When Michigan and Ohio State square off Saturday, each team's quarterback will take center stage, and for U-M, that's a two-headed monster of Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson that created many a restless night for the Buckeyes coaches this week.
A year ago, in their first meeting as rival quarterbacks, Michigan's Denard Robinson and Ohio State's Braxton Miller engaged in a game of 'Anything you can do, I can do better.'
Miller rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Robinson gained 170 yards rushing and scored twice, averaging 6.5 yards per attempt.
In the passing game, Miller completed 14 of 25 throws (56.0 percent) for 235 yards with two TDs and an interception. Robinson bested him, with 163 yards and three scores on 14 of 17 passing (82.4 percent). Most importantly, Robinson led his team to victory.
Fans of these two teams eagerly awaited a second duel this season, especially Buckeye supporters that believed this one would belong to their blossoming signal-caller. However, with Robinson's injury four weeks ago against Nebraska and his new role at running back/wildcat quarterback, that matchup has been shelved.
"If you look at it from a Michigan perspective, Denard really had an opportunity to expand his legacy," OSU beat writer Ben Axelrod said. "If Michigan won, he would have been the first quarterback since Brian Griese [1995-97] to beat Ohio State twice, and he really could have taken his place along the greats in this rivalry."
Instead, Miller will occupy the spotlight opposite U-M junior Devin Gardner, who has started at QB each of the past three games. Gardner has been superb, and, if eligible, would rank No. 1 in total offense (313.0 yards per game) and first in pass efficiency (190.22) among Big Ten signal-callers based on his starting numbers.
"Somebody asked me if I was surprised by his accuracy," offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "Not at all. All of his numbers in practice have shown you he's an accurate passer.
"But so many things are game specific. Things can go wrong, and it's being able to deal with those things. The biggest surprise is how composed he stayed. Not that I didn't think he would, but you don't know. Nobody knows. Until those lights go on, and the bullets start flying, you just never know."
While Gardner's emergence and Robinson's new role may have come at the most opportune time for the Wolverines, providing them a slight edge, U-M still must account for the 6-2, 220-pound Miller, a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender and the frontrunner for the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award.
He ranks fourth in the conference in rushing with 110.4 yards per game, is third in pass efficiency with a 137.12 rating and is second in total offense, averaging 278.6 yards per game.
The Huber Heights, Ohio, native is completing 55.1 percent of his attempts for an average of 168.2 yards per game, with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. He has also rushed for 1,214 yards and 13 scores, including six 100-yard efforts. He has been the critical piece to OSU's 11-0 start.
"Last year Meyer has said that Braxton was an athlete playing quarterback, and at times, just an athlete taking snaps," Axelrod said. "This year, you've seen him develop as a quarterback, and make all the throws a Big Ten passer is expected to make.
"His feet are still his strength, and he's been an even more impressive runner this year. He has really put this team on his shoulders."
Though it's not Robinson-Miller, this year's matchup could be the first of two between Miller and Gardner, and potentially even three if Gardner receives a medical redshirt and Miller stays all four seasons.
At the very least, the two should spend the offseason jockeying for hype, likely considered the two best Big Ten quarterbacks for 2013.
Kickoff: 12:07 p.m.
Radio-TV: ABC will broadcast the game. The contest can be heard on the Michigan Sports Network (950 AM in the Detroit area, SiriusXM channel 86).
Coaches: Michigan: Brady Hoke (19-5, second season). Ohio State: Urban Meyer (11-0, first season).
Ohio State Notes: OSU is celebrating its 100th year in the Big Ten … Ohio State's first-year coaches are 5-11-1 in their first matchup with Michigan … The Buckeyes will be wearing special uniforms, paying tribute to their 1968 team … Cornerback Bradley Roby is the only defensive player in the country to score a touchdown this season three different ways: a fumble recovery, a blocked punt and an interception return … QB Braxton Miller needs 57 yards rushing to achieve the second-best single-season effort by a Big Ten quarterback, passing Indiana's Atwaan Randle El, who had 1,270 in 2000.
By The Numbers
4 - Wolverines in program history with three 1,000-yard rushing seasons: Jamie Morris, Tyrone Wheatley, Mike Hart, and, now, Denard Robinson, who has 1,044 yards on the season.
5 - TD receptions for freshman Devin Funchess, the most by a U-M tight end since Bennie Jopporu had five in 2002.
7 - Receiving touchdowns for senior tailback Vincent Smith, tying Gerald White (1983-86) for the most by a Michigan ball carrier.
11 - Touchdown drives of 75 or more yards for the Wolverines during the past three weeks; U-M had eight in the first eight games.
49 - Starts by senior defensive end Craig Roh, who will tie offensive tackle Jon Jansen's school record of 50, from 1995-98, at Ohio State Saturday.
TheWolverine.com Game Week Poll Results
Do you think Denard Robinson should have been at running back/wildcat QB for the entirety of the past two years?
Yes - 38 percent
No - 62 percent
When Ohio State has the Ball
Featuring arguably the top quarterback/tailback tandem in college football, with Miller and junior running back Carlos Hyde, the Buckeyes rank second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally in rushing with 245.5 yards per game. Miller and Hyde have combined for 2,038 of OSU's 2,700 yards on the ground (75.5 percent).
Conversely, Ohio State's rushing prowess has come at the expense of, or has been necessary because of, its mundane aerial attack. The Scarlet and Gray sit 100th nationally in passing with 180.8 yards per contest. In Big Ten play, the Buckeyes have averaged just 171.1 yards per game, including a 97-yard showing a week ago in a 21-14 win over Wisconsin.
