Schuttin' from the hip: Addressing the 1 question everyone has about Michigan
Each week, Saturday Tradition managing editor Dustin Schutte offers his spin on what matters most in the B1G.
Addressing the 1 question everyone has about Michigan
The question surfaces every year. It’s as traditional as turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner.
Is this Michigan team capable of beating Ohio State?
Sometimes, the question pops up for no real reason. Like cranberry sauce, it’s unnecessary to discuss it. But it’s become such a yearly topic that it’s just kind of … there. That’s not the case this season.
Michigan looks capable of putting up a fight against Ohio State. The rushing attack is solid. Cade McNamara is making plays through the air. The defense is one of the best in the nation. Jim Harbaugh has, maybe for the first time since 2016, assembled a team that can challenge the Buckeyes.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way — there’s an “I’ll believe it when I see it,” factor to this. Harbaugh has never guided Michigan to a win over Ohio State and the Buckeyes have claimed 8 straight over the Wolverines. It would’ve been 9 consecutive had the two teams shared a field in 2020.
There’s a sense of hesitation that Michigan can hang with Ohio State. With an 0-5 record in the Harbaugh era, it’s certainly warranted.
What can’t be ignored is that Harbaugh might have its best team since arriving in 2015. It’s not just one-dimensional, either. The Wolverines have weapons in every area on both sides of the football.
Aidan Hutchinson has been regarded by many outlets — including Pro Football Focus — as the best college football player in America this season. He, along with David Ojabo, have combined for 20 sacks, 15 quarterback hurries, 7 forced fumbles and 5 pass break-ups.
Michigan’s defense ranks fourth nationally in scoring (16.1points per game allowed) and eighth in total defense (301.5 yards per game allowed). The Wolverines are +6 in turnover margin and have done an excellent job limiting explosive plays.
Through 10 games, Michigan State is the only opponent to hit 30 points in a game against the Wolverines.
For a majority of the season, Michigan’s defense has been one of the best in the country. But it certainly hasn’t seen an offensive line as big as Ohio State’s, a wide receiver trio as talented as Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave and Jaxon Smith-Njigba or a quarterback as skilled as CJ Stroud.
TreVeyon Henderson is probably the second-best back the Wolverines will face, behind only Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III. And, remember, the Spartans ball carrier rushed to the tune of 197 yards and 5 touchdowns in that October showdown.
Are the Wolverines capable of slowing down Ryan Day’s best offensive attack yet?
Fortunately for Michigan, success doesn’t have to be solely dependent on defense. The Wolverines have graduated from a run-on-every-down offense to a more balanced squad.
If Blake Corum is healthy, the Wolverines have one of the most lethal 1-2 punches out of the backfield, throwing Hassan Haskins in the mix. Both have eclipsed over 700 yards on the season and have been a handful for every defense they’ve seen.
Cade McNamara, who had earned the title “Ultimate Game Manager” just a few weeks ago, has gotten a much longer leash from offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. The quarterback has completed at least 63% of his passes in 3 of the last 4 games with 7 touchdowns and just 1 interception. That includes a 383-yard performance against MSU in East Lansing.
McNamara has demonstrated the ability to stretch the field with his arm. It’s added a new element to Michigan’s offense, one that didn’t exist in September and the early portion of October.
And for those who don’t believe Michigan has some weapons in the passing attack, it has five players — Cornelius Johnson, Erick All, Mike Sainristil, Daylen Baldwin and Roman Wilson — with over 200 receiving yards. Plus, Andrel Anthony had a breakout performance against the Spartans.
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Can Ohio State’s defense keep a multi-dimensional offense in check? The Buckeyes have done pretty well against the run, allowing just over 105 yards per game on the ground. Through the air, though, Ohio State ranks 13th, permitting a staggering 261 yards per game.
Opportunities are there for Michigan to have some success.
This conversation might seem a tad premature. Michigan still has to beat Maryland. Ohio State still has to get through a fight with Michigan State. A stubbed toe from either side and the season finale doesn’t carry quite as much weight.
But when this rivalry game has been so one-sided for the past decade — and let’s be honest, really the past 20 years — it’s hard to avoid the question. Is this finally the year Michigan trips up Ohio State?
We only have to wait another week to find out.
Michigan State didn’t want it to happen again.
Just over 20 years ago, Nick Saban bolted East Lansing for a job in Baton Rouge. He turned a 9-2 record with the Spartans in 1999 into a lucrative contract at LSU and, four years later, won a national championship with the Bayou Bengals.
Meanwhile, Michigan State posted just two winning seasons over the next seven years, participating in just two bowl games. So you can understand why the athletic department, and some of its generous donors, were eager to offer Mel Tucker a major contract extension.
Alumni Mat Ishbia and Steve St. Andre are the pockets behind this massive deal — a 10-year, $95 million extension to keep Tucker in East Lansing, per the Detroit Free Press. It will make him the highest-paid coach in the B1G.
Tucker’s name was circulating as one of the popular candidates for other jobs around the country. Fittingly enough, LSU was rumored to be the program with the most interest in the second-year leader at MSU, as the school is parting ways with Ed Orgeron at the end of the year.
The only call down to Baton Rouge Tucker will be making is to send a stern, two-word message. “No, thanks.”
What this new contract proves is that Michigan State is serious about its program and Tucker leading it. That’s a good thing, because he’s the perfect fit.
Tucker personifies toughness with his blue-collar attitude and his disdain for excuse-making. He refers to Michigan as “the school down the road,” and he became the first coach in program history to win his first two games against the Wolverines.
Following a 2-5 season in 2020, Tucker has the Spartans at 9-1 and ranked No. 7 in the College Football Playoff Poll. In mid-November, Michigan State is in the picture for a B1G title and a Playoff berth.
