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November 30, 2013

Matchups To Watch: Michigan vs. Ohio State

Michigan and Ohio State are set to do battle Saturday at noon. Here are the most important keys to the game:

1. Michigan Front Seven vs. Ohio State Run Game

This is going to be strength vs. strength, and the most fun matchup to watch because of it.

No one reading this needs to be told the Buckeyes have a high-powered offense. They rank third nationally in scoring offense (48.7 points per game), sixth nationally in rushing offense (314.7 yards per game), seventh nationally in total offense (530.9 yards per game), seventh nationally in third-down conversion rate (52.9 percent), fourth nationally in red zone offense (94.4 scoring percentage), etc.

Ohio State is 77th in the country in passing offense (216.2 yards per game), but that's really more to do with how well they're running the ball. When the Buckeyes do throw it, they're eighth nationally in team quarterback rating (164.9).

As hinted at above, this offense is completely predicated on the rushing attack.

Senior running back Carlos Hyde ranks fifth in the Big Ten in total yards gained this season, which is seriously impressive, when you consider the fact that he has missed three games. He has racked up 138 attempts for 1,064 yards (7.7 yards per rush) and 13 scores.

And, of course, junior quarterback Braxton Miller is going to do damage on the ground. He has amassed 116 carries for 738 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and five touchdowns.

Those two have the headlines - for good reason, because they have been outstanding in 2013 - but the Buckeye ground attack is much more diverse and multi-faceted.

Jordan Hall ranks 16th in the conference in rushing yards (79 carries for 519 yards and eight scores), and two freshmen running backs have added a punch this year.

Ezekiel Elliott has taken 30 carries for 262 yards and two scores, while Dontre Wilson - the "Percy Harvin-type back" in this offense - has 28 carries for 226 yards and a touchdown.

The Michigan defense has been more than solid against the run all season. Indiana is the only offense that rushed for more yards against the Wolverines than their current season average all season.

Michigan is 14th nationally in rushing defense (116.4 yards per game) and are allowing just 3.2 yards per attempt (15th nationally).

The Wolverines received a scare when both junior middle linebacker Desmond Morgan and sophomore outside linebacker James Ross III left the Iowa game with injuries (undisclosed), but they should be good for Saturday.

2. The Michigan Offensive Line vs. The Ohio State Pass Rush

Seven games into the season, the Ohio State pass rush wasn't anything to write home about.

In those games, the Buckeyes totaled 16 sacks and got to the quarterback more than three times in a single game just once, a five-sack performance in a 40-30 win at Northwestern.

In the seventh game of the season, a 34-24 win over Iowa, Ohio State did not record a single sack.

Since that performance, the pass rush has been as fierce as any in the country. The Buckeyes have racked up at least four sacks in each of the last four games: four sacks in a 63-14 win vs. Penn State, six sacks in a 56-0 win at Purdue, six sacks in a 60-35 win at Illinois and four sacks in a 42-14 win vs. Indiana.

The Buckeyes have four players who have racked up at least five sacks this season: defensive end Noah Spence (7.5), defensive lineman Michael Bennett (5.5), linebacker Ryan Shazier (5.5) and defensive end Joey Bosa (5.0), a true freshman who has taken leaps and bounds since the beginning of the year.

The Michigan offensive line seems to be taking an inverse trajectory in the sack department. After surrendering a total of 12 sacks in the first six games of the season, the Wolverines have given up 20 in the last five games: seven each in losses to Michigan State and Nebraska, five to Northwestern and one last week at Iowa.

3. The Intangibles

Ohio State has dreams of an undefeated season and hopes of playing for a national championship this season - if either Alabama (at Auburn and SEC Championship) or Florida State (at Florida and ACC Championship) lose in the next two weeks.

Michigan is playing for pride, watching their goal of a Big Ten title slip away in early November and losing four of the last six games.

Will that bog down or fire up either side? This is a rivalry for a reason. Who knows what could happen?

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