It’s been somewhat of a disappointing year for the Michigan Wolverines. Sure, 8-3 looks good from the outside, but most of those wins have been piled up against lackluster competition. We saw Michigan lay an egg at home against the Spartans, get absolutely demolished at Penn State, and come up short last week against Wisconsin. This is a proud program with championship aspirations, and they didn’t make Jim Harbaugh one of the highest paid coaches in College Football to be just good. Michigan was 10-3 the last two seasons under Harbaugh, and they will likely finish this year at 9-4 or 8-5. Overall, that’s a pretty good record for a coach’s first three years, but unfortunately for Harbaugh, Michigan’s inability to beat their Big 10 rivals is nothing new. Michigan finished 3rd in the Big Ten East at the end of the 2015 and 2016 seasons. They also fell out of the CFP rankings twice this year and will likely be out again this week. In fairness to Harbaugh, Michigan did lose their starting QB, Wilton Speight, during the first game of the season, and they lost just about their entire defense to the NFL last year. Still, this game is about results, and considering what Harbaugh is being paid, it’s no wonder Michigan fans are beginning to grow restless with him. Michigan fans want to see this team get over the hump and represent the Big Ten over the likes of Penn State and Ohio State, and so far, we haven’t seen that.
With their 24-10 loss to Wisconsin last week, Michigan all but gave away their chances of representing the Big Ten East in the Big Ten Championship Game. That spot will now be occupied by Ohio State, who will face Wisconsin in the Championship two weeks from now. Coming off the loss to Wisconsin, Michigan will now have to face an Ohio State team that, at their best, is one of the more potent offenses in College Football. Ohio State is currently ranked at 9 in the CFP rankings, and they’re hoping to find a way into the College Football Playoff, which is very much still a possibility.
All in all, it’s tough to have too much confidence in this Michigan team going into this game. Earlier in the year, this matchup looked like a great way to wrap up the season and determine the Big Ten East Champion. But at this point, it’s certainly looking pretty tilted in Ohio State’s favor. However, this game will be hosted by Michigan at The Big House, and anything can happen in a rivalry game, especially a rivalry as heated as this one. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how Michigan can end the season on a high note and pull of the upset at home.
1) Run The Ball
It certainly hurt Michigan to have their starting QB, Wilton Speight, injured during the first game of the year, and Michigan fans are definitely upset about backup Brandon Peters getting hurt last week. However, regardless of who’s starting at Quarterback, the Wolverines want to be a run first team. That’s who Harbaugh is. It’s who he was in the NFL, and it’s who Michigan has been with him at the helm. Michigan plays their best when they’re running the football well.
We’ve seen Michigan have some absolutely huge games on the ground this year, yet in their losses, the run seems to have mostly gone away. It is imperative that Michigan stay committed to the run in this game. If they put the game in the hands of Quarterback O’Korn, they’re going to lose. They need to stay stubborn with the run, even if they’re struggling. Karan Higdon has been their best back and I would stick with him if I were Harbaugh, but Chris Evans and Ty Isaac have been capable as well. It’s easy to go into a game against a tough opponent and think that you won’t be able to run the ball, or that you need to throw constantly to keep pace. But Michigan’s identity is tight I-Formations and a run heavy offense. That’s who they’ve been in all of their wins, and you can’t change your identity just because of who you’re playing. Furthermore, Michigan has to stay ahead in down and distance. They can’t drop back on 2nd and 3rd and long in this game and expect to win. Neither their pass protection nor their Quarterback is good enough. If Michigan wants to win, they need to run the ball and do it well. Even if they’re not scoring on every drive, if they can move the ball a bit, take up time of possession, stay ahead of down and distance, and win with field position, they’ll have a shot. But if you’re giving the Ohio State offense possession after possession, they’re going to capitalize, and you’re not going to be able to keep up.
2) Don’t Turn the Ball Over
You can’t give this Ohio State offense extra opportunities. They’re too potent. Since this is unlikely to be an explosive game for Michigan, it has to be a mistake free game. O’Korn probably won’t have a huge game, but the one thing he cannot do is turn the ball over. Michigan had some dumb and costly turnovers last week against Wisconsin, and turnovers have been a problem at times for O’Korn this season. Play safe, and play smart. Don’t give the game away. Make them earn every yard.
3) Don’t Give up Big Plays on Defense
This Ohio State offense is about as explosive as it gets. But the Michigan D has been, for the most part, pretty darn good this year, especially considering how little help they’ve gotten from the offense. Nonetheless, there have been times where they’ve given up big plays. At Penn State, they looked overwhelmed by the pace of the Nittany Lions’ spread offense and gave up some pretty big plays to RB Saquon Barkley. Last week against Wisconsin, they were mostly pretty solid. But you did see a few long runs from Jonathan Taylor. Michigan played a pretty aggressive game on defense and blitzed a lot. At times, Wisconsin was able to block it up quickly on some gap scheme plays and once Taylor got through to the secondary, there was no one left to tackle him.
