The Rivals, Part XIII: The End Run

The next two weeks are essentially a playoff for the Big Ten East division crown. All of the top four teams are still technically in the running, although it’s going to take a lot of good fortune for Penn State to make the trip to Indy. It is possible for Ohio State to lock up the title today, with a win over Michigan State and a Penn State win over Michigan. If the Buckeyes lose, they’ll need a win over the Wolverines and a Penn State win over Sparty next week to secure the top spot. If both Ohio State and Michigan win today, next week’s game will be for the East title, and the Meyer-Harbaugh era of The Game will have truly begun.

Making things interesting will be the conference’s top two running backs in terms of yards per carry (Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley) facing off against two of the conference’s top three rushing defenses in that statistic (Michigan and Michigan State).

Today, Ohio State takes its shot at the Spartans, and even though Michigan State has been solid against the run all year, the cracks have been showing lately. Two of the last three primary running backs the Spartans have faced bested their average yards per carry by about a full yard, and the third (Maryland’s Wes Brown) only missed his by less than five inches per attempt. This is not a good trend for a team that needs to stop a legit Heisman candidate possibly playing in his final home game this afternoon.

Michigan has been having some issues with running backs themselves, with defensive line injuries disrupting the lineup at the worst possible time. Last week, Indiana’s Jordan Howard carved the Wolverines up with 238 yards on 35 carries, over half a yard better than his season average. In the previous two weeks, Rutgers’ Robert Martin and Minnesota’s Rodney Smith each topped their average by over two yards a carry. Much like their in-state rivals, this is a bad sign with two of the Big Ten’s best backs on the horizon.

On the other side of the ball, Michigan State’s rushing offense has been dismal all year. They rank 97th in the nation (tied with 6-loss Rice) in yards per carry and have only topped 200 yards on the ground once this year (against Purdue). As a team, the Spartans have only rushed for 99 more yards and 3 more touchdowns than Ezekiel Elliott has alone. And it took them 171 more carries to do it.

Michigan State will instead hope to lean on quarterback Connor Cook for their offensive production, although it remains to be seen how effective Cook will be after injuring his throwing shoulder against Maryland last week. I’ll give Cook a pass for that terrible game since he was hurt for most of it, but the last time the Spartans faced a passing defense comparable to Ohio State’s was their miracle win at Michigan. Cook completed less than half of his passes in that game with just one touchdown. He has a tough task ahead of him even if his shoulder is fine. If it’s not as “good to go” as he says it is, Michigan State could be in trouble.

The Wolverines have spent the last two weeks carving up the Big Ten’s two worst defenses for their most productive performances of the season. Penn State has a much better defense than Rutgers or Indiana, and Michigan needed double overtime to beat the Hoosiers. The most interesting thing to watch in today’s game—and probably the determining factor in the outcome—will be whether or not Jake Rudock’s recent explosion is actual improvement or just a result of playing some pretty horrible defenses.

The Rivals, Part XII: The End is Near

It wasn’t as dominating of a win as fans would have liked it to be, but that’s true of pretty much every game Ohio State has played this year. Regardless, the Buckeyes are still undefeated after holding off the pesky Minnesota. Today, OSU visits an Illinois team that while not great, isn’t terrible either. They tend to blow out much worse teams and get blown out by much better teams. There was a stretch where the Illini won close games against Middle Tennessee and Nebraska, then lost close games against Iowa and Wisconsin.

J.T. Barrett will be back in the starting QB spot today after his one-game suspension, and—barring injury or further disciplinary action—that’s unlikely to change for the rest of the year. Even though it took way longer than anyone expected, the Ohio State Quarterback SituationTM appears to finally be resolved. The Illinois defense is surprisingly not awful, so don’t be shocked if the Buckeyes take another quarter or so to get going this week.

Michigan had little trouble dispatching the woeful Rutgers last week, and are likely feeling good heading into their road match up against Indiana. Like Illinois, the Hoosiers saw a promising early season derailed once they got into conference play. In fact, Indiana is 4-0 this year against non-Big Ten teams and 0-5 against Big Ten teams. Those records can be a bit misleading, however. Only one of their non-conference wins was by more than a touchdown, and their losses to conference front-runners Ohio State and Iowa were only by a combined 15 points.

Jake Rudock finally had a showcase game last week throwing for 337 yards and 2 touchdowns, as well as adding another touchdown (and a completely unnecessary 2-point conversion) on the ground. That this explosion came against Rutgers, one of the worst passing defenses in the country makes it a little less impressive, but for the first time this season, Rudock has proven that he can contribute significantly to the offense, and that’s going to be important going forward.

