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November 17, 2006

More at stake than ever for Ohio State, Michigan

"Let's face reality, the UM front 7 is good. We need to exploit it for what it is not, pass D. Anybody that thinks we win this game with isos and power plays is nuts. But, no matter what I think, JT will do the right thing to win the game. Can't wait!"
-- 8183 on the The Horseshoe Lounge message board on BuckeyGrove.com.

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The 103rd football game between Ohio State and Michigan has been proclaimed the most significant in the history of the glorious series because it's seen as a stepping stone to the national championship game.

Possibly even for the losing team.

As strange as it seems, this clash of No. 1 Ohio State (11-0) and No. 2 Michigan (11-0) marks the first time the traditional rivals have faced each other as the nation's top two teams.

"We've played this game now for 102 years," Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. "To have this be the first time in over a century that both teams are ranked 1-2 it's a dream to not only coach in this rivalry, but to be able to play in a game like this.''

The magnitude of the game was put in perspective a bit Friday, when legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler died at the age of 77.

Schembechler and former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes were involved in several memorable games. Although their rivalry was often heated, it was also defined by mutual respect.

"If Bo is not a winner, I never saw one and I should know," Hayes told The Lantern - Ohio State's student newspaper - on Feb. 10, 1986. "He beat me the last three games we played. We've fought and quarreled for years, but we're great friends."

Of all the Ohio State-Michigan contests, this year's has the most at stake.

It is obviously a big event when there is clamor for a rematch before the match. College football observers have already been debating whether it is feasible and/or politically correct for the Wolverines and Buckeyes to reconvene in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 8 to settle the national championship.

Both Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and Carr were even asked about a possible rematch in interviews this week.

"I have enough to worry about with this game," Carr said. "And whatever comes after is part of the system. It will be what it will be."

No doubt, Ohio State senior quarterback Troy Smith is Carr's greatest worry.

Smith can clinch the Heisman Trophy with a solid performance, yet he has been nothing short of spectacular in leading the Buckeyes to victories in his two previous starts against Michigan.

Last year he completed 27 of 37 passes for 300 yards and a touchdown and rushed for a touchdown as the Buckeyes prevailed 25-21. In 2004, Smith completed 13 of 23 passes for 241 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 145 and another touchdown as the Buckeyes rolled 37-21.

"My success is credited to everyone around me," Smith said. "It is not just me who is 2-0 versus Michigan. It is everyone who was on the field. I give all the credit to my offensive line. Without them no big plays could be made and without them I would not be 2-0."

Michigan defensive end LaMarr Woodley, who has posted 11 sacks, agreed with Smith.

"You can't really focus on one guy," Woodley said. "It's an all-around team. They have other weapons in there."

Success hasn't come easily against the Michigan defense, which might be more equipped to contain Smith this season.

The Wolverines' defense ranks third nationally, and they're the best in the country against the run. Michigan has also accumulated 40 sacks, which is the most in the country.

"Their defense is the best we've played thus far," Ohio State receiver Anthony Gonzalez said. "Their front seven are tremendous and their secondary is very talented.

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"Their coaches and players have faith and trust in them for good reason, because they have great players overall. Our team is experienced, but so is theirs. We have both played in big games during our seasons, but I can't think of a bigger game."

There is no bigger game. Not when rivals Michigan and Ohio State are involved. Not when the Big Ten championship is at stake, and certainly not when they're ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the country.

It's the kind rivalry that creates legends and leaves participants stammering when trying to explain its meaning.

"I'm not good at verbalizing anything," Carr said. "I wish I could. I wish I could stand back and say, 'My God, look at what you're part of.' But, there's a game coming."

Maybe even two.

