Location: Cincinnati, OH
On one hand, it feels like just yesterday when I spent a quick night here at my aunt and uncle’s house. It was between games at Notre Dame and Clemson just two days into this road trip. On the other, I can’t believe that was even this same season. Just setting out in the world on my own, I was such a different person then… Daylight savings did little for me as I was up very late, reveling in the celebration of a happy couple tying the knot. The shortest drive of my trek was also one of the most arduous due to lack of sleep and a path headed straight toward the setting sun. Fall is well past full on now, and it seems clear that winter will arrive any day now. At least I’m driving south.
Time for me to put my winged hat on for just this one posting. I watched the Ohio State/Wisconsin game from the press box where I spotted such dignitaries as Barry Alvarez (who is very imposing in person) and John Cooper wearing an Ohio State sweater (not imposing in the least). Perhaps I was shirking my duties by not joining the fans, but tickets were extremely hard to come by and I gladly utilized the pass. I’m not a big-time Xs and Os guy, and I’ve never played organized tackle football, but I did watch the game intently. And I firmly believe you can see things in person that are not discernable on a TV broadcast. I’ve seen more Wisconsin football in person than I have any other team (two games). This is my first real look at the Buckeyes, but considering it was one of their two biggest games this season, I gathered a bucketful of insights.
Wisconsin Offense – I think they played their best game, but only for about two and a half quarters. To perform this well with their third-string running back in the game deserves attention. They tried their best to run, but holes were somewhat scarce and while Zach Brown was aggressive, he’s not shifty and had trouble creating his own yardage. Tyler Donovan played a gutty game, getting popped early and often. Upon the first real hit, someone next to me said, “He’s going to get injured in this game,” but he played pretty well throughout, and didn’t force any foolish throws despite constant pressure. Most of his passes were pretty on-target, including a laser to the back of the endzone after a 15-yard penalty pushed them back. The Wisconsin folks around me felt he had one of the best games of his career, so perhaps it was an anomaly – or maybe with an ineffective running game, he simply stepped it up. Note that The Badgers' second-string running back is only suspended for road games, a punishment that seems ridiculous to everyone, regardless of affiliation. If PJ Hill can’t play this week, sophomore Lance Smith-Williams will be taking the handoffs. I know nothing about the guy beyond his suspension issue.
Wisconsin Defense – Their unit which looked merely so-so against an inept Iowa offense is clearly much improved, but still nothing to write home about. Michigan should be able to gain yardage if they can establish a run game. It took Ohio State until late in the third quarter to do so, but I think that was likely for lack of trying. Cornerback Jack Ikegwuonu is the real deal – probably the best DB in the Big Ten. Buckeye receivers under his watch were nearly always blanketed. In the rare instances where they did manage a step on him, only a pinpoint pass would have connected, and Boeckman couldn’t deliver them. Granted, Manningham is likely a tougher cover, Ikegwuonu will definitely take some things away. With some injuries to Wisconsin’s defense (Jason Chapman’s looked particularly bad – he was injured, came back for a couple plays and then had to be helped off the field), pounding the ball up front is probably the way to go.
Wisconsin Summary – Having Mike Hart at our disposal will make a large difference. Wisconsin’s offense has the ability to make plays when necessary – I’d like to see Michigan put this game away early by overpowering the Badger defense, and that just happens to be Mike Hart’s specialty. If he’s not available, that strategy would still be the best option. Early in the game, Ohio State was able to drive for an easy touchdown by spreading their receivers out and winging out passes (let’s all pray that Paul Maguire isn’t there to repeat this fact over and over and over again, not that we need special reason to wish for Maguire’s absence). They quickly made the necessary adjustments and the Buckeye offense was stuck in neutral until late in the third quarter. It’s hard to adjust for a team that’s overpowering you. I think we win, but if Hart is not available, it’ll be a very tough game.
Ohio State Offense – They spread their guys out. Their receivers don’t have the athleticism of those who recently left, but they have sure hands, end up in the right places and make plays. Can Michigan finally handle this strategy? Strong efforts versus Purdue and Illinois would indicate that the defense has turned a corner, but neither of those teams had a tailback as explosive as Beanie Wells. When running free, he is a monster. Michigan can not allow the breakdowns that occurred in last year’s game. I figure he’ll bust free at least once, but Michigan must limit it to just once. Boeckman runs a good offense, generally making good decisions. He’s a big dude and while not speedy, knows when to take off and get yardage. I doubt he will fumble on the run, either. I can’t see Michigan’s defense shutting this unit down. They’re going to score some points, be it on big runs from Wells or dink and dunk short routes from their wideouts. I don’t know exactly what alterations Wisconsin made to change their fortunes in the middle of the game, but English had better take a look and be ready to do something similar. It didn’t last for Wisconsin because Wells ripped through their line for 30-yard touchdown runs on three occasions.
Ohio State Defense – In my opinion, this is where the game will be won for one side or another. Their front seven comes after the QB. I still think that Henne has trouble with pressure, albeit less than he used to. If he can, instead of taking off at the first sign of trouble, buy himself some time and still look downfield, he could have a huge day because… the Wisconsin wideouts were open all day long. I have to think if the Badger receivers can find that much space, Manningham and Arrington are going to be available to Henne provided he has enough time. According to the Wisconsin student newspaper guy sitting next to me, Donovan has been bad about locking into receivers and not checking to find the open ones. But that was not a problem in this game because everyone was open. With their third-string freshman tailback running the ball, I'm not sure anything relevant could be learned about Ohio State's run defense.
Ohio State Summary – Can the offensive line block like they did at the end of the Michigan State game? If so, Michigan has a chance as long as their defense is able to slow down the Buckeye offense. That spread is deadly with a guy like Wells carrying the ball. Michigan is going to have to score a lot of points, but I think they can as long as Henne has some time back there. Emotion is such a big part of college football. This will be the ultimate redemption game for Michigan. Beat their nemesis. Erase the Appalachian State debacle. Be America’s team for just one day (the entire country will be pulling for Michigan in this one). I’m not going to predict that Michigan wins, but I think we have a chance. Playing at home in the greatest rivalry of all time… 2007… up is down… fingers crossed…. I think we’ve got a chance.
It’s a bit hard to tell what to think in sum, particularly because 2007 is the “year where all you know is wrong.” I saw USC take apart a Nebraska team that up to that point had looked pretty good. I thought I had just witnessed an excellent, but flawed team destroy a pretty decent, but flawed team. In hindsight, I saw a decent, but flawed team destroy an awful team. Has Wisconsin improved to the point where they’re pretty good? If so, OSU is great, and we’re likely in big trouble for both games. If Wisconsin is actually a pseudo-fraudulent team that isn’t very good at all, then I like our chances on the 17th. I guess this week’s game in Madison will tell us more about next week’s game as well. Until then – Go Blue!
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