The Rivals, Part XI: Returns

Ohio State returns to action tonight against the Minnesota Gophers, fresh off a heart-breaking (and somewhat controversial) loss to Michigan. As you know, the Buckeyes will be without newly-installed starting quarterback J.T. Barrett, who is serving a suspension stemming from an OVI citation. There’s no need to sermonize about Barrett’s mistake or Urban Meyer’s handling of the situation; I’ll leave that to the professionally sanctimonious click-baiters.

What is notable about Barrett’s unavailability is that it brings a unique intangible to the game. Cardale Jones returns as the starting QB, and it will be the first time since last year’s National Championship game that he does so without the potential of being pulled for performance issues. It will be interesting to see if this dynamic affects Jones’ psyche, and if his play remains as uneven as it was earlier this season or if we see a return to something more like last year’s Big Ten Championship Game.

After a string of dominant wins, Michigan’s last two games have gone down to the wire in the most dramatic ways. Last week’s win over Minnesota was aided by a called-back touchdown and an uncalled neutral zone infraction that would have given the Gophers the ball about as close to the goal line as possible without actually putting it in the end zone for them. Ultimately, poor end-of-game clock management was the main culprit for Minnesota, and the Wolverines dodged a bullet that would have effectively put them out of the Big Ten title race.

Braxton Miller will return to the quarterback position tonight, having been installed as the backup in Barrett’s absence. There has been a purposeful silence from Meyer and the team about the nature of Miller’s role in this game, which has many speculating that he may actually throw a true pass (he has executed the fly sweep “pop pass” which is little more than a handoff) for the first time in nearly two years.

As for Jim Harbaugh, he seems content to continue to minimize the impact of his quarterback in either direction. Since the opening loss to Utah, Jake Rudock has not thrown for more than 200 yards in any game. He also has only thrown 4 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. It’s easy to argue that this has been a good thing for Michigan, as they’ve won six of those seven games, with the only loss coming on the fluke play of the season. Still, I firmly believe that at some point this season, the Wolverines are going to need Rudock to win a game for them, and I’m not sure he’ll be prepared when the time comes. That time probably won’t be today, as Michigan returns to the Big House to take on a Rutgers team who lost its last two games by a combined score of 97-17.

Ohio State welcomes the Gophers to the Shoe, and the Buckeyes haven’t lost following a bye week since a 2005 road game at Penn State. The last time OSU dropped a home game after a bye was to the 1990 USC Trojans. Despite the clock issues late in the game, Minnesota’s interim head coach Tracy Claeys performed admirably in his first stint as a college head coach, and he will really be put to the test tonight.

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