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Apocalypse Meta: How Michigan Wins

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Big picture beakdown, from a Wolverine perspective:

Relevant Games
47-21 at Notre Dame: The scariest nightmare prospect for Ohio State: pressure, early turnovers, big plays downfield, a fat lead to sit on. The best offense Michigan has faced prior to OSU, with a dangerous quarterback and multiple options to defend, and the outcome was essentially dominance.
27-13 at Wisconsin: In retrospect, maybe the Wolverines' best overall opponent - veteran quarterback, excellent running the ball, excellent stopping the pass. Though it did neither particularly well on this occasion. The only game (until Ball State, which briefly led 9-7) in which the Wolverines have trailed at any point, for a little over half a quarter. The Badgers had six straight three-and-outs for two combined yards in the second half.
31-13 vs. Michigan State: In terms of balance, versatility and a mobile quarterback, could have been the nearest approximation to the various threats posed by the Buckeyes' offense. At this point in the season, though, MSU wasn't up even for that.
17-10 at Penn State: Competitive defensively, but a string of dead quarterbacks does not a legitimate threat make. The Lions did manage a couple plays passing and on screens, even their long run was seven yards.
20-6 vs. Iowa: Hawkeyes kept it closer for longer than anyone else here, but ultimately gave up 17 points on three drives out of four in one fatal second half stretch. Got some pressure on Henne and forced an interception, which directly accounted for half of those six points.

Favorable Trends to Extend: SMQ very highly values teams with consistently run-stuffing defenses, one of the reasons he harps so much on yards per carry. And no front seven in recent memory, in terms of statistics or personnel, has so thoroughly overwhelmed opposing rushing attacks as Michigan's this season. There is no precedent, by any team, under any circumstance, for an opponent eking out more than the most insignificant trickle of success on the ground; the long run the Wolverines have allowed is just 25 yards, which matches the number of first downs opponents have achieved on runs all year. Going back to the relevant games above, those five teams averaged less than a yard per carry. This is not a trick. This is a freakishly balanced group that can attack with size (Alan Branch, Tim Jamison, Rondell Biggs), speed (Prescott Burgess) and every combination in between (LaMarr Woodley, Dave Harris, Shawn Crable), and make your offensive line look ridiculous.


Another day, another devastating season low for an opposing running back

The steadiest offensive factor, not surprisingly, has been by far Mike Hart, whose production has been eerily consistent - no games under 90 yards, an average against worthy defenses unwavering in the neighborhood of 4.5 a pop. He doesn't have the signature romp, but no defense yet can claim to have come close to honestly shutting him down. This has been accomplished largely in absentia of a truly terrfying passing attack - an attack, of course, that gets back Saturday at (presumably) full strength the one element that makes it truly terrifying: in the last four games he was in the lineup, Manningham had eight touchdowns on 24 yards per catch and burned somebody at least once in all four. His presence alone completely changes the way Ohio State has to attack Mike DeBord's scheme: putting eight in the box with Manningham out there is no less dangerous than doing so with Ted Ginn on the flip side. The last six games for the Wolverines, against steadily weaker competition, without that threat, almost don't even count when gauging the possibilities on Saturday. The crusty conservatism, in the same fashion as the Notre Dame game, is guaranteed to melt early on here if OSU insists on crowding the lanes against Hart.


The Wolverines haven't exactly needed this, but it's nice to know it's there.

Pessimistic Mitigation of Favorable Trends: Running backs are doing slightly better than 1.3 yards per carry, the season average for all opponents: the massive sack totals somewhat inflate the dominance of the run defense, as opponents have lost more than 400 yards on the ground in such. Not to say that getting to the quarterback is fraudulent or anything, but it will be more difficult because of Ohio State's offensive line and, should it give, Troy Smith's mobility. If Ron English wants to continue to be aggressive with the linebackers, it means opening up the possibility of a big play via man coverage on Ginn - or Gonzalez or Robiskie, for that matter - or Smith escape. Not that English isn't completely aware of the risk, but the alternative is a Herrmannesque zone, the kind of thing Texas employed to very ill effect (as demonstrated by Ginn at the end of the first half, though, any approach can result in ill effect against the OSU offense). How much will accounting for all the extra weapons soften up that rock solid interior?

Is Manningham full speed? Presumably so, but bad news if not, or if he's rusty.

Exploitable Trends of Which to Beware: Chad Henne is a vet now, seasoned and hardened, etc., but the occasional lapse and lack of mobility, combined with Ohio State's fierce pass rush - Michigan fans seem especially concerned with Reuben Riley against Vernon Gholston, in the wake of the relative success of Dan Bazuin and Victor Abiamiri earlier in the season - makes Henne more likely than robotically poised Troy Smith to have a painful, mistake-laden afternoon, in the vein of his three-interception day at Wisconsin, without the good stuff to Manningham.

Wisconsin also got an early touchdown by slipping P.J. Hill into the flat, where the Wolverines busted a coverage, and Penn State was also able to get Tony Hunt free for a big play and a couple of other grabs out of the backfield.

The Wolverines also have not entirely shored up their issues with containing a running quarterback. It's not like the tail end of 2004 or anything, when Smith and Vince Young combined for something like 450 yards and six touchdowns on the ground, but three scramblers this season - Chris Nicksen, Drew Stanton, Drew Tate and Kellen Lewis last week - each made a few plays with their feet. Probably a minor quibble on most occasions, extremely minor, but not given Smith's contain-busting efforts against UM the last two years.

On that note, while we're grasping for possibilities, because of the stats - misleading as the numbers may be - there has to be the concern for Michigan that its offense is a big play or two short of being able to hang with OSU's big play tendencies. Aside from Smith and Ginn and Gonzalez and Robiskie, Antonio Pittman's not exactly Barry Sanders, but he is more likely to break free for a big gainer than Hart.

Advantage Wolverines: Ohio State has scored a lot fairly quickly in every game except Penn State, eliminating the possibility of facing the kind of patient, run-oriented, ball-control game that would seem to be the key to handling the Buckeyes, and that's right up Michigan's alley. The obvious call, then, may be to give Michigan the "slow down, control the clock" vote, but take for granted someone for Ohio State's going to do something explosive at some point, and the Wolverines are going to need to match it via Manningham or Steve Breaston. The earlier one of them breaks out the big play, the better; like OSU, an early lead can make all the difference in terms of pacing and being in the position to dictate what the opposing offense will be able to do. All of which goes to say Michigan needs to make it safe to keep Hart in play - and the OSU offense out of play - as much as possible. This might mean trying to create some breathing room by laying up a bomb or throwing some kind of trick play early, but the bulk of the work is going to have to come by taking it right at a defense that hasn't yet had to deal with a full game's worth of pounding.

Friday: Prediction coming via Friday Morning Quarterback.