Ohio State’s offense hasn’t faced a defense nearly as good as Michigan’s, which statistically is the best in the country.
The Wolverines’ defense hasn’t been tested by an offense nearly as potent as the Buckeyes’. Only Oklahoma averages more than Ohio State’s 545.8 yards per game.
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No wonder, then, that the marquee game within The Game will be when Dwayne Haskins Jr. takes snaps against Michigan’s suffocating defense. Yielding only 234.8 yards per game, Michigan is giving up about 20 yards fewer than the second-best defense, Clemson’s.
The Wolverines also lead the country in pass defense (123.2 yards per game), pass-defense efficiency rating (88.74) and yards allowed per play (4.0) and per pass attempt (4.9).
“They’re that good,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “They’re very good. The job of an offensive coach is to find weaknesses and expose it.”
That is easier said than done, Meyer acknowledged.
“This is going to be one-on-one battles as far as blocking and receivers against (defensive backs),” he said. “Sometimes you face trick-style defenses. This is not it at all. This is just very good players who play hard.”
The best defense Ohio State has faced is Michigan State’s, which ranks 19th. That OSU win two weeks ago was a slog in which Meyer was content to play field-position football against an anemic Spartans offense.
That probably won’t cut it against Michigan.
“We’re going to have to do everything at a high level, whether it’s running the ball, throwing the ball, blocking up front, blocking on the perimeter,” receiver Parris Campbell said. “They’re a huge blitz team. We’re going to have to pick those blitzes up. I think the run game will be very important for us.”
The Buckeyes’ ground game was mysteriously ineffective for much of the year. Rededication to it after the Purdue loss has paid off. J.K. Dobbins ran for 203 yards against Maryland, and the Buckeyes expect to get his backfield partner, Mike Weber, back against Michigan.
The Wolverines’ defense doesn’t really have a weak link. Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich anchor the line, although Winovich’s status is in doubt after he was injured Saturday against Indiana. Linebacker Devin Bush Jr. is a projected first-round NFL draft pick.
Like Ohio State, Michigan relies on its cornerbacks to cover receivers man-to-man, allowing the rest of the defense to attack.
“They play hard,” said OSU right tackle Isaiah Prince, whose ability to fend off edge rushers will be crucial. “They all fly to the ball. Whenever somebody’s making a tackle, there’s at least eight Michigan jerseys over there.”
Defensive coordinator Don Brown is the mastermind behind the Wolverines’ success. Coach Jim Harbaugh hired him away from Boston College, where Brown also had the country’s top-ranked defense.
“I’ve never been around a better coach or worked with a better coach or played for a better coach than Don Brown,” Harbaugh said.
What stands out about Brown, Harbaugh said, is his ability to make quick adjustments.
“Some coaches need to see it from a press box or hear it from somebody in a press box or see a Polaroid or wait until they see the videotape to fully understand how the defense is being attacked and what adjustments need to be used,” Harbaugh said. “Don is able to do it faster than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
But Harbaugh understands that Ohio State’s offense will pose challenges that his team hasn’t faced. The next-best offense that Michigan has seen is Nebraska's, and the Cornhuskers' 20th-ranked offense was not yet clicking under first-year coach Scott Frost when they played the Wolverines on Sept. 22.
“A great running game, a great passing game,” Harbaugh said of the Buckeyes. “That’s a challenge for any defense.”
Haskins, of course, saw his first significant playing time in last year’s Michigan game when he led the visiting Buckeyes to a comeback victory.
“Gaining some experience versus them will help out tremendously going into this week,” Haskins said after the Maryland game.
He said he has spent time each week this season studying Michigan. Given the way the Buckeyes’ defense has struggled, their offense will have to find a way to do what no one has been able to against the Wolverines.