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Breakdown: Michigan in for a close one in Columbus

By Ben Estes, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 23, 2012

It’s Michigan. It’s Ohio State.

It’s one of the greatest rivalries in sports.

On Saturday, maize and blue will clash with scarlet and gray for the 109th time. There’s plenty on the line, including an undefeated season for the Buckeyes and possibly a Big Ten championship for the Wolverines — or bowl positioning, at least.

If history is any indication, this game will be passionate, hard-hitting and close. The teams appear to be pretty even, setting up for a classic showdown.

Is it Saturday yet?

Michigan rush offense vs. Ohio State rush defense

The Wolverine ground attack suffered a blow when redshirt junior running back Fitzgerald Toussaint was knocked out for the rest of the season after suffering a broken leg in last week’s win over Iowa. Though Toussaint wasn’t having the season most expected, he still ran hard every week and was Michigan’s best option at tailback.

Sophomore Thomas Rawls is the next man up, but he hasn’t proven much yet in his young career, and with the way the Wolverine offensive line has struggled to block this year, he likely won’t be very productive, especially in this game.

A big reason why is the Buckeye front seven, particularly the defensive line. Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is likely a future first-round NFL draft pick, and defense end John Simon is among the hardest linemen to block in the conference, perhaps the country. The linebacker corps is solid but much less consistent, especially middle linebacker Zach Boren, who moved over from fullback.

The X-factor is Denard Robinson, who probably will remain in his new running back/running quarterback role. He’s Michigan’s best bet at breaking through on the ground.

Edge: Ohio State

Michigan pass offense vs. Ohio State pass defense

This matchup can’t really be addressed without knowing who will start at quarterback for the Wolverines, but expect junior Devin Gardner to play the bulk of the game at the position and to be the only one to attempt any passes, like against Iowa.

It’s a small sample size and the opposing defenses haven’t been great, but Gardner has played like an all-conference quarterback over his three starts. He and a revitalized group of receivers should be able to find holes in an Ohio State secondary that’s the weak point of the defense, ranking 11th in the Big Ten at 250.1 passing yards allowed per game.

The big question here is can Robinson throw at all when he takes snaps at quarterback? If he can, it might catch the Buckeyes by surprise, meaning possible big plays for Michigan.

Edge: Michigan

Ohio State rush offense vs. Michigan rush defense

This is where the Buckeyes make their hay, led by sophomore sensation Braxton Miller. The second-year starter has run for 1,214 yards from the quarterback position this season, averaging 5.9 yards-per-carry. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer has called the dynamic Miller one of the best athletes he’s ever coached and it’s easy to see why.

But it’s not just Miller. Running back Carlos Hyde has emerged as a dependable threat himself alongside the quarterback, with 824 rushing yards of his own. The 232-pounder is a bruiser and he and Miller will test a Michigan run defense that hasn’t looked great against spread running attacks this season.

Nebraska eventually broke through against the Wolverines, and Northwestern ran all over Michigan at times. A better performance will be needed against the potent Buckeyes.

Edge: Ohio State

Ohio State pass offense vs. Michigan pass defense

Miller was often a liability through the air last season but has made plenty of improvement this year, throwing 14 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Still, Ohio State focuses heavily on the ground game — the main threat here is big completions to explosive receivers Devin Smith and Corey Brown rather than a consistent downfield air attack.

Luckily for Michigan, the Wolverines have been excellent in defending against big plays and in defending the pass in general — holding the distinction of the No. 1 pass defense in the nation. That should continue for the most part on Saturday.

Edge: Michigan

Special teams

The Buckeyes don’t really depend on their kicking game, as Drew Basil has attempted just six field goals all season long. Punter Ben Buchanan is solid but not a game-changer.

Corey Brown could be though — the receiver had a punt return for a touchdown just last week and had another earlier this season.

Michigan hasn’t shown as dynamic of a return game, but does have above-average specialists in kicker Brendan Gibbons and punter Will Hagerup.

Edge: Push

Intangibles

Throw out the records for this one. You can probably even forget about what’s at stake, too — sure, Ohio State wants an undefeated season, and Michigan wants its best bowl possible, or a Big Ten championship shot, if that’s still on the table by game time.

But there are no external motivators for this game — this one is driven by passion, history and hatred. The Buckeyes get the slight edge because they’re playing at home in front of what should be a raucous Ohio Stadium crowd.

Edge: Ohio State

Final Score: Ohio State 31, Michigan 27