Last year, Michigan stunned Ohio State — and the rest of the college football world — by finally beating the Buckeyes. Michigan won 42-27 at home, giving Jim Harbaugh his first win as head coach over the Wolverines’ arch-rivals and ending an eight-game losing streak in the series. The Wolverines mauled the Buckeyes, and from talking to a dozen coaches who have faced both teams, those men think Michigan has the ability to do it again this year.
On Saturday, The Game will feature two undefeated teams for the first time since 2006 in a matchup of No. 2 (Ohio State) vs. No. 3 (Michigan). The Athletic spoke with 12 college football coaches, ranging from head coaches to coordinators and position coaches to analysts, around the Big Ten and part of teams that have faced the Wolverines and/or the Buckeyes to get insight into the matchup.
Ohio State is less dependent on the run. That bodes well for Michigan
Most coaches agreed that Michigan can handle Ohio State, but a win will be much harder to come by if the weather is relatively mild. Early weather forecasts, though, are predicting a 60 percent chance of rain with temperatures in the mid-40s. The colder, the wetter, the better for Michigan, according to our experts. The Buckeyes, with Heisman favorite C.J. Stroud at quarterback and the nation’s best collection of receivers, has become the most feared passing game in college football.
In the last decade, Ohio State’s aerial attack has only become more explosive and, according to coaches, the Buckeyes have recently been leaning much more on their aerial attack than their running game. They’re still dangerous running the ball, but not quite as dependent on it. Since 2021, they’re averaging 34 carries a game, about 10 carries a game less than the previous decade.
“If the weather’s bad, if there’s snow again, or rain, that plays into Michigan’s hands in a big way,” said one Big Ten defensive coordinator.
A second Big Ten defensive play-caller agreed. “I think it’s just the commitment to who they (Michigan) are even more than what they’re doing. They have an identity and they know what they are. Game control will be so important in this game. They’re very comfortable in grind-it-out, tight games. (Harbaugh) wants to play game control and show you Michigan’s more physical than you are.”
Michigan leads the Big Ten in rushing yards, averaging 244 yards per game. OSU ranks third, but the Buckeyes do lead the league in yards per attempt at 5.53 — just slightly ahead of Michigan’s 5.51. The Wolverines also lead the Big Ten in run defense, allowing just 80 yards per game. The Buckeyes rank fifth.
The Buckeyes have dealt with injury issues at running back for much of the season. TreVeyon Henderson is battling a foot injury that’s sidelined him for a big portion of the season and Miyan Williams suffered a leg injury earlier this month. Against Maryland, with Williams out and Henderson limited, freshman Dallan Hayden shined with 146 yards and three touchdowns.
Coaches who have played the Buckeyes think Ohio State has impressive talent on offense, especially in the passing game, but do have some skepticism regarding their ground game. The Buckeyes have been held to less than four yards per rush in three games this season; twice they ran for less than 100 yards.
“Their O-line is good,” said one Big Ten head coach. “It’s not as good as Michigan’s, but it’s good. They’re so big and long. But it’s been a bit of a head-scratcher. They’re not playing with as much continuity up front. They’re more finesse than they’ve been in the past. They don’t seem to have that same edge to them. Their run game is just OK. It’ll need to be on point against Michigan.”
“They’re better at pass protection than run blocking,” said a Big Ten DC who faced Ohio State in the second half of the season. “I think (they) struggle to run the ball in this game. The trick with them is the explosion. Their backs are so talented, and it’s that one play where they hit it, and they make it count.”
Michigan was built to give Ohio State trouble
One veteran O-line coach said stylistically Michigan has become the team built to give Ohio State the most problems. As The Athletic reported earlier this month, Harbaugh and the Wolverines staff overhauled their program two years ago in effort to try and “out-culture” and “out-physical” the Buckeyes, because they believed they wouldn’t have a great chance at “out-personneling” them. That paid off last season on the field and, according to the coaches we spoke to, it shows up on film this season.