I’m not saying Michigan shouldn’t blitz, but they need to understand that if they’re going to win this game, it’s going to be on defense. Perhaps they’ve known this all year, and it’s caused them to press a bit on D. Nonetheless, just one or two big plays can change a game. For this Michigan D, you have to be sound, disciplined, and patient. Keep everything in front of you, and make them earn every yard. Don’t feel the need to make the game changing play on every play, and don’t get impatient. As Bill Belichick would say, “do your job”, and the rest will come naturally.
4) Get Something out of the Passing Game
John O’Korn probably isn’t going to throw for 300 yards. In fact, I would hope that he doesn’t, because if he does, it probably means that Michigan got behind early and had to play catch-up. But what O’Korn does need to do is give Michigan at least something in the passing game to help them move the ball and keep the defense honest.
I heard a lot of people upset when Michigan QB Brandon Peters left the game with a head injury last week. Many pundits said that Michigan seemed to give up after he left. Is there some truth to this? Maybe. But let’s not overplay it. Peters certainly seemed to give the offense a spark when Harbaugh pulled O’Korn for him earlier in the year. And when people say that, what it usually means is that the team played better when he was under center, not necessarily that he was the driving force behind the team playing better. And this remains true for Michigan. Peters made some good throws here and there. He seemed more willing to throw down the field than O’Korn was, and he certainly was able to avoid the turnovers in a way that O’Korn wasn’t.
However, the truth of the matter is that for the games Peters played in, Michigan just didn’t ask him to do that much. He didn’t break 20 attempts or 160 yards passing in any of the games he played. Maybe he would have played better than O’Korn did, but can we really say for sure that the losses to the Spartans and Nittany Lions under O’Korn would have been wins if Peters had played? Of course we can’t. The Spartans game, you could maybbbeee make an argument. The Nittany Lions game I watched from start to end, and actually thought O’Korn threw the ball okay. But the offensive line was completely overwhelmed, and Penn State got up big early. With the energy they showed at that stadium (it was the whiteout night in the crowd), it was pretty clear that wasn’t Michigan’s game to win. Peters got the easier part of Michigan’s schedule, outside of the beginning of last week’s Wisconsin game.
Michigan did have a short period of time when they looked good last week with Peters under center. He hit a nice big play to end the half that led to a TD. It was a seven step drop post route on first down, a basic shot play, yet the kind of play out of the passing game that has been missing from Michigan’s offense and their bottled up air attack. For a little bit in that game, Michigan looked like they were gaining momentum.
But there were two key series early in the second half that Michigan failed to take advantage of: The first they had a short field off of a punt when Wisconsin was backed up (they didn’t get anything out of it), and the second was after they intercepted Wisconsin’s QB but only were able to kick a field goal instead of cashing in for six. Shortly after that, Wisconsin took the momentum back. Peters also had some costly mistakes early in the first half, including a bad fumble while trying to dive for a TD. The point being, while O’Korn certainly did nothing to inspire anyone once he replaced the injured Peters, Michigan was missing opportunities and struggling under Peters in that game as well, despite the promise that he did show.
None of this is to knock Peters or prop up O’Korn. We just have to remember that Peters was a freshman who wasn’t asked to do much in limited game action, and that regardless of who Michigan’s Quarterback is, they’re not going to be the driving force behind this offense. The point being, Michigan can’t fall into the trap of thinking this game is over and they have no chance just because Peters is injured, because while it’s unfortunate, it’s simply not that big a deal. Next man up. Go out there, lift your head up, and play offense.
Having said that, O’Korn can’t do nothing and expect to win this game. You’re not going to win this game with under 100 yards passing. He needs to convert some 3rd downs, complete the passes that are there, and maybe hit a shot play or two. Nothing big, but we need something from him.
5) Be in the Moment and Take Advantage of the Atmosphere
Forget Harbaugh, the money, the record, the standings, everything we talked about earlier. This is the last game of the season before your bowl. This is Ohio State vs Michigan at the Big House. The crowd, hopefully, will be packed and roaring, and there will be energy and excitement in the atmosphere. This is a one game season. Go out there and show everyone what it means to be a Michigan Wolverine. This is a heated and intense rivalry, and for the Wolverines, there’s only one thing that matters next Saturday, only one thing that should be on your mind: Kicking the shit out of Ohio State. Go in and play with that mindset, and a win won’t be far off.
It certainly hasn’t been the year many expected for the Mason Blue. This year we learned that while they’re a good team, they just weren’t quite ready to compete with the big boys yet.
Certainly the questions have begun and will continue to be asked. The pundits are already getting their typewriters warmed up for what will likely be a long offseason of questions about Harbaugh and if he’s up for this job. If he’s good enough to compete with the top class of the Big Ten.
But man, wouldn’t it be something to end the season with an upset win over No 9 Ohio State? To get a win over a rival despite all the odds, to show the country that you can compete in the Big Ten and that you’re not destined to keep losing to the likes of Ohio State? That certainly would end the season on a high note and quiet the whispers, if only for just a bit.
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Lastly, this was my first piece on College Football, as I’ve used this blog solely for NFL purposes in the past. What did you think? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know! And thanks again for reading! Hope you have an awesome day 🙂