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.
ESPN 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.