Ahead of the Michigan football team’s showdown against Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday, The Daily’s football beat breaks down what to watch for when the undefeated titans square off.
Can Michigan stop the Buckeyes’ passing prowess?
Quite frankly, no. The Wolverines have no chance to shut down Ohio State’s aerial attack. The Buckeyes are lethal in the pass game, with a Heisman-hopeful quarterback in Stroud paired with elite receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. The receivers average a combined 177.36 yards and 1.73 touchdowns per game, while Stroud touts 9.7 yards per pass attempt.
But while Michigan is unlikely to shut Ohio State down through the air, it can slow the Buckeyes down. And if the Wolverines are to win, that’s what they’ll have to do.
First, the defensive line will almost certainly need pressure to force mistakes and put Stroud under duress, but the Wolverines’ defensive backs will need to hold their own as well. How will they do that? By using the same gameplan as last year.
Michigan will need to mix man with zone, throw in blitzes and double-up on receivers at times. Anything the Wolverines can do to throw Stroud off his reads and make him second guess his throws is a step toward slowing the pass game down and winning the game. In the 2021 game, receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Garrett Wilson both had over 100 yards, but they each were forced to work for it.
If Michigan can make it hard for Stroud and his receivers to get what they want through the air, Ohio State will be forced to go to the ground — maybe more than it wants — and right into the Wolverines’ top-ranked rush defense in the country.
The more it can do that, the closer Michigan is to winning. So look to see if senior corner DJ Turner, graduate corner Gemon Green and the Wolverines’ safeties can do just enough to tip the scale in Michigan’s favor.
Can Michigan get pressure on CJ Stroud?
It’s difficult to say Michigan slowed down Stroud a year ago, but the Wolverines did make him uncomfortable. They generated four sacks, three from Aidan Hutchinson and the game-sealing one from David Ojabo late in the fourth quarter.
This year, in lieu of Hutchinson and Ojabo, they have touted their ‘no-star’ defense — claiming they are more productive as a unit overall without a reliance on any one player. While they are keeping opponents at bay on the scoreboard, the production from the defensive line hasn’t translated as much. Last year, Hutchinson and Ojabo combined for 25 sacks. This year, the entire Michigan defense has 31.
If the Wolverines want to beat the Buckeyes, they have to find ways to create pressure. Stroud is by far the most-talented quarterback the unit has faced all year and he’s ripe to pick apart Michigan’s inconsistent secondary. The Wolverines’ best hope for preventing those big passing plays is not giving Stroud enough time to get them off.
That task would presumably start with senior defensive end Mike Morris, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks and has been their best pass rusher this year. Morris sat out last week against Illinois, though, and his status going into Saturday remains unclear. Therefore, the burden to carry the defensive line falls onto players such as senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith, graduate end Eyabi Okie and freshman defensive tackle Mason Graham. Smith has been a force in the middle but will likely face double teams all game. Okie and Graham have flashed their talent at times but will need to dominate the trenches to hinder Stroud.
If a couple of Wolverine defensive lineman can do their best Hutchinson and Ojabo impersonations, Michigan might have the recipe for another win. Otherwise, if Stroud has time to throw, it’s going to be a long day for the Wolverines.
Can Michigan’s passing game finally click?
Back in August, Michigan coaches warned opposing defenses to pick their poison against the Wolverines’ talented receiving corps. Along with the emergence of sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy, Michigan seemed primed to tout an elite passing game.
It hasn’t quite played out that way.
The offense has thrived in absence of a vertical passing threat, instead relying on a domineering rushing outfit. For ten games, that formula has worked. But last Saturday against Illinois, it nearly cost the Wolverines.
With junior Blake Corum joining sophomore Donovan Edwards on the sideline in the second half, Michigan’s rushing attack disappeared. As the Wolverines searched for a spark, the apparent disconnect between McCarthy and his receivers prevailed.
Players and coaches have insisted things will change, citing a larger sample size of success during practice. McCarthy himself has promised that the passing game will click. And there wouldn’t be a better time to deliver on that promise than this Saturday in Columbus.
Michigan — often for the better, but sometimes for the worse — is stubborn in its play style. It knows its strengths and embraces its identity. We saw that firsthand Saturday, when the Wolverines continued to run the football with its third, fourth and even fifth string backs. It didn’t work, though Michigan’s passing game hardly presented a better alternative.
The injury status of both Corum and Edwards looms large heading into Saturday. That will determine just how much the Wolverines will have to rely on their passing game. But to even hang with the vaunted Buckeyes offense, Michigan will need a better performance from McCarthy and company than it received Saturday.
Who can run the ball better?
The pressing question on everyone’s mind is: What is the health status of Corum and Edwards?
That is something that most likely won’t be known until kickoff, but let’s assume that the Wolverines at least have a backfield at partial strength. Then what happens?
Well, whoever can run the ball better will probably have the edge in this game — that’s how this rivalry has usually shaken out. We all know Michigan’s question marks in the run game in terms of health, but we also know that they arguably have the best offensive line in the country once again. If that unit can carry Michigan, and get a consistent push at the line of scrimmage, then I like the Wolverines’ odds.
Looking at Ohio State, the Buckeyes also have some injury trouble regarding running backs Treyveon Henderson and Miyan Williams. But just last week freshman Dallan Hayden stepped up and produced a high end performance of his own. That means that Ohio State has a good enough offensive line to run the ball on most opponents.
But Michigan is not most opponents. It owns one of the best rushing defenses in the country. The running battle will come down to two things:
Are the Wolverine backs healthy? And, is Michigan’s run defense as good as the stats say?
That will play a major factor in determining who wins on Saturday.