“Everybody in college football is built to defend the spread and the zone read now,” that veteran O-line coach said. “Michigan is going to mash you in the face and still do that stuff with the QB run. What they do is really unique now. Everybody wants to say, ‘We’re tough and we have a nasty O-line,’ but then you watch what they do and you see them running a bunch of RPOs. But these guys at Michigan have that mentality, where they’re running real run plays that they call and they know they’re gonna grind you for five or six yards.
“That’s what I respect about those guys. They’ve cultivated that and their kids have bought in. They’re gonna get into 22 personnel (with two backs and two tight ends) and do Inside Run drill with 12 plays of the Power and Inside Zone.
“It’s all about how they rep it and how they work it. You create a mental toughness to get through those things. I love watching them play. One of the big things is alignment. The WRs are on board. They block their butts off. Fifteen, 20 years ago, everybody was doing what Michigan is doing now. They’ve brought it back full circle. It’s so refreshing to me, as an old O-line guy.”
One Big Ten East head coach also raved about Michigan’s line, calling it the best in the conference, and said it’s even better than the group that won the Joe Moore Award last year (given to the nation’s most outstanding line unit). “They have a great combination of length, mass and nastiness,” he said. “They work well. They combo together. They’re always in sync.
“Their center (Virginia transfer Olu Oluwatimi) allows them to take it to another level. He’s such a good one because he can sink his hips and moves really well. He can climb and do that second-level blocking and do the outside zone stuff. He’s made them that much better.”
Behind them has been Heisman candidate running back Blake Corum (1,457 yards, 6 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns) as well as a much faster running threat in quarterback J.J. McCarthy. “His athleticism has given them new dimension,” said the Big Ten East head coach. “He’s very fast and elusive and he has a strong enough arm to hurt you.”
The Wolverines receiving corps is deeper and more talented than it was last year, especially with leader Ronnie Bell (48 catches, 641 yards) healthy after missing all of 2021. “They’re probably underrated as a group because they don’t air it out, but they have a bunch of guys who can run, and tight ends and backs you need to account for,” said a Big Ten DC.
Corum’s status for Saturday’s game is unclear, though, because he was injured against Illinois. Michigan’s second-leading rusher, speedy Donovan Edwards, also may not play after missing the Illinois game. If Edwards is able to play, the Buckeyes will need to keep a close eye on him wherever he lines up. “He’s also a great receiver and they’ll put him out there and go empty and give you match-up problems,” said the Big Ten DC. “I was really concerned about his speed.”
“Corum is so good, you can’t really see him,” a Big Ten East head coach said. “He’s too short but he’s so thick and tough as nails, and he cuts so well. He has great balance and he’s just really hard to handle.”
A Big Ten offensive analyst said his prediction would be for Ohio State to win Saturday — but if Corum is healthy, he gives Michigan a 50 percent chance to win because of how talented the back is and what he means for that team. Another Big Ten assistant coach agreed. “He plays his tail off,” said the veteran coach. “He has great contact balance and great vision. He steps through a lot of tackles.”
Michigan’s offensive philosophy can also do the defense a huge favor. “Their offense causes you a lot of issues,” said the Big Ten offensive analyst. “Is Ohio State gonna get more than nine or 10 possessions in this game?”
As Michigan’s offense improved, so did Ohio State’s defense
Michigan’s offense may be better than it was last year, but so is the Buckeyes’ defense. They’ve improved from No. 43 in the country in yards per play allowed to No. 7. Better still, they’ve gone from second-to-last in the Big Ten in third down defense to No. 3. New DC Jim Knowles, who arrived from Oklahoma State, has made as much of an impact in Columbus as he did in Stillwater.
“Their defense isn’t really confusing. They don’t do a lot of crazy stuff. Other teams blitz more. They feel like they can get to you with their front 4. The thing he (Knowles) does best: He lets his good guys play,” said one quarterbacks coach who faced Ohio State in the first half of the season. “He knows what he has and doesn’t over-coach.”
In 2021, Ohio State allowed four rushing plays of 50 yards or longer. This year, they’ve allowed one.
“They’re very disciplined,” added a Big Ten head coach. “Guys aren’t out of position very often. I think he has created a lot of confidence in them.”
