Friday, November 17, 2006

Ohio State Football Preview

The Series

  • Record: 57-39-6 (Michigan leads)
  • Since '69: 20-15-2
  • First Meeting: 34-0, Michigan, 10/16/1897, Regents Field, Ann Arbor
  • Last Meeting: 25-21, Ohio State, 11/19/2005, Michigan Stadium
  • Ohio State
    • Most Points: 50-14, 11/23/1968, Michigan Stadium and 50-20, 11/25/1961, Ohio Stadium
    • Since '69: 37-21, 11/20/2004, Ohio Stadium
    • Biggest Margin of Victory: 38-0, 11/23/1935, Ohio Stadium
    • Since '69: 22-6, 11/19/1994, Ohio Stadium and 37-21, 11/20/2004, Ohio Stadium
    • Biggest Shutout: 38-0, 11/23/1935, Ohio Stadium
    • Since '69: N/A
  • Michigan
    • Most Points: 86-0, 10/25/1902, Regents Field
    • Since '69: 38-26, 11/11/2000, Ohio Stadium
    • Biggest Margin of Victory: 86-0, 10/25/1902, Regents Field
    • Since '69: 28-0, 11/20/1993, Michigan Stadium
    • Biggest Shutout: 86-0, 10/25/1902, Regents Field
    • Since '69: 28-0, 11/20/1993, Michigan Stadium

One last game for the right to appear in the BCS National Championship game.  #1 vs. #2, right here, right now, for the first time ever in this rivalry.  Each program undefeated and untied at the end of the season for the third time ever, the first occurence since 1973.  It's been endlessly dissected elsewhere and far be it for me not to jump right in. The quick version: Michigan is a bit better at running the football.  Ohio State has the advantage in the air.  Michigan's run defense is sickening.  Ohio State's D just doesn't allow anyone to score.  Anyone who predicts a blowout in this game is an idiot.

The Long Version

Troy Smith is the key to the Ohio State offense, and he's having a great year.  He's completing 66.4% of his passes with 8.6 ypa / 12.9 ypc with only four interceptions, and don't expect that to go up on Saturday.  Smith's leading receivers, far and away, have been Ted Ginn, Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez, well-known names around these parts, with a big fall-off in yards to Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline.  Ginn has ridiculous speed, but Morgan Trent did once beat him in a footrace.  Last year, Gonzalez lit up the Michigan secondary and I fully support MGoBlog's Hall-Gonzalez/Trent-Ginn coverage scheme.  Don't count him as a "possession receiver", but he's the most reliable target when you need the yards for a drive-sustaining first down.  Gonzalez makes the medium yardage grabs that Ginn eschews for either the short stuff or long bombs.  I haven't seen much of Robiskie, but I saw one touchdown of his where OSU was on MSU's doorstep and he just ran a crossing route through the endzone that torched whoever was covering him for the Spartans.  Rory Nicol is a guy with a disproportionate TD/yds ratio; I'd watch for him near the goal line.

Michigan's pass defense keys are going to be the guys who aren't Leon Hall.  Morgan Trent has been excellent in deep coverage all year, but he hasn't had to guard Ted Ginn.  The revolving cast of Harrison, Englemon, Barringer, Mundy, and Adams will need to seriously step it up.  It was encouraging last week to see Willis Barringer right in the middle of a lot of pass plays, so I have high hopes for him.

Troy Smith has been getting the glory, but the ground game has accounted for 60% of OSU's plays this season.  Antonio Pittman has been getting the lion's share of the carries, 214 of the 428 attempts, with Chris Wells accounting for another 97.  Between the two of them, they're averaging 4.8 and 5.3 ypc, respectively.  Pittman again will get most of the carries on Saturday, especially with Wells's reputation for losing the football.

Ohio State's offense is symbiotic.  You can't sell out against the run, because Troy Smith is going to torch you.  If you commit to stopping the pass, you've opened up room for Pittman & Wells (who really should open up a law firm).  Ted Ginn can run you off and keep you safety deep while everyone else gets open underneath.  The key to solving the riddle is in Michigan's front seven.  They need to stop the run and get to Troy Smith.  He will kill you to death and stomp on your face if you give him the time (or a second chance) to throw.  Ohio State's receivers are far too talented for us to expect decent coverage for more than four seconds after the snap.  And if, by some miracle, his receivers are all covered, Smith can take off and run.  In fact, I'd expect to see more designed runs for him against Michigan.  Not a ton (David Harris could take his head off), but on 3rd and 4 it might be worth it to take a few chances.  But anyway: Giving Troy Smith an extra chance to make something out of a broken play is my nightmare.  When we have the chance, we need to put him in the ground.

