The Rivals, Part IV: Finding A Way

Generally, when someone describes a team as “finding a way to win,” they’re talking about close victories, amazing comebacks, or a seemingly superhuman ability to pull off miracle plays. The 2002 Buckeyes had a string of games like that, and even won a national championship in double overtime, thanks in part to a frequently criticized but completely correct pass interference penalty.

It is not something you would say about a team that just won 38-0 or 35-7. Yet, both Ohio State and Michigan found themselves in the position of winning handily but still unclear on the identity of their offenses.

Ohio State had a quick turnaround from the Labor Day night game on the road at Virginia Tech and a Saturday afternoon kickoff against Hawai’i. Although the players and coaches dismiss the idea, it’s pretty absurd to think this tight schedule didn’t have a hand in the slow-starting offensive performance. The Buckeyes were a massive favorite, but held only a 17-0 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Michigan actually had more time than usual to prepare for their second consecutive Pac-12 opponent thanks to an opening Thursday game at Utah. But still, they too held just an okay 20-7 lead at the end of the third quarter.

While both defenses were stout—both held their opponents to fewer than 200 total yards—the quarterback position remained an area of concern. For Michigan, Jake Rudock threw one interception and no touchdowns, giving him a two-game total of 2 TDs and 4 INTs, despite completing a decent 65.2% of his passes. For Ohio State, neither Cardale Jones nor J.T. Barrett could find the end zone either, and for that matter, Braxton Miller—who works from the QB spot regularly—was also shut out.

Instead, the two teams had to rely on their traditional running backs for points. Ezekiel Elliott delivered three scores for the Buckeyes, and De’Veon Smith did the same for the Wolverines. Going forward, Ohio State simply needs to get its two dynamic QBs back to the level of play they showed last season and against Virginia Tech this year. Getting the running game back in full swing will go a long way to help that cause, so in that sense, the Hawai’i game could be considered a step in the right direction.

In Michigan’s case, things a little trickier. It still isn’t evident what Jake Rudock brings to the table. Harbaugh’s refusal to replace him at any point in the first two games suggests either that he has confidence in Rudock’s ability to become a solid QB, or that he has no other legitimate options available.

Today, Michigan hosts the 0-2 UNLV Rebels, a bottom-10 defensive team thus far, and a good opportunity for Rudock (or someone else) to finally shine. Ohio State welcomes the 2-0 Northern Illinois Huskies, a team that has won at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons but currently ranks 105th in the nation in passing defense, something that the Buckeye QBs need to exploit early and often.

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