Ohio State vs. Michigan Preview

This Saturday will mark the 112th time that Ohio State (10-1) and Michigan (9-2) have met.

Almost just as importantly, this game is the first of the Urban Meyer/Jim Harbaugh era.

The two were born in the same hospital. They grew up in the 1960s about ten miles from each other. And while Meyer returned to the school where he earned his Master’s Degree, Harbaugh, the man once called “Captain Comeback,” would eventually come back to coach his alma mater.

RankESPN went so far as to call them “Natural Born Rivals.”

And just like the coaches in this rivalry, the teams coming into this Saturday’s clash, poetically mirror each other in certain ways.

Both play tough defense. Both have found enough offense to win, despite both teams struggling to win the turnover battle.

Both suffered heartbreaking losses to Michigan State on the last play of the game.

And, yes, both have excellent coaches. Meyer is 152-27 with two national championships. Harbaugh is 58-29 in the college ranks. Like Meyer he has won The Woody Hayes Trophy, a fact gleefully pointed out on Michigan’s website, six bullet points above a mention of his appearance on “Saved By the Bell.”

Interestingly, while few would question the credentials of the Michigan staff (they have a combined 85 years of coaching experience, including 36 in the NFL), the Wolverines have not excelled in some of the areas traditionally pointed to as indications of greatness in that area.

They take penalties, they have been gashed on special teams, and they’ve lost the ball 5 more times than they’ve managed to take it away from their opponent.

Where they’ve excelled is in developing their players and getting the most out of their talent. That’s especially true of graduate transfer quarterback Jake Rudock.

Rudock is completing 64.4 percent of his passes, which is more than 3 percentage points better than his best year at Iowa. He also has more yards than his previous high, even though he has fewer attempts to this point. He has 16 touchdown passes, 10 of which have come in the past three games. Although not the most graceful of runners, he has four rushing touchdowns.

Sure, it’s a stretch to compare him to some other signal callers Harbaugh has coached, a list that includes Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick when Kaepernick was at his most successful, but Rudock certainly has improved.

Of course, it helps to have such immense targets. If you take a look at the four players who lead Michigan in receiving yards, the shortest of them is 6’2″, and that happens to be leading receiver Amara Darboh.

Two of the Wolverines top pass catchers are tight ends out of the state of Ohio. Cincinnati’s AJ Williams has a dozen receptions. Jake Butt of Pickerington has 43 and 3 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, despite missing the Maryland game with an injury, De’Veon Smith paces the Michigan rushing attack with 621 yards on 145 carries. Just as they’ll throw to the tight ends, UM will use the running backs in the passing attack, and Smith has 15 receptions.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan has been unforgiving. They sack the opposing quarterback almost 3 times per game. They’ve allowed just two red zone touchdowns over the course of the last four games (17 possessions). They’re giving up an average of 14.9 points a contest.

They are led by players like 6’3″, 232 pound linebacker Joe Bolden, who has 67 tackles, and corner Jourdan Lewis, who has 19 pass breakups and two interceptions.

Defensive end Chris Wormley, all 6’5″ and 300 pounds of him, has crashed into the opponents’ backfields enough to rack up a dozen tackles for loss.

And Desmond Morgan and Jarrod Wilson each have 33 solo stops.

Then there is Jabrill Peppers. Peppers is not only 5th on the team in tackles, he’s 5th when it comes to all-purpose yards as well. The safety sometimes shows his youth in pass coverage, but still has 10 pass breakups. He has all 194 Michigan punt return yards, and returns kicks as well. Although he has yet to run one back for a touchdown on special teams, he’s still been in the end zone twice this year, as they use him on offense, too.

Ohio State has won four of the last five times they’ve traveled to Ann Arbor. Peppers and his teammates won’t make it easy for the Buckeyes to continue their run when they kick off Saturday at noon on 97.1 The Fan.

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Ohio State vs. Michigan State Preview

Michigan State  is 4-1 against teams in the Associated Press’s Top 1o since 2013. Perhaps not coincidentally, 2013 is when Hinckley, Ohio’s Connor Cook took over as the Spartans starting quarterback.

