Senior running back De’Veon Smith may have been exaggerating when he described the No. 3 Michigan football team’s playbook as being a foot thick and 2,000 pages long on Tuesday night, but there’s no questioning that coach Jim Harbaugh’s bag of tricks is a deep one.
This season alone, the Wolverines have lined up 10 men behind the ball in the now-famous “train” formation, run the read option with redshirt sophomore linebacker Jabrill Peppers as a wildcat quarterback, brought in third-string quarterback Shane Morris for the sole purpose of being a lead blocker and called for a two-point conversion from holder Garrett Moores.
But now the long-awaited matchup with No. 2 Ohio State is on deck, and Peppers hinted that fans might not have seen anything yet.
“Typically, teams save some defensive schemes, offensive schemes, special teams schemes for some games,” he said Tuesday. “This one’s for all the marbles, so everything we’ve got, we’re gonna throw at ’em.”
On the Big Ten’s weekly coaches teleconference, Harbaugh was asked about how much preparation throughout the year is focused specifically on Ohio State, and he kept his answer simple: “A lot.”
The Wolverines install new plays and modify old ones on a weekly basis, depending on the coaches’ game plan for their opponent. The offense has been especially fluid — the four-man running back rotation seems to have no solid formula except for Smith getting a plurality of the carries, and many of Michigan’s role players have seen their usage vary widely from week to week.
Some weeks, the offense has relied heavily on jet sweeps to freshman wide receiver Eddie McDoom. Other weeks, the quarterback fakes the sweep and lets McDoom get open on short routes. And sometimes, like last week against Indiana, the Wolverines don’t use McDoom at all.
For obvious reasons, none of Michigan’s players delved into anything specific they had planned for the Buckeyes. Even Peppers, one of the offense’s main wild cards, merely laughed when asked if there was anything new in store for him this week.
“I guess we’ve gotta see,” he said.
According to Peppers, the Wolverines are expecting the same thing from Ohio State. With weapons like quarterback J.T. Barrett (whose legs are as dangerous as his arm), freshman Mike Weber and versatile H-back Curtis Samuel under the tutelage of an experienced coaching staff, the Buckeyes are sure to have a few tricks up their sleeves as well.
Michigan has seen firsthand how a few big plays can change a game. A 45-yard touchdown from fifth-year senior receiver Amara Darboh and a one-handed interception from senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis — both of which came in the fourth quarter — handed the Wolverines a 14-7 victory over No. 6 Wisconsin. And in a loss to Iowa, Michigan held a 10-0 lead before a safety and some big gains on short passes let the Hawkeyes get back in the game.
“When our number is called, we know they have a talented secondary, (but) we know we have the players to make plays,” Darboh said. “When the ball’s in the air, I think it’s on us to go up and make the play.”
Especially if redshirt sophomore quarterback Wilton Speight turns out to be healthy enough to play, creating a few more highlight-reel moments could be the difference on Saturday. And if that means the Wolverines have to go deep into their vast library of plays, that’s what they’ll do.
“Hopefully we run all of them,” Smith said. “Every single one of them.”