The key for both Ohio State and Michigan today is to not get caught looking ahead. The Buckeyes’ next two games are against Michigan State and Michigan, while the Wolverines take on Penn State before this year’s edition of The Game. Those three games are going to decide the Big Ten East. Penn State is out of the running. Ohio State and Michigan State can win the division by winning out. Michigan needs to win out and another Michigan State loss, which means they’ll be cheering hard for Maryland today, so they don’t have to cheer for Ohio State next week.

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.

The Rivals, Part X: Byes

Ohio State is on a bye this week, but Urban Meyer, the team, and most fans would rather keep rolling after last week’s utter destruction of Rutgers. It’s also the last weekend before the first College Football Playoff standings come out, and it’s probably better to have a solid performance fresh in the committee’s mind than not, but fortunately for the Buckeyes, most of the other top teams are off this week too. There’s also the issue of injuries, and like most teams this time of the season, Ohio State is pretty banged up. A week off before the most important month of the season is probably for the best, even if it slows momentum a little.

Michigan is coming off their bye week today, and the break couldn’t have come at a better time for the Wolverines. With an extra week to move past the shocking, devastating loss to Michigan State, they can focus on the future and a Big Ten title that is still within their reach (although they’ll need help to get there).

Michigan travels to Minnesota to take on a struggling Gopher team coming off not only a bye week, but also a tearful goodbye from head coach Jerry Kill, who retired Wednesday on the advice of his doctor. I’m a big believer in the impact of intangibles on college football games, and it will be interesting to see how the competing intangibles manifest themselves on the field tonight.

For Michigan, there’s desperation. Realistically, the Wolverines need to win out to still have a shot at the Big Ten title and potentially a spot in the playoff (although that ship may have already sailed.) Michigan is also looking for redemption. The bizarre, instantly-viral way the Michigan State game ended has the potential to be a season-defining moment. It’s Coach Harbaugh’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen. Losing tonight could be severely damaging, with two more road trips coming up in the next three games.

From Minnesota’s perspective, there’s the obvious intangible of winning for a beloved, outgoing coach. Emotions will be running high, especially considering the circumstances of Coach Kill’s departure. He isn’t being fired for lack of performance or some scandal. He was already inspirational just for being able to coach at a high level in his condition, and now he becomes the kind of inspirational that can fuel a player or two (or an entire team) to a lights-out performance. Playing at home and under the lights only adds to that potential.

The Rivals, Part IX: Endings

Is the Big Ten East the best division in college football? Its four best teams include two unbeatens (Ohio State, Michigan State) and two teams (Penn State, Michigan) with two losses each. Penn State’s two losses are to Temple (7-0) and Ohio State (7-0). Michigan’s two losses are to Utah (6-0) and Michigan State (7-0). That’s right: None of the division’s top four teams have lost to anything other than an undefeated team. No other division comes close to matching that feat.

Michigan’s streak of shut outs came to end last week in the most unimaginable way. The bizarre botched punt and ensuing touchdown return defies description. But its impact goes beyond the collective jaw-drop of a sports fan nation. The Big Ten East race has been significantly altered by that single, mind-boggling play. While I won’t pretend that there weren’t other ways Michigan State could’ve won that game, they were all just as unlikely to happen as the thing that did. So take away that or some other equally absurd ending, and we’d be looking at this:

1t. Ohio State (3-0)
1t. Michigan (3-0)
3t. Michigan State (2-1)
3t. Penn State (2-1)

At this point, Penn State seems to be at least a step behind the other three, although it’s never safe to count anyone out. But let’s assume that both Michigan and Michigan State beat the Lions and win their games against all other non-OSU Big Ten teams. That leaves us with two potential end-game scenarios: Ohio State beats Michigan State and heads into a battle with Michigan for a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game and probably the playoff, or Ohio State loses to Michigan State and can not make the conference title game. Beating Michigan would only put us into a tie with Sparty, who already owns the tie-breaker. And not making the conference championship game most likely means not making the playoff.

But that didn’t happen. Michigan isn’t out of the running yet, but it’s likely going to take Michigan State losing twice and Michigan running the table for the Wolverines to get to Indianapolis. With virtually no reasonable road blocks ahead of them except for each other, the top four Big Ten East teams are headed for a heck of an ending.

