Saturday, November 21, 2009

2,193 days is a long time

In 2004, when Chad Henne and Mike Hart were freshmen, Michigan lost to Ohio State in one of the day's early games. Three hours later, when Iowa had finished beating Wisconsin to send Michigan to the Rose Bowl, I didn't really care anymore that UM had lost. I was over it, because at the end of the day, I still got what I wanted -- Michigan was the Big Ten champion.

That won't happen this year. It's win or go home (or stay home, in this case) for Michigan against Ohio State. A loss ends the season, which in a sense would be a merciful finish. But let's go over, just one last time, what a win would do for UM:

* End a losing streak to Ohio State that has spanned 2,193 days.
* End a six-game losing streak against FBS competition (the last win was against Indiana).
* Give Rich Rodriguez by far his biggest win at Michigan.
* Send Michigan to a bowl game.

So yeah, a win would be nice. Will it happen? Probably not, but let's break things down anyway.

I've been repeating the mantra all season that Michigan can run the ball against pretty much anybody, but that "pretty much" qualifier is included specifically for teams like Ohio State. They're fourth in the country in rush defense, and the only team that's had much success on the ground -- Wisconsin -- does things much differently than Michigan, basically pounding it down your throat instead of spreading you out and trying to slice and dice. I still thought Michigan could have some success, though, until I saw this on the weekly injury report:
Brandon Minor (shoulder)
Crap. Nothing against Carlos Brown, but Minor is an absolute beast who takes Michigan's rushing attack to another level. It'll be a hell of a lot harder for UM to move the ball consistently without him.

Tate Forcier might be able to help make up some of the difference with his arm, probably throwing a lot of slants to Roy Roundtree and a lot of 5-yard hitch patterns to Kevin Koger, but I'll be surprised if Michigan completes anything over 25 yards all day. The protection just doesn't exist, and I can't envision a scenario in which Forcier is taking a bunch of seven-step drops and airing it out downfield, because that will result in his death.

I'm envisioning somewhere between 17 and 24 points, depending on the effectiveness of Carlos Brown and Vincent Smith. I'm also expecting a few plays designed for Denard Robinson, including something crazy where he takes a handoff or a pitch and throws deep or laterals back to Forcier. They've been on the field at the same time on several occasions this year, and I have to believe Rodriguez has been saving something for this game.

As for the Michigan defense against the Ohio State offense ... ugh. I didn't think it was possible a few weeks ago, but UM's defense has somehow gotten worse in the past month. The run defense is still somewhat competent, but the pass defense is just abysmal. I'm convinced at this point that the linebackers are blind.

Fortunately, if there's any offense Michigan is built to defend, it's Ohio State's. Running up the middle is the one thing that doesn't usually work too well, and the ginormous, elephant-in-the-room weakness -- covering tight ends and receivers over the middle -- is something OSU never even tries to exploit because of Jim Tressel's goal to never, ever, ever let Terrelle Pryor make a potentially dangerous throw. Michigan will mostly line up in a 4-4 front, and while OSU has been running the ball more effectively the past few weeks, I'll be surprised (and worried) if Dan Herron and Brandon Saine are consistently ripping off four or five yards per carry.

That said, I still expect a fair number of big plays. If Ohio State ends up with only one or two runs of more than 30 yards, UM has a good chance of winning. Pryor will probably also find someone wide open deep; this happens a lot when your free safety (Jordan Kovacs) is a freshman walk-on with the speed of a linebacker. The key will be whether UM can limit these plays -- giving up a few big gainers is manageable, but giving up five or six would be too much to overcome. A couple forced turnovers would also be nice, but for a unit that's 89th in total defense and 84th in scoring defense, I'll take my victories where I can get them. The goal should be keeping OSU's point total in the low to mid-20s, which would give UM a legitimate shot to win.

The other thing Michigan absolutely can NOT do is turn the ball over and give Pryor a short field. OSU rarely moves the ball in sustained drives -- I don't feel like looking up how many of their touchdowns this year have been set up by the defense/special teams or have come on big pass plays, but it's a lot -- so if the Michigan offense helps out by not making any terrible, backbreaking mistakes, I don't think Ohio State's offense can blow it open.

Am I asking too much? Probably. My heart tells me Michigan can pull off the upset, but my brain has been telling me all week that this one will end up somewhere in the 30-17 range. Given Tressel's tendency to close up shop as soon as he has a comfortable lead (see the 2007 game), it might be a little lower-scoring than that, but the end result will probably be about the same.

Prediction: Ohio State 27, Michigan 17.
. . . . .
The top picture was taken in 2003, when I was 21 years old and attended the 100th game between Michigan and Ohio State. Michigan won 35-21 to clinch the Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl. That was the last win over OSU. The bottom picture is from September 26, when Michigan beat Indiana 36-33 on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Forcier to Martavious Odoms with 2:29 left in the game. That was UM's last win over an FBS team, and it came 56 days ago.

Please prove me wrong, guys. It's been long enough.

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