“Anything easy ain’t worth a damn.” — Woody Hayes
Michigan and Ohio State have made it. They are both undefeated headed into The Game, which is going to make this Saturday’s matchup one of the most anticipated season finales in the rivalry’s history.
Getting to 11-0 wasn’t a giant surprise for either team as they were both favored in every game they’ve played this season, but getting to 12-0 is going to be a much taller order.
Especially if these two teams play like they did this past week.
For the Buckeyes, Maryland had the ball in the final minute with an opportunity to win the game. It wasn’t much of an opportunity and it was closed quickly, but that wasn’t the only time the Terps had the ball in the fourth quarter down by just one score. Ohio State held on, just as they’d seen Michigan do earlier in the day.
Though to call what Michigan did “holding on” would be a bit generous since they actually lost control of the game until the final moments. In fact, there were times when it looked like the Wolverines were not going to pull it off.
But they did. Michigan won 19-17 with a field goal in the final seconds to finally secure the victory over an Illinois team that put up more of a fight in this one than they had the previous two weeks. Which is exactly what Maryland did to the Buckeyes.
Nearly every championship team has had a win like this, including whichever team ends up winning it all this year.
There are no apologies needed for 11-0. Close wins still remain undefeated against close losses.
The twelfth game will be the final arbiter of justice.
Full disclosure, I have only watched this game once and I did so in the press box at Maryland. But I did watch and did pay attention, but it’s very much not the same as watching from home on a Sunday. Also, I’m currently in Ann Arbor as I write this and the longer it takes me to finish, the later it will be when I finally get home. As such, this piece won’t have the same depth of minutiae and detail that you can sometimes find here. That being said, everything we’ve talked about here in the past was on display against Illinois, so feel free to revert back to past episodes for the minutiae that suits you best.
When Michigan Was On Offense
The Wolverines faced one of the Big Ten’s top two or three defenses and ended up with a season-low rushing total of 168 yards, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. That disappointing total can quickly be explained away with the injury to running back Blake Corum, which probably should have been the first topic of conversation today.
Corum suffered a knee injury late in the first half on his 17th carry. He went down immediately, but not before fumbling the ball (which Illinois recovered). Any time an injury leads to a player immediately losing focus on the ball, it is usually pretty bad news. Sometimes it can just be a scare, but too often the fact that a player simply releases the football is because the scales have shifted in terms of concern and importance.
Corum came back out in the second half and carried the ball once, but that was it. He clearly wasn’t right and so they rest of the running burden fell to freshman CJ Stokes and walk-on Isaiah Gash. Sophomore Donovan Edwards is still out with an injury. Expect him back for Ohio State because there’s no point in holding him back any longer.
Corum rushed for 108 yards on 18 carries against the Illini, and actually gave way a few times to Stokes in the first half. Stokes rushed for 36 yards on 11 carries. The fact that Stokes saw touches as early as the first quarter was pretty significant because that’s usually just going to be Corum or Edwards.
The easy answer as to why Stokes played so early is that they didn’t want Corum to carry too much of a load in this game, so they gave him some breaks early. But if they wanted him to have a break, why give him 17 carries in one half? The other answer is Corum was already banged up a little and they were simply trying to give him some relief.
But again, why 17 carries?
The offensive line did a really good job of moving the line of scrimmage throughout most of the first half. They made it easy for Corum to gain ground before kicking it out and looking for daylight.
Quarterback JJ McCarthy completed 18-of-34 passes for 208 yards with no touchdowns and no turnovers. He came out early throwing well, but goes through stretches of too high, too hard, too low, and then back to too hard again.
McCarthy had what should have been an easy touchdown pass on a little floater to tight end Colston Loveland, but there was a defender between McCarthy and Loveland and the pass was overthrown because McCarthy’s touch just wasn’t there.
He took shots throughout the game but they weren’t connecting. And when he did drop an absolute beaut to receiver Andrel Anthony, it went right through Anthony’s hands.
The connections just aren’t there down the field. The receivers are sometimes fighting the ball or simply not locating it. And those are the few that are catchable.
This means that you should fully expect Michigan to hit a couple of deep shots on the Buckeyes because everybody breaks tendencies at some point in this game.
