For those of us who love football in the Midwest, from Saturdays in the Big Ten to November weeknights in the MAC, the season has been effectively reduced to two big games. One of them you know about–the anticipated Michigan-Ohio State game on November 24. Another one you may not–Buffalo and Northern Illinois are on a collision course to play for the MAC title on December 1. Here’s some thoughts on both games and all four teams…
Their game on November 24 is the biggest regular season matchup in the country this season and it’s complete implications in the College Football Playoff picture were discussed in yesterday’s post. Here we’ll dig a little deeper into how the Wolverines and Buckeyes have gotten to this point.
Michigan is doing it in the classic Jim Harbaugh way, which is pretty close to the classic Bo Schembecler way—which is, of course, the Michigan Way. They run the football well. Karan Higdon has already cleared the 1,000-yard mark behind a physical offensive line and is a leading contender for Big Ten MVP. Shea Patterson plays efficiently at quarterback, completing two-thirds of his throws and posting a 17-3 TD/INT ratio.
It’s the defensive side of the ball where the Wolverines really muscle up. They rank third in the nation in scoring defense. The front seven includes playmakers in Chase Winovich, Josh Uche and Devin Bush. Michigan hasn’t lost since a narrow 24-17 defeat at undefeated Notre Dame to open the season and the Wolverines really made their mark when they rampaged through a four-game stretch that included Maryland, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State. The combined score in those games was 143-48.
If Michigan does it with muscle, Ohio State does it with pure explosion. Dwayne Haskins is the quarterback. The 69% completion rate and 8.5 yards-per-attempt are very good. It’s the 33-6 TD/INT ratio that jumps off the stat sheet. Haskins gives the Buckeyes a big-play dimension they often lacked last season under the steady, but not spectacular, J.T. Barrett.
Haskins has playmakers surrounding him at the skill spots. J.K Dobbins and Mike Webber share the load in the running game. Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill are both good receivers. In a year where the Buckeyes have often seemed adrift, you can’t blame the offense.
That brings us to the defense, ranked 32nd in the country and guilty of giving up 49 points in an embarrassing blowout loss at Purdue and 31 more in an almost-as-embarrassing home escape against Nebraska. If Ohio State is to beat Michigan, this defense has to get tougher. In that regard, a 26-6 win at Michigan State last Saturday provides some hope, albeit tempered, given Sparty’s shaky quarterback play. A road game at Maryland this week provides another worthwhile test before the big final exam comes on Thanksgiving weekend.
Both teams have a two-game lead in their respective division with two to play, but each still has to play the lead contender head-to-head (Buffalo vs. Ohio & NIU vs. Western Michigan), so neither is completely home free yet.
What the Bulls and Huskies have in common is they play solid defense, each ranking in the Top 30 nationally—which says something, given the MAC’s proclivity for point production. A special player to watch is Northern Illinois edge rusher Sutton Smith, whose outstanding senior season is topping off a great career in DeKalb.
They also share some erratic quarterback play in common—Tyree Jackson for Buffalo and Marcus Childers for NIU each bring a lot to the table, but they’re also both sub-60% in completion rate.
The difference is explosion at the skill positions. Buffalo has it in spades—a two-pronged rushing attack in Kevin Marks and Jaret Patterson, and field-stretching receivers in K.J. Osborn and Anthony Johnson. Northern Illinois cannot match that.
That’s the reason the Bulls are 9-1 and still have hope, admittedly quite marginal, for sneaking into the New Year’s Six. NIU is a having a nice comeback year at 7-3, but there’s no question who the favorite will be if this matchup comes to fruition in Detroit on December 1.