Cook has amassed an overall record of 32-4 as a starter, which makes him the winningest quarterback currently in the FBS. (He tied Stanford’s Kevin Hogan last week.) Cook is 21-2 against the Big Ten, and he’s just 230 yards shy of the Michigan State record for total offense. If he plays, he could break Kirk Cousin’s mark of 9,004 yards when he lines up versus Ohio State.

If he plays…

Cook hurt his shoulder in a 24-7 win over Maryland. Although he said he was only taken out of the game for precautionary reasons, he looked to be in quite a bit of pain. And the numbers he posted before he was pulled suggest something wasn’t right. He was just 6/20 passing for 77 yards and an interception.

Truth be told, Cook’s completion percentage was down this year, even before the injury. He’s gone from 58.7 percent in 2013, to 58.1 percent in 2014, to 56.3 percent so far during this campaign.

But Cook still leads the nation’s 37th ranked passing offense. He’s limited his turnovers, only throwing 4 picks while recording 21 touchdowns. At 14.18 yards per completion, he’s  17th nationally in that category. Plus, as his record against AP Top 10 teams suggests, he’s at his best in high-pressure situations.

Of his 21 touchdown passes this year, 9 have come on 3rd down. That’s also the down on which he has the highest quarterback rating. He has yet to throw a second-half pick this season.

And the 6’4″, 220 pound signal caller has a very impressive target in receiver Aaron Burbridge. Burbridge has four 100+ yard efforts in his past five games. He leads the Big Ten in receptions per game at 6.5. He has 6 touchdown catches.

Macgarrett Kings, Jr. has another 5 touchdown catches. Meanwhile of tight end Josiah Price’s 15 receptions, 5 have wound up in the end zone.

The numbers posted by the Spartans run game, on the other hand, have been lackluster. They might be 16th in the country in terms of time of possession, but Michigan State owns the 92nd rushing offense nationally, partly as the result of the team struggling to find a replacement for Jeremy Langford, partly because they have had to use six different starting offensive line combinations this season. The juggling might continue, because starting right tackle Kodi Kieler left the Maryland game late after hurting his right arm or shoulder.

As hard as injuries have hit the Michigan State offensive line, they have absolutely hammered the defense’s secondary. Already the Spartans have lost corner Vayante Copeland and safeties Jalen Watts-Jackson and RJ Williamson to season-ending or probable season-ending injuries.

Once dubbed the “no-fly zone,” the Spartans are now allowing 243 passing yards per game, worse than 85 other FBS teams.

The defense has been stopping the run, only giving up 121 yards per game and ranking them 18th nationally. The front seven is also getting to the quarterback to the tune of almost 3 sacks per game, which puts them 13th.

You’re probably familiar with the players who lead the Spartans in sacks: Shilique Calhoun, Malik McDowell, and linebacker Riley Bullough.

Bullough is also the team leader in tackles with 79, followed by fellow linebacker Darien Harris and his 65 stops.

Despite their struggles against the pass, the Spartans are 24th in interceptions with 12, and safety Montae Nicholson has 3 of them.

Michigan State is a team that starts fast. They have outscored opponents by a combined 84 points in the first half of games, and only 22 in the second half. But they are capable of late heroics, and have 14 fourth-quarter comebacks during coach Mark Dantonio’s tenure.

So keep it tuned from opening kick to final whistle when Ohio State clashes with the Spartans Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on 97.1 The Fan.

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Ohio State vs. Illinois Preview

When it comes to strange happenings, you might think of Roswell or the Bermuda Triangle or Stonehenge.

And if you’re an Ohio State fan, you can add your own personal Twilight Zone, Champaign, Illinois to the list.

Although the Buckeyes have won their last three games against Illinois by a combined score of 167-71, there are still enough close calls on the road in recent memory to wonder what it is about the 294.2 mile journey to Memorial Stadium that guarantees games that are so memorable.

In 2000, Ohio State would hang on to win 24-21. Games in 2002 and 2006 were decided by a touchdown.

