- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Critical areas for the Buckeyes as they welcome Michigan looking to close out a perfect season at home with a win over their hated rival. The game will be televised live on ABC at noon ET Saturday from Ohio Stadium.
Keep it in check: A perfect season, a rivalry, the last game for the seniors and a chance to send a message to poll voters are all out there looming as potential distractions. And if Ohio State gets too wrapped up in any of them, everything could slip away from them.
The Wolverines have a few issues of their own that could weigh on their minds and disrupt focus, from positioning themselves for a prestigious bowl to playing spoiler for the Buckeyes. The team that can handle all the emotions and block out exterior factors the best will have the edge when the long-awaited kickoff finally arrives, and that's been at the top of coach Urban Meyer's priority list all week.
Feed him more: Wisconsin helped provide a blueprint for frustrating Braxton Miller on the ground, at times devoting two spies to slowing him down and cutting down his room to run. But that approach wasn't nearly as successful at slowing down bruising tailback Carlos Hyde, and the Buckeyes will have to be more willing to ride the junior consistently if the Wolverines borrow a few ideas from the Badgers.
The other antidote for Ohio State is taking advantage of the man coverage on the perimeter that it will likely be facing if the Wolverines sell out to stop the run, and Corey Brown and Devin Smith should be in line for a few more touches this week as well. And while the offense will continue to rely heavily on Miller's athleticism and he will remain the focus, Hyde could be the difference-maker in the backfield against a somewhat average rush defense.
Look alive: Losing their starting quarterback has actually seemed to open up the offense for the Wolverines. And now that Denard Robinson is healing and perhaps better prepared to throw the ball again, Michigan's playbook is likely to have expanded even more given the variety of ways he could be used.
Whether he's lined up behind center, used as a running back or lined up wide receiver, Robinson is a threat to make something happen anywhere on the field -- and the Buckeyes will have to be sharp in identifying personnel and executing assignments. The return of senior Etienne Sabino last week will help provide some stability at linebacker, and sensational sophomore Ryan Shazier should be ready for his toughest sideline-to-sideline test yet.
Something special: Just in case there were any holdouts on the Ohio State roster who hadn't bought into the special teams message Meyer has been selling, he has the perfect example to point to of the value in a close game now. Brown's second punt return for a touchdown this season was pivotal in the tight affair with the Badgers last week and essentially picked up the slack for an inconsistent offense, giving the Buckeyes an edge in two out of three phases in the overtime victory.
Obviously Ohio State would like a clean sweep, but the up-and-down season the specialists have had has often prevented it from a complete performance like that. The Buckeyes appear to be turning the corner now, and with or without another touchdown, they'll need to establish an advantage in the kicking game.
3hDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman
2hSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
1dMitch Sherman and Dan Murphy
3dDan Murphy and Mitch Sherman