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COLUMBUS, Ohio - This season's Ohio State football team will attempt to cap off just the sixth undefeated, untied season in program history on Saturday, when it faces its arch-rival, Michigan, in the 109th edition of The Game. In order to get a better understanding of the Wolverines heading into this Saturday's matchup, I chatted with Michael Spath of The Wolverine to get his thoughts on this weekend's Big Ten battle.
BA: While speaking to the media this week, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has been almost paranoid when it comes to preparing for a backfield that consists of Devin Gardner and Denard Robinson and says that he knows something is coming in terms of a double pass or trick play. Do you expect Brady Hoke to have something rolled up his sleeves for this week, much like Jim Tressel used to when his Buckeyes would battle the Wolverines?
MS: I think there's no doubt that we only saw the tip of the iceberg last weekend with how they can and will use both Gardner and Robinson. I don't expect Robinson to throw the ball a ton - it's very clear that Gardner represents Michigan's best passing QB and he will still occupy the role under center, but at some point Robinson will throw the football Saturday, at least once, maybe twice or three times.
Will it come off a reverse? Will it be a pass back to Gardner, who was a receiver earlier this year and can go downfield? Will it be a step towards the line of scrimmage like a run is coming and then hitting a slot receiver up the seam? All of these are possibilities, and the only people that really know are behind the walls guarding practice this week.
I do expect we'll see more of Robinson on screens and in the slot as a receiver as Michigan tries to get him the ball in space, and I wouldn't be completely surprised if they send him deep, hoping he can use his speed to get behind coverage and catch a game-changing pass.
At the very least, I think we can all agree on this: when Robinson is on the field, all eyes will be fixated on him, and that alone presents incredible problems for the defense.
BA: Speaking of Denard, is there a sense that he has a lot on the line this weekend in terms of his legacy? I've always viewed him as just a step below Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson when it comes to Michigan legends, but he's 1-1 against Ohio State right now and hasn't won a Big Ten title yet in his career. Especially if Nebraska loses on Friday, do you get the sense that Robinson will be playing for more than just another win on Saturday?
MS: There are really two camps concerning this debate. I fall into one (an unpopular one) that says without a Big Ten title on his resume, Robinson is just a step below the all-time greats at Michigan, while others think such talk - noting he is one man in the ultimate team game - cannot be downgraded for what U-M didn't achieve. I do believe if Michigan beats Ohio State, and Robinson plays a critical role in that victory, that his legacy gets enhanced significantly, even if Nebraska wins and the Wolverines do not have a chance to play for the Big Ten title.
As for whether he feels he's playing for something special - he's not that kind of player. Sure he's competitive and wants to beat the Buckeyes, but not to fulfill his own legacy, but because he wants to do it for Michigan, for his teammates, for his coaches, and the fans. Robinson has proved in the past week, when he willingly volunteered to play a different role than quarterback, that there is no selfish bone in his body. His enthusiasm, commitment, love for all things Michigan, and his dynamic play on the field will be how he's remembered.
BA: Obviously the Ohio State offense starts with Braxton Miller. How has Michigan faired against dual-threat quarterbacks, and do you expect Greg Mattison's history with Meyer to be an advantage for the Wolverines on Saturday?
MS: I think familiarity is overrated because at the end of the day players have to make plays, and that's been Michigan's biggest issue with dual-threat/option offenses this season. The Wolverines struggled against the triple-option of Air Force, against Nebraska and then again with Northwestern. All three teams attacked the edge, isolating their ball carriers with one defender, and finding success in doing so.
U-M understands it has to contain the edge, it has to keep the football leveraged to the inside, it has to play smart assignment football and make tackles when the opportunity presents itself. But it knew all those things against the Falcons, Cornhuskers and Wildcats too and didn't get it done consistently enough.
So defending Miller and Carlos Hyde is probably as legitimate a concern for the Wolverines this week as OSU faces in prepping for Robinson and Gardner on the field together.
BA: What's the feeling around Ann Arbor about this year's Michigan team? Are they disappointed that it already has more losses than it did a year ago, or are fans rationalizing by the fact that the three losses came against the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation, and the possible Legends Division champion? How would a win or a loss against Ohio State help define this season?
MS: This is a critical game because there is a huge difference between 9-3 going into a bowl game (even a possible BCS game) and 8-4. No one expected to beat Alabama, and despite the Tide's loss to Texas A&M, most feel 'Bama is still the nation's best team. Notre Dame is disappointing because Michigan fell by just seven and had six turnovers in that game so it's viewed as one U-M gave the Irish. Nebraska - Robinson got hurt and Gardner wasn't ready to play QB.
So there is definitely some rationalizing that those three losses, while still tough to stomach, are acceptable this year, especially the ones to Alabama and Nebraska. If Michigan then goes out and beats Ohio State, and finishes 7-1 in conference play, that provides plenty to get excited about and feel good about going into the bowl game and into 2013, where an offseason scenario could unfold where most expect Michigan to win the Legends and Ohio State to win the Leaders, setting up the Big Ten Championship matchup everyone wants to see.
BA: What's your score prediction for the game and how do you see it playing out?
MS: I think the element of Gardner and Robinson changes how many see this game unfolding. What once looked like the Buckeyes could just outscore Michigan, now takes on this feeling that both offenses will get their points against defenses that are solid but not outstanding. In our staff picks, I chose OSU to win simply because the game is in Columbus, but I could see it going either way. Still, my prediction is: Ohio State 28, Michigan 27
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