College Football and College Basketball Writer
A win is a win, right?
All Michigan and Ohio State needed to ensure The Game would feature undefeated teams for the second consecutive year was to come away from their respective Week 12 matchups against Maryland and Minnesota on the right side of the scoreboard. Style points and stats were irrelevant as long as both teams won.
HOW TO WATCH ‘BIG NOON KICKOFF’ THIS SATURDAY
- 10 a.m.-Noon ET: “Big Noon Kickoff” pregame show on FOX
- Noon ET: Ohio State at Michigan on FOX and the FOX Sports app
The Buckeyes disposed of Minnesota in dominant fashion to enter the finale against Michigan on a high note. It was one of the team’s most complete performances of the season, albeit against an overmatched opponent.
The Wolverines, meanwhile, survived by a thread against a feisty Maryland team that had multiple chances to take the lead in the fourth quarter. They’ll have plenty of things to work on this week when head coach Jim Harbaugh is permitted to be around his team.
Find out which players, position groups and units are trending up or down in a special edition of the Big Ten Stock Watch focused entirely on The Game:
Mike Sainristil, DB, Michigan: It’s amazing to think about the bookends for Sainristil during a three-year revival in which the Wolverines have won 36 of their last 39 games and have a chance to secure a third consecutive Big Ten title. In 2021, when Michigan surprised the college football world by beginning the season unranked and ending it with the first College Football Playoff appearance in school history, Sainristil caught 22 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns. He was the team’s best blocking wide receiver for an offense that leaned heavily on its ground game and was a core member of the special teams units that finished third nationally in the FEI ratings. Then Sainristil switched to defense.
Beginning in 2022, Sainristil, who played cornerback and wide receiver in high school, transitioned into the starting nickelback for new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter. He assumed an immediate leadership role for a secondary that lost veterans Daxton Hill, Vincent Gray and Brad Hawkins to the NFL and infused the defense with the same toughness he flashed when blocking safeties and linebackers on offense. His improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 within Michigan’s defense has been significant, and Minter continues to utilize him in a variety of positions: slot corner, perimeter corner and situational blitzer. Sainristil recorded his fourth and fifth interceptions of the season during Saturday’s 31-24 win over Maryland in what was arguably the finest performance of his career. His second pick of quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa with 5:32 remaining helped preserve Michigan’s undefeated record.
How Michigan could look vs. Ohio State in The Game
TreVeyon Henderson, RB, Ohio State: The emergence of Henderson as a reliable bell cow since returning from an undisclosed midsection injury that sidelined him from late September to late October has been a boon for head coach Ryan Day’s offense. Henderson carried 15 times for 146 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday’s 37-3 win over Minnesota for his third 100-yard game in the last month and the fourth in his last five games overall. He’s now scored at least one rushing touchdown in seven consecutive games and is only two scores shy of tying Braxton Miller for 10th on the school’s all-time list. He’s finally looking like the player who ran for 1,248 yards and 15 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2021 after battling a chronic foot injury last year.
The big-play nature of Henderson’s production this season is particularly beneficial for a passing offense that ranks 24th nationally through 11 games, its lowest mark in a non-pandemic season since 2019. He’s contributing 2.5 runs of 10-plus yards per game in eight appearances overall, and that number has jumped to 3.3 per game over his last four contests. One of Henderson’s two touchdowns against the Gophers was a career-long 75 yards. Henderson’s season average of 6.7 yards per carry ranks tied for eighth nationally among running backs with at least 115 carries and is tied for fifth among players from Power 5 conferences, according to Pro Football Focus.
TreVeyon Henderson rips off a 75-yard TD vs. Minnesota
Michigan‘s pass rush: The biggest reason why Michigan prevailed on an afternoon when quarterback J.J. McCarthy failed to throw a touchdown pass and tailback Blake Corum averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry was the relentless pressure generated by Minter’s defense. Eleven players combined for 23 pressures of Tagovailoa and held him without a passing touchdown for the first game all season. The last time Tagovailoa failed to throw a touchdown pass was in a loss to Penn State on Nov. 12, 2022. The Wolverines forced him into his first multi-interception game since Maryland’s defeat at Ohio State on Oct. 7 and his second-lowest NFL passer rating of the season (61).