Will it come to that? In an ideal world, probably not. Miller has the arm strength and has been making better decisions this season (and on top of that has been accurate) but the Buckeyes see a vulnerability in Michigan's edge containment, and they will go to that well often Saturday, making U-M's defense prove it can stop the run. Few OSU opponents have this year.
The Wolverines know what's coming, but that doesn't mean they can stop it. They knew what was coming when they met up with Northwestern and the Wildcats still finished with 248 yards, with quarterback Kain Colter picking up 82 yards and tailback Venric Mark finishing with 104.
NU took advantage of the Maize and Blue's poor tackling and poor execution. Michigan's defense quite often had one man in the proper position, but not two or three, and even when the numbers were there, the Wildcat ball carriers evaded tackles, slipping through the arms of the Wolverines. They can't afford to be so fundamentally lax tomorrow.
The game will likely center on U-M's linebackers. Fifth-year senior MIKE Kenny Demens is at the top of his game right now, but redshirt sophomore SAM Jake Ryan hasn't been the past two weeks. He needs to recapture what he was doing well throughout much of this season, making big plays in the backfield and on the edge.
Michigan's defensive line, meanwhile, faces the best offensive line they've seen since, perhaps, meeting up with Alabama in week one.; Columbus insiders believe it is Ohio State's top OL in more than a decade.
Everything will come down to Miller, as it used to come down to Robinson. If Miller goes over 300 yards of total offense, OSU will likely be too tough to beat. Keep him in-check, near 250 yards, and the combination of Gardner and Robinson will outscore the Scarlet and Gray.
When Michigan has the Ball
A week ago, U-M's two-headed monster combined for 135 yards rushing and three scores on 22 carries (6.1 yards per rush) while Gardner threw for 314 yards and three TDs.
What will they do Saturday with another week to game plan and prepare? And more importantly, can it be the difference in the game, keeping OSU on its heels and providing the offense to match a potent Scarlet and Gray attack that figures to score plenty?
Michigan's offense is clicking beyond these two, with its receivers and tight ends coming up big the past three weeks. In fact, U-M's wideouts have 15 receptions of 20 yards or more since Gardner took over as the starter.
The Buckeyes have been playing their best defensively in recent weeks, though, and won't be overmatched by anything the Wolverines do. Well, almost anything. That Gardner/Robinson duo threatens to be a wildcard tomorrow that no game planning can prepare for.
However, Ohio State went into its matchup with Wisconsin last week yielding only 88.0 yards rushing per game in its previous four contests. It would surrender 206 to the Badgers, but UW needed 56 carries, averaging only 3.7 yards per rush.
Featuring a front four with size and experience, led by 6-3, 322-pound junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, and a playmaking linebacker corps, OSU's rush defense has been consistently stout and feels it can corral Robinson.
There should be opportunities in the passing game for Michigan, though; the Buckeyes are hemorrhaging yards through the air, ranking 84th nationally in allowing 250.1 yards per game. Quarterbacks have been effective passers too, boasting a 116.10 rating that ranks the Scarlet and Gray defense sixth in the Big Ten.
For the Maize and Blue, this one comes down to red-zone proficiency. After struggling in the red zone against Michigan State and Nebraska - settling for four field goals in four trips - Michigan has 11 touchdowns and a field goal in 12 opportunities against Minnesota, Northwestern and Iowa the past three weeks.
The Buckeyes, though, are one of the country's best at defending the end zone, allowing opponents to convert just 71.4 percent of their trips, including a mere 17 TDs in 35 chances.
Three Buckeye Players to Watch
Junior tailback Carlos Hyde: Traditionally, read-option spread offenses, such as Urban Meyer's, favor small, shifty, speed running backs, but the 6-0, 232-pound Hyde has bucked that trend in his junior campaign. Though he has missed two games due to injury, Hyde has still rushed for 824 yards and 15 touchdowns this season on 159 carries (5.2-yard average), scoring 13 times in the past six weeks alone. The Naples, Fla., native has also caught seven balls.
Senior defensive end John Simon: A real menace at defensive end, Simon has taken over the lead in the Big Ten in sacks with nine following a four-sack game in last week's win over the Badgers. The 6-2, 263-pound Simon also shares the conference lead with 14.5 tackles for loss. A three-year starter, and a first-team all-league performer in 2011, Simon has 21 career sacks and 46 TFL.
Junior receiver/returnman Corey Brown: The Buckeyes leading receiver with 52 receptions for 574 yards and two scores, the 6-0, 186-pound Brown - not to be confused with the 6-1, 197-pound junior safety of the exact same name - is also one of the Big Ten's top punt returners. Brown ranks third in the league averaging 13.6 yards per game and has returned two punts for touchdowns, bringing back a 76-yarder against Nebraska and a 68-yarder against Wisconsin.
Even though Ohio State is 11-0, this is not an invincible team. The Buckeyes have played just two dominant games all year, clobbering Illinois 52-22 and Nebraska 63-38. OSU has survived scares with California, Michigan State, Purdue and Wisconsin, and is probably closer to an 8-3 team. But give Ohio State credit for making the big plays it needed to when it needed to.
Michigan has shown some cracks defensively the past two weeks after seemingly putting it all together on that side of the ball, and there is legitimate concern the Wolverines won't be able to contain Miller. However, with Gardner and Robinson working in concert, U-M should be able to match the Buckeyes score for score.
This one comes down to the wire, with Ohio State making one more big play than the Maize and Blue.
Score: Ohio State 28, Michigan 27.
Against the Spread (+4.0): Cover.
Over/Under (55.0): Over.
Michael Spath's record this year: Result: 9-2; Against the Spread 5-6; Over/Under 8-3.