Heck, with as lopsided as the last trip to Illinois was, there were still some nervy moments in 2013, as the Illini rallied from down 28-0 to pull it to within 35-21 before the Buckeyes raced away 60-35.

And this year’s squad has the tools, if not to pull off the upset, to at least ensure some degree of craziness.

Consider that Illinois is 7th nationally in blocked punts this season with two, and leads the country in blocked kicks with 5. They force almost 8 tackles for loss per game, which is good enough to rank them 13th in that category, and they are +5 in turnover margin. They have two fourth-quarter comebacks in 2015.

Plus, they are highly motivated. Illinois is one win away from bowl eligibility. They have an interim coach in Bill Cubit who is so desperate to win the job on a permanent basis, that he teared up after ending a three-game skid with a 48-14 win over Purdue.

Something that victory over the Boilermakers illustrated is that Illinois can run the ball…if they are healthy. Josh Ferguson returned from a three-game absence due to a shoulder injury, and alongside freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn, they combined to carry the ball for 313 yards, which is more than twice the team’s season average of 144.3 yards/game (98th ranked nationally).

Despite the time he’s missed, Ferguson has 514 yards and is averaging 6.2 yards/carry. He’s also a pass-catching back with 50 receptions each of the past two seasons, and another 18 this year, including 6 this past week. Meanwhile, Vaughn shined as part of a running back combo, but didn’t really standout when he was asked to handle the job alone.

Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt does not contribute much to the run game. In fact, he has yet to have a game this year where he finishes the contest with positive rushing numbers. In other ways, though, he’s like the signal caller Ohio State saw last week in Mitch Leidner.

Lunt tends to throw short. The Illini are ranked 122nd in yards/completion, and his long this year is 53 yards. However, his completion percentage is still a middling 55.8 percent. At the same time, he is 6’5″ with 2,000 yards and a respectable 12:4 touchdown ratio.

Lunt’s main target is 6’4″ Geronimo Allison, who is averaging a little over 6 catches a game, and has 3 touchdowns.

The offensive line, anchored by 6’6″, 300 pound left tackle Austin Schmidt out of Galena, Ohio, is giving up a mere 1.44 sacks/game.

On defense, the Illini have shown quite a bit of improvement from a year ago. They have gone from being the team which gave up 55 points to OSU in 2014 to the 33rd ranked scoring defense in the country.

They are especially tough on 3rd down. Teams convert less than 30 percent of the time. Only 5 other teams in the FBS can claim to be more formidable.

Clayton Fejedelem leads the team in tackles with 100. Indeed, since the start of Big Ten play, he leads the conference in tackles/game. Normally, a defensive back registering those kind of numbers would be alarming, but not the way co-defensive coordinators Tim Banks and Mike Phair use him, by bringing Fejedelem up close to the line.

Other standouts on defense? Groveport, Ohio native Dawuane Smoot has six sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. Taylor Barton has 4 interceptions while Spence Eaton has contributed another 3. Orrville’s own Mason Monnheim provides a heady presence at linebacker. The senior is a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar.

But no summary of Illinois would be complete without mentioning Cleveland’s V’Angelo Bentley. He has 36 tackles, including an 11-tackle day against Wisconsin. He has 3 tackles for loss and 6 pass break ups. Not bad, considering he’s also busy returning kicks, and he’s played a bit of offense this year as well. (He has 2 carries, and attempted a pass.)

Bentley is actually one of three Illini players to play on both sides of the ball this year as backup safety Caleb Day saw some time at wide receiver, and backup offensive lineman Nick Allegretti was moved to defensive tackle to help Illinois once injuries hit.

Ohio State plays Illinois this Saturday at noon on 97.1 The Fan.

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Ohio State vs. Minnesota Preview

It was an irony of Big Ten football that the league’s most stable coaching situation was simultaneously its most fragile.

Minnesota head man Jerry Kill, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover all worked together since their days at Emporia State in 1999. They followed each other to Southern Illinois and then Northern Illinois before landing with the Golden Gophers in 2011.

Several other of Minnesota’s coaches shared time with Kill with either the Hornets, Salukis or Huskies. Sometimes all three. In fact, the school notes that, “The group of Kill’s
nine assistants and strength and conditioning coach…served under him for a combined 141 years (counting 2015), which is the most in the nation.”

