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‘That Team Up North’: Reviewing where it went wrong in “The Game” for the Buckeyes

Ohio State’s mistakes were really bad. Michigan made them look worse.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

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.

Given that Michigan found success two years ago defensively, many expected Ryan Day and the staff to prepare a game plan that attacked Michigan’s defensive strengths — Especially since Michigan had to replace Mike Macdonald, the mastermind of the game plan that finally got Harbaugh’s team over the hump. Instead, new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter settled in once the Buckeyes got up, winning key downs and limiting points.

At halftime, the Buckeyes were up 20-17. They only scored three second half points. The Wolverines scored 28 second half points. This meant that not only did Jim Harbaugh successfully hire a replacement for MacDonald, but the Wolverines had the Buckeyes’ number on both sides of the ball. Ohio State’s shortest touchdown allowed was from inside the five. Every other touchdown was longer than 50 yards.

The Buckeyes were built offensively on explosive plays and the methodical passing game that’s become a staple under Day. Defensively, they brought in Jim Knowles to establish a physical and aggressive defense that did not let the game come to them. For 11 games, in key moments the Buckeyes were just that, but once again against Michigan they were on their heels, and in the end they were knocked off their feet.

Ohio State made significant errors, Michigan capitalized on them, which is how the game turned lopsided. These mistakes defined another season, matchup and ended up hurting Ohio State again against Georgia. For the Buckeyes to return, they can’t have errors like these, especially against teams that can exploit them.

To get started, Ohio State came out of the gate firing on all cylinders. The running game was getting yards on early downs and the passing game was incredibly efficient. In the first series of the game, the Buckeyes marched down the field and scored in 12 plays. After that, the defense held strong for much of the first quarter, only allowing a field goal. After going up 10-3, the defense held the Wolverines’ offense in check, forcing a punt.

The next series, the Buckeyes were marching down the field on the verge of stealing the momentum back. They ended up in a 4th-and-2 situation, deciding to go for it. If they got it, they were would have gone up two scores, forcing Michigan’s offense into an uncomfortable situation. Ryan Day made an incredible play-call.

Off the hard play-action fake the Michigan defense sucked in, giving Cade Stover a one-on-one matchup on the outside. Stroud puts the ball in the vicinity, but in traffic Stover goes up with one hand on a throw that was just a little high, leading to an incompletion.

The turnover on downs was not directly followed by a touchdown, but the constant pressure the Ohio State offense put on their defensive counterpart started to weigh. They forced a punt the next series, and actually forced Michigan back a yard. Ohio State punted back, and that is when the defense finally broke.

Jim Knowles let the pass rush get after the quarterback, and they were creating pressure with four or five man rushes early in the game. The Buckeyes were on track for another defensive stop getting the Wolverines into a 3rd-and-9. Instead of sitting back and playing the sticks, Knowles did what he was brought in to do and got aggressive.

He called a max pressure, leaving the secondary in Cover-0. Instead of Michigan having to work for yards, the rush didn’t get there and they completed a pass. Cam Brown missed a tackle, and with no help behind him Cornelius Johnson broke one tackle, going for a long touchdown.

That touchdown was the pipe bursting. Ohio State’s defense was playing on its heels without confidence. This also showed in Knowles’ play-calling. The Buckeyes came back the very next series coming off of a field goal not ready to go. Michigan in their next offensive play motioned a player across the formation. Ohio State was still going through checks and shifting at the snap. Martinez was in for what felt like the first time in the game to get some fresh bodies in there.

That proved to be a fatal mistake from a personnel standpoint. Michigan’s offensive coordinator made a play-call that any great coordinator would — find the new guy in the game and take a shot at him. He ran Johnson up the field again, and he ran a double move that Martinez overcommitted on. Once again, Johnson found his way behind the defense with nobody in front of him.

These mistakes put the Buckeyes behind after playing a dominant first half of football outside of two plays. That is how fast this game — and any college football game — can change for a team. Mistakes happen, but mistakes can’t be terminal blows that lead to touchdowns.

Ohio State followed up with a huge drive to close out the second half. Stroud dropped back and delivered a downfield strike to Marvin Harrison Jr. to get the lead back before heading into the locker room. The issue was, the defense was never the same after those two mistakes.

