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Film Preview: Michigan brings a physical philosophy to The Game against Ohio State

Last year Ohio State got blown off the field in Ann Arbor. Will the Buckeyes’ offseason changes be enough to tackle a physical Michigan team?

Ohio State v Michigan Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

There is nothing I can say to build up this article more than the words ‘Ohio State is hosting Michigan in a Top-5 matchup.’ This is a once in a decade type of matchup – that we’re getting twice in two years – where both teams are playing for everything. Growing up in the rivalry, this is exactly what this game is about.

For the greatest rivalry in sport to maintain that status, the test has to be there for both sides. Michigan earned their spot back in this matchup in their 42-27 win last season in Ann Arbor, now questions about Ohio State’s toughness and defense have filled the offseason. This matchup will really challenge the investment the football program made on its defense, and when the questions about toughness came up, one player answered.

“I don’t give a [expletive] what anyone outside this program says about our toughness,” Cade Stover responded to a reporter during his media availability.

We know what the Wolverines are built to try to accomplish. They want to out-tough you for all four quarters, on the ground, in the trenches on both sides of the ball. They have been successful doing this all year, but the hope for the Buckeye faithful is they answer those questions on Saturday.

Michigan Offense

Last season, Michigan had a lethal one-two punch in the backfield in Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum. There was a thunder and lightning dynamic to the pair, and this gave Ohio State significant challenges defensively. Now the Buckeyes have an emerging superstar at linebacker in Tommy Eichenberg, and the three safeties have done a valiant job of fitting into the run game defense.

Michigan has two dynamic backs – both have recently been battling injuries – who can hit a home run at any time. This is how Michigan hits big plays. Their run game is also a necessary evil if they want to find success passing the football. This is where we will start in this film preview, looking at how Michigan has dominated in the run.

Out of the shotgun, Michigan loves to run the ball into the boundary, and they do this effectively. Against Penn State, the Wolverines rushing attack was able to get a few big plays off an outside zone look to the boundary. They run their pin-and-pull, getting their center and guard moving to the outside, and Penn State does not take on the pullers well. Michigan’s tight end pins down the end, and the pullers are able to beat the backers with the center kicking out the filler.

This opens up an opportunity for a guard to pull through and get to the second level, turning this play into a nice gain.

Michigan has athletic linemen. Offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Sherrone Moore loves to get players moving around. This ends up creating confusion for the linebackers, and if Ohio State is unprepared for the different ways they run off of the pullers, they can get caught out of position.

This is where the Michigan backs are at their most dangerous. They have an incredible feel for the cut back. Against Illinois, Corum was not always able to find ground play side, and Illinois overcommitting led to some huge cut back lanes for the running back. Once again, Michigan brings multiple blockers across the formation. Illinois defenders all flow to the side of the pullers. Corum has the patience to let the blocks get set up and then he cuts back.

This is where discipline for the Buckeyes comes into play. If a defender overcommits, both starting backs for Michigan have the ability to cut it back.

With a dynamic run game, the passing game is only needed in a serviceable way for Michigan. They throw to keep teams off balanced and to take the occasional shot down field. After a year of steadiness from Cade McNamara, the Wolverines shifted to former five-star recruit J.J. McCarthy.

This form of McCarthy-ism hasn’t paid the dividends Michigan fans have hoped for. They expected that a more dynamic passer would translate to a more dynamic passing game. But where this was similar to the more historical McCarthy-ism was there were a lot of loud voices with no real reason to expect significant changes. Harbaugh keeps McCarthy reeled in and rarely cuts him loose.

In the play below, we see on a 3rd-and-13 that Michigan wants to clear out the underneath route. Nebraska brings pressure and plays man coverage behind it. McCarthy maneuvers the pocket, steps up and tries to get the ball out to his tight end coming across underneath. This play is unsuccessful and shows two things: pressure effects McCarthy, and Harbaugh would rather punt than turn the ball over.

The issue for Michigan with that mindset is McCarthy is a rather dangerous quarterback when they let him get outside the pocket and attack. Michigan uses their run game as a weapon, and is comfortable throwing out of heavy-personnel. This personnel package puts Penn State into man coverage. The corner gets beat and the safety gets sucked up by the run action. McCarthy is able to get outside on a rollout and delivers a downfield strike.

