How the time flies.
Just a few months ago, we were wondering if all those new starters on the Buckeye defense would be good enough to avoid losing games for the high-powered offense.
It was a valid concern. The Buckeyes were replacing nine starters. Sure, the replacements had some experience, but they had some huge shoes to fill. We've all heard about it. The best linebacking trio in school history was replaced by three guys with one combined start for the Buckeyes. The best cornerback on the 2005 team was replaced by a former walk-on, for crying out loud. Sure, there was talent, but these new guys couldn't be as good as last year's squad. Could they?
Now, here we are at the end of the season, and those replacements have filled in admirably. The linebacker with the one start? That's James Laurinaitis, a Butkus Award finalist. The former walk-on at cornerback? He's Antonio Smith, a Thorpe Award semifinalist. The guys that we were worried about at the start of the season have turned out to be some of the best football players in the country, to say nothing of the more known quantities, like defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock. We knew Pitcock would be excellent, and he did not disappoint, as he is a finalist for the Lombardi Award. There is talent throughout this defense.
And that talent has been effective. The Buckeyes have improved on last year's performance in many categories, including turnovers forced (27 thus far versus 12 last year), total yards (261.7 versus 281.3), and, most notably, scoring defense (7.8 points per game versus 15.2 ppg last year). Just about everyone thought last year's defense was fearsome. This year's version is, in many ways, even better.
So we know they're good. But how good will they be against Michigan? Will it be enough to get the win? I obviously think the answer is "yes," and here's why.
Ohio State's biggest advantage against the Michigan offense will come when the Wolverines look to pass. Michigan's pass protection has been pretty solid all season, but this will be far and away the best defensive line they have faced. Ohio State will look to attack, particularly along the right side of Michigan's offensive line, and try to at least hurry Chad Henne's throws. Henne has been much better this season than last, but he still gets intercepted on throws he shouldn't be making. That is what Ohio State will try to make happen. They lead the NCAA in interceptions; they excel in taking advantage of quarterbacks' mistakes. Against a defense like that, are you going to bet on a quarterback that has looked shaky at several points in the season, a quarterback that threw three picks against the best defense he's face thus far (Wisconsin)? I think not.
In the running game, the match-up appears to be closer. Ohio State has had some trouble with quality backs, and Michael Hart is certainly that. It is not likely that he can be completely shut down. He can, however, be contained. Notre Dame and Wisconsin held Hart to four yards per carry; Iowa held him to 4.1. These averages are solid, but not spectacular; most of Hart's damage is done through the sheer number of carries he gets. The key to stopping him is limiting the number of times Michigan runs the ball. This can be achieved by forcing turnovers to take the ball out of their hands and putting points on the board offensively to force Michigan to pass. Those are two things the Buckeyes do better than anyone in the Big Ten. Thus, the Michigan ground game will be stopped not simply by the Ohio State rush defense on its own (which is actually pretty good, eleventh in the country), but also by the Buckeyes' ability to force turnovers and dictate the flow of the game.
I do not believe that the Ohio State defense is significantly better than the Michigan offense, though I may have given that impression. I think that this will be a tough game, exactly what one would expect of the top two teams in the country. Michigan's offense will be the best the Buckeye defense has faced all season. The Buckeye defense will be the best Michigan has faced all season. I think that big plays from the Ohio State defense will be the difference in this game as the Buckeyes win.
Ohio State came into this season as the #1 team in the country but after losing 9 defensive starters, including 5 first day draft picks (3 in the first round) a large drop off was expected from the defense. That hasn't been the case as Ohio State leads the nation in scoring defense allowing 7.8 points per game. Looking at those stats alone one would assume regardless of opponent, the Buckeyes D holds the advantage.
But numbers can be deceiving as Ohio State's strength of schedule is 34th in the nation while Michigan's is 2nd. Ohio State has yet to play an offense as dangerous as Michigan's all year long. Teams have shown that you can run on the Ohio State Defense as Texas ran for 172 yards, Bowling Green 160, and allowed big individual performances as well with Garrett Wolfe running for 171 yards and Tony Hunt with 135. The same Tony Hunt that Michigan held to 33 yards on the ground.
This is the best rushing offense that Ohio State will see all season long and with all the yards given up to other teams Michigan will have success in running the ball. Other teams have not committed to the run like Michigan will and keep an even balance between run and pass to keep the defense guessing. Texas had a great amount of success until they stopped running and played right into Ohio State's hands, Michigan will not do the same.
In addition, the tight ends have been banged up as 3rd string Carson Butler has been getting the majority of the snaps the past few weeks. With the return of Tyler Ecker and Mike Massey it not only gives Chad Henne additional targets to throw to, but it will also help out the rushing game as they are both very good blockers as well. Butler has performed well in their absence as a receiver, but his run blocking has been a downgrade. Ecker and Massey have shown to be very good in the run game so it is a double bonus for them to return to the lineup.
Michigan has great balance on offense, more so than any other team that Ohio State has seen this year. The receiving corps of Mario Manningham, Steve Breaston and Adrian Arrington is arguably the best receiving corp they will see all season long. Mario Manningham has shown what he can do with his big games early in the year, then in his absence Adrian Arrington emerged as the go-to receiver against Penn State and Iowa. On top of that, Steve Breaston re-emerged as a game breaker this past weekend with his 62 yard TD reception and 83 yard Punt Return TD. The Ohio State secondary will have a tough time to keep up with all these receiving threats. Throw in the great rushing offense with Mike Hart and Ohio State's D will be kept guessing all day long. The Ohio State defense will have to pick their poison, either put an 8th man in the box to stop Mike Hart, opening up the passing game, or keep 7 in the box and give Mike Hart more room to run effectively which will win the time of possession battle and keep the Ohio State offense off the field. There are too many weapons on this Michigan offense to contain and they will win this battle to give Michigan a great chance to win this game.