There was no doubt, the Minnesota staff knew each other, depended on each other, and shared a philosophy.

But because of Kill’s health, there was always a chance that a major change would eventually be needed.

That happened this past week as Kill stepped down. The Gophers responded with an inspired performance that ended up just inches short of an upset against Michigan.

The 317 passing yards were atypical for a Gophers team that averages 209 a game, and is ranked 82nd nationally. The 29 points given up by the Minnesota defense was likewise somewhat anomalous, given that they only allow an average of 23.9 points a game and are ranked 49th.

The frustration, however, was all too familiar. Minnesota beat Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio by a combined 9 points. Then they went on to lose three of their next four, including that close call with the Wolverines.

When they have stumbled, it’s tended to be the result of lack of scoring (ranked 107th in points per game), an inability to win the turnover battle (84th in turnover margin), and miscues in special teams (97th in kickoff return defense, 102nd in kickoff returns, 100th in punt return defense, and 122 in punt returns).

Youth has been a factor. (Seventy-nine of their 119 players are underclassmen.) Injuries have also hit the team really, really hard. Eleven starters have missed at least one game after getting hurt, which includes Ohio State transfer Brian Bobek, an offensive lineman who’s been out the last three games.

Mitch Leidner is the Minnesota quarterback. He’s completing 57.8 percent of his passes, with 8 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. He tends to throw short. He averages a mere 4.67 yards per attempt in road games.

Leidner can certainly run. He’s the team’s third-leading rusher, and with 21 rushing TDs in his career, he’s only three shy of tying Rickie Foggie’s (1984-87) record for a Golden Gophers signal caller.

The players pacing the Minnesota run game are both freshman out of Georgia. Rodney Smith has 541 yards, a touchdown and averages 4.3 yards per carry. Shannon Brooks has run for 349 yards, 3 touchdowns and averages 6.1 yards per carry.

When it comes to receivers, 5’10”, 199 pound senior KJ Maye is the main threat with 39 receptions, 408 yards and three touchdowns.

And although the offensive line has been especially unlucky when it comes to injuries, they give up fewer than 2 sacks a game, good enough to be ranked 49th in the country.

As you might expect from a team that was coached by Kill and is now led by Claeys, the Golden Gophers have been tough on defense, especially against the pass (ie. 16th nationally in passing yards allowed).

Defensive back Jalen Myrick  already has three interceptions, three pass breakups, and three tackles for loss.

Steven Richardson, a sophomore defensive tackle, leads Minnesota in the category of tackles for loss. He has eight. And the leading tacklers overall are linebacker Cody Poock and defensive back Antonio Johnson, who’s a Cleveland native. They both have 55 stops.

One last note of interest: Minnesota has four sets of brothers, including the Huff twins, who play for them; while Braylon Edwards’ brother, Berkley, is a running back who did see time in a lopsided victory over Purdue.

The Buckeyes host Minnesota this Saturday at 8 p.m. on 97.1 The Fan.

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Ohio State vs. Rutgers Preview

A week before Rutgers coach Kyle Flood returned from a suspension for violating university policy by contacting a professor without using an academic support staffer as an intermediary, the Scarlet Knights had a comeback come up short against Michigan State. That rally ended with a 31-24 loss after Rutgers infamously spiked the ball on fourth down.

Against Indiana, it was an entirely different story. Rutgers scored the game’s final 28 points, including a 26-yard field goal as time expired to beat Indiana 55-52.

Those two weeks might be a perfect summary of the Scarlet Knights season, because all year long the team has demonstrated a flair for the dramatic.

On the field, up-and-down performances have led to a 3-3 record. Off it? There have been arrests, suspensions, and Flood’s e-mail scandal.

Not even their starting quarterback has been immune. Sophomore Chris Laviano was kept out of the first half of the season opener versus Norfolk State after he used a fake ID to get into a bar.

Since then, the 6’3″, pro-style signal caller has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes, while throwing 12 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions.

