Michigan vs. Ohio State: Key player matchups that will decide The Game
In terms of a grand finale, this is what Michigan and Ohio State both wished for back during camp.
The national spotlight is firmly affixed on the teams coached by Jim Harbaugh and Ryan Day.
This is it.
For the first time since 2006, the No. 3-ranked Wolverines and No. 2-ranked Buckeyes are 11-0 entering The Game. The winner will claim the Big Ten East title and go on to play the winner of the West for the league championship Dec. 3 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
League glory and a trip to College Football Playoff, and perhaps a Heisman Trophy, will be up for grabs this Saturday at The Shoe in Columbus.
This is one of those matchups that can be analyzed from head-to-toe, front-to-back, and then back-to-front. Every player during every snap will make a difference.
So with that being said, this piece will highlight the key individual battles that will likely influence the outcome of the biggest regular-season game of the year. Saturday will be all about neutralizing the opposition’s strengths and exposing their weaknesses.
Blake Corum vs. Ohio State run D
If his left knee is still an issue, then this won’t matter on Saturday: It’s a given that, in order for Michigan to have the best chance of winning, Blake Corum has to have the game of his life against the Buckeyes — there is no debating that. If Corum, a Heisman frontrunner, doesn’t come through with at least 200 yards and pair of touchdowns (if not more), then Michigan’s offense will have a tough time outscoring the nation’s most-potent point-producing Buckeyes.
Allowing 105.7 yards per game, the OSU rush-defense is among the tops in the nation, coming in at No. 15 overall per NCAA.com. Additionally, the Buckeyes allow just 3.08 yards per carry; their opponents have scored a total of 7 rushing touchdowns on the year. Corum has 18 on the year and stands in line to break the UM single-season record of 20 set by Hassan Haskins this past season.
But nobody runs all over Ohio State, right?
Well, Haskins scored 5 times vs. the Buckeyes during Michigan’s 42-27 victory in Ann Arbor in 2021. Last year, Michigan had the nation’s best O-line; however, this year’s line has been described as being even better than last year’s version, allowing for the possibility of Corum pulling a Haskins 2.0 this weekend.
Weather forecasts are calling for low-50s and rain for the noon kickoff, so that means UM will be running a ton as usual — if not more than usual. A healthy Corum with 22-25 carries should be enough for the Wolverines to have an effective ground attack that yields results.
Michigan pass-rush vs. CJ Stroud
Ohio State QB CJ Stroud rarely, if ever, gets sacked. He’s too fast on his feet and quick on the throw to be taken down behind the line of scrimmage. According to Team Rankings, the third-year sophomore gets sacked 0.6 times per game. Basically, teams are lucky to get him down once per 4 quarters.
In 2021, Michigan had 34 sacks, led by DE Aidan Hutchinson’s single-season program record 14 and DE/LB David Ojabo’s 11. This year, the Wolverines have 31 sacks and at least 1 more game after this one to equal or surpass that mark. UM has been one of the most aggressive QB-pursuing teams in college football this season, and that attitude and approach won’t change this Saturday.
Michigan has the guys to make things difficult for Stroud.
Due to precautionary measures, DE Mike Morris didn’t play vs. Illinois. With 7.5 sacks, he’s among national leaders, creating a lot of discussion about his future in the NFL. He’s had a couple of weeks to nurse a sore hamstring; he will need to be at top speed Saturday if Michigan is going to have half a chance of putting Stroud on the ground.
The Wolverines have others who are capable of getting to Stroud, including LB Michael Barrett Jr. (2.5 sacks) and LB Mason Graham (2.5). There are 8 Wolverines with at least 2 sacks this season, and they’ve come from all directions on the field. Even DBs Mike Sainristril (2) and Rod Moore (0.5) have gotten in on the action.
This is one of Michigan’s most potent pass-rush units since Harbaugh assumed control of the program in 2015. If there is a defense that will be able to contend with Stroud, this one will be the one to do it — and really, last year’s defense was able to limit Stroud (despite throwing for 300-plus), so there shouldn’t be a drop-off in performance this time around.
And for those wondering, the record for most sacks during the Harbaugh-era is 45, set by the 2016 team (including bowl game).
DJ Turner vs. Marvin Harrison Jr.
Michigan CB DJ Turner has been one of the most consistent pass defenders in the Big Ten. While the 6-foot, 180-pound corner has been rock-solid over the past 2 seasons, he’s yet to face the likes of Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State’s standout wide receiver who’s been called the best in the country by some analysts. Turner’s speed — a reported 4.28-second 40-yard — and willingness to get physical should benefit him during 1-on-1 coverage.
Turner leads UM with 8 pass break-ups and will undoubtedly be the first line of defense against Harrison, who hadn’t dropped a pass all season entering this past weekend’s win over Maryland.
Take this into consideration: Harrison Jr., the son of NFL legend Marvin Harrison (Indianapolis Colts), is 6-4 and 205 pounds — so it’s likely that any toss-up situations would go to the Buckeyes’ star. Again, Turner has been good the past 2 seasons, but Harrison Jr. is seemingly in a league above the rest.
In terms of receiving yards, Harrison Jr. comes in at No. 8 in the country, having a team-leading (and second-most in the B1G) 1,037 yards. His 11 receiving TDs are tied for third-most in the country. He’s already being projected as one of the best Buckeyes WRs in program history and an early-round 2024 NFL draft pick.
Back during the summer, Turner was graded highly by Pro Football Focus, prompting many to suggest that he’d be a top-5 DB draft prospect. However, the latest PFF CB grades have Turner barely in the top 200, behind teammates Mike Sainristril and Gemon Green. Either way it’s sliced, The Game will provide a chance for both Turner and Harrison Jr. to show what they can do against highly-ranked talent.
This battle will be one of Michigan’s best CB vs. WR rivalry duets since Jourdan Lewis vs. MSU’s Aaron Burbridge in 2015.