'The Game' returns, with everything riding on it for Ohio State and Michigan

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio State plays Michigan at noon on Saturday as the Buckeyes look to finish the 2021 regular season undefeated against the Big Ten Conference. 

“The Game” has more meaning this season not just because the Big Ten East title is on the line, but because both teams enter the matchup ranked inside the College Football Playoff’s top-five.

The last time either team was in the CFP’s top 10 in the matchup was the 2017 epic that went into double overtime. 

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Ohio State won that game, just like they have the last eight meetings against the Wolverines.

Here is the scouting report for Saturday's Ohio State-Michigan game:

The last meeting between OSU and Michigan

In 2019, Ohio State took a 21-3 early lead and rolled to a 56-27 victory in Ann Arbor behind 211 rushing yards and four touchdowns by running back J.K. Dobbins. Justin Fields threw for four touchdowns and 302 yards, one of which came after he suffered an injury scare. Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson did his best to keep the Wolverines in it by throwing for 305 yards against a depleted Buckeyes secondary.

It was the eighth consecutive victory by Ohio State in the series. The OSU-Michigan game last year was canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak among the Wolverines.

State of the Buckeyes

Ohio State is coming off its most complete performance of the season, a 56-7 blowout of then-No. 7 Michigan State. The Buckeyes scored touchdowns on their first seven touchdowns to take a 49-0 halftime lead. OSU’s defense held Heisman hopeful Kenneth Walker III to only 25 rushing yards in six carries, aided by the huge Buckeye lead that forced the Spartans to throw. Backups played most of the second half as starters got rest, with their thoughts already looking ahead to this game.

State of the Wolverines

Far better than most expected it to be at this point. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took a major pay cut to return and revamped his coaching staff in what was considered a bit of a Hail Mary to save his tenure. So far, it has worked. Michigan’s only loss was a game it should have won. The Wolverines squandered a 16-point second-half lead against Michigan State in their only loss. But they’ve regrouped since then, going on the road to beat Penn State and then routing Maryland last week 59-18.

Garrett Wilson (5) teams with Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba to give Ohio State a receiving corps that is difficult to defend.

When the Buckeyes have the ball

Ohio State’s offense: The Buckeyes’ offense is back on a roll after having red-zone issues against Penn State and Nebraska. Ohio State’s offense is dangerous across the board. Freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson is an explosive runner who has gotten better at fighting for tough yardage. Miyan Williams is a nice complementary runner. Ohio State’s passing game has looked unstoppable when it’s clicking. C.J. Stroud is now the Heisman favorite, helped greatly by having superb protection from the offensive line and a trio of gifted receivers in Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

Michigan’s defense: It starts with defensive ends Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who have been consistently disruptive. But the rest of the defense has been quite solid. The Wolverines rank seventh nationally in scoring defense, yielding 16.3 points per game and ninth in total defense (306.6 yards per game). The secondary features Daxton Hill and DJ Turner, who’ll be tested by OSU’s passing game.

When the Wolverines have the ball

Michigan’s offense: Quarterback Cade McNamara started the season as a game manager, but has gradually expanded his game. J.J. McCarthy, a blue-chip freshman, is not the passing threat Stroud is, but that part of Michigan’s offense isn’t the liability it was early in the season. But Michigan’s bread and butter is its run game. Hassan Haskins is a power back while Blake Corum, who is expected back after missing two games with an injury, is more explosive. The Wolverines don’t have a receiver on the level of OSU’s. Cornelius Johnson is the leading receiver with 34 catches for 539 yards and three touchdowns. But tight end Erick All, running back Donovan Edwards and receiver Andrel Anthony have each had big games.

Ohio State’s defense: The Buckeyes answered a shaky performance against Purdue with a dominating one against Michigan State. The defensive line, led by Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith and Haskell Garrett, was continually disruptive, and the pass defense was solid when Michigan State was forced to throw. Ohio State’s run defense will be challenged by Haskins and possibly Corum. The Buckeyes are thin at linebacker and it's a real area of concern if Cody Simon, who was injured last week, can’t play.

OSU player to watch and why

C.J. Stroud: This is his first Michigan game and he’ll need to be the same unflappable quarterback he’s been all season. Michigan’s pass rush could be an issue. If it is, Stroud will have to take shots and keep delivering passes on time and with accuracy. A big game against the Wolverines could all but clinch the Heisman for the redshirt freshman.

Michigan is hoping defensive end Aidan Hutchinson can disrupt Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud's passing ability.

Michigan  player to watch and why 

Aidan Hutchinson: He might be the best player on the field, and the Wolverines will need him and fellow defensive end David Ajabo to harass Stroud to take pressure off the Wolverines’ secondary. Hutchinson is the full package. He’s quick and strong, but his best attribute might be his relentlessness. Hutchinson will move from side to side. He’ll be a big challenge for OSU tackles Nicholas Petit-Frere and Dawand Jones.

Bill Rabinowitz covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at brabinowitz@dispatch.com or on Twitter @brdispatch.

Week 13 College Football Playoff rankings

  1. Georgia 11-0
  2. Ohio State 10-1
  3. Alabama 10-1
  4. Cincinnati 11-0
  5. Michigan 10-1
  6. Notre Dame 10-1
  7. Oklahoma State 10-1
  8. Baylor 9-2
  9. Ole Miss 9-2
  10. Oklahoma 10-1
  11. Oregon 9-2
  12. Michigan State 9-2
  13. BYU 9-2
  14. Wisconsin 8-3
  15. Texas A&M 8-3
  16. Iowa 9-2
  17. Pittsburgh 9-2
  18. Wake Forest 9-2
  19. Utah 8-3
  20. NC State 8-3
  21. San Diego State 10-1
  22. UTSA 11-0
  23. Clemson 8-3
  24. Houston 10-1
  25. Arkansas 7-4

The College Football Playoff schedule

Here are the dates to know for the College Football Playoff: 

  • Selection show: noon, Dec. 5 on ESPN
  • Cotton Bowl: 3:30 or 7:30 p.m., Dec. 31 on ESPN
  • Orange Bowl:  3:30 or 7:30 p.m., Dec. 31 on ESPN
  • College Football Playoff national championship game: 8 p.m., Jan. 10, 2022 on ESPN

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