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It’s Rivalry Week across college football and that means it’s time for the Big Ten trophy games. Not every rivalry has a trophy and not every trophy game is played in the final week of the season, but some of the best will be played this Saturday. Whether it’s the Land of Lincoln Trophy (Northwestern v Illinois), the Old Oaken Bucket (Indiana v Purdue), Paul Bunyan’s Axe (Wisconsin v Minnesota) — which are all more than 100 years old — or even the Heroes Trophy (Nebraska v Iowa) and the Land Grant Trophy (Michigan State v Penn State) — which have been played fewer than 50 times — there’s nothing better than watching players charge across the field to host a hunk of metal or wood to celebrate their victory. The trophies are one of the best traditions that college football has to offer.
Of course, the biggest rivalry needs no introduction, no fancy name, and no historic trophy. It’s simply referred to as “The Game.” Every year (well, except for last year), Ohio State and Michigan square off to finish the season, and historically, the conference title has been on the line. This season, all the expectations have returned as both teams enter the game at 10-1 and a berth to the Indianapolis and possibly the CFP await the victor. That’s the way it should be, and thanks to Jim Harbaugh and Ryan Day, it’s the biggest game on the schedule this weekend.
THE GAME: No. 2 Ohio State @ No. 5 Michigan (+7.5)
It’s the first time since the double overtime thriller in 2016 that both teams enter the game with a top 5 ranking. This “winner take all” matchup features two premier offenses that play two completely different styles. Ohio State features the nation’s top-ranked scoring offense, thanks to a dynamic passing attack led by QB CJ Stroud. Michigan loves to pound the football with their two stud RBs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. Corum has been nursing a sore hamstring for a couple games but should be ready to go after a few weeks of rest. While he was out, freshman RB Donavan Edwards stepped up for QB Cade McNamara and provided a nice boost to the UM passing game. The Ohio State front 7 will have to play their best game of the season to slow the potent UM rushing attack. Ideally, Michigan would rush the ball at least 40 times to help slow the pace of the game and wear down the Ohio State defense, which has rarely had to play deep into the 2nd half this year. This will be the most physical game both teams have played all season. Despite Ohio State winning 15 of the last 16 games, the key metric to watch is the yards per rush. Whoever has won that battle over the last 20 years has won the war.
The Buckeye offense has been incredibly explosive all season long, and hanging 49 points on Michigan State by halftime last week was their most recent demonstration. QB CJ Stroud is the FanDuel Heisman Trophy favorite and has played great football the last two weeks. The OSU WRs will be on tilt after all three were omitted as Biletnikoff Finalists. It’s the most glaring omission of the national awards.
Meanwhile, the weight of the Wolverine defense will fall on the shoulders of DE Aiden Hutchinson and LB David Ojabo. Both are elite pass rushers and must make CJ Stroud uncomfortable from the first play. If they can disrupt Stroud and stop the OSU run game, this will be a tight game. If not, OSU is too much. Michigan can’t let the score get into the 40s. They aren’t equipped to play that way. OSU has enough offense and slows down the Wolverine rushing attack just enough to leave Ann Arbor with a win, but it’s close for a while… OSU gets the win and barely lay the 7.5.
The Land Grant Trophy: Penn State @ No. 12 Michigan State (+2)
Despite a disappointing final month of the season, this is still a huge game for both teams. Penn State is battling to finish 8-4 to take momentum into the offseason and secure one of the top recruiting classes in the country. HC James Franklin just inked a decade-long deal that will make him one of the top paid coaches in the country and finally put to rest the rumors of his pending departure. For Michigan State, it’s a chance to get to 10 wins and to secure a New Year’s Six bowl game, putting an exclamation point on a season that has exceeded most expectations. HC Mel Tucker, like James Franklin, recently inked his own decade-long deal and is looking to finish strong to justify his $95 million contract.
Michigan State is battle weary though, and injuries are beginning to take their toll. With star WR Jaylen Nailor sitting the last few weeks and RB Kenneth Walker III and WR Jaden Reed both hobbled after the loss to Ohio State, the Spartan offense is looking bleak. It will be up to QB Payton Thorne to deliver an epic performance against a rugged Nittany Lions defense. For Penn State, a 28-0 win over Rutgers does worlds for a team’s confidence. It has been a rough month for the Nittany Lions. Multiple losses and several players battling flu-like symptoms have hampered their preparation. Penn State being the favorite in this game doesn’t seem quite right on the surface, but with all the issues Sparty has been battling lately, it does make sense. The game is in East Lansing though, so the edge goes to the Spartans… take the points and the Spartans squeak out a victory.
Paul Bunyan’s Axe: No. 14 Wisconsin @ Minnesota (+7)
This might be the coolest trophy in all of sports. No other award embodies the way two teams want to play football quite like Paul Bunyan’s Axe does. Wisconsin has resurrected their season after sitting at 1-3 early in the season. In losses to Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan, the Badgers couldn’t get anything going on offense. QB Graham Mertz was a turnover machine in those games but has since improved at taking care of the football. The great news for Badger fans has been the emergence of freshman RB Braelon Allen. Allen has racked up over 100 yards for five straight games, including a 228 yards performance against Nebraska. His ability to run the ball has taken the heat off Mertz and one of the top ranked defenses in college football.
Gopher HC PJ Fleck has done a great job nursing his offense along this season. The Gophers have chewed up running backs like Joey Chestnut chews through hotdogs. QB Tanner Morgan has been doing his best to keep the Gophers close every week, but he will need some help from the rest of his offense. RB Ky Thomas has provided some relief for the rushing attack, but yards will be tough to find against the Badger defense, which yields fewer than 64 yards on the ground per game. It should be a good game, but Wisconsin has too much defense for the Gophers to handle… lay the 7 points as the Badgers punch their ticket to Indy.