College football: Michigan, Ohio State enter 118th rivalry game undefeated
Sometimes rivalry games are just about bragging rights, but sometimes there's a lot more at stake.
That will be the case Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, when Michigan visits Ohio State. Both teams are undefeated at 11-0. The winner will advance to the Big Ten Conference championship game. The matchup also has national title implications. Ohio State is No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings. Michigan is No. 3.
Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon talked to Morning Edition host Doug Tribou about the 118th meeting of the Wolverines and the Buckeyes.
Saturday's games: No. 3 Michigan at No. 2 Ohio State - Noon; Michigan State at No. 11 Penn State - 4:00 p.m.
Doug Tribou: Last year's game was also a high-stakes affair. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh got his first win over Ohio State, which helped him later lead his team to the College Football Playoff for the first time. But let's look a little further back in the record books. The schools played their first football game in 1897. What are some of your favorite details from the long history between these teams?
John U. Bacon: Well, I was thinking about this, Doug, and very pathetically, I can pretty much remember every single game since I was seven years old. And that was a long time ago, 50 games. I can tell you, not always the score, but certainly who the coaches were, who won, and where the game was played.
Since you asked, in 1976 Michigan won 22-0 at the Horseshoe [in Columbus], the first win in five tries that I remembered. The first four Michigan-Ohio State games in my life it was three losses [for Michigan] and a tie, and the tie was the most bitter one. As a sportswriter, I can't have any favorites, but as a 12 year old, I could.
And in 2006, the day after [former Michigan coach] Bo Schembechler died, Michigan lost 42-39, No. 1 versus No. 2. That might have been the best single football game I've ever seen.
DT: For people who haven’t been following the Buckeyes this season, let’s talk about some of their stars. Quarterback C.J. Stroud has nearly 3,000 yards passing and 35 touchdowns. But Stroud isn't the only problem for Michigan. Fans of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts will also recognize the name of one of Stroud's favorite targets.
JUB: Yes, that name is Marvin Harrison Jr. Guess what? He's the son of Marvin Harrison, of course, one of the Colts' all-time greats. [Harrison Jr.] has already caught 11 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards in receptions. The Ohio State passing game is much more advanced than Michigan's, but Michigan's running game is certainly better than Ohio State's.
DT: Well, let's talk about that. There's been some real concerns about Michigan's running game because of injuries. Running back Donovan Edwards was out with an injury last weekend, missed the game. Heisman Trophy candidate Blake Corum got off to a fast start, but then sat out nearly all of the second half with an injury to his knee. And Michigan just squeaked by Illinois. How much of Michigan's success depends on the running game?
"[T]he play calling has been, frankly, suspect. You can't run on first down every time. Ohio State will be ready for that ... so, they've got to mix it up."John U. Bacon on Michigan's offense in recent games
JUB: Oh, a lot of it. Good news for Michigan fans is that Corum is almost certainly going to be playing on Saturday. Donovan Edwards, much more uncertain, I would say. But J.J. McCarthy, the first-year starting quarterback is simply going to have to have probably his best game of his career.
DT: Well, in very cold conditions, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy made some key plays last week, but was far from crisp. What will he need to do better to have that best-of-the-season performance that you think he needs?
JUB: Well, a few things. One, he needs better accuracy, simply enough. The receivers cannot drop balls. They dropped a number versus Illinois. That cannot happen with Ohio State. He's got to be able to run occasionally, and he's a very good runner.
Also, the play calling has been, frankly, suspect. You can't run on first down every time even though Blake Corum is a great tailback. Ohio State will be ready for that. They'll have the line ready. You won't get very much there, so they've got to mix it up.
DT: With all that’s on the line and all the wild history between these two teams, it seems like a perfect time to put you on the spot and ask for a prediction. Who wins Saturday?
JUB: My prediction today is even more worthless than usual because I have no idea what's going to happen. I can't recall another game between these two where either team could blow out the other and it wouldn't shock me.
So I'll call Michigan 24-21. But I can tell you this, the beauty of this game is it's one game per year and you either get 365 days of pain or 365 days of peace. And if you don't believe me, ask the guy who lost. He will tell you the same thing. So no second chances.
It's brutal. It's cruel, it's beautiful. It's awesome. This is considered the greatest rivalry game in America in any sport.
Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear the full interview near the top of this page.