With high-profile return specialists such as Ginn and Breaston, it's surprising that Ohio State and Michigan do not rank among the nation's elite in the return game. In fact, Ohio State ranks 34th nationally in punt-return average and 84th nationally on kickoffs, while Michigan ranks 35th and 47th, respectively. With that said, Ginn and Breaston are still extremely dangerous weapons that need to be handled with care. Ginn is averaging 12.1 yards per punt return, including a 60-yard touchdown scamper versus Michigan State. However, he has been far less effective handling kickoffs, as Ginn is averaging 20.2 yards on 12 attempts with a long of just 37 yards this season. Breaston handles the vast majority of returns for the Wolverines, and he is averaging 11.4 yards per punt and 25.1 yards per kickoff, including an 83-yard punt return for a TD versus Indiana this past week. Ohio State is slightly more consistent in the punting game thanks to A.J. Trapasso, who is averaging 41.2 yards per attempt. Trapasso does a fine job of kicking within his coverage, which is a big reason the Buckeyes rank 24th nationally in net punting. Zoltan Mesko has been solid since taking over the reigns as the Wolverines' full-time punter this season. Mesko is averaging an identical 41.2 yards per punt and has shown very good directional skills by landing 14 of his 39 attempts inside the opponent's 20-yard line. If this game comes down to a field goal, the Wolverines have a decided advantage thanks to battle-tested senior Garrett Rivas, who has connected on 15 of 18 field-goal attempts this season. Ohio State redshirt freshman Aaron Pettrey has been better than advertised (8-of-11), but his inexperience has to be a major concern heading into Saturday's showdown.
There is very little that separates Ohio State and Michigan on paper -- hence the No. 1 and No. 2 rankings in every major poll. So why did the Buckeyes open as the favorite by nearly a touchdown? Here are three good reasons: (1) The game is being played in Columbus; (2) Ohio State has been the higher ranked team since the preseason; (3) coach Jim Tressel has a psychological edge over Lloyd Carr thanks to his 4-1 record versus the Wolverines. However, if the history of this rivalry has taught us anything, it's to expect the unexpected. The Buckeyes have exploited slower, less aggressive and unimaginative Michigan teams in past meetings. However, this year's version of the Maize and Blue has undergone a face-lift and will catch the Buckeyes by surprise. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which this game is not decided late in the fourth quarter. This time around, the Wolverines will prove to be in better condition for such a heavyweight fight. Their advantage in the kicking game (Rivas vs. Pettrey) could also prove to be essential. Carr is due to get the upper hand on Tressel. He made some tough offseason coaching changes and has had the Wolverines on a mission since conditioning began last winter. All the sacrifice will finally pay dividends with an upset of Ohio State in The Horseshoe this Saturday, earning Michigan a trip to Glendale, Ariz., to play in the BCS Championship Game.
Prediction: Wolverines 27, Buckeyes 24