Don't misunderstand the question, however. UM will no doubt have more success than any of the Bucks' previous opponents at slowing down Ohio State's lethal offense. But one has to realize that "success" is relative, in this case.
The news media is quick to point out that UM's rush defense is second-to-none. So what? Even mediocre teams have been able to "make up" those yards through the air, and that will certainly be the case with the most dangerous aerial attack UM has seen in years. Michigan is giving up over 200 passing yards per game and has surrendered 11 TDs while OSU is averaging 222 yards a game and has scored 27 TDs. Something has to give.
The Wolverines' defense has not been spread out all season long. If Carr stubbornly sticks with the 4-3, then Troy Smith will have the advantage, as linebackers will have to man up against the most deep receiver corps in college football. How deep, you ask? Smith has spread 27 touchdowns across eight different receivers this season, five of which are on the field at any given time. Yes, Michigan has a fine defense, but no team in the country has the personnel to man up against that type of depth.
Therefore, OSU just might force UM out of its comfort zone into the nickel defense - arguably the weakest formation for the Michigan D - which would slow down OSU's passing attack but make rushing yards easier to come by for Pittman, Wells, and Smith.
Lots of UM analysts will point out that the Michigan front four will get plenty of pressure on Smith, and they're probably correct. But note two things: (1) UM's front four has gotten pressure on Smith for the past two years, and he's torched them for it, and (2) now that Tressel knows this, OSU's most explosive plays rely on aggressive play by the opposing defense: screen passes, options, quarterback draws, etc.; not to mention that blitzing always leaves single coverage somewhere.
In short, UM will have to be very selective with its blitzes, and mask them very well. If they blitz too much, Smith will eat them alive. If they blitz too little, then OSU will just move down the field on four/five yard scrambles or dink plays all afternoon.
Another vulnerability that OSU may exploit is the Wolverines' weakness against the screen pass, (which happens to be one of OSU's biggest weapons). Again, expect ol' Sweatervest to use UM's aggressiveness to its disadvantage here. Assuming Smith is having another accurate game, Tressel could use the screen pass as a substitute for a lot of rushing yards (three yards here, four yards there, with an occasional 82 yard TD for good measure). This could mitigate whatever trouble OSU has getting yards up the middle on UM's stout front four.
One other thing OSU may have up its sleeve is misdirection and confusion. Michigan has had a season's worth of tape to watch, so they'll be prepared for the schemes and plays that OSU will run. If you remember back to the Texas game, almost every time the offense went to the line, they would shift into another formation, forcing the defense to make adjustments on-the-fly. Tressel was asked at a recent press conference why we haven't seen the formation shifting since the Texas game and he said, "We haven't needed to use it." Maybe they'll "need" to use it again against Michigan's D.
Alright, enough of the Xs and Os. Let's answer the question considering the intangible factors.
OSU's O-Line is among the best that the Wolverines will see all year. How will the players on the UM defense respond to the frustration of having nothing come easy for them? It's a situation they haven't been in all season.
Over his decade-plus reign at UM, no matter what kind of coaching staff he had serving under him, Carr has simply shown himself to be a pretty bad big-game offensive mind. In just the last five years alone, Carr is 4-6 against top ten teams. Career-wise, he's 50% against Notre Dame, 50% in bowl games, and with a loss this Saturday will be 50% against OSU (and 17% against Tressel).
In contrast, Tressel saves his best offenses for - and coaches his best in - big games.
Think about it this way: Sweatervest went 14-0 and won a national championship game with an offense built around Craig Krenzel, while Carr wasn't able to even contend for the title with Tom Brady. (If you're reading this, Craig, no disrespect intended! Just trying to make a point.)
When it comes to "close" games (decided by a touchdown or less), Tressel is 17-5. OSU/Michigan is typically a "close" game.
The final intangible that must be mentioned is the leadership, poise, and consistency of Troy Smith. Let's step into the wayback machine… back to November 19, 2005…
Down by three points against his biggest rival, pinned to his own 12-yard line, and with just enough time left for one last drive, Troy Smith jogged out to the field. In the quiet, determined manner which will define his legacy at OSU, Smith calmed everyone down, convinced them that, after all, it was only Michigan, then took the reins and led an 88-yard, 12-play, nearly flawless touchdown drive.