Since it has been the dominant topic of this space for most of the season thus far, I have to address the change at the quarterback position for Ohio State. When the Buckeyes take the field tonight, J.T. Barrett will be the starter for the first time since last November. His performance on third down and in the red zone in recent weeks (and particularly against Penn State) has earned him the spot. Ultimately, the inability of Ohio State to develop a deep-passing game was Cardale Jones’ downfall. It’s bizarre that a quarterback who’s 10-0 as a starter, was MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game and won a national title is going to be the backup, but it was just as bizarre that a quarterback who owns most of the school’s passing records and finished in the top 5 in Heisman voting the previous year was a backup. We always knew it was a strange situation we were in, and I hope that fans don’t forget how much Jones has contributed to this team.

The Rivals, Part VIII: Midterms

It’s the halfway point of the regular season for most Big Ten teams, and the East division has settled into two tiers, comprised of exactly the teams everyone expected when the new format was introduced prior to last season. Ohio State and Michigan are joined by Michigan State and Penn State at the top of what could turn out to be the toughest single division in college football. Today is the first of three weekends this season where these four teams will be playing each other. The second and third rounds will close out the regular season, so while today’s winners will get an early jump on the division title, there will be plenty of time for the losers to get back into the race.

The big story of the first half of the season has been Michigan’s defense. The unit has posted three consecutive shutouts and is in the top 3 nationally in every defensive category, including #1 in scoring. The Wolverines seem to be putting all of their eggs in the defensive basket, as their offense doesn’t even crack the top 30 in any category. Since a disastrous three-interception performance in the opener at Utah, QB Jake Rudock throwing the ball has essentially been erased from the offensive game plan. Rudock has scored just 3 of the team’s 18 offensive touchdowns since the Utah game through the air, while he’s added another 3 on the ground.

For Ohio State, the storyline of the first six games was unsurprising: the quarterback situation. Urban Meyer faced constant criticism over his handling of the Buckeyes’ two top-notch talents, but finally seemed to settle into a solution last Saturday against Maryland. By inserting J. T. Barrett as a red-zone specialist, Meyer simultaneously found a suitable way to feature both QBs and shore up Ohio State’s ineffectiveness inside the 20-yard line, scoring touchdowns on all six opportunities. It would be surprising if this approach didn’t continue for the remainder of the season, and it may be the key to returning the offense to the explosive level they achieved last year.

This afternoon, Michigan hosts Michigan State, a rivalry that has been just as lopsided as The Game over the past seven years, with the Wolverines snagging just one victory in that span. The Spartans are undefeated but also play the underdog role in this game, which gives the match up an interesting twist. To this point in the season, Michigan has been playing with house money, but now they will see how things feel on the other side of the table. One of the reasons Michigan State was able to wrest control of the rivalry from the Wolverines in the first place was Coach Dantonio’s ability to fuel his players’ fire with the shoulder-chip of disrespect (whether real or manufactured). It must bring a smile to his stone face to be able to play that same card while still on top.

Tonight, Penn State visits Ohio State, and the Nittany Lions’ story has been similar to (albeit not as impressive as) Michigan’s. After an opening road loss to the currently undefeated Temple Owls, Penn State has rallied to win their last five games. All of those wins were in the comfort of their home stadium, however, and they won’t have that luxury tonight. The last time the Lions beat an Ohio State team ranked higher than them was in 2005 in State College. They have never won when the Buckeyes were ranked #1.

The Rivals, Part VII: Happiness

It’s been said that the formula for happiness is H = R/E, where R is reality and E is expectation. Every once in a while I’m reminded of this equation, and it seems to apply to sports fandom particularly well.

Consider Ohio State and Michigan. Entering the season, the Buckeyes were the prohibitive favorite to repeat as national champions. Loaded with talent, no other team looked quite as good on paper. There was some excitement for the Wolverines with a new head coach, a hire that actually felt like they weren’t just settling for a change. But no one really had them pegged for greatness; the roster was still kind of a mess and the Big Ten looked to have more bite than usual following a stellar bowl season.

Using the “happiness formula” and the Vegas gambling numbers as a representation of expectation (which is precisely what they are), we can see that the math backs up what we already know: Ohio State’s offense is making fans unhappy. Only once did the Buckeyes put up more points than expected, scoring 42 against Virginia Tech when Vegas was calling for 33. In every other game, Ohio State was projected to score over 42 and they haven’t cracked 40 since blasting the Hokies. On average, the Buckeye offense’s reality is 79% of expectation.