Keeping Tucker, regardless of price tag, was the right move.
The saying across East Lansing is “Tuck comin’,” a phrase indicating success is imminent. The biggest indicator that Michigan State is destined for long-term greatness is Tuck’s stayin’.
Tom Allen has never backed down from high expectations. He took the job at Indiana believing he has the chance to lead the program to a B1G championship.
Allen spoke candidly and confidently back in July when he was standing at the podium during B1G Media Days at Lucas Oil Stadium. The goal was for the Hoosiers to return to that very place when the first week of December arrived.
It’s not going to happen. With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, Indiana sits with a 2-8 record, winless in the B1G. There’s a strong possibility Allen’s team ends the 2021 campaign with the worst record in the conference and is one of two programs (Vanderbilt) without a win over a Power 5 opponent.
Monday morning, Allen was asked if he regrets placing such a heavy emphasis on winning a B1G title. Did a big-picture mindset detract from the traditional 1-game mentality?
“I don’t,” Allen said. “When you don’t get the results you want, you go back and evaluate everything. I’ve thought that through. I’ve thought that through several times. The whole objective was to elevate the next level of focus of what you want.
“I’ve always felt, since I’ve been here, our guys didn’t really believe they could win the B1G. That’s why I told our guys not to break it out on ‘B1G champs,’ because they didn’t believe it. Those are just empty words. Felt that way when I first got here.”
Allen reiterated that he truly believed this year’s team had a chance to make a run. And why not? The Hoosiers were 8-5 in 2019. They finished the 2020 season with a 6-1 regular season record and the lone loss coming to Ohio State in a 42-35 decision in Columbus.
With so many contributors returning, IU seemed like a team capable of posing a threat. Instead, the only harm the Hoosiers have imposed have been to themselves.
Following such a dismal year — one that harkens back to the not-so good ol’ days of Indiana football — Allen is going to evaluate everything. That probably means changes will be coming, likely to the offensive staff. Something is definitely broken and needs to be fixed.
What’s not broken, though, is Allen’s goal for the program. Not even the thought of a 2-10 record and a winless year in B1G play will detract him from what he’s hoping to accomplish in Bloomington.
“That’s the vision. That’s what greatness is for this program,” Allen said. “I came here to eventually, one day, win a B1G championship. That’s the goal.”
No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 4 Ohio State: Mel Tucker might hate the term “shootout,” but that’s what this will be. The Spartans’ defensive line might be able to get more pressure on CJ Stroud than other teams, but the Buckeyes are still going to put up some points. Can Payton Thorne, Kenneth Walker and Jayden Reed keep pace with Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson and Ohio State’s 3-headed wide receiver monster?
Purdue vs. Northwestern: A team that can’t run the ball (Purdue) facing a team that can’t stop it (Northwestern). Does Jeff Brohm take some of the pressure off Aidan O’Connell’s shoulder this week? Or is he content throwing the ball all over the yard at Wrigley Field? It’ll be interesting to see what the approach is on a cold November day in Chicago, and whether the Wildcats can slow down what’s become a high-powered offense recently.
Rutgers vs. Penn State: This is a game that comes down to mindset and attitude. Penn State has the more talented squad, but little to play for at this point. Rutgers is a victory away from clinching a postseason berth for the first time since 2014. The Scarlet Knights just posted their largest B1G road victory while the Nittany Lions suffered another heartbreaking loss to Michigan. What’s happening between the ears is the biggest key.
Illinois vs. No. 17 Iowa: If Illinois’ defense shows up, it’s going to have a shot to pull off another upset. The Illini will be without head coach Bret Bielema because of a positive COVID-19 test, which puts the team behind the 8-ball. On the other sideline, Iowa’s offense has made some changes and appears to be moving the ball at a better pace with Alex Padilla under center. This matchup doesn’t jump off the page, though it features two teams that have found a bit of a groove recently.
No. 6 Michigan vs. Maryland: To be frank, Maryland’s offense hasn’t been able to figure out a good defense all season long. Sure, the Terrapins have found some success moving the ball but putting points on the scoreboard has been an issue. The scary thing? Michigan’s defense might be the best it’s seen all season. Plus, the Terps have one of the worst defenses statistically in the B1G. How are they going to slow down this suddenly multi-dimensional Wolverines offense?
Nebraska vs. No. 15 Wisconsin: Saturday’s game boils down to one thing: Can Nebraska stop the run? The Badgers torching the Huskers on the ground for 300 yards or more has become a theme in this rivalry series. Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen is playing exceptionally well right now. Nebraska’s defense has been outstanding for a majority of the season. It’s going to be interesting to see which side wins this battle.
Minnesota vs. Indiana: Is Indiana’s defense capable of creating turnovers and putting the offense in manageable field-position situations? That’s the only way the Hoosiers have a shot. They haven’t put points on the scoreboard all year and won’t find much luck against an underrated Minnesota defense. Plus, the Gophers have become experts in the time of possession category and shortening the game. That doesn’t bode well for IU.
No. 6 Michigan (-14.5) vs. Maryland
As easy of a pick as we’ve had this season. Maryland has lost 5 of its last 6 games, dropping all by 17 points or more and by an average of 28 points per contest. Michigan, on the other hand, has defeated 6 of its 9 opponents by at least 3 touchdowns.
There’s a slight chance Maryland catches Michigan in a “trap game” situation. The Wolverines do have a showdown with Ohio State in a week, so maybe the Terrapins can take advantage. Otherwise, there’s no reason to believe this will be a contest.
Michigan is rolling. Maryland is not. All signs point to the Wolverines covering that 14.5-point spread. This should be pretty easy money.