- File Photo/Daily
BY TIM ROHAN
Daily Sports Editor
Published November 26, 2010
Whether the Michigan Wolverines can keep up with rival Ohio State on Saturday should become evident soon after the opening kickoff.
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Michigan (7-4 overall, 3-4 Big Ten) has fallen behind quickly in each of its four losses this season, and each time the Wolverines have mounted a second-half comeback, only to fall short.
First it was a 17-10 halftime lead for Michigan State. Then Iowa led 21-7 at the break. Penn State held a 28-10 advantage, and Wisconsin blanked Michigan 24-0 last week in the first half.
“I don’t think it’s been the same reason every time,” Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez said this week. “Offensively, we’ve moved the ball, I think, in some of those games. But we had a turnover or a (mistake) down in the red zone that we didn’t do in the other games."
"When we’re better than the other teams," he said, "we’ll get off to better starts.”
The Game won’t be a patient one — Michigan can’t afford to fall behind early or late Saturday against Ohio State. The eighth-ranked Buckeyes haven’t lost to the Wolverines since 2003.
“This is a big challenge,” Rodriguez said. “And I think, our guys, they know that. You don’t have to tell players when you play against a great team (that) they have players and athletes everywhere — that you’re going to have to crank it up a notch. They know that.”
Ohio State’s defense has allowed less than two touchdowns per game — good for No. 5 in the country.
That’s not good news for the Wolverines, even though sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson leads the nation in rushing and the Michigan offense scores 37 points per game.
When Michigan’s potentially explosive offense runs into good defenses, it’s not really the case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object — the Wolverines struggle. The No. 2, 3 and 4 defenses in the Big Ten are Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State. And Michigan played those three foes at home.
The Buckeyes’ defense is at the top of that list — actually, Ohio State (10-1, 6-1) allows 70 yards fewer than the second-ranked Hawkeyes.
Michigan will have to contain several key defensive playmakers for the Buckeyes. Senior defensive back Chimdi Chekwa has three interceptions this year and the Wolverines will face yet another dominant defensive end in Cameron Heyward — after Michigan saw Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan and Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt make big plays in consecutive weeks.
The success of the Wolverines’ offense might be the least of Rodriguez’s worries entering Saturday. His defense only has to stop 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor and the host of options he has to distribute the football to.
Pryor has two reliable receivers in junior DeVier Posey and senior Dane Sanzenbacher, who fits the mold of a classic Ohio State possession receiver. Or he can turn around and hand the ball off to junior running back Dan Herron, who has run for 14 touchdowns and produced 1073 yards of offense both rushing and receiving out of the backfield.
Or Pryor could decide to tuck the ball and run it — his 590 rushing yards are second to Herron on the team.
“You really defend the scheme first and what they do offensively, and the player and what he does within that scheme is the things your guys have to make sure they’re prepared for,” Rodriguez said. “The thing about Pryor is, he will run around, but he’ll run around and throw the ball deep down the field. He’s got such a strong arm that if you come off your coverage or come off your zone, he can really take advantage of that and get some big plays.
“At the same time too, he’ll break contain and run it for 30-40 yards before you know it as well. So you really have to get guys around him. You have to be disciplined in your coverage. And then when you have an opportunity to tackle him, you have to get him on the ground — which is a task, because he’s such a big, strong, fast guy.”
Three of Michigan’s four losses this season have come at the hands of ranked opponents. And Rodriguez sports a 2-9 record against such teams, with both marquee wins coming in dramatic come-from-behind epics in the Big House: against Notre Dame in 2009 and against Wisconsin in 2008.
Despite the Wolverines' struggles, players on both sides of the rivalry maintain that you can throw the records out the window when Michigan plays Ohio State. But the odds seem stacked against the Wolverines, especially with a six-game losing streak in the rivalry looming over their heads.
“They understand the importance of it,” Rodriguez said. “Even though we always don’t like to talk about the past, whether it was last year, or two years ago, or four years ago or five years ago — the guys hear about it quite a bit. (A win) would be something for them to remember quite fondly.”