Michigan fans, on the other hand, are elated. Their defense has yet to underperform and has delivered two consecutive shutouts when their opponents were supposed to score at least 17 points. The offense hasn’t been quite as pleasing, but is still averaging 96% of expectation.

What will make us happy today? Ohio State is again projected to score 42+ points against a hopefully-outmatched opponent. Michigan is favored as well, and if they can do better than a 7-point win, fans should rejoice. But regardless of what happens for either team, fans would do well to think back to just last October.

After five games last year, Ohio State was 4-1 and ranked #15 in the AP poll. The Buckeyes had just beaten Maryland on the road by 28 points, and hopes of getting back into the playoff race were beginning to surface.

After five games this year, Michigan is 4-1 and ranked #18 in the AP poll. The Wolverines just beat Maryland on the road by 28 points, and hopes of getting into the playoff race are beginning to surface.

I’m pointing out that parallel not to startle you with visions of a Michigan national title, but to show that there is still a lot more football left to be played. It’s tempting to start drawing conclusions about how good teams are right now, and the popular sports media is the primary culprit of that, with incessant predictions of a playoff picture that hasn’t even begun to take shape. Last year, the first playoff rankings (the ones that matter) were released at the end of October, after most teams had played 7 or 8 games and still only featured one of the eventual participants in the top four.

We’ll learn a little more about how good Michigan is today, when they take on undefeated Northwestern. The two teams sit atop the nation in scoring defense, each allowing approximately a single touchdown per game. Neither has beaten a team with a high-powered offense, but the good news (if you want to call it that) is that neither has a high-powered offense either. If either team scores more than a couple offensive touchdowns, it would be remarkable.

Last year, Ohio State rebuilt its reputation following the Virginia Tech loss with a string of blowout wins. While the team hasn’t actually lost yet—and is still ranked #1—there has been a bit of a blow to the national perception of the Buckeyes since being voted the first-ever unanimous preseason #1 team in the history of the AP poll. Another avalanche of big wins would go a long way to remedy that, and where better to start than against a Maryland team that is already planning to fire its coach after the game?

The Rivals, Part VI: The Coming Storm

Last week saw the return of Ohio State’s high-powered offense, which produced 500 yards for the first time since week one. The defense remained stout, reining in Western Michigan’s passing game and holding the Broncos to just 12 points. Michigan held steady production-wise, and managed to not turn the ball over at all while their defense manhandled BYU stunning shut out that landed the Wolverines at #22 in the AP poll, the same spot BYU held going into the game. Both defenses now rank in the top 10 nationally in terms of points allowed.

The Big Ten season opens for both teams today, and so begins the journey to The Game. Despite a couple of lackluster games, Ohio State is still in the driver’s seat for the national championship. Michigan’s strong non-conference showing has added a new sense of excitement for the season-ending clash. Michigan State is the primary hurdle for each team on the road to that face-off, but both will get the Spartans at home.

Today, both Ohio State and Michigan head out on the road again after three straight home games, all wins. The Buckeyes take on the somehow-undefeated Indiana Hoosiers, and Michigan pays a visit to the floundering Maryland Terrapins, reeling from last week’s beatdown by West Virginia.

The Michigan/Maryland game has been moved from an 8:00 kickoff to noon to avoid complications from Hurricane Joaquin. This is a significant blow to Maryland, who could have certainly benefitted from the electric atmosphere of a night game. While a Terrapins win would have still been a long shot, it’s almost an impossibility now. The weather will barely even impact Michigan’s game plan, which has settled into about a 60-40 run/pass split, and Jim Harbaugh probably wouldn’t mind leaning even more heavily on his running backs against a Maryland team that ranks 101st nationally in rushing defense.

There shouldn’t be much rain in Bloomington on Saturday, but Urban Meyer would like to unleash a storm of deep throws on the Hoosier’s dismal pass defense (#127 out of 128). That this was a point of practice emphasis following a rash of underthrows last week is a happy coincidence, and one that should be of utmost concern to Indiana. But Ohio State must take the Hoosier attack seriously too: Indiana ranks 18th nationally in total offense, higher than any team the Silver Bullets have faced so far.

If Ohio State and Michigan continue to progress throughout the Big Ten slate, then that meeting at the end of November—the 112th between the two programs and the first between Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh—will be the renewal of a rivalry that hasn’t been truly competitive in nearly a decade.

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.

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.