Scouts Inc Preview:
Michigan Offense vs. Ohio State Defense
Ohio State's defense is a classic bend-but-don't-break unit that is tied for fifth in the nation in takeaways (with 27). The Buckeyes create their own opportunities by applying lots of pressure and flying around the field with great intensity -- nobody more so than MLB James Laurinaitis. On the flip side, the weakness of this unit is that it will occasionally give up too many yards on the ground. With that in mind, Michigan matches up well on offense because it runs the ball more effectively than any of Ohio State's prior opponents, while averaging less than one giveaway per game. So, per usual, RB Mike Hart
will be Michigan's most valuable asset Saturday.
The Wolverines are 17-1 when Hart hits the 100-yard mark as a runner, so don't expect offensive coordinator Mike DeBord to deviate from the team's typical run-first philosophy. Ohio State has obviously studied the film in preparation for defending Michigan's new zone-blocking ground attack, but it still might be surprised by the improved quickness of the Wolverines' offensive line. Michigan's O-line has trimmed down from a year ago and is much more athletic, while the "zone-run" has proven to be a great fit for Hart, who possesses outstanding patience, vision and initial burst as a runner. Despite his diminutive 5-foot-9 frame, Hart is carrying a heavy load (25.3 carries per game this season). He is a decisive, quick and powerful runner who can wear the Buckeyes down if fed enough touches Saturday. Furthermore, Hart has done an exceptional job with ball security, which should prove to be a huge asset against an opportunistic Buckeyes defense. Hart has lost just one fumble in his three-year collegiate career, and it happened in September 2004 (Iowa).
The Wolverines, who have surrendered just 19 sacks in 11 games this season, should do a good job of protecting QB Chad Henne
. For starters, the Buckeyes' top pass-rusher, DT Quinn Pitcock (eight sacks), resides on the interior of the defensive line. While Pitcock is certainly a difference-maker, the Wolverines should be able to keep him in check by consistently double-teaming him with ROG Alex Mitchell and OC Mark Bihl. LOG Adam Kraus is quick enough to keep RDT David Patterson in check one-on-one, and DEs Jay Richardson and Vernon Gholston do not pose much of an athletic threat as perimeter pass-rushers versus Michigan's outstanding offensive tackle duo of Jake Long (LOT) and Rueben Riley (ROT). So if Ohio State wants to pressure Henne with any sort of regularity, defensive coordinator Jim Heacock will need to take chances with the blitz. Then it's up to Henne and his receivers to communicate in order to exploit some man-to-man coverage.
The Buckeyes mix in a lot of different coverage looks during a game. Usually they employ some form of man-to-man or three-deep coverage, but they also will sprinkle in some Cover 2 zone when facing three-receiver sets. Preventing WR Mario Manningham
from striking quickly on the deep ball is a high priority, so it wouldn't be surprising to see the Buckeyes take a more conservative approach than usual in their defensive secondary. Since missing three games with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery, Manningham took just eight snaps against Ball State before catching two passes at Indiana on Saturday. While there could be some timing issues between Henne and his premier vertical weapon, it did not appear versus Indiana that Manningham has any lingering physical affects from the injury. He has a knack for coming up with big plays in key situations, as witnessed by his combined 250 receiving yards and five touchdowns in key wins over Notre Dame and Wisconsin this season. With that in mind, expect Henne to dial up Manningham's number off the play-action on several occasions -- most of which will inevitably be go routes, deep posts and post corners. CB Malcolm Jenkins has emerged this season as one of the best pure cover corners in the nation (as a sophomore). He displays an impressive combination of athleticism and ball skills for his size.
Regardless, Heacock knows he can only gamble so much with Jenkins on an island versus Manningham before he pays the price, which is why FS Jamario O'Neal will spend much of the afternoon cheating over the top of Manningham in bracket-type coverage.
With so much attention being given to Hart on the ground and Manningham via the air, Michigan WRs Steve Breaston
and Adrian Arrington
should have the room they need to operate and could emerge as surprise heroes in this game. Breaston is coming off one of his best career performances against Indiana, and he's capable of beating No. 2 cornerback Antonio Smith one-on-one after the catch for a big gain or two. Also, while Arrington remains a bit inconsistent, he has the size and big-play flair to exploit a mismatch if left alone versus Ohio State nickel cornerback Donald Washington.
Ohio State Offense vs. Michigan Defense
Ohio State's biggest advantage over Michigan from a personnel perspective is at the quarterback position. Henne can be an effective distributor in the passing game, but Troy Smith
is a proven playmaker and big-game performer. Smith has rushed for only 221 net yards this season, but he's athletic enough to buy second chances as a passer. He's also elusive and fast enough to exploit Michigan's defense if it fails to keep gap discipline up front or if its linebackers and defensive backs get caught with their backs turned in man-to-man coverage. While Smith is running more of late, he still is a patient pocket passer with the arm strength and accuracy to exploit Michigan's secondary through the air, if given time. Smith is completing 66.4 percent of his passes this season with a remarkable touchdown-to-interception ratio of 26-to-4. He makes sound decisions, sees the entire field and rarely will get caught locking on to his primary target.
Michigan LCB Leon Hall is one of the nation's premier cover corners. He lacks elite speed but makes up for it with outstanding instincts, athleticism and toughness. The Wolverines take advantage of Hall's cover skills by frequently leaving him alone on an island, which affords defensive coordinator Ron English the luxury of being more creative and aggressive with his safeties, Jamar Adams (SS) and Brandent Englemon (FS). English can't leave Hall in man-to-man coverage all afternoon, but don't be surprised if the senior cornerback is locked in one-on-one versus WRs Ted Ginn Jr.
or Anthony Gonzalez
more than half the time. Unfortunately for English, Hall can cover only one receiver at a time, because there's a significant drop-off in talent after Hall. That does not bode well against the trio of Ginn, Gonzalez and Brian Robiskie
, which has combined for 1,644 yards and 19 touchdowns on 118 receptions in 11 games this season. The Buckeyes do a good job of moving Ginn around to generate speed mismatches versus slower cornerbacks, so don't be surprised to see Ginn working more frequently on the left side versus RCB Morgan Trent. Ginn is at his best