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That Team Up North: Ohio State must regain control of line of scrimmage

The Wolverines have found sudden joy in The Game the past two years because of their work in the trenches.

Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about Ohio State’s rival. We are talking all things TTUN. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”That Team Up North” articles here.

After a prolonged period of dominance in The Game, Ohio State finds itself entering the 2023 season on an unfamiliar (in recent years, anyway) two-game losing streak to That Team Up North. Let’s be honest, it feels pretty gross to read that previous sentence. It was worse to have to write it, and worse still that we all experienced it.

The Buckeyes have been one of the most talented teams in college football for a long time. They had won eight consecutive iterations of The Game and 17 of the last 19 in the series prior to 2021. Jim Harbaugh had lost five straight meetings with Ohio State.

So what changed?

Michigan got better in the trenches and The Game remained a matter of running the football and stopping the run. Despite standout games from C.J. Stroud in 2021 and 2022, Ohio State still lost. Stroud threw for 394 yards and two touchdowns in 2021 and 349 yards and two touchdowns in 2022. He did throw two interceptions in the 2022 game, which didn’t help matters, but he did more than his counterparts, Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy. Those games were lost for Ohio State at the line of scrimmage.

The Wolverines outgained Ohio State on the ground 297-64 in their 42-27 win in 2021, and 252-143 in their 45-23 victory in 2022. On an individual level, Michigan’s Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum both outgained Ohio State’s top running back in 2021. Haskins and Corum gained 169 yards and 87 yards, respectively, while TreVeyon Henderson carried for just 74 yards. Haskins was particularly problematic in the red zone, as he scored five touchdowns.

In 2022, Donovan Edwards ran for 216 yards, which included two touchdown runs of 75 yards or longer in the fourth quarter. Chip Trayanum carried 14 times for 83 yards for the Buckeyes in last season’s loss.

The Buckeyes wore down in both games, yielding 28 points after halftime in both losses. They also had to settle for field-goal attempts in the red zone. Part of that was Michigan stopping short-yardage runs and some of it came from third-down pressure on the quarterback. Ohio State was just 8-of-18 on third down in 2021 and 5-of-16 in 2022 — both well below the team’s season average conversion rate.

Michigan wisely knew that referees often let players be more physical in big rivalry games. Ohio State’s receivers take longer to get open when grabbing and handfighting is more pronounced, as it normally is when the Buckeyes play Michigan. That allowed Michigan to put some heat on Stroud or at least mess with his internal clock. Pressure, or the perception of it, causes imperfect passes to, say... tight end Cade Stover, which might be tipped and intercepted rather than caught.

Ohio State’s defense struggled to pressure Michigan quarterbacks. In 2021, the Wolverines sacked Stroud four times for losses totaling 27 yards. The Buckeyes did not record a sack. Michigan registered four quarterback hurries to Ohio State’s two.

In 2022, each team registered one sack, but Michigan was able to get more pressure than Ohio State. The Buckeyes were better in protection in 2022 but became more and more one-dimensional as the game wore on.

Running the dang ball has a cumulative effect. Ohio State should have been able to wear Michigan down over the course of the game. But Ryan Day falls in love with the passing game sometimes to his own detriment. Yes, he’s had excellent quarterbacks and world-class receivers, but in The Game, the team that wins the ground war generally gets the victory. Sometimes that means being persistent even when the chunks of yardage aren’t there and allowing the big, nasty guys in the trenches to tire their opponents, allowing the running backs to find bigger cracks as the game wears on.

The road back to beating Michigan is simply winning in the trenches. Run the ball better. Stop the run better. Pressure the other team’s quarterback while protecting your own. It’s a simple solution that’s difficult to execute. If Ohio State’s coaching staff responsible for the line play can’t find the solution, it’ll be time to find someone who can.

After all, part of why Michigan struggled for so long against the Buckeyes is that they were controlling the line of scrimmage. The key to flipping the script back the other way is to get back to owning the trenches.