The havoc seemed to come from everywhere. Edge rusher Braiden McGregor finished with a team-high six quarterback pressures and contributed to a critical sack in the fourth quarter after a well-executed twist inside. Defensive tackles Mason Graham and Cam Goode tallied three pressures apiece. Edge rushers Derrick Moore and Josaiah Stewart chipped in two pressures each. Inside linebacker Michael Barrett corralled Tagovailoa outside the pocket for a strip-sack that resulted in a scoop-and-score for Moore. Six other players recorded at least one pressure, including an impressive chase by nose tackle Kenneth Grant that baited Tagovailoa into an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone for a safety. It was the kind of performance that can build momentum ahead of next week’s battle with Ohio State.
Ohio State‘s defense: After enduring plenty of criticism for the way his defense imploded in backbreaking losses to Michigan and Georgia last season, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has elevated the Buckeyes to the upper echelon of college football during his second year in Columbus. Saturday’s demolition of Minnesota marked the seventh time in 11 games that Ohio State has held its opponent to 10 or fewer points, including three points each to the Gophers and Michigan State over the last two weeks. The Buckeyes kept Minnesota below 100 passing yards and below 100 rushing yards in one of their most dominant showings of the season. They held firm 75% of the time on third down against the Gophers and never allowed them to enter the red zone.
While it’s fair to question the relevancy of such dominance when facing a team that is now tied for 124th in total offense, the mauling nature of what Knowles’ unit did over the weekend was merely the continuation of a season-long trend. Consider where the Buckeyes rank nationally in a handful of defensive categories entering the finale against Michigan: third in total defense (252.8 yards per game), first in passing defense (144.3 YPG), second in scoring defense (9.3 PPG), eighth in opponent third-down conversion rate (29.2%) and, perhaps most importantly given the way last season ended, first in fewest plays of 40-plus yard allowed (1). They’ll be eager to show how much they’ve improved come Saturday.
Should Michigan be concerned about Ohio State?
Michigan‘s passing game: Statistically speaking, the idea that Michigan’s passing game is more explosive in McCarthy’s second year as the starting quarterback rings true. McCarthy averaged 194.2 passing yards per game in 2022 and has increased that number to 212.3 yards per game in 2023. He’s also on pace to eclipse last year’s total of 22 touchdowns through the air, Saturday’s goose egg against Maryland notwithstanding.
But what hasn’t changed for the Wolverines is the number of downfield threats McCarthy can really trust. A year ago, McCarthy had a bona fide No. 1 receiver in Ronnie Bell (62 receptions, 889 yards, 4 TDs) and a high-level tight end in Luke Schoonmaker (35 catches, 418 yards, 3 TDs). Everyone else was average at best and pedestrian at worst. This year, McCarthy has another bona fide No. 1 receiver in Roman Wilson (37 catches, 612 yards, 10 TDs) and another high-level tight end in Colston Loveland (32 catches, 462 yards, 4 TDs). But once again, everyone else in Michigan’s receiving corps is a dime a dozen. Elite teams don’t fear wideouts Cornelius Johnson, Semaj Morgan and Tyler Morris.
Such limitations became increasingly clear following the undisclosed head or neck injury suffered by Wilson during Saturday’s win over Maryland. Wilson dropped out of the game in the first half and never returned, which left McCarthy in a precarious position. Not only did acting head coach Sherrone Moore call a poor game as the Wolverines’ offensive coordinator, but McCarthy was limited in the players he could expect to produce. With Wilson’s status unclear for the game against Ohio State, this will be a huge week of practice for the rest of Michigan’s receivers.