But the passing game is still a station-to-station thing, and those stations are generally pretty close together.
Interestingly, Michigan picked up more first downs passing than running. It’s just the second time this season the Wolverines have had as many first downs through the air as on the ground. They did it seven times last year with Cade McNamara as UM’s starting quarterback.
You can either credit the running game or blame the passing game for the odd numbers this year. It’s your choice.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Illinois has the No. 93 offense nationally, so holding them to 17 points is pretty much what was expected. What wasn’t expected was for running back Chase Brown to be so effective so soon after an injury that many thought would cost him this game entirely.
Brown rushed for 140 yards on 29 carries, including a 37-yard touchdown that gave Illinois a 17-10 lead that they took into the fourth quarter. Brown wasn’t dominating, but he was tough and determined. There was a lot of Blake Corum to his production. He just kept fighting and keeping the Illini on schedule.
The Wolverines will see a couple of running backs this coming week who can do some similar things. There might not be a 50-yard rush on the day, but if Miyan Williams and Dallan Hayden can stay in the 5.0 yard-per-carry range, Michigan is going to have a fight on their hands.
One thing that sticks out is that middle linebacker Junior Colson was only involved in two tackles against the run. Brown ran it 29 times and the middle linebacker only dropped him twice? I don’t know if it means much, but it’s odd. I’ve felt that Michigan has had some linebacker issues this season. The production in this one was a little weird.
The Wolverines didn’t sack quarterback Tommy DeVito at all. He completed 21-of-30 passes for 178 yards with no touchdowns and no picks. Defensive end Mike Morris sat this game out in order to heal up a bit for the Ohio State game. He is the Wolverines’ best pass rusher. If Michigan doesn’t sack CJ Stroud on Saturday, expect him to have more than 178 yards passing. In fact, even if they do sack him, expect more than 178 yards.
But as Michigan showed last year when Stroud went for 394 yards and two touchdowns, passing yards are for show, running is for dough.
The Michigan Special Teams
The Wolverines won this game on the foot of place-kicker Jake Moody. Moody made all four of his field goal attempts, including the game winner in the final seconds of the fourth quarter.
It was not a great day for punter Brad Robbins, however. Robbins averaged just 28.5 yards on his four punts.
Ronnie Bell had a nice 40-yard punt return for the Wolverines. That has been AJ Henning’s job this season, so it was interesting to see Bell back there. Given his effectiveness, you have to wonder if he’ll stay there.
What Does It All Mean?
It means that Ohio State and Michigan have arrived at the exact point that both programs set out for themselves before the season. They each took different paths to 11-0 but got there about four hours apart from each other.
They say you can throw the records out when rivals play, but when those rivals are both undefeated, why not keep the records in play a little longer?
Whatever has happened to this point in the season is merely a suggestion for how Saturday’s game is going to go. There will be a struggle between doing what you do best, avoiding being overly reliant on those traits, and then doing something new at the right time and in the right way.
And also don’t turn the ball over.
It also means that if Blake Corum can’t go the way he wants, everybody else is going to have to step up, including the guys calling the plays.
Ohio State’s focus in this game was rightfully going to be on stopping Corum, and if some of that attention can go somewhere else, that is a bad development for a Michigan offense that is searching for some help right now.
There is something to be said for unpredictability, however, which is what the Wolverines may have to turn to a lot more than they normally would.
But then it comes down to execution. And desire. And the unrelenting fear of losing. And everything else that makes this rivalry better than all the others.
And we’re almost there.
The Road To The Game
Sept 3 — Michigan 51 – Colorado State 7
Sept 10 — Michigan 56 – Hawai’i 10
Sept 17 — Michigan 59 – Connecticut 0
Sept 24 — Michigan 34 – Maryland 27
Oct 1 — Michigan 27 – Iowa 14
Oct 8 — Michigan 31 – Indiana 10
Oct 15 — Michigan 41 – Penn State 17
Oct 29 — Michigan 29 – Michigan State 7
Nov 5 — Michigan 52 – Rutgers 17 (Rivalry Game)
Nov 12 — Michigan 34 – Nebraska 3
Nov 19 — Michigan 19 – Illinois 17
Nov 26 — at Ohio State