In the second half, Michigan started with the ball and had an opportunity to take this game from Ohio State’s defense. This next play was a defining moment of the game. It showed exactly where the Buckeyes were mentally defensively.

Michigan runs a zone read option. J.T. Tuimoloau crashes down even though the run fits are there to stop the running back. This gives McCarthy the space to get outside. The Buckeyes have three guys there to make a tackle, and none of them do. This lack of physicality and resolve was demoralizing to watch for fans, and from this play on the game was over.

After that play, Michigan decides to take another shot down the field. This time, starting safety Lathan Ransom is back in the game. Michigan’s tight end Colston Loveland runs up the field vertically and the receiver stacks behind him. Loveland goes out, the receiver goes in and the Buckeyes did not communicate the responsibility in this situation. Two receivers take the in-breaking receiver who settles between them, and Loveland runs an out-and-up getting behind the defense.

Ransom chases him down, but he gets there too late as Michigan takes the lead for good.

Later in the game, things really started going the wrong way for Ohio State, and the discipline was leaving — especially on the defensive side. The Buckeyes fell for some trickery, and just a few plays later the defensive mistakes continued to pile on.

Ronnie Bell ran a corner, and McCarthy threw up a prayer under pressure. There was no chance Bell would catch this pass, and there definitely can be claims about this pass being uncatchable. The issue: Hickman never turns around and creates the contact, leaving the referees with little range to not make a call.

This play sucks for Hickman, as he was just playing through the receiver, but luck was not on the side of the Buckeye defense.

Now down 31-20, the Buckeyes were ready to answer and make this a game for the final stretch. Once again they were down in Michigan territory, this time inside the 10-yard line with a 3rd-and-4. Instead of trying to get the four yards and getting three more chances, they decided to try to get it all at once.

Stover runs across the formation, and instead of taking his line straight, he drifts back to the end zone. The pressure forces Stroud to throw off his back foot, and this gives the defender just enough time to get back in the play and break it up.

Those small plays like the pass breakup on Stover and the drop earlier in the game amplify the mistakes made on the defensive side of the ball. If Ohio State came up with just one of those touchdowns, the story of the game could be different. But there is no revisionist history for what happened — Ohio State got beat handedly for a second consecutive year. Mistakes and missed opportunities were why.

Then came the two daggers. The first one caught the defense by surprise. Michigan blocks the front-seven of Ohio State perfectly. Ransom trails the quarterback instead of filling into the running lane that flew wide open for the running back. The rest is history. Donovan Edwards was off to the races, putting the game away going up two scores.

This was followed up after a Stroud interception with another long run by Edwards. The play below is almost a carbon copy of the previous one. Ohio State’s back was broken, and there was no coming back from there. After holding Edwards for the majority of the game, he had two carries for 167 yards and two touchdowns.

In total Michigan had five plays for 349 yards. The rest of their offensive plays went for 181 yards. This was the story of the game, and of course the two exclamation points were the same as the previous year with Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum.

In a rivalry game mistakes are a death sentence, and in a game where there needs to be a fearlessness to make the plays needed to win, the Buckeyes fell short in many areas. Most of those areas were in the mental part of the game on both sides of the ball. Offensively Ohio State just could not find consistency in the second half, and on defense the confidence was obliterated after earlier mistakes.

Offensively, Ryan Day could not find the right buttons to push, and that was evident in the reliance on Stover in key positions. He also went away from the run game, which cursed Ohio State the previous year in Ann Arbor as well. One of the main challenges in a rivalry game is finding the balance between aggressiveness and trust that the simple will work. If the offense converted some of the fourth downs this game goes differently. That was not the case, and there is a reason the staff responsibilities are now different.

On the other side of the ball, Knowles was aggressive and this ended up being to a fault. They don’t give up the first touchdown if he just lets the defense play, and the suspect personnel choices bleed over thinking. Once the confidence was gone, Ohio State’s defense looked like a shell of what we had seen for the first 11 weeks of the season. And the worst part is, the Buckeyes’ mistakes all led to touchdowns.

This might be cathartic for some, but this article will be the last one from me talking about this game. I apologize for ruining some of your guys’ day for forcing you to relive this game, but it had to be done. From here on out is on to 2023. Ohio State will win this year and the galaxy will be restored — at least that is what this homer keeps telling himself... if Ohio State can just fix their mistakes.