COLUMBUS – Jim Harbaugh, Brady Hoke, Rich Rodriguez and Lloyd Carr have been lucky.
Not lucky in the sense of being fortunate to have risen to the elite level of their profession by being hired as a Michigan football coach. Lucky in the sense that the blame has been spread around.
Ohio State has dominated the last 15 years on the football field against its biggest rival, Michigan, even more than the Wolverines did from 1988 to 2000 when Ohio State’s record in “The Game,” was 2-10-1, a number that some Buckeyes fans remembered better than their Social Security number or their kids’ birthdays.
It was John Cooper’s good fortune to be OSU’s coach for the 13 seasons from 1988 to 2000, but also his bad fortune to be the guy who that entire 2-10-1 mountain of frustration could be pinned on by unhappy Buckeyes fans.
Ohio State has won 13 of the last 15 games it has played against Michigan and 11 of the last 12. The only Michigan wins in those 15 years were in 2003 and 2011.
Carr won five of his first six games against Ohio State, then went 1-6 his last seven seasons in Ann Arbor. Rodriguez was 0-3 against OSU, Hoke was 1-3 and Harbaugh is 0-1.
Today’s game at Ohio Stadium matching No. 2 Ohio State (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) against No. 3 Michigan (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) is about much more than who has won most often recently, though.
If Ohio State wins, it thinks it can be selected to play in the College Football Playoff even if it isn’t one of the two teams in the Big Ten championship game. If Michigan wins, it will represent the Big Ten’s East Division in the Big Ten title game, and with a win there, would be in the playoff.
So, what will happen when, as Marty Brennaman would say, this titanic struggle kicks off at noon?
The conventional wisdom and all the statistics point to a low-scoring game where the defenses determine the outcome.
Michigan ranks first nationally in fewest points allowed per game (10.9) and Ohio State is third (13.0).
Michigan is first nationally in yards allowed per game (248.5) and OSU is third (274.0). Ohio State is fifth in the country in interceptions (17) and Michigan is first in tackles for losses (102).
Some people are even comparing it to the 10 years Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler coached against each other from 1969-1978 when the most points either team scored was 24 by Michigan in 1969.
It’s unlikely, though, that you will see Ohio State throwing 10 or fewer passes, like it did five of those 10 years. Or that Michigan will put the ball in the air only six times, as it did in 1976, or nine times, as it did in 1977.
The defenses might dominate, but this game is always capable of surprises.
Ohio State rolled into the 1996 Michigan game averaging almost 40 points a game and did not score a touchdown in a 13-9 loss.
Three years ago, a Michigan offense averaging 377 yards a game, had 603 yards total offense when OSU held on for a 42-41 win.
There could be surprises this year, too. But five things stand out that the Buckeyes need to do to win.
No. 1. Ohio State’s 16 first-year starters can’t pick a bad time to remember they’re inexperienced.
Michigan starts 18 seniors and all of them have played against Ohio State during their career. Ohio State had to replace 16 starters this season. The home field advantage could cancel out the experience advantage, though.
No. 2. Ohio State’s running game can’t be average or below average.
OSU needs Mike Weber, Curtis Samuel, J.T. Barrett and the offensive line to move the ball because the passing game has struggled at times against lesser defenses than Michigan’s.
No. 3. OSU’s passing game has to make Michigan respect it at least a little to give the running game some room to operate.
Michigan leads the Big Ten in sacks (36) and has two very good cornerbacks in Jourdan Lewis and Channing Stribling. H-back Curtis Samuel has been OSU’s only consistent threat as a pass catcher. Ohio State wide receivers have only five touchdown catches in the last eight games.
No. 4. Affect Michigan’s quarterback, whoever he is.
Will starter Wilton Speight make a miraculous recovery from what is presumed to be a broken collarbone or will the Buckeyes face back-up John O’Korn, who was 7 of 16 for only 59 yards in a 20-10 win over Indiana on a snowy day last Saturday?
O’Korn, a transfer from Houston, probably is more dangerous than those numbers make him took. As Houston’s starter in 2013, he passed for 3,117 yards and 28 touchdowns.
No. 5. Ohio State’s defense needs to limit the big plays it allows.
If you play aggressively, some big plays are going to happen. But OSU probably can’t afford a repeat of last week when it gave up a 64-yard touchdown pass, a 61-yard run and a long run on a fake punt.
So, will Ohio State do enough of those things to continue its dominance of the rivalry?
Probably, but it won’t be easy.
The prediction: Ohio State 24, Michigan 21.