Both Pittman and Smith rushed for first downs, and all three starting WRs had first-down catches as well - the most amazing being an acrobatic scramble to complete a 27-yard catch to Gonzalez that put the Bucks on the 4-yard-line. Two plays later, Pittman scored the go-ahead touchdown, and the Big House became as quiet as a dormouse, as everyone futilely watched the last seconds tick away.
UM's defense may slow down the OSU offense, but it will NOT stop them from scoring a healthy amount of points. For Michigan to win this game, Chad Henne will have to outplay Troy Smith.
Michigan's Defense. Ohio State's Offense. Usually when forces of this magnitude hit one another the resulting blast is considered an extinction level event. When Charles Oppenheimer and friends figured out how to smash atoms together, my guess is they were doing it to demonstrate the sheer destructive force that will be on display Saturday in Columbus.
Michigan sits third in total defense in the country. Ohio State ranks eighth in scoring offense. Ohio State is eleventh in sack prevention. Michigan is second in sack infliction. Matter + Anti-matter = End Of Existence As We Know It.
Put in non-scientific terms, this game will come down to who controls the line of scrimmage. If Michigan can get through Ohio State's line to Troy Smith, Michigan can and probably will win this game. If Troy Smith spends his day upright, then Michigan loses. It's that simple.
Ohio State's Rushing Offense v. Michigan's Rushing Defense
Ohio State's main running threat Junior Antonio Pittman. The best comparison in the Big Ten to Pittman is Tony Hunt of Penn State. Where Pittman does not possess break away speed, he makes up for it in consistent hard short runs. He's a north-south runner with decent vision, but not a lot of shiftiness. On short yardage he's deadly because he possesses a great boost through the line. He's also valued as Smith's body guard, as the best pass protection back in the Ohio State stable. Pittman doesn't average a lot of carries, getting around 20 rushes a game but has cracked 100 six times this year. But most of that is due to the fact Ohio State is usually up a considerable amount early. Pittman's primary backup is freshman Chris Wells. Ohio State's made a consistent effort to get Wells into the last five games. He's gotten at least 10 carries in four of the last five. However, when the game is on the line you're not going to see him.
Supporting the running attack is Ohio State's massive, quick, and skilled Offensive Line. There are two potential All-Americans and everyone is either a biscuit over or under 300lbs. Senior Tim Schafer mans the left guard tackle position with Sophomore Alex Boone backing him up. Steve Rehring starts at Left Guard and probable All-American Doug Datish holds down the Center spot. TJ Downing plays at Right Guard with another All-American Candidate Kirk Barton at Right Tackle. Also helping out with the blocking will be Sophomore Tight End Rory Nicol.
If there's a weakness, it's the left side of the line. Boone did not grab the LT position the way many wished he would. Schafer has been inserted in his stead. Like Michigan's Rueben Riley, Schafer is a convert to the Tackle position who has never truly owned a position. He was slated early for left guard, but lost the position to Rehring five games in. Since then he's started the last two games at Tackle replacing Boone. Combined, they've been "okay" this year.
Matching up opposite Schafer/Boone will be Michigan's soul-crushing Defensive End LaMarr Woodley. Woodley has been a menace all season against platooned tackles. So far he's taken all of Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern's cheese and made sandwiches with it. If you point to him not recording a sack against Notre Dame, I would instead point you towards his somewhat memorable fumble return for a touchdown.
The Woodley v. Platoon fight will one of the keys to the game. If Ohio State slides over to double Woodley, which is more than likely, it means there is one less guy to block Alan Branch and Terrance Taylor on the inside. While Datish is an excellent player, he's going to have to choose between Taylor and Branch to block. That leaves either Downing or Rehring in a one-on-one match up in pass protect or run blocking. Personally, I like Michigan's chances one-on-one in those match ups. Taylor, despite being somewhat diminutive at 6'0, is over 300 lbs and one of the quickest defenders on the frontside of Michigan's defense. While concentration has at times waned, when he's focused he can shred a pass protection block in the blink of an eye and gobble up two run blockers just as quickly. Branch? See my description of Taylor, just change 6'0 to 6'6" and insert the phrase "only twice as good". Branch is so fast Michigan has actually used him (a friggin DT) as a quarterback spy. Conversely, I think Biggs/Jamison will be effectively neutralized by Barton on the right side with some Tight End help, but should still make a play or two. Both are sickeningly quick and fully capable of blowing up a run play on their own. Combined this group is first nationally in stopping the run. If Ohio State is forced to double it's bad news for Pittman. Pittman will run behind Datish and Barton, but expect there to be very large angry men in Maize and Blue helmets waiting for him.
