There aren’t too many similarities between No. 5 Ohio State, a perennial national championship contender, and Purdue, a middling program from the bottom-dwelling Big Ten West. But both programs tout similar offensive compositions, a parallel that bodes well for the No. 2 Michigan football team as it prepares to face the Boilermakers Saturday in the Big Ten Championship Game.
“They’re both good,” senior cornerback D.J. Turner said Tuesday. “They’re a pass heavy offense. We’ve just got to communicate, stay together, be locked in. We can’t take anybody easily.”
Led by veteran quarterback Aidan O’Connell, Purdue averages 280.7 passing yards per game, second in the conference only to the Buckeyes. The Boilermakers also rely more on their passing game than any team in the Big Ten, leading the conference in both attempts and completions.
Which is to say, there’s no rest for the weary.
The Wolverines’ secondary faced its stiffest test last Saturday in Columbus against quarterback C.J. Stroud and the Buckeyes’ dynamic receiving corps. After allowing Stroud to percolate in the first quarter, Michigan’s defensive backs settled in. While Stroud ultimately threw for 349 yards, he also had two late-game interceptions and posted a QBR of just 68.6, his third-lowest mark of the season.
Now, the attention turns to O’Connell, and Michigan co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Steve Clinkscale wants more.
“Everybody’s so proud and happy, I really believe that we left some things out there,” Clinkscale said Wednesday. “We’re fixing those. Our guys are gonna go out there and do what they’re taught to do. Be fundamentally sound, execute the assignment and I’m gonna coach them better.”
Clinkscale is placing that onus upon himself, as he has all year.
After each game, he splices film into packages specifically tailored to the defensive backs. The cut-ups feature two types of plays: Those that hurt Michigan, and those that should have hurt them but didn’t, thanks to gaffes by the opposition.
Following the film session, Clinckscale places a concerted effort on practicing those specific plays, cognizant that other teams will try to emulate them down the road.
“You see a play from a game three weeks ago, or five weeks ago, that somebody thinks is gonna work on us again, and we’re prepared for it,” Clinkscale said.
Purdue may not be as formidable as Ohio State, but the Wolverines have 12 games of film for a good offense to try and exploit. After the win last week, they don’t want to be caught celebrating.
“We’re not gonna get complacent,” Clinkscale said. “We’re not gonna let that win last week affect this game. They do pass the ball a lot, and they’re very good at it. They know exactly what to do, when to do it. They know how to attack different coverages if you show them those coverages or they understand what you’re in. We have to be prepared. It’s a bigger challenge because that’s the only challenge this week.”
It’s also a challenge because of O’Connell’s top target, receiver Charlie Jones. Jones leads the Big Ten with 97 receptions and 1,199 receiving yards and is also tied for the lead with 12 touchdowns.
Clinkscale praised Jones’s quickness and the Boilermakers’ system, which allows smaller receivers — like Jones, who stands at six foot — to thrive.
“He’s definitely a threat when he gets the ball in his hand,” Clinkscale said. “Our plan is just going to be to continue to do what we do and know where he is at all times. We have to have a plan for him because he’s effective and they throw him the ball quite a bit, he’s always involved.”
The exact matchups are unknown, but Michigan’s secondary has options. Freshman Will Johnson — a former five-star cornerback — spent most of Saturday’s game matched up with Marvin Harrison Jr., who is second to Jones in receptions and receiving yards and tied for the lead in touchdowns.
Against Purdue, the challenge is replicating that production.
“Now that you’ve shown you can do that with the best receivers in the country, now you’ve gotta show that every week,” Clinkscale said. “Every receiver on every team is gonna challenge all of us. Now is the time to step up our game even more, which is a great challenge, and we’re gonna continue to elevate.”