Nine of those touchdown passes have gone to receiver Leonte Carroo. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Over the course of his career, 28 of 104 or roughly one in four of his catches have resulted in scores. On top of that, he’s averaging 22.5 yards/reception in 2015. He’s the team’s leading receiver in both yards and catches, even though he’s missed 11 quarters due to suspensions and injury.

And speaking of injury…

Carroo vows he will play against Ohio State, which is good for the Scarlet Knights, as he is probably their most talented player,

But it might be the run game that is most crucial to the team’s success.

In their three wins, Rutgers is averaging 271 yards on the ground. In their three losses, just 127 yards. Throwing the ball to try to erase a deficit offers only a partial explanation for a discrepancy that large. Also consider that since 2011, Rutgers is 27-6 in games where they run the ball 35 times or more.

There are three players who already have at least 48 carries for the Knights. starter Paul James (48 carries, 285 yards), Josh Hicks (78 carries, 420 yards), and Robert Martin (41 carries, 437 yards) have all contributed to making them the 32nd ranked rushing attack in the country. On a related note, Rutgers is ranked 20th in time of possession.

The offensive line is coached by a former Ohio State graduate assistant. Mitch Browning was in Columbus in 1982.

Meanwhile, opposing teams have found it tough to run against Rutgers. They’re only giving up an average of 126 yards/game on the ground.

Linebacker Steve Longa has had a big hand in this, and is second in the nation with 45 solo tackles. Fellow linebacker Quentin Gause paces the team when it comes to tackles for loss with 5.

Teams have thus opted to pass, and the Scarlet Knights consequently have the 124th ranked passing defense in the country. Although, Anthony Cioffi does already have three interceptions.

Rutgers is a somewhat slow starting team. They’ve been outscored in the first quarters of games this year by a combined total of 31-to-21. Saturday’s game against OSU starts at 8 p.m. on 97.1 The Fan.

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Ohio State vs. Penn State Preview

Penn State has weathered some adverse conditions this year, literally. At least a couple of their games have been marred by rain. And they’ve been hurt by injuries, again literally. The Nittany Lions have used 34 different starters this year, at least in part due to players getting banged up.

Despite that, Penn State has jumped out to a 5-1 start. It hasn’t always been pretty. They’re ranked 103rd nationally in total offense, after all. They are 86th in rushing offense; and despite the fact that 6’4″, 228 pound quarterback Christian Hackenberg is still under center, they are 99th in passing offense. Plus, Hackenberg has a modest completion percentage of just 53 percent, even while limiting himself to just two interceptions.

If you watched the season opener against Temple, you might think the blame for that rests entirely on the Nittany Lions offensive line. However, after giving up 10 sacks in that game against the Owls, they’ve only given up a total of 9 sacks in the 5 games since.

Receivers have dropped some passes. However, Chris Godwin has snagged at least 4 catches in each game. DeSean Hamilton, whom Ohio State fans might remember for setting a Penn State record with 14 receptions against the Buckeyes last year, has just 17 total this season. He does lead the team with 2 touchdowns grabs.

When it comes to the running game, leading rushers Saquon Barkley (42 carries, 373 yards, an average of 8.9 yards/carry) and Akeel Lynch (49 carries, 262 yards, 5.3 yards/carry) have both missed time after they were injured. So freshmen Nick Scott, Brandon Polk and Mark Allen have been asked to run the ball as well. Hackenberg isn’t considered to be an especially mobile signal caller, but he did rush for two scores last week in a 29-7 win over Indiana.

The Nittany Lions offense has especially struggled on third down, converting only 31 percent of the time, which ranks them 120th nationally.

Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense has held opponents to fewer than 325 yards in 13 straight regular season games, which is the longest such streak in the country. They are also one of the nation’s leaders in sacks, with just over 4 a game. Only Pitt has more. And they are forcing turnovers, recovering 8 fumbles and registering 4 interceptions.

Freshman corner John Reid has done a lot of that damage, with two picks while recovering one fumble. No player, though, has been as disruptive so far as former walk-on Carl Nassib, with 27 tackles, 10 sacks, and 12 tackles for loss. At the same time, he’s working toward graduating with a biology degree this December, then plans on going to medical school.

