. With his 6-foot-6, 292-pound frame, Morris is significantly bigger than his predecessors but has tormented opposing offensive lines to a similar degree. Minter uses Morris as a traditional edge rusher, a hand-in-the-dirt interior rusher, and even drops him into coverage at times on zone pressures.
Morris missed the win over Illinois with a lower-body injury he described as a tweak during a radio appearance last week. He’s expected to be in uniform this weekend, though it’s unclear whether he’ll have the same explosiveness he’s shown all season.
Ohio State safety Lathan Ransom: The arrival of new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State ushered in a transformation that has improved the Buckeyes from 59th in total defense a year ago to ninth this season. Penn State and Maryland are the only teams to score more than 21 points against Knowles’ toughened, more fundamentally sound unit.
Among the keys to the defensive turnaround is Knowles’ use of three safeties on the field at the same time, with Ransom, Ronnie Hickman and Tanner McCalister — who followed his former coordinator from Oklahoma State — becoming impact playmakers in the box, in the slot and in the deeper portions of the field most often associated with their positions. The trio has combined for five interceptions, three sacks, six passes defended, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Ransom, a junior, might be the most versatile of the safeties given how many places he’s lined up this season. His 490 defensive snaps have been split between alignments in the box (212 snaps), slot corner (100 snaps), wide corner (14 snaps) and free safety (156 snaps), according to Pro Football Focus). Opposing offense have thrown Ransom’s way 25 times this season, and while 17 of those passes were completed — a 72% clip much higher than coaches would like — the completions only gained 112 yards and haven’t produced a touchdown. Quarterbacks have an NFL passer rating of 64.1 when throwing at Ransom, and that’s good enough for No. 2 in the OSU secondary behind McCalister at 51.6.
He also blocked a punt during last week’s win over Maryland.
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Michigan center Olu Oluwatimi: The transfer from Virginia has been preparing for Saturday’s game with a heavy heart following the horrific mass shooting at his former school in which three football players were killed. In addition, Harbaugh told reporters Oluwatimi’s father recently underwent a successful procedure to remove a brain tumor. As important as the showdown with Ohio State may seem, Oluwatimi’s mind is being pulled in multiple directions.
On the field, Oluwatimi’s stellar play has taken an already talented offensive line to a new level in 2022. He is the ninth highest-graded center in the country among players with at least 700 snaps, according to PFF, with a run-blocking mark that ranks eighth nationally and a pass-blocking mark tied for 24th — all of which exceed what last year’s center Andrew Vastardis did in a very solid campaign. Oluwatimi has yet to allow a sack this season and has surrendered just five quarterback hits.
“He has the strength of 10 men,” Harbaugh said after the win over Illinois. “I have so much admiration for him and I will forever be proud to be his friend.”
Ohio State tight end Cade Stover: The senior from Mansfield, Ohio, has emerged as a reliable target for Stroud as defenses dedicate more and more attention to Harrison and the Buckeyes’ other perimeter threats. Stover ranks third on the team in catches (31) and fourth in both receiving yards (386) and receiving touchdowns (five), three of which came in the last four games.
At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, Stover has a slightly shorter and thicker build than many modern tight ends but uses his strength to break tackles at an impressive rate. His average of 6.1 yards after contact per reception ranks eighth nationally among tight ends with at least 40 receptions, according to PFF, and 49% of his total yards were gained after the first collision with a defender. Eighteen of his 31 receptions have picked up first downs this season.
“There’s not a tougher guy in the country than Cade Stover,” Day said on his radio show earlier this week.
Michigan: The biggest questions for Michigan are in the backfield, where Corum (knee) and Edwards (undisclosed injury) will likely be less than 100% if they’re available for Saturday’s game. Corum suffered his injury in last week’s win over Illinois, while Edwards dropped out of the win over Nebraska earlier this month. The other major injury concern involves tight end Luke Schoonmaker, who has missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury. Schoonmaker is a featured target for McCarthy, especially on third downs, and is second on the team with 30 catches for 315 yards and two touchdowns. Punt returner and gadget receiver A.J. Henning is also questionable with an undisclosed injury after missing the previous game.
Ohio State: There is uncertainty in Ohio State’s backfield as well with primary runners Henderson (107 carries, 571 yards, six TDs) and Williams (117 carries, 783 yards, 13 TDs) both battling injuries for much of the season. Henderson, who is believed to be dealing with a foot problem, carried 11 times for 19 yards last week against Maryland but was unable to finish the game. Williams is also dealing with a lower-body injury and hasn’t played since the first half of Ohio State’s win over Indiana on Nov. 12. The great unknown is whether star wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba (hamstring) will be available for the first time since Oct. 22 when he aggravated an injury that originated in the season opener against Notre Dame. He has just five catches for 43 yards in 2022.
12: The number of meetings between Michigan and Ohio State with both programs ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll, which is the most of any rivalry in college football. The Buckeyes hold a 7-3-1 edge in those matchups.
10: The number of consecutive wins for McCarthy since beating Cade McNamara for the top spot on the QB depth chart after Week 2. He has matched Dennis Franklin’s mark for the most wins without a loss to begin a starting quarterback’s career in Michigan school history.
8: The number of consecutive games won by Ohio State over Michigan at Ohio Stadium. The Wolverines’ last win in Columbus was a 38-26 victory in 2000. Michigan owns the rivalry’s longest overall win streak at nine consecutive games from 1901-09.
27.6: The average margin of victory for Michigan this season during an 11-0 start. The Wolverines are one of three teams with average scoring margins larger than plus-25 this season alongside Georgia (plus-26.7) and Ohio State (plus-29.5). Those are also the only three teams to have outscored their respective opponents by more than 300 points in 2022: Georgia plus-300; Michigan plus-304; Ohio State plus-325.
2: The number of years when Michigan and Ohio State did not play each other in the regular season finale since 1935. The first exception came in 1942, when the Buckeyes ended the year against Iowa Pre-Flight in what finished as the school’s first Associated Press national title. The second exception came in 2020 during the pandemic-shortened campaign. Michigan and Ohio State haven’t played in Columbus since 2018.