Ohio State-Michigan could be a low-scoring game

Michigan running back Blake Corum is fighting an injury heading into this year’s Ohio State game. (Washington Post illustration; Carlos Osorio/AP)


This column’s late-season slide continued last weekend with a 1-2 finish (the Buffalo-Akron game was snowed out), so we’re down to the final week of the regular season, championship week and the bowl games to finish strong. At 23-23-1 on these picks, there’s still a chance to finish above water.

No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 3 Michigan, under 57 points, noon Saturday, Fox

For all the talk of Michigan’s weak schedule, it’s not like Ohio State has been all that challenged, particularly by teams with strong defenses. On average, the Wolverines’ opponents have a defensive SP+ ranking of 63.3, while the Buckeyes’ foes have an average defensive SP+ ranking of 57.5. (SP+ is an opponent-adjusted measure of efficiency.) Michigan’s defense ranks fourth in SP+, and Ohio State’s is 10th.

Yes, on Oct. 22, Ohio State put up 54 points on Iowa, which has the nation’s second-ranked defense in terms of SP+. But let’s take a look at how that game played out. The Buckeyes had an absurd six drives begin in Hawkeyes territory — the byproduct of three Iowa turnovers, two turnovers on downs and a punt from their own 2-yard line — and scored on all six. That type of starting field position, abetted by a terrible Iowa offense, is unlikely to replicate itself Saturday against a Michigan defense that ranks 15th in red-zone touchdown rate allowed.

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Michigan, which runs the ball 61.5 percent of the time (11th nationally), put up only 27 points on Iowa and got outgained by the Hawkeyes’ awful offense in terms of yards per play (5.1 to 5). In last weekend’s 19-17 win over Illinois (No. 3 in SP+ defense), Michigan was again held well below its season average in terms of yards per play, gaining only 5.1 in the narrow victory. Something might be broken with its offense.

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Throw in possible injuries to Michigan running back Blake Corum (national-best 19 touchdowns, No. 3 in total yards) and Ohio State running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams, and this seems like a dead-under rock fight between rivals not all that accustomed to facing strong defenses.

Illinois (-14.5) at Northwestern, 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Big Ten Network

The 1-10 Wildcats have scored nine, three and seven points in their past three games. They rank 116th in offensive success rate. How are they going to score against an Illini defense that allows 1.33 points per drive (seventh nationally) and just held Michigan, a College Football Playoff hopeful, to a season-low 19 points?

Northwestern isn’t much better defensively, ranking 106th in success rate against the run, and Illinois running back Chase Brown is No. 3 in the country at 143.8 rushing yards per game.

It really is as simple as “Wildcats bad.” Northwestern was able to put up 13 points on Iowa’s strong defense Oct. 29, but one touchdown came after the Wildcats started a drive at the Hawkeyes 34 and the other came with no time remaining and the game decided. We risk a letdown spot after Illinois let Michigan slip away last weekend (thanks in part to a no-call late in the game that left Coach Bret Bielema salty), but I think the Illini finish strong heading into their bowl game (and they could still win the Big Ten West with a win plus losses by Iowa and Purdue).

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No. 15 Notre Dame (+5.5) at No. 6 USC, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC

The Trojans’ defense has been getting by on smoke, mirrors and turnovers. USC has a national-best 18 interceptions and has recovered six of its opponents’ nine fumbles. On offense, it has recovered its ballcarriers’ fumbles seven times out of eight. Add it all up, and the Trojans have come out on the good side of 13 of 17 fumbles, a highly improbable rate.

Notre Dame has fumbled the ball only nine times (tied for 14th) and runs it 42 times per game, and while its rushing attack isn’t all that explosive (4.57 yards per carry), it has been effective at moving the chains, ranking 30th in success rate.

USC’s rushing defense ranks 126th in success rate and 128th in expected points added per rush, and the Trojans can’t intercept the ball if the Fighting Irish keep it on the ground. Add in turnover luck eventually running out — USC has four one-score wins, games in which it combined for 10 takeaways — and I like Notre Dame to keep it close.

No. 16 Florida State vs. Florida, Florida State team total over 33.5 points, 7:30 p.m. Friday, ABC

The Seminoles’ offense is starting to hum, scoring 41, 45, 38 and 49 points over its past four games, all victories, and averaging at least 6.7 yards per play in three of them.

The Gators’ defense will be shorthanded, particularly in the first half. Linebacker Ventrell Miller, a sixth-year senior and team leader on defense, will miss the first half after he was ejected for targeting against Vanderbilt, while safety Rashad Torrence II seems likely to miss the game after suffering an injury against the Commodores.

Vanderbilt put up 31 on Florida last week, and it easily could have been worse — the Commodores had drives end at the Gators’ 24- and 21-yard lines because of an interception and a fumble. The Seminoles should score just as easily Saturday.



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