Incentives everywhere in OSU-Michigan game

By Jim Naveau - [email protected]

LIMA — It’s hard to put a price on what winning an Ohio State-Michigan football game is worth.

Unless you’re Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh has a lot on the line when Ohio State and Michigan play the biggest game in the Big Ten this season on Saturday.

Pride is part of it.

Pressure is part of it.

Past records, which show Harbaugh is 0-5 against Ohio State since being hired at Michigan in 2015, are too.

Those alone would be enough of an incentive for Michigan’s football coach Saturday afternoon.

But there’s more.

He’s going to make a lot of money if the Wolverines break their eight-game losing streak against OSU.

Reportedly, Harbaugh would get a $500,000 bonus for beating Ohio State.

He also would get another $500,000 for winning the Big Ten East Division and $1 million for winning the Big Ten championship.

A trip to the College Football Playoff would be worth $500,000 and he would get $1 million for a national championship.

All those bonuses are part of a contract extension Harbaugh signed after last season, which cut his $8 million a year salary in half — but offered the possibility of earning back much of the reduction through bonuses.

Harbaugh played 14 seasons in the NFL, was an NFL head coach for four seasons, and has been a major college head coach for 11 years, so it’s not like he had to cancel his cable TV connection and start riding a bicycle to work to save money after signing his new deal.

But a 50-percent pay cut is going to get your attention no matter what tax bracket you’re in.

No. 2 Ohio State (10-1, 8-0 Big Ten) is right where most people expected it to be before the season began, with a fifth straight Big Ten championship and a trip to the College Football Playoff still possible.

No. 6 Michigan (10-1, 7-1 Big Ten) has the same possibilities in front of it, but probably has exceeded preseason expectations.

Ohio State’s dominance of its rival has reached a level no one would have predicted at the dawn of the 21st century.

The Buckeyes have beaten Michigan eight times in a row, 15 of the last 16 times they’ve played, and 17 of 19 since the 2001 season.

Is this the year Michigan could change the trajectory of the rivalry?

It could be.

But you heard the same thing in 2016 when OSU was No. 2 and Michigan was No. 3 and the Buckeyes escaped with an overtime win.

You heard it in 2018 when Michigan talked about a Revenge Tour and had the No. 1 defense in the country, and OSU put 62 points on the scoreboard.

Five things to watch which could play a big role in who wins Saturday:

* Can Ohio State protect C.J. Stroud?

Stroud has completed 32 of 35 passes and 31 of 38 passes for a total of 793 yards and 11 touchdowns without throwing an interception, and was sacked only twice in OSU’s last two games against Purdue and Michigan State.

Expecting that level of protection against Michigan might be wishful thinking, because the Wolverines have two of the best defensive ends in the Big Ten and maybe in all of college football in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who both have 10 sacks this season.

Ohio State might give up some sacks, but it can’t allow Michigan to rush the passer as effectively as it did when it had seven sacks against Penn State and six against Wisconsin.

* Is Ohio State’s improvement on defense for real?

Ohio State leads the Big Ten in scoring (47.2) and total offense (559.5).

Michigan is second in scoring (36.9) and third in total offense (447.9).

The Wolverines have a 1,000-yard rusher in Hassan Haskins.

Quarterback Cade McNamara doesn’t have gaudy numbers, but he also doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, with only two interceptions all season.

Since giving up an average of 236 yards a game against Minnesota and Oregon in their first two games, the Buckeyes have allowed an average of only 74 yards per game rushing.

And after giving up 10 touchdown passes in their first six games, they have allowed only four in their last five games.

* Who gets off to the best start?

If Ohio State can start fast and get out to a two-touchdown lead or something like that, it could make Michigan do things that don’t play to its strengths.

If Michigan keeps Ohio State’s passing game in check early, it could give the Wolverines confidence and a momentum boost.

* Ohio State’s receivers against Michigan’s defensive backs

OSU’s wide receivers have caught 31 touchdown passes this season, led by Chris Olave (13), Garrett Wilson (11) and Jaxon Smith-Njigba (6).

Michigan’s defense has allowed one or no touchdown passes in nine of its 11 games.

* The kickers

If this game is as close as some people predict it will be, special teams players, especially the kickers, could play decisive roles.

Ohio State’s Noah Ruggles (16 of 17 on field goals) and Michigan’s Jake Moody (22 of 24) are having the best seasons of their college careers.

The prediction: Ohio State 35, Michigan 27.

By Jim Naveau

[email protected]