In the words of sensational UFC ring announcer, Bruce Buffer: “It’s tiiiiiiime!” This is the week Ohio State football fans have been waiting for, and I’m not talking about Thanksgiving… although, shout out to a great holiday for eating. As far as culinary holiday rankings go, Turkey Day is the obvious top choice, followed closely by Halloween (don’t @ me).
Of course, I am talking about *ichigan Week.
The Game. The Rivalry. The two decades of dominance that Ohio State has enjoyed since the turn of the century. This matchup earned the distinction of Greatest Rivalry in Sports years ago, but it has been one-sided in recent seasons. Focusing in solely on the 21st century, we as Buckeye fans have been gifted with plenty of memories from this battle of bluebloods. The Game of the Century (2006) still stands as such, and despite OSU’s recent dominance, there have been plenty of other close, meaningful games since that 2006 version.
TTUN last won The Game in 2011, but they have not been without opportunity. Games in 2012 and 2013 were both decided by less than six points. 2016 was the most recent matchup in which these two teams were ranked inside the top five (*ichigan at No. 3, Ohio State at No. 2), and it was a nail-biter. The Buckeyes squeaked out a victory in what was the very first overtime game of this rivalry. Since then, OSU has either dominated the game, or TTUN has ducked it altogether. Last season, the Wolverines were apparently unable to field a competitive team due to the pandemic. What was their excuse in 2018 and 2019? Zing!
2021’s version of The Game has all the makings of a classic. The Wolverines are coming in with a 10-1 record, ranked No. 5 in the CFP standings, and they have everything to play for — just like the Buckeyes. Unlike 2018 and 2019, I believe this *ichigan team is for real. They were paper tigers in both of those seasons, and promptly got ripped to shreds. This season is a different story. TTUN has a top-15 scoring offense, and a top-7 scoring defense. The defensive side of the ball (UM’s) is where I have legitimate concern.
Besides having a top-7 scoring defense, the Wolverines also rank inside the top-10 (9th) for yards per game allowed. This is not simply a bend, but don’t break unit. They are led by a handful of future NFL players, and coached by a former NFL position coach. John Macdonald joined the UM staff after seven seasons with Jim Harbaugh’s bother (John) in Baltimore, and appears to have reinvigorated this defense. Macdonald has transitioned seamlessly to the collegiate level, and he has the luxury of many talented players at his disposal.
Linebacker Josh Ross is their leading tackler (80 total), and I wouldn’t even call him one of their three best players on defense. Daxton Hill is a former five-star safety who has come on strong as a junior. He has All-American potential and impressive positional versatility. Up front, the Wolverines are led by edge rusher/linebacker David Ojabo (10 sacks) and this week’s Defensive Player to Watch, Aidan Hutchinson.
TTUN has had some very talented and productive defensive ends over the last few years: Rashan Gary, Chase Winovich, and Kwity Paye, just to name the most recent ones. Aidan Hutchinson is right up there with those current NFL contributors (when healthy), as far as talent and potential are concerned. He burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 2019, when he accumulated 10 TFL to go with 69 tackles overall and 3.5 sacks. He also forced three fumbles and appeared to be on his way to annual All-Big Ten or All-American selection.
Unfortunately for Hutchinson, his 2020 season was cut short due to a leg injury. He played in only two games, and was sorely missed by the Wolverines defense. The year-to-year drop-off without Hutchinson was severe. In 2019, *ichigan’s defense was a top-25 unit in both yards allowed and scoring defense. In 2020, they finished 87th in yards allowed (per game) and 95th in PPG! There were additional losses and issues for the team’s defense last year, but it is fair to say that Hutchinson’s absence played a massive role in their struggles. He has returned with a vengeance, and will be looking to finally earn a victory over the Buckeyes.
Thus far in 2021, Hutchinson has been borderline dominant. He ranks third in the Big Ten in both sacks and forced fumbles, and seventh in TFL. Ojabo sits above him in both sacks and forced fumbles, but only has one of each over the last four games. In my humble opinion, Ojabo is strictly a pass rushing specialist, whereas Hutchinson is more of a complete defensive end — and the more impactful player.
Hutchinson has played stellar football this season, and currently grades out as an FBS-best 93.1, according to PFF. He has 47 total tackles, 11.5 for loss, and nine sacks. Beyond the surface-level statistics, his presence must be accounted for at all times, and the attention he requires often opens up opportunities for those around him — including Ojabo. Hutchinson is the regular recipient of double teams, chip blocks, and other attempted protection tactics, so if he is unable to get home or create pressure, he is still occupying a blocker or redirecting a play.
As a pass rusher, the homegrown senior from Plymouth, Michigan is more of a power player, but he possesses plenty of speed and quickness, as well as great technique. He has ideal size at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, and some of the best hands I’ve seen in college football (for DL, hand fighting). His sack totals are impressive enough, but I would also point out that he is being credited with a pressure on roughly 20 percent of his rushes. Similar to George Karlaftis of Purdue, Hutchinson is collapsing the pocket and pressuring the quarterback often, whether he is credited with a sack or not (sack totals can be overrated).
I mentioned previously that Hutchinson was a complete DE, and that is because he is also strong against the run. I wouldn’t put him up there in the Joey Bosa stratosphere, but he more than holds his own when opponents pound the rock. Because of his versatility, Hutchinson won’t be reduced to a non-factor if Ohio State tips its offensive gameplan one way or another. And while I don’t think Ryan Day and the Buckeyes will avoid his side of the field, I could see them favoring interior runs or runs targeted at Ojabo, as well as rollouts designed to get C.J. Stroud separation from the two-time Wolverine captain.
Aidan Hutchinson is a damn good defensive end, and going up against one has become a regular occurrence for the Buckeyes this season. OSU was supposed to go up against Kayvon Thibodeaux of Oregon, but he missed the September game due to injury. Karlaftis visited Columbus just a few weeks ago, and was predominately held in check. Now, Ohio State’s big men up front will be tasked with limiting the effectiveness of Hutchinson (and Ojabo).
I think they are up to the task. There have been penalties and occasional struggles in the run game, but I think this offensive line for OSU has generally been fantastic. This weekend will be just another test. There is no extra motivation necessary in a game of this magnitude, and the vets up front want to notch another victory over their rival.
Hutchinson is likely going to be an early first-round selection in next year’s NFL Draft. He is that good, and he has overcome adversity to earn it. He might follow in the footsteps of Gary, Winovich, and Paye, who are all solid players at the next level. Here’s hoping he also has the same amount of success they all had against Ohio State… Go Bucks!!