The last two times Ohio State and Michigan played, the Wolverines’ defense could be characterized as one thing:
Giving up 62 and 56 points in those games, respectively, Don Brown’s defense was embarrassed. And after a 2020 campaign where the Buckeyes didn’t have a chance to add another performance to the list, Brown was fired.
His replacement, defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, has done an admirable job in his first season at the helm. Michigan ranks seventh in the country in scoring defense, holding opponents to an average of 16.27 points per game, and ninth in total defense, giving up just 306.6 yards per game. The change in momentum on this defense is clear, from the secondary to the line, and the mindset is different, too.
“A lot of teams play (Ohio State) scared, a lot of teams play them fearful, and I think you think back to some of the teams they’ve played it’s just (fear),” senior edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson said Tuesday. “A lot of our players know to give it everything (they’ve) got, sellout, because this is our last time in the Big House this year. I don’t think you’ll be seeing a lot of scared or fearful play from us Saturday.”
But that doesn’t mean the defense’s body of work will translate into Saturday’s matchup.
In 2018, Michigan entered The Game giving up an average of 13.5 points per game, good enough to be the third-ranked defense in the country. It ended the year ranked 16th, letting up 19.4 points per game after giving up 103 points in its last two games.
In 2019, a less star-powered Wolverine team entered The Game letting up 16.2 points per game, good for ninth in the country. They ended the year ranked 25th, giving up 20.7 points per game after having 91 points scored on it in the last two games.
The Game is a different animal than any of the previous contests Michigan has played this season, and that’s because Ohio State is a different team than anyone the Wolverines have played. They’re far more talented, far faster, far stronger than the rest of the Big Ten.
“They’re big players, they make big plays, and that’s one thing we saw on film,” junior defensive back D.J. Turner said.
This year, though, perhaps it’s different.
There’s a new defensive scheme and a new leader. Macdonald has shown himself to be flexible from game-to-game and also within a game, adjusting to the strengths of opposing offenses. The defense stiffened at the end in State College, holding Penn State’s offense and securing the win. Against Nebraska, it made the final play to strip Adrian Martinez.
“The way we adjust every week, the way we adjust in-game at half time, it’s really great,” Hutchinson said. “I think it’s what makes (Macdonald) so elite as a coach. We’ve got a great game plan this week, we just have to go out and execute.”
Last weekend, the Buckeyes put up 449 passing yards against Michigan State, most of which came in the first half, and added 225 rushing yards on top of that. An offense that throughout the season started games a bit slow, spearheaded by redshirt-freshman C.J. Stroud, is now firing on all cylinders.
What has defined The Game in the last two meetings has been Michigan’s defense floundering and wilting, succumbing to the overwhelming talent of Ohio State.
What will define The Game on Saturday will be Michigan’s defense, and whether with a new coach and new culture, it can put a stop to an eight year drought.
“I can’t guarantee anything, but I’m feeling really confident,” Hutchinson said.