Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Game

There is a college football game coming up on Saturday that just might be the most hyped game, of any sport, in American sports history. The outcome of this game concerns every top ten college football team in the country. Coaches from Pete Carroll to Charlie Weiss have vested interest in the outcome. This game will have a substantial impact on the BCS National Championship game as well as the other BCS bowl games. It will also have an affect on virtually all national college football interests including but not limited to; the Heisman Trophy and the other major college football awards (i.e. Thorpe, O’Brien, Butkus, and Bear Bryant awards), the status of a college football playoff, the national recruiting scene, and the national recruiting scene. This game has a chance to unseat all previous “Game of the Century” occurrences in both pre-game buildup and the actual quality of the game. So, I encourage everyone to tune in for another classic match-up in the storied rivalry of USC vs. California.

Since my words will only fall embarrassingly short of capturing the enormity of the USC/Cal match-up this week, I’ll avoid any further hyperbole. The game is big. You know it. I know it. So let’s just leave it at that.

I would, however, like to talk about another big game this week that is flying “under the radar” so to speak. Ohio State and Michigan are playing once again in a late-season rivalry game. While most of the country will surely be focused on the USC/Cal game, I’ll be tuned in to the outcome of the battle of the Big Ten’s elite. Here are some random thoughts that I have about this game:

• While Troy Smith is a fantastic quarterback, he will not be the reason why Michigan loses if it, in fact, loses. Michigan must contain Ted Ginn from going deep and Anthony Gonzalez from breaking wide open over the middle on third and long. Those are the plays that make Ohio State unbeatable if not stopped. If Ohio State can’t throw early, it will have a problem. In my opinion, Ohio State's only chance to run effectively is to establish the pass early. So Michigan’s secondary will have to play well right off the bat or its entire defensive game-plan may unravel.

• Michigan will be able to run the ball better than in previous years against OSU but it won’t be anything like Timmy B. in 1995. Obviously, nothing will ever be like Timmy B. in ‘95 but Mike Hart will get a lot of five yard gains all afternoon. Hart will not gash the OSU defense for big gain after big gain. There is almost no chance of that happening. That means Michigan will face a lot of third downs in the red zone. Michigan must turn trips in the red zone into touchdowns. Field goals don’t win this game.

• Troy Smith will run. He has developed into more of a “pure” passer this year but that’s because he hasn’t needed to run. If Michigan does a good job of covering Ginn and Gonzalez, Smith will take off. If Michigan doesn’t have a plan for containment, Smith will have another big day on the ground.

• Michigan will not play as conservative as in past years against OSU. Lloyd Carr has seen over the last five years that Jim Tressel is the master of winning with a conservative game plan. Carr knows that playing close to the sweater-vest is a recipe for disaster against OSU. Michigan must score touchdowns through the passing game to win.

• If Chad Henne gets rattled early, it could be a long day for Michigan. When Henne has time to throw, he can be lethal. When he is hurried, he “freaks out” and abandons the play. If the Michigan O-Line can give him time, Henne will have a much better day than his last two meetings.

• Michigan must use the middle of the field. Ohio State is too talented on defense to run and throw short routes all day long. They will force Michigan to beat them over the middle. If Michigan doesn’t, Ohio State will stack the line and overplay the wide receivers. Ohio State will surely use the middle of the field. That’s how you beat a good defense. The team that does it most effectively will win.

• Michigan has to blitz often and do it differently throughout the game. Michigan’s front four has not shown it can get to the quarterback consistently on a four-man rush. If Michigan lets Troy Smith sit back in the pocket while only facing a four-man rush, Smith will find the open receiver or take off if the pocket breaks down. Michigan has to cautiously blitz Smith throughout the game. What I mean by “cautiously” is that it cannot let Smith break containment.

• Whether it’s Zoltan Mesko or Ross Ryan, Michigan’s punter has to either kick the ball out of bounds or kick it 50+ yards. This game could end on one bad change of possession. Obviously this makes it even more imperative for Michigan to avoid three and outs deep in its own zone but that’s important regardless of the opponent. Ohio State especially thrives on starting drives with excellent field position. Michigan does not have that same advantage. Punting will be huge.

• Against Ohio State’s fast defense, the slip screens and other parallel to the line of scrimmage passes won’t work. Michigan needs to throw the ball downfield. Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington are very good at getting open 8 to 10 yards down the field. Michigan must take advantage of that or it will lose.

• Lloyd Carr’s legacy does not ride on the outcome of this game. He is one of the few figures in sports that will end his/her career with dual legacies. To some, he kept the Michigan football program from reaching elite status by losing to inferior opponents far too often. To others, his National Championship and ability to keep the program competitive is a lifetime pass to greatness. Neither side will change based on the outcome of this game. There will be articles written before and after the game about how this game might seal Carr’s legacy etc. None of that is true. His legacies have been sealed for a few years now.

• This game will probably have as much impact on the recruiting scene as it does on the college football world—and that’s saying something. If Tressel can boast to potential recruits that Ohio State is 5-1 against Michigan, then that will be a significant advantage over Michigan in the recruitment of elite high school prospects. It is true that no one game plays a big-time factor in where a recruit decides to play. That is a notion that erroneously exists among novice followers of recruiting. However, wins and losses over the long haul do have a significant impact on where a kid chooses to play college football. Michigan can erase five years of inferiority to the Buckeyes and establish itself as the elite program in college football once again with a win, or it can fall further behind the other elite teams in the country in terms of national perception among high school recruits. This game is huge for Michigan’s ability to recruit in Ohio and Michigan. Although, the affects won’t be noticeable for at least a year or two.

I will avoid a prediction on this game like the plague. In fact, I haven’t even formed a prediction in my own mind. I will say that I have enjoyed the last week of anticipation. Soon, the game will be over and millions of people will be really happy and millions of people will be crushed. That’s why I think that the “build-up” is the most special part of this rivalry. At least for 48 more hours, everyone is happy (unless You Are Penn State). Too bad sports can’t just be one giant build-up. That would be like Heaven I guess.

Alright, in the last ten seconds I’ve changed my mind. In the interest of providing good, compelling material, I will make a prediction on this colossal match-up. I wanted to avoid ruining my enjoyment of the game but my competitive spirit got the best of me. Here goes nothing: USC 21 California 20

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