Knowles, who was known for throwing a lot of zero-coverage looks at quarterbacks in the past, hasn’t done it as much this year, according to Big Ten coaches. One said his team didn’t see much of it from the Buckeyes when they played because he thought Knowles was afraid of his quarterback’s ability to run. That coach thought McCarthy’s running ability might also give the Buckeyes DC some pause. That coach said he feels like Ohio State is much improved in the front seven from where they were last year. The two players who have shined the most are sophomore edge rusher J.T. Tuimoloau (9 TFLs, 2 interceptions) and senior linebacker Tommy Eichenberg.
“Tuimoloau is a freak,” said one Big Ten East assistant. “He can beat (you) with power and speed. If your tackle misplaces with his hands just a bit, he’ll take advantage.”
In the past decade, OSU has had more than its share of star defensive linemen, but the last one left Columbus in 2019. Tuimoloau, who was a five-star recruit out of Seattle, has emerged as the next difference-maker for defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
“He’s not so twitchy but he is a great athlete,” said a Big Ten East head coach of the 6-foot-4, 270-pound former high school basketball star. “He doesn’t look like he’s playing that hard because he’s so smooth and effortless. I think he’d probably be an elite tight end too if he wanted to be. It all seems easy for him.”
Eichenberg leads OSU with 105 tackles, almost 40 more than the team’s No. 2 tackler. “He is a dude,” said a Big Ten head coach. “He can run. He has length, is a great tackler and he’s telling them where the ball is going. I think he has a great understanding of what the offense is going to be doing.”
“He was more impressive on the field than I’d thought he was on film,” said the quarterbacks coach who faced OSU in the first month of the season. “He’s bigger, taller and rangier.”
Safety Lathan Ransom has also emerged as a star in the secondary, but that is an area several coaches we spoke to thought was still suspect. “They’re just not as good on the back end as they were in the past,” said a Big Ten East assistant. “They don’t have those cornerbacks that can take people away.”
Whether McCarthy and the Wolverines receivers can exploit that, though, is another matter.
The Ohio State aerial attack is ready for Michigan’s defense
No one doubts the Buckeyes’ ability to attack secondaries through the air. Stroud’s accuracy (35 touchdowns to four interceptions) is the best in the country, according to one longtime DC who faced Ohio State early this season. “He’s the most accurate quarterback I’ve ever played against. It’s like he couldn’t have handed the ball to his receivers any better and they’re 30, 40 yards downfield. He’s got high-level NFL accuracy and NFL vision. I think he understands the game so well and gets it out in under three seconds. He has a very high football IQ and really understands what you’re trying to do to him.”
“I was wowed by Stroud,” said a head coach who faced OSU in the first half of the season. “He’s getting the ball to the exact right spot at the exact right time. He’s deadly accurate. He understands exactly where the leverage is and his chemistry with his receivers is extraordinary.”
“C.J. is special,” said another head coach. “He has a great feel for what they do. The thing that really sticks out about them is they can blitzkrieg you and overwhelm you. You can be in a tight game and then you look up at the scoreboard again and you’re down by three or four scores.”
One DC whose team had some success slowing down the Buckeyes’ passing game by mixing up looks on the quarterback said Stroud has “accuracy you don’t see in college football,” and that “when he knows where to go with the ball, he’s almost impossible to stop. The biggest thing is to try to confuse him.”
What’s even more problematic for Michigan is that Stroud is throwing to the nation’s best wideout: sophomore Marvin Harrison Jr., a 6-foot-3 1/2, 206 pounder who was No. 2 on our Freaks list this year. The son of NFL great Marvin Harrison clocked a blistering 3.94 pro shuttle time and did 10-9 on the broad jump while also topping out at 23 mph on the GPS. “It’s his combination of size and speed, his movement in routes and his hands, those are elite,” said a Big Ten East DC. “He’s a big problem.”
“He may be the best wide receiver I’ve ever gone against,” said one Big Ten head coach. “It’s his length and his speed and his ball skills. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a better one.”
