Ever since the final second ticked off the clock in Michigan’s win over Northwestern two weeks ago, the Wolverines have tried to convince us that they weren’t looking ahead to Ohio State. One after the other, from the start of the bye week, they claimed Indiana had a solid defense and talented players at the skill positions – in other words, they said exactly what they had to say. But how many of us actually believed them? Lloyd Carr confessed on Saturday that he never stops thinking about the Buckeyes, and I’m sure the players would admit a similar fixation if they could.
Not that they have to – the Wolverines’ 41-14 drubbing of Indiana said it for them.
Unless you sported cream and crimson on Saturday (and even if you did), I’m sure there was no doubt in your mind that Michigan would beat the Hoosiers, and beat them handily. More than likely, even the Indiana faithful expected to leave the Big House with a loss. So the major storyline from Saturday’s game wasn’t the 41 points Michigan put up in the first half or the single touchdown allowed by its starting defense. It was how prepared the Wolverines looked for Ohio State.
As Michigan dusted off its playbook and showed off a string of rarely used formations, the other football writers and I debated Carr’s motivation for shaking things up. I think it’s pretty clear that those plays were designed to send a message to the Buckeyes. Carr proved his offense can move the ball through the air and on the ground, with or without tailback Mike Hart – even if it was playing lowly Indiana. But Michigan’s preparation for Ohio State goes deeper than offensive trickery.
With the exception of their 55-0 thrashing of Eastern Michigan, the Wolverines hadn’t scored more than 34 points in a game this season. In most years, their average of 28.3 points per contest would be enough to keep up with the conservative, run-oriented offenses in the Big Ten.
But Michigan is the fourth-lowest scoring team in the conference this season, and Ohio State has put up at least 40 points in four straight games. The Wolverines scored in a hurry on Saturday, and even though those points came against an average Indiana defense, six touchdowns in a single half is still impressive.
Then again, Ohio State’s defense has dominated all season. The Buckeyes currently rank third in the nation in total defense, allowing fewer than 300 yards per game and fewer than 80 on the ground. Even the Wolverines’ rejuvenated offense can’t expect to move the ball at will against Ohio State. Freshman tailback Kevin Grady played his best game in a Michigan uniform with 94 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries, and he displayed far more patience and vision than he has in the past. But the Buckeyes possess one of the best linebacking corps in the country – topped off by the dominating A.J. Hawk – and Michigan will struggle to establish its running game this weekend. The offense’s trickery and Steve Breaston’s electrifying all-around performance on Saturday gave Ohio State something to chew on this week.
Even so, it doesn’t matter how many points Michigan can score if it can’t contain the Buckeyes, which was its biggest problem last season. At the same time, of Ohio State’s four 40-plus point performances, only one came against a better-than-average Big Ten defense (Minnesota). After their shaky start to the season, the Wolverines have rebounded. They shut down Northwestern’s spread offense, made Indiana look like a MAC team and now rank third in the Big Ten in total defense.
But statistics rarely tell the whole story, especially when Michigan and Ohio State face off. To me, the Wolverines’ response when Indiana scored on its first possession indicates how far the defense has come. Defensive coordinator Jim Herrmann made it a point of emphasis to eliminate big plays, and his efforts have largely succeeded. Then Hoosiers quarterback Blake Powers completed a 42-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jahkeen Gilmore just three minutes into the contest. Instead of letting the game get out of hand, Michigan’s defense gathered on the sideline and resolved to put together a string of three-and-outs and get the ball back for the offense. Indiana didn’t score on the Wolverines’ first-string defense for the rest of the game.
I’m not saying Michigan is going to beat the Buckeyes this weekend.
But whether or not they admit it, the Wolverines have clearly been preparing for Ohio State over the past two weeks – and maybe even the entire season.
Saturday’s win was the perfect tune-up for the biggest game of the year.
The message: Bring on the Buckeyes.
– Stephanie Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.