When they need it they can find it, and the Buckeyes need to be prepared, because despite his flaws, McCarthy has absurd arm talent.

Without looking too much at last year due to the incredibly different defensive philosophies for Ohio State, this game presents the challenge Jim Knowles was brought in to fix. This year, the Buckeyes have been challenged by athletic quarterbacks, but have been able to limit the damage of them in each performance. The real question is will Ohio State be able to dominant up front?

The Buckeyes have done a great job of limiting running backs in all but one matchup this year. If they can do that, limit touchdowns in the red zone, and stay disciplined in coverage, Knowles will have put his defense in a position to win the game.

Michigan Defense

Last year, Jim Harbaugh made significant staff changes, and defensively that paid off with defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald. Ohio State’s offense ran into issues against the Cover-4 Match that MacDonald brought from the NFL. Now, another rental from Harbaugh’s NFL brother, Jesse Minter, is running the show.

This coverage provides challenges, and when Michigan’s pass rush is playing at a high level, the combination makes it incredibly challenging for teams to throw. If Ohio State can establish the run, that would take Michigan’s defense out of their comfort zone. Illinois did a great job at this with changing their zone run looks and getting to the second level in their blocks. Illinois gets a nice run here, which keeps the chains moving and the defense on the field.

Early success in the run game is how they built their lead, putting Michigan in the uncomfortable position of playing from behind.

Small gains like that in the run game chip away and weigh on a defense over time. This is why Ohio State establishing the run game is so important. Michigan wants to keep teams off schedule and make opponents convert 3rd-and-long situations. A situation like that allows Michigan’s secondary to play forward towards the sticks.

Nebraska was not in the best situation, but the positive yards created a scenario where they could run as well as pass. Nebraska finds success in the hole between the corner and safety. Stroud and the receivers were able to find success in this area last year.

One of the main issues last year was protecting Stroud in obvious passing situations. Michigan had two first round talents on the edge last year in David Ojabo and Aidan Hutchinson, who wreaked havoc on Ohio State’s offensive line. Here, Buckeyes give up pressure immediately, which forces Stroud off of his reads downfield. If Ohio State maintained protection here, Stroud had Olave coming open across the field.

He does not have time and ends up taking the sack. If Ohio State can protect, there will be holes to find for the receivers and Stroud in Michigan’s zone coverages.

The last play highlights one of the reasons you bring in a new offensive line coach. A 3rd-and-short scenario with the game in the balance. Not much has changed this year, as Ohio State ranks 117th out 131 in power run success percentage according to Football Outsiders. They convert in 58 percent of these opportunities, and there will be a moment on Saturday where the Buckeyes are in this situation.

Last year, Michigan held Ohio State to 8-of-18 on third down. For the Buckeyes to win, they will need to excel in these situations, as Michigan’s defense prides themselves in this area. If Ohio State can sustain drives and turn plays like the one below into first downs, the Wolverines will be put into positions they’re not used to.

Ohio State is a better football team this year in totality. Offensively the numbers are incredibly similar to those in 2021, and they have the top-10 defense Ryan Day demanded. Michigan plays a resectable style where the goal is dominate key downs, sustain drives, and wear the opponent down. Ohio State wants to do that, but they want to build up to the offensive avalanche that Gus Johnson alluded to in the stomping of Iowa.

This philosophical battle will test both teams, and the level of physicality that will be brought to the matchup on Saturday will not be matched anywhere else in the country. The Buckeyes will want to be explosive, but they will have to excel in the trenches on both sides of the ball to win the game. Michigan will need explosive plays, and that is not made any easier with their two most explosive players coming off significant injuries

Either way, The Game is finally here and the talk is over. It is time to settle this on the field. Stylistically you could not find two different teams on offense. Defensively, they’re more similar than they are different. All I know is I’m excited to see this game finally play out.

Ohio State vs. Michigan. No. 2 vs. No. 3. Everything on the line. You can’t ask for more than that in The Game.