Much of life is about timing, and the sport of football is no different. You can work hard and prepare more than anybody for a big game, but it only takes one player being a fraction of a second late getting to a spot to change a game. As we head toward the biggest weekend of the season in the Big Ten with the most important conference game of the season headlining, the timing seems to be on Ohio State’s side.
Look at the way things have gone for Michigan over the last few weeks. After cruising through the early season slate and a three-game Jim Harbaugh suspension (the self-imposed one for recruiting violations), the Wolverines were on top of the world. Then came the and another suspension for Harbaugh. The first game he missed saw Michigan struggle more than it had all season but gut out a tough road win against Penn State. It was easy to write that off as a challenging road game against another great opponent.
It’s not nearly as easy to write off what happened at Maryland last weekend. Sure, Michigan got out of town with another win, which is all that matters, but it was not pretty nor was it easy. You can attempt to write it off by saying the Wolverines stuck to a basic gameplan because they didn’t want to put anything on tape ahead of the Ohio State game. But that would imply the Wolverines were pulling out all the stops to get past teams like Rutgers and Indiana earlier this year. I’m pretty sure those games were “show up and be better than they are” gameplans, too.
Then there’s Ohio State, which has been going through a softer portion of its schedule and seems to have found its gear offensively. The Buckeyes have been dominant on the defensive side of the ball all year, but for the first two months of the season, the offense seemed stuck in neutral. They were dealing with injuries and an inexperienced quarterback trying to figure things out. Too often they were forced to hit the “Marv’s down there somewhere” button and have Marvin Harrison Jr. bail them out.
It feels like things have changed lately, though. Emeka Egbuka is back and healthy, meaning defenses can’t focus all their efforts in coverage on Harrison. After being invisible against Wisconsin and missing the Rutgers game, tight end Cade Stover has returned to action and caught touchdowns in the last two games, taking advantage of all that open space left by defenders scrambling to keep up with Harrison and Egbuka.
Then there’s TreVeyon Henderson. Henderson saw limited work in Ohio State’s first three games before going off for his first 100-yard game of the season against Notre Dame. He’d miss the next three games, including the Penn State win, but returned for the road trip to Wisconsin where it was his turn to bail the offense out.
He’s been practically unstoppable since while making the Ohio State offense whole again. If you try to take one thing away, the Buckeyes are more than happy to kill you a different way. As you can see in the chart below, things have worked much more smoothly with the team at near-total health in the last three games. If you take out the Youngstown State and Western Kentucky games and break it down between Ohio State’s first five Big Ten games and Notre Dame compared to the last three, it’s like two different teams.
First 5 B1G & ND
It’s easy to dismiss results against Rutgers, Michigan State and Minnesota, but both Rutgers and Minnesota have been solid defenses this season. Plus, even when we get past the numbers, it’s what I’ve seen with my eyes that leads to the most optimism about this offense.
I mentioned Kyle McCord’s inexperience early in the season, but it wasn’t just McCord figuring out how to play quarterback at this level. It was an Ohio State coaching staff that had to figure out the best way to put its inexperienced QB in advantageous positions. Ryan Day and staff had to learn what McCord was best at and what to avoid. That’s hard to do, and even harder considering how many players were in and out of the lineup due to injury.
They seem to have a firm grasp on it now. Everything looks to be coming a lot easier than it had been early in the year, and the offensive line has played a role in that, too. Ohio State sent two tackles and a center to the NFL last year. I don’t care who you are; replacing three starters on your offensive line is difficult, even in the transfer portal era. Every team in the country would love to add a good lineman through the portal, but there just aren’t enough available. The teams that have them do everything they can in this NIL era to keep them.
Early on in the season, Ohio State’s offensive line looked like a line with guys who weren’t used to playing with one another. You didn’t see them blowing defenders off the ball and opening huge holes often enough. You’re seeing it more and more now. You’re also seeing cleaner pockets for McCord.
None of which is to say the Buckeyes will have a smooth ride against Michigan. They won’t. While Michigan’s offense has hit a speed bump, that Wolverines defense is still every bit as nasty as it’s been all season, and it will cause the Buckeyes problems.
But Ohio State has picked a great time to play its best football of the season on offense. We’ll see how much it matters on Saturday.
We know the Michigan/Ohio State winner will be East division champion, and Iowa has already wrapped up the West. However, plenty of teams still have something to play for this weekend. As we enter the final week, the Big Ten has eight teams that have reached the six wins required to go bowling, with three more that can earn a bid this weekend.
On Friday, Nebraska can earn its first bowl bid since the 2016 season with a win against the Hawkeyes at home. It would be a tremendous accomplishment for Matt Rhule to end the program’s bowl drought in his first season.
Illinois needs a win at home against Northwestern to get its sixth win. If the Illini pull it off, it will mark the first time since the 2010-11 seasons (the final two years under Ron Zook) that the Illini went to bowl games in consecutive seasons. While a 6-6 record isn’t what the Illini hoped for following last season’s 8-5 mark, back-to-back bowls would still be a significant accomplishment for Bret Bielema’s program.
If Minnesota can pull off a home upset of Wisconsin, the Gophers will play in their fifth bowl game under P.J. Fleck in seven seasons. Only Glen Mason has led the program to more bowls, taking them to seven in 10 seasons from 1997 to 2006.
If none of the three qualify, eight bowl-eligible teams would be the fewest for the Big Ten since the 2018 season. If all three pull it off, the 11 bowl teams would be a conference record and the most the league sent to a bowl game in a single season since 10 teams went bowling in 2016.
Gut reads of the week
Every week I pick every Big Ten game against the spread based on nothing but my gut reaction to the number. No digging into numbers, just vibes, baby. I even track my record to embarrass myself publicly. Odds via SportsLine consensus.
Ohio State at Michigan: Considering everything I wrote at the top of this column, it’d be a bit of a shocker if I took anything but Ohio State here, right? To be clear, I don’t know who is going to win this game. I wouldn’t be shocked if Michigan blew the Buckeyes out, nor would I be caught totally off guard by the Buckeyes doing the same thing to Michigan. The most likely outcome, however, is a close game between two very good teams with outstanding defenses. In a spot like this, in a game that could easily come down to a last-second field goal attempt, it’s hard to pass up points. The Pick: Ohio State +3.5
- Iowa at Nebraska — Iowa +1.5
- Penn State at Michigan State — Michigan State +21
- Indiana at Purdue — Purdue -3
- Northwestern at Illinois — Northwestern +5.5
- Wisconsin at Minnesota — Minnesota +2
- Maryland at Rutgers — Rutgers +1
Last Week: 4-3