Michigan defense looks to end Barrett’s dominance

Wednesday, November 23, 2016 - 5:57pm

‘The Game’ between Michigan and Ohio State has become defined by star-making individual performances, and Buckeye quarterback J.T. Barrett has had a couple of those already.

Despite Barrett going down with an injury before the end of the teams’ matchup in 2014, Ohio State has won two straight against the Wolverines with him as the starting quarterback. The redshirt junior’s individual numbers in those games have been nothing short of outstanding: 289 passing yards, two touchdowns, 228 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns.

Most fans probably remember last year’s contest — a 42-13 blowout by the Buckeyes — as the Ezekiel Elliott Show, but Barrett’s four total touchdowns also left an indelible impact on the game.

Heading into this year’s matchup, the No. 3 Wolverines know that any effort to beat No. 2 Ohio State in Columbus must start with stopping the Buckeyes’ do-it-all signal-caller.

“He’s a good player,” said Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown. “Does a good job. You’re gonna have to challenge your entire unit to stop him, because when you’ve got an athlete at quarterback, you have to chase an athlete with a bunch of athletes. So that becomes an important piece of this thing — you can’t just rely on the front four, you have to involve everybody in the process.”

The Wolverines’ defense is loaded with athletes of that caliber. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers has 16 tackles for loss, and he has made more than a few touchdown-saving tackles near the sideline thanks to his impressive closing speed. Senior linebacker Ben Gedeon leads the team with 94 tackles and has a knack for making big stops. Senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, when he’s not in coverage, isn’t a bad tackler himself.

And Michigan’s defensive line is one of the best in the country, combining for 24 sacks and limiting teams to 108.64 yards per game on the ground, good for 10th in the nation.

But Barrett is unlike any test the Wolverines have faced all season. They have yet to face a true dual threat quarterback — Colorado’s Sefo Liufau might have been the most dynamic runner, and he only managed four yards in that game before leaving with an injury — and they’ve had issues with tackling speedy runners in open space on the edge lately.

Barrett won’t be any easier to bring down, and he’s no slouch at throwing the ball, either.

“(He’s) slippery,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Tough runner like a running back, but he’s got the vision of a quarterback, he’s got the throwing ability of a quarterback. There’s times he will put the ball into the tightest of windows. All the heady plays he makes, really athletic plays he makes, the fine throwing plays he makes. He plays with a lot of confidence.

“He’s an outstanding player. It’s a unique combination for a quarterback to have all those things.”

The Wolverines have watched a lot of film on Barrett, and they have decided forcing him to throw the ball is the best strategy. According to Peppers, slowing Barrett down is all about being as physical as possible.

“We get after the quarterback, so just hitting him, making him flustered, that’s really it,” Peppers said. “Making him read coverages and try to make him beat us with his arm.”

Given Barrett’s historical success on the ground against Michigan, eliminating that part of his game will be key to a Wolverine victory.

That was true the last two years as well, but Michigan couldn’t find a way to keep him contained. This year, though, the Wolverines’ defense is as healthy and talented as ever. It’s time to see if they can pass their biggest test.