Getting past the Defensive line is one thing. But getting past Michigan's Linebacking trio of Harris, Crable and Burgess is quite another. All three possess the strength of linemen and the speed of safeties. Harris is the rock of the corps. When Michigan showed vulnerability to screens early in the year, Harris single handedly decided to stop it. He's as sure a tackler as Michigan has on its roster and really, really hates running backs. Crable, quite bluntly, is a freak of nature. Over the course of the season he's been used as a LB/DE hybrid designed to terrorize the backfield and inflict pain on anyone he finds back there. Burgess is the best in pass coverage. If Michigan is in its base formation and an offensive tries to spread the team out, he's more than capable of running with a TE/4 th WR. Harris and Burgess control the 15 yards after the line, Crable the 10 yards before it.
Michigan has proven it will exploit any hole it sees in an Offensive Line by bringing a Linebacker or two into the holes created by the double teams. Defensive Coordinator Ron English loves to send his linebackers and the occasional safety into the gaps. And the Linebackers coming aren't the type that miss running backs or quarterbacks. This type of speed and athletic ability is present elsewhere in the Big Ten, most notably at Penn State, but nowhere else is it coupled with a defensive line as ferocious as Michigan 's. While Michigan hasn't faced an offense as potent as Ohio State's, The Buckeye's certainly haven't faced a defense as strong, athletic, and disciplined as Michigan's.
For Ohio State to be successful running the ball they have to be able to get past the defensive line and block the linebackers. This is something only Minnesota has been able to do all year. For comparison, Wisconsin ranks 19th rushing offense, Ohio State 20th. The Badgers gained only 66 yards on 27 carries against the Wolverines, finishing with 54 total rushing yards. Wisconsin has PJ Hill who is 5th in the nation in rushing. Ohio State does not. Michigan leads the nation in rushing defense because it is able to put immediate pressure on the ball carrier with their down linemen. The Defensive Linemen eat up the blocks and close the gaps allowing Harris and Burgess to clean up the rest.
If Ohio State possessed a true burner/jukey RB that could make one or two guys miss, they would be in a better position to run the ball. They don't. There is always the chance the Pat White will enter the game as a blocking Full Back somewhere other than inside the 20 yard line. However, if White is in the game that will take away from Ohio State's ability to fully run their vaunted spread offense. White would definitely be placed in the backfield at the expense of a Split End like Robiskie. Though the Buckeyes will want to spread Michigan out as much as possible, limiting your blockers against Michigan is not a good idea.
Expect a lot of runs to the right and a lot of pressure from Harris and Burgess on the ball carriers.
Run Game: Advantage Michigan.
Ohio State's Pass Offense v. Michigan's Pass Defense
In the passing game Michigan sees a somewhat familiar alignment. Ohio State runs the spread offense, preferring to have Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez on the field pretty much at all times. Supporting them will be Brian Robiskie and Roy Hall, two more than adequate wide receivers in their own rights.
So far this year Michigan has faced the spread against Vanderbilt, Central Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ball State, and Indiana. While none of these teams execute the spread even remotely as proficiently as Ohio State, it has prepared the Wolverines for their match up. One of the reasons Michigan has been successful against these types of offenses is because the front seven gets so much pressure. Based on all the info above, I don't see that changing.
In terms of a passer, Troy Smith has blossomed into one of the nation's best. He's got great footwork which allows him to deliver the ball with velocity and accuracy. His deep ball can be scattershot from time to time, but usually it's accurate. Where he excels is throwing on the roll out and the short pass. The offensive line will roll to its strength on the right side allow Smith to move safely out of the pocket and find open receivers. While he isn't the scramble first QB he was early in his career, Smith is very difficult to bring down in the pocket or outside of it. If given the chance he can complete passes even when being grappled by the opposing team. However, ask mobile QBs like Kellen Lewis of Indiana, Drew Tate of Iowa, Drew Stanton of Michigan State, John Stocco of Wisconsin, and Chris Nickson of Vandy what they think of Michigan's ability to contain them. Even against mobile QBs like these, Michigan leads the nation in sacks. Woodley has recorded 11 sacks, Crable 6, Biggs 5, Harris and Burgess have 3 a piece.