What’s also remarkable about the Buckeyes is that they’re tied for No. 1 in the country in scoring despite missing the player many saw as the Big Ten’s top receiver entering the year: Jaxon Smith-Njigba. He has barely played this year due to a hamstring injury. Sophomore Emeka Egbuka has stepped up, and in Harrison’s shadow still may produce a 1,000-yard receiving season. Another big weapon who has emerged is tight end Cade Stover (31 catches, five touchdowns). “Their tight end is a really good player,” said a Big Ten East head coach. “He is a matchup problem. He gives them a lot of physicality in the run game but also has really good ball skills. Way better than I thought. He kind of makes them go. He’s that hidden guy.”
While Michigan has the No. 1 defense in the Big Ten allowing 4.10 yards per play — better than the 4.71 yards Michigan allowed entering the CFP last year — coaches The Athletic spoke to don’t think the Wolverines defense is as talented or as good as the 2021 group.
“The difference is very clear,” said one Big Ten East offensive coach. “Michigan is missing those two defensive ends (first-rounders Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo). Ohio State needs to take advantage of it in the run game. They’ve got to double team (nose tackle) Mazi Smith. Those guys outside are good but they’re not Hutchinson and Ojabo. I think Ohio State is going to run outside zone and attack those edges. Also, their nickel (Mike Sainristil) can run, but he’s so small. He’s not (2022 first-rounder) Dax Hill. I think there’s a major drop-off in personnel compared to what they had last year.”
A Big Ten offensive analyst agreed. “Their defense last year was a lot more impressive. Outside of (leading tackler) Junior Colson, who is twitchy and can go sideline to sideline, I don’t think they have the same kinds of athletes.”
The Big Ten East head coach The Athletic spoke to thinks this unit is better as a group than individually. “They don’t have anybody that really sticks out but they play well together. They really understand their system and they tackle really well. They’re disciplined and physical. They don’t beat themselves. Mazi (Smith) is the best one they have.”
The 6-foot-3, 337-pound Smith is the anchor of Michigan’s defense, a tone-setter and a leader. “He is a load,” said one Big Ten running backs coach. “He makes them go. If — if — you can control him, you got a chance.”
The M.O. of Michigan’s defense has its roots in the NFL with first-year DC Jesse Minter who, like his predecessor Mike Macdonald, spent time with the Baltimore Ravens. One Big Ten coach noted that Sainristil isn’t really asked to be involved in the run fits, so they’re short in the run game and often opt to play the run with those six players in the front and play their coverage top down. Because of that, it’s really hard to scheme them up for play-action passes. “They’re not gonna bite on the run fit,” said the running backs coach. “But I’m very curious to see if their secondary can up hold against Ohio State and how soft is the coverage they’re gonna play?”
Said a Big Ten East assistant: “They do a good job of hiding their cornerbacks.”
Another thing to watch for is how OSU attacks Michigan in the red zone. Minter’s relied a lot on going Blitz 0 and the Buckeyes may try and copy what Maryland did to the Wolverines: running some nakeds, sprint out pass plays and throwing flat routes to the tight end which proved effective. A strength of Michigan’s defense has been Minter’s exotic pressures on third downs. “He has one of the best third-down packages I’ve ever seen,” said a Big Ten East offensive coach. “They really know how to attack your scheme. It seems like they’re always bringing one more than you can handle.”
One other wrinkle in this matchup: “I think Michigan is really good at stealing your signals,” said one Big Ten running backs coach. “They got our stuff early and they got us on both sides.”
So … who wins?
Most of the coaches The Athletic spoke to who have played both teams said if both play at their best, Ohio State should win. They have more firepower, more explosive players and the advantage of playing at home.
“I don’t think we saw Ohio State play close to their A-game. I’m not sure if anyone has seen that in the Big Ten this year,” said a Big Ten East assistant. “I do think we’ve seen that from Michigan, and so you keep expecting that breakout game from Ohio State. I think the Buckeyes are the better team because they’re the more talented team. But the more I think about it, the more of a chance I give Michigan because of how physical they are. And you said it’s gonna rain, right?”
(Top photo of Michigan’s Blake Corum and J.J. McCarthy: Gregory Shamus / Getty)