The Rivals, Part V: Confidence Game

Urban Meyer is, according to the only other man anyone would consider for the title, “the best college coach right now in football.” Those are Nick Saban’s exact words. Although to be fair, he said that on GameDay last week before Ohio State turned in what Meyer called “one of the worst-executed performances since we’ve been here.” He wasn’t just talking about the players; Meyer is the type of person who, if you were to invite him to your house and sucker punch him at the front door, would blame himself for not expecting it. He also has an unimpeachable track record of quickly turning setback into progress, so if you think you’re going to get another jab in, he will make you pay.

While there are a number of issues contributing to the uncharacteristic lack of offensive production, the foremost in everyone’s mind is the quarterback situation. To say that it’s been a rollercoaster ride would be both a cliché that I am better than and also an entirely accurate metaphor. Neither starter Cardale Jones nor backup J.T. Barrett has been impressive since week one. It’s enough to furrow the brow of even the most optimistic fan, except: week one. Both QBs looked great against Virginia Tech in the opener and have inexplicably regressed in the following two games.

Jim Harbaugh has no doubts about his quarterback. Jake Rudock has not performed well in any of the three games so far, yet there doesn’t seem to be any significant challenger behind him. One could argue that this is actually a preferable position to be in, and it probably is, if your team isn’t shouldering the expectations that come with returning a large percentage of a national championship team and being the first-ever consensus #1 team in the pre-season AP poll.

Harbaugh has the luxury of being a slam-dunk hire at a top-notch program coming off an extended period of poor performance. Every win is another Reese’s in his plastic pumpkin bucket. When you have no expectations, your confidence can’t be shaken. Michigan’s 2-1 record is viewed as an improvement, despite being exactly the same as last year. (In fact, the Wolverines haven’t started worse than 2-1 since 2008, when they only won three games all year.)

And for all the indecision Meyer seems to be having about his quarterbacks, one thing still hasn’t changed: Jones will start again today, for the seventh consecutive game. He is currently 6-0 as a starter, although it’s difficult to credit him for the NIU win. Many fans are disappointed by this decision, and you can’t really blame them. It’s a pretty typical reaction when the starting QB is struggling, even when the backup didn’t finish fifth in Heisman voting the previous year.

But if you can’t have confidence in a three-time national championship coach who has won 93% of the games he’s coached at Ohio State, then who exactly is going to earn your trust? Consider the stats of Barrett, Jones, and Rudock so far this year:

A. 56.5% completion, 7.3 yards/attempt, 118.82 rating
B. 64.8% completion, 6.4 yards/attempt, 118.46 rating
C. 57.1% completion, 5.5 yards/attempt, 116.61 rating

A is Cardale Jones. J.T. Barrett is C. Yet, I’m pretty sure Urban isn’t lying awake at night, cursing the heavens that he doesn’t have Jake Rudock on his roster.

An area where both teams (and fan bases) can find an abundance of confidence is the defensive side of the ball. Northern Illinois’ Drew Hare threw for around 360 yards in each of his first two games, but only managed 80 against Ohio State. Similarly, Michigan stifled the UNLV running game, which had put up respectable if not stellar numbers in their first two games. Through three games, both teams rank in the top 15 in yards allowed per carry, and in the top 25 in yards allowed per pass attempt. Overall, Ohio is #3 and Michigan is #7 is yards allowed per play.

Of course, all that really matters is the score, and again both teams do a phenomenal job of keeping their opponents out of the end zone. Ohio State is giving up just 12.3 points per game, good for #11 in the country (tied with Clemson.) Michigan is right behind, giving up 12.7 and sharing the #13 spot with Wisconsin.

Today, Michigan welcomes #22 BYU, fresh off a disappointing 1-point loss to UCLA. A victory in this game could potentially catapult the Wolverines into the top 25. Statistically, BYU doesn’t really excel at anything except game-winning Hail Mary passes. This is a prime opportunity for Michigan to make a statement in a game against a team that is probably overrated.

Ohio State will be hosting Western Michigan and looking to play with the kind of confidence they displayed on Labor Day night, which seems much longer than just 19 days ago. The Broncos only real strong point is their passing attack; QB Zach Terrell has already thrown for 947 yards this year (that’s over 400 more than Ohio State’s QBs) and his backup is Joe Flacco’s brother, who looked decent in limited action against Murray State last week.

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