Week 12 Game of the Week: No. 2 Michigan at No. 1 Ohio State
Michigan run offense vs. Ohio State run defense: Michigan has rushed for more than 200 yards in seven games, and tailback Mike Hart - who always seems to fall forward - has gained at least 91 yards in each contest. The best run defense Michigan has faced so far was Penn State's, which ranked 19th nationally. The Wolverines managed 116 yards rushing against the Nittany Lions, 112 by Hart. The offensive line, which was a point of concern before the season, has obviously performed very well. However, Michigan has not played a defense that is as good against the run as is Ohio State. The Buckeyes allow an average of 90.2 yards per game to rank 11th nationally. Defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock is an almost immoveable run stuffer, and linebacker James Laurinaitis has played at an All-American level. The Buckeyes appeared vulnerable against run the early in the season - three of their first four opponents rushed for at least 142 yards. However, Ohio State has held its last five opponents to fewer than 100 yards.
Edge: Michigan.
Michigan pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense: Junior quarterback Chad Henne is having another solid season for Michigan with 1,932 yards passing and 18 touchdowns. Mario Manningham, Adrian Arrington and Steve Breaston form one of the best trios of receivers in the country. That is, if Manningham is at top speed. He caught six touchdown passes in a three-game span earlier in the year but had knee surgery six weeks ago. He played last week against Indiana and caught just two passes for 11 yards. He's a dangerous deep threat if healthy. The Wolverines have done a good job protecting Henne, who has been sacked just 14 times. Opponents have had marginal success throwing on the Buckeyes, provided the quarterback has time to throw. The Buckeyes have registered 33 sacks, with Pitcock leading the way with eight and defensive end Vernon Gholston accumulating 7. The Buckeyes also lead the nation with 21 interceptions. Laurinaitis leads with five and Malcolm Jenkins has four. Linebacker Marcus Freeman has two interceptions and has broken up six passes.
Edge: Ohio State.
Ohio State run offense vs. Michigan run defense: Ohio State tailback Antonio Pittman might be the most unappreciated player in the nation. A hard runner with good speed, he has rushed for 1,032 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. Despite his production, many OSU fans thought heralded freshman Chris Wells might knock Pittman out of the starting lineup. Didn't happen. With Pittman usually leading the way, Ohio State has averaged 179.5 rushing yards per game. The Buckeyes have rushed for more than 230 yards in three of their last four games and have eclipsed 200 yards rushing four times. However, those 200 yard games have come against teams that ranked 59th or lower in run defense. Michigan ranks No. 1 and has allowed only 329 rushing yards all season. The Wolverines haven't done that by suffocating overmatched teams, either. Wisconsin's P.J. Hill, Penn State's Tony Hunt and Notre Dame's Darius Walker all among the nation's top 25 rushers were held to 54 or fewer yards by the Michigan defense. The Wolverines have allowed only one team to exceed 100 yards rushing this season. Defensive tackle Alan Branch and defensive end LaMarr Woodley lead an excellent front four, and linebacker David Harris has flourished behind them with 80 tackles - including 13 for losses.
Edge: Michigan.
Ohio State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense: Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, the leader in the Heisman Trophy race, is one of the nation's most efficient passers. Smith has thrown for 2,191 yards and 26 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Ted Ginn Jr. is lauded as one of the nation's most dangerous receiving threats and he is but Anthony Gonzalez actually averages more yards per catch. No. 3 receiver Brian Robiskie has 22 catches and four touchdowns. Ohio State has allowed only 13 sacks, and part of that can be attributed to Smith's mobility. He'll need that mobility against the Michigan pass rush. Michigan has allowed 11 touchdown passes and has grabbed just as many interceptions. Leon Hall, a Thorpe Award finalist, is one of the nation's premier cornerbacks and will likely match up against Ginn.
Edge: Ohio State.
Michigan kicking game vs. Ohio State kicking game: Strong football teams are usually sound in the kicking game, and Michigan and Ohio State are no different. Michigan kicker Garrett Rivas has hit 15 of 18 field-goal attempts (83.3 percent) and is 13 of 14 inside 40 yards. Punter Zoltan Mesko averages 41.2 yards. Meanwhile, Steve Breaston is a threat on kickoffs and punts. The same goes for Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr., who might be the country's most feared kick returner. Aaron Pettrey has hit eight of 11 field-goal attempts with a long kick of 51 yards. Punter A.J. Trapasso averages 41.2 yards.
Edge: Ohio State.
Ohio State coaches vs. Michigan coaches: Ohio State's Jim Tressel is 61-13 in six years in Columbus, led the Buckeyes to a national championship in 2002 and has a 4-1 record against Michigan. His teams are 7-2 against opponents ranked in the top 10. Like Tressel, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr has led his team to a national championship (1997). He's 113-34 in 12 years in Ann Arbor and has the most wins among active Big Ten coaches. He is 75-20 in his career against Big Ten opponents, and has led the Wolverines to 25 victories in their last 29 conference games.
Edge: Ohio State.
X-Factor: The death of former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler can affect the Wolverines in two ways. Michigan may come out fired up and more inspired than ever to beat the No. 1 Buckeyes. On the other hand, the loss of a revered figure like Schembechler may be difficult to overcome. Because today's players didn't have as much contact with the legend as Wolverines of years' past, we're guessing the younger Wolverines will respond in a positive manner. Schembechler spoke to the team this week, and the Michigan players and coaches can use his words as inspiration.
Ohio State will win if: The Buckeyes must protect Troy Smith from the Michigan pass rush, which might be iffy if tackle Alex Boone's knee isn't feeling better. He has missed the last two games. If he has time, Smith can exploit Ohio State's advantage against Michigan's secondary. Chances of that will be enhanced if the Buckeyes can have reasonable success in the running game. If Chad Henne is put in obvious passing situations the Buckeyes will figure to add to their nation-leading interception total.
Michigan will win if: The Wolverines need success in the running game. They need to control the football and keep Smith off the field. Once Smith does get the ball, the Michigan pass defense needs to pressure him - but keep him in the pocket. The elusive Smith hasn't made too many big plays with his feet this season, but that doesn't mean he can't. Michigan has to prevent Ohio State particularly Ted Ginn Jr. from making big plays in the passing game and on kick returns.
Notes: Michigan is Ohio State's second opponent which was ranked No. 2. The top-ranked Buckeyes defeated No. 2 Texas 24-7 earlier this season. Ted Ginn Jr. has caught at least one pass in 30 consecutive games and has multiple catches in 28 consecutive games. Ohio State has an 18-game winning streak - the longest in the nation. Michigan is 4-0 on the road this season and is 7-0 in road games dating back to last year. The Wolverines' schedule has been ranked the second toughest in the nation. Michigan's opponents have an overall record of 69-41 (.627 percentage). Michigan has allowed opponents only 20 points in the third quarter this season. Mike Hart has scored at least one touchdown in five consecutive games and has a career-best 11 rushing touchdowns this season.
Buchanan's pick: Michigan, 27-24
Other Rivals.com Expert picks:
Steve Megargee, national college football writer: Ohio State, 21-17
Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief: Michigan, 31-28
Bill King, RivalsRadio host: Ohio State, 21-18
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