Sophomore linebacker Jason Cabinda leads the team with 46 tackles and 5 pass breakups. We haven’t even mentioned returning First-Team All-Big Ten defensive lineman Anthony Zettel, who has 6 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups and a forced fumble. Jordan Lucas, whose 7 tackles against the Buckeyes last year was a season-high for him, has moved from corner to safety without missing a beat.

About the only area where the Penn State defense has struggled is in the red zone. They’re ranked 106th, partly because opponents rarely make it inside the twenty. Eleven times opponents have done so; ten times they have scored, which includes 2 field goals.

Last week, Penn State pulled kicker Joey Julius after he missed two extra-point attempts, and Tyler Davis took his place. As noted, this is one of just many lineup moves the Nittany Lions have made this season.

Ohio State hosts Penn State at 8:00 pm Saturday on 97.1 The Fan.

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Ohio State vs. Maryland Preview

During his time as Maryland’s head coach, Randy Edsall has gone 0-11 against ranked teams. His current quarterback situation suggests it will soon be 0-12.

Caleb Rowe already has 12 picks this season, including 7 in the past 2 games, so Edsall has indicated he’s going to go in another direction.

Daxx Garman saw playing time in the Terps most recent game, a 28-0 loss to Michigan, but he went 2-9 for 29 yards and was sacked 3 times. If he starts against the Buckeyes, it will be just the next step in what has already been a nomadic playing career for Garman. The signal caller switched from an Oklahoma to Texas high school, started college ball at Arizona, then went to Oklahoma State before ending up at Maryland.

Maryland’s other option is Perry Hills, who began the season as the starter before being benched in favor of Rowe following the team’s 48-27 loss to Bowling Green. Hills was only averaging 6.0 yards per attempt, had a completion percentage just under 53 percent, and didn’t even appear in the two-deep following his demotion.

For that reason, the Terrapins are ranked 103rd nationally in passing. In other words? A mess.

They are somewhat better rushing the ball, ranked 83rd in the country, averaging 162 yards a game, and 5.08 yards a carry.

Senior Brandon Ross, a 5’10” running back, leads the team with 402 yards on 73 carries. Interestingly, with Maryland trying to erase deficits late in games this season, they’ve had to abandon the running game, and so only one of Ross’s 402 yards has come in the fourth quarter of a game.

Wes Brown is the team’s second-leading rusher with 31 carries and 151 yards. His fourth-quarter total? 32 yards.

The offensive line, even though they’ve done some shuffling up front–moving Ryan Doyle from right tackle to left guard and inserting right tackle Damian Prince into their starting lineup–has only allowed 6 sacks in 5 games.  All the lineman weigh 300 pounds or more. (Prince alone is 328.) So they are one of the bigger outfits in the Big Ten.

The defense looked competent against Michigan, but has struggled overall. Right now they are the 95th ranked scoring defense in the country, giving up almost 32 points a contest. They have lost defensive lineman David Shaw (whose family owns two worm farms) and linebacker Jefferson Ashiru to injuries. Plus, they are making a transition from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense.

Linebacker Jermaine Carter leads Maryland with 36 solo tackles, 54 tackles overall, and he also has 6 tackles for loss. That’s perhaps not surprising. Athletic ability runs (and dunks) in his family. His cousins are Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.

Yannick Ngakoue, a junior defensive tackle, has 6.5 sacks.

But the most prolific member of the defense is 5’7″, 175 pound corner William Likely. He already owns at least a share of 8 team records (2 on defense, 6 on special teams). He has 7 pass breakups this season and has forced 2 fumbles.

As mentioned, he’s also a special teams standout, and has returned four punts for touchdowns over the course of his career. Likely also returns kicks.

They have 2014’s Lou Groza Award-winning kicker Brad Craddock on the roster. He’ll be hard pressed to repeat, though, as he has missed a 28-yard attempt this year and also had a missed extra point.

Ohio State welcomes in Maryland as their homecoming guest this Saturday at noon on 97.1 The Fan.

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