Ahead of the Michigan Football Team’s showdown against Ohio State on Saturday in Columbus, The Daily’s football beat explains what to watch for as the undefeated titans go head-to-head.
Can Michigan stop the Buckeyes’ passing game?
Honestly no. The Wolverines stand no chance of repelling the Ohio State air raid. The Buckeyes are deadly in the passing game, with a Heisman hopeful at quarterback in Stroud paired with elite receivers Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. Receivers average 177.36 yards and 1.73 touchdowns per game, while Stroud proclaims 9.7 yards per pass attempt.
But while Michigan probably won’t close Ohio state through the air, it may slow the Buckeyes. And if the Wolverines are going to win, they have to.
First, the defensive line will almost certainly need pressure to force errors and pressure Stroud, but the Wolverines’ defenders will need to hold their own as well. How will they do that? By using the same game plan as last year.
Michigan must mix man with zone, throw in blitzes and double down on receivers at times. Anything the Wolverines can do to get Stroud off his reads and reconsider his shots is a step towards slowing the passing game and winning the game. In the 2021 game, receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Garrett Wilson both had 100+ yards, but they both had to work for it.
If Michigan can make it difficult for Stroud and his receivers to get what they want, Ohio State will be forced to get down — maybe more than it wants — and cut straight into the Wolverines’ top-tier rush defense in the country.
The more it can do, the closer Michigan is to victory. So, see if senior corner DJ Turner, graduate cornerer Gemon Green and the Wolverines’ safeties can do just enough to tip the scales in Michigan’s favour.
Can Michigan put pressure on CJ Stroud?
It’s hard to say Michigan slowed Stroud down a year ago, but the Wolverines made him uneasy. They generated four sacks, three from Aidan Hutchinson and the game-winning one from David Ojabo late in the fourth quarter.
This year, instead of Hutchinson and Ojabo, they’ve touted their “no-star” defense – claiming they’re more productive overall as a unit without having to rely on a single player. While keeping opponents at bay on the scoreboard, defensive line performance hasn’t done that much. Last year, Hutchinson and Ojabo combined for 25 sacks. This year the overall Michigan defense has 31.
If the Wolverines want to beat the Buckeyes, they need to find ways to build pressure. Stroud is by far the most talented quarterback the unit has faced all year, and he’s ripe to pick apart Michigan’s inconsistent runner-up. The Wolverines’ best hope of preventing those big passing plays is not giving Stroud enough time to get rid of them.
That task would likely begin with senior defensive end Mike Morris, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks and was their top pass rusher that year. Morris sat out against Illinois last week and his status on Saturday remains unclear. As such, the burden of carrying the defensive line falls on players like senior defensive tackle Mazi Smith, graduate end Eyabi Okie, and freshman defensive tackle Mason Graham. Smith has been a force in the middle but is likely to face doubles teams throughout the game. Okie and Graham have shown their talent at times but need to dominate the trenches to thwart Stroud.
If a few Wolverine defenders can do their best Hutchinson and Ojabo imitations, Michigan could have the recipe for another win. Otherwise, if Stroud has time to throw, it’s going to be a long day for the Wolverines.
Can Michigan’s passing game finally click?
Back in August, Michigan coaches warned opposing defenses to choose their poison against the Wolverines’ talented receiving corps. Along with the emergence of second quarterback JJ McCarthy, Michigan appeared primed to announce an elite passing game.
It didn’t quite play out that way.
The offensive has thrived without a vertical pass threat, relying instead on a dominant, rushing outfit. This formula has worked for ten games. But last Saturday against Illinois it almost cost the Wolverines.
With junior Blake Corum on the touchline alongside sophomore Donovan Edwards in the second half, Michigan’s storming attack vanished. As the Wolverines looked for a spark, the apparent disconnect between McCarthy and his receivers took hold.
Players and coaches have insisted things will change, citing a larger sample size of success during training. McCarthy himself has promised that the passing game will click. And what better time to fulfill that promise than this Saturday in Columbus.
Michigan — often for better, but sometimes for worse — is stubborn in its playing style. It knows its strengths and is committed to its identity. We saw firsthand this Saturday as the Wolverines carried on football with their third, fourth and even fifth string backs. It didn’t work, although Michigan’s passing game was hardly a better alternative.
Corum and Edwards’ injury status gets big on Saturday. That will dictate how much the Wolverines have to rely on their passing game. But to even match the Buckeyes’ vaunted offense, Michigan will need a better performance from McCarthy and company than they received on Saturday.
Who can run the ball better?
The pressing question on everyone’s lips is: how is Corum and Edwards’ health?
That will most likely not be known until kickoff, but let’s assume the Wolverines have at least a partial-strength backfield. What happens then?
Well, whoever can run the ball better will likely come out on top in this game – that’s how this rivalry usually simmered. We’re all familiar with Michigan’s question marks in the running game when it comes to health, but we also know they once again have arguably the best offensive line in the country. If that unit can carry Michigan and get a consistent push at the line of scrimmage, then I like the Wolverines’ chances.
Looking ahead to Ohio State, the Buckeyes also have some injury problems with running backs Treyveon Henderson and Miyan Williams. But just last week, newcomer Dallan Hayden stepped up and produced a high-end performance of his own. That means Ohio State has a good enough offensive line to put the ball on most opponents.
But Michigan isn’t most opponents. It has one of the best rushing defenses in the country. The ongoing battle will boil down to two things:
Are Wolverine backs healthy? And is Michigan’s running defense as good as the stats say?
That will make a decisive contribution to who wins on Saturday.