Ohio State's defense has spent much of the year as an undervalued commodity.  Replacing 9 starters from last year's exceptional squad, it was assumed that the ofense would have to put up big numbers to make up for defensive lapses.  The offense has produced, but most of the time it hasn't really been needed, as the Bucks have only been allowing 7.8 ppg from their opposition.

Reading the tea leaves on the Buckeyes' run defense is difficult.  They're giving up only a paltry 90.2 yards per game on the ground, but teams have so often found themselves buried by the offense that they're forced to go to the air.  Let's try to compare OSU's run defense to Michigan's.  Teams have run on Michigan on only 38.2% of plays from scrimmage.  Despite often being down a more substantial margin to the Bucks, teams have run on them on 47.6% of the time, so it suggests a little more faith that their run defense can be solved.  Michigan's 1.3 ypc allowed looks much better than OSU's 3.3 ypc, but does it stand up? Is it inflated (deflated?) by sack yardage? Let's take out the sack yardage and compare.  Michigan has 41 sacks for 320 yards.  OSU has 33 for 238.  Taking out those rush attempts and the yards they lost, Michigan yields 3.1 ypc and Ohio State 4.3.  So there's reason to expect that Michigan's running backs will be able to find some room, even if they don't get any gaping holes, but a Tshimangaesque performance is decidedly unlikely.

Mike Hart's been hitting eight-man fronts all year for 4.8 ypc, so I wouldn't expect a massive drop-off in his production.  I don't expect OSU to be able to count on Michigan running on 65% of its downs from the get-go, so they should be limited to 7 in the box most of the time.  Even with their superior personnel, I don't think you can take Hart out of the game without 8.  The key is to keep the game at least close enough that running the ball is a viable option.  Penn State's Tony Hunt (who we bottled up on the ground all day) took them for over 120 yds in one of the few games where Ohio State hadn't jumped out to a massive lead by halftime.  Anecdotal evidence nurtures the tiny flame of hope here.

OSU's pass defense has been turning in a solid performance all year long, and they've posted some gaudy interception numbers (21 for the season).  The pass rush has been brutal enough to make 33 sacks.  The question here, though, is what they'll do when they see a team with a quality passer with good targets who's been given permission to use his ability.  I think Henne will get some room to work with, especially if the defense can keep the score down.  The OSU defense has been allowing a 56.9% completion rate, so they aren't impenetrable.

Special teams are a net edge for OSU.  They put a ton of kickoffs in the endzone for touchbacks, so that can take Breaston out of the picture, while Garrett Rivas doesn't have the leg for us to neutralize Ginn in that way.  Punt return yardage yielded and made is a push, but OSU has a slight edge in net punting (37.0 vs. 33.9).  Out-kicking the coverage here would be an easy way to die, so Zoltan probably won't be unleashing the hounds.  I still have nightmares about previous Ginn returns.

For the first time in a while, OSU isn't automatic with their field goal kicking.  This may really be the result, however, of the fact that they ask Aaron Pettrey to make a lot more 50-yard attempts than Rivas gets.  And, by the way, his long this year is 52 yards.  Probably a push here.

In the end, these are both terrific, well-matched football teams who richly deserve to be ranked #1 and #2.  No one will be able to persuade me that this shouldn't be the real national championship game.  It'll come down to execution on both sides of the ball.  The defensive line has to keep contain and get pressure on Troy Smith while the coverage holds up downfield.  The offensive line needs to give Chad Henne time and Mike Hart room.  Henne needs to be accurate and not let that one bad read he seems to make each game turn into a big interception.  The receivers need to hang onto the damn ball.  The coverage team has to tackle Ted Ginn before the 40.  If they jump out to a 14-0 lead, we're dead.  It's a huge order to ask of anyone, especially the part about Troy Smith.  Michigan has a much smaller margin for error than OSU.  Any lapse can turn into 7 points in the blink of an eye, and we've seen those lapses before.  Final score: 21-17 and pick 'em.

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