J.J. McCarthy talks about the adversity Michigan faces
JT Tuimoloau, edge rusher, Ohio State: While it’s been nearly impossible for Tuimoloau to replicate the rampaging performance he had against Penn State last season — two sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovered, two interceptions and one touchdown — there have been glimpses this year of what made him a five-star prospect and the No. 4 overall player in the 2021 recruiting cycle. He had a season-high seven pressures and one sack in the win over Penn State. He posted identical stat lines of 1.5 sacks and five pressures in victories against Maryland and Purdue in early October. He still leads the Buckeyes in total pressures with 32 thus far.
But nothing about Tuimoloau’s junior year suggests he’s ready to become a consistent pass-rush threat on a game-in, game-out basis the way most fans expected him to. And his current run of three straight weeks without a sack against Minnesota, Michigan State and Rutgers is proof of Tuimoloau’s variance this season. In fact, all four of his sacks came in a three-game burst against the Nittany Lions, Terrapins and Boilermakers; he’s only gotten to the quarterback in three of Ohio State’s first 11 games. And while sacks aren’t the end-all, be-all for edge rushers, Tuimoloau’s pressure numbers have been equally sporadic. After the aforementioned stretch in which he generated 17 total pressures from Week 6 to Week 8, he’s only affected the quarterback four times in the last four games combined, including zero against Minnesota, according to Pro Football Focus. He enters the regular season finale ranked tied for 49th nationally in pressures among edge rushers with at least 275 pass-rushing snaps this season.
Karsen Barnhart, OT, Michigan: One of the reasons why Michigan’s rushing attack seems less potent in 2023 than each of the last two seasons is the impossibly high standard set by the offensive line as it won back-to-back Joe Moore Awards. The 2021 offensive line that paved the way for an elite tailback tandem of Corum and Hassan Haskins featured an overachieving center in graduate student Andrew Vastardis surrounded by four linemen who either are, or will be, playing in the NFL. Offensive tackles Andrew Stueber and Ryan Hayes are both in the pros, while guards Zak Zinter and Trevor Keegan will move to the league next year. The 2022 line replaced Vastardis with an All-American in Olu Oluwatimi and finished the season with Barnhart at right tackle in place of Stueber.
Barnhart was steady if unremarkable last season for an offensive line that launched Corum to stardom in what might have been a Heisman Trophy campaign had the tailback stayed healthy down the stretch. But Barnhart’s performance has been somewhat uneven in 2023, especially against Big Ten opposition, and Saturday’s win over Maryland was arguably his worst showing. He allowed a team-high and season-high five pressures on an afternoon when none of his fellow linemen surrendered more than one. He’s now allowed at least two quarterback pressures in each of his last five games and is giving up an average of three per game during that stretch. For the season he’s allowed 22 total pressures, which is eight more than any other Michigan lineman.
Julian Fleming, WR, Ohio State: Given the trajectory of standout receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., who is a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy, it’s easy to forget that Fleming was the third-best recruit in program history since 247Sports began tracking data in 2000. The only higher-rated prospects to sign with Ohio State were quarterback Terrelle Pryor in 2008 and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. in 2004. Fleming was the No. 1 receiver and the No. 3 overall recruit in the 2020 recruiting cycle, which placed him ahead of wideouts like OSU’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba (No. 5 WR), Washington’s Jalen McMillan (No. 11 WR), TCU’s Quentin Johnston (No. 14 WR) and Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt (No. 33 WR), among others.
Fleming’s production at Ohio State has never matched what evaluators believed to be immense potential coming out of high school. He caught 34 passes for 533 yards and six touchdowns in 2022, but that was the only time in his career when he topped 25 receptions in a single season. Part of his story can be explained away by injuries to both shoulders that compromised his development and playing time earlier in his career. But his background role in 2023 suggests he’s been passed by not only Harrison, but also Emeka Egbuka and, at times, true freshman Carnell Tate. Fleming caught two passes for 10 yards in the win over Minnesota to mark the fifth consecutive game in which he was held to two or fewer receptions and 19 or fewer receiving yards.
Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.
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