One thing he hasn't seen a lot of this year is pressure. He faced some pressure against Texas but also had the benefit of Ted Ginn matched up on some dude on a Rascal. The deep outlet bomb won't be available to Smith (discussed below) so we'll see how well he checks down in the face of the pass rush. Facing decent coverage for the first time this year, expect Smith to hold onto the ball a little longer than he's used to. Also expect him to get hit repeatedly by Michigan's Defense.
Ohio State will likely spend most of the afternoon running and sliding pass protection to the right side behind Barton, Downing and Datish with Help from Pittman and possibly human bulldozer Stan White. This should afford Smith time to throw the football and Pittman to find a hole or two. However, if Datish has to engage in double teams and isn't free to get to the second level, Smith and Pittman are in for a long day.
In the base set, expect Ginn, Gonzalez and Robiskie out on the field. It's pretty obvious at this point who will be across from them. Gonzalez is by far Ohio State's most consistent receiving threat. He torched Michigan last year, and gotten even better this year. Amazing stat? 39 of his 45 catches were for first downs, 7 of them were for TDs. Mr. Gonzalez, meet Mister Hall.
Leon Hall is Michigan's all-time leader in pass breakups, is ranked second in pass breakups nationally and fifth in passes defended. If there is a better cover corner in the college ranks I haven't seen him. Hall effectively takes away one side of the field. He is always in position and has the speed to run with anyone. People are quick to dismiss him because they really know nothing about him. Instead of flapping his gums and patting himself on the back, Hall disappears after games, preferring to let his work on the field do his talking. Straight up, Hall is better than Gonzalez.
The next crucial head-to-head is Ted Ginn and Morgan Trent. Ginn is a one of a kind talent. Everyone knows he's electric and he's a deep threat. I will acknowledge that point without belaboring it. Opposite him is another burner in Trent. Contrary to popular opinion, Trent is blazingly fast as well. Both players can run stride for stride with one another. Speed won't determine this match up. Ginn will. Much like Steve Breaston, Ginn is known for momentary lapses in concentration that take away short but critical gains. He makes the spectacular catch easily but makes the mundane catch look like rocket science.
What Ginn does incredibly well is run the deep route. Jamming him at the line is very difficult because of how quick he is. He's able to create just enough space between himself and the defender to take advantage of his Saturn V-like first step. Two strides and he's by most corners. This is where Michigan's safety help will have to be diligent. Morgan Trent is fast. Very Fast. But I'm not putting him in Ginn's league in terms of quickness. Even so, on most inside and outside routes, Trent should be able to hang with Ginn. Since taking over the starting corner spot Trent has been aggressive without drawing legitimate PI calls. He's generally in the right position at the right time, and continues to improve every game he plays in. Ohio State definitely has an advantage in this match up, but don't discount Morgan Trent he's a pretty good corner too.
On Ohio State's third and fourth receivers, expect to see Brandon Harrison up on Robiskie and Free Safety Brandent Englemon/Willis Barringer up at the line against Hall or Hartline. Head hunting Strong Safety Jamar Adams will patrol the backline. LB Burgess may drop into coverage too from time to time. The three and four match ups are kind of a wash. Yes both Robiskie and any combination of Roy Hall or Brian Hartline have talent, but so do Michigan's nickel defenders. Robiskie will draw a freakishly fast but undersized Harrison. Yeah he's small, but he's built like a tank and was a 2nd Team Freshman All-American last year. Don't sleep on him. Hall/Hartline at this point is a wash on Englemon/Barringer. All of them have talent, just haven't displayed it yet against good competition.
Passing Game: Edge Ohio State.
Overall I give the nod to Michigan's Defense. Troy Smith is a great quarterback and will make some big plays during the game, but Michigan's front seven is just too strong.
Expect Smith to find Ginn open for one long TD. Expect a screen or two. Expect Woodley, Branch, Biggs and Jamison to find their way to Mr. Smith or Pittman more often than Ohio State has allowed in any game this year. Expect Crable to be a pass rushing force. Expect 50 total rushing from Ohio State. Expect 250 yards passing from Smith. Expect a lot of rollouts. Expect whoever Leon Hall is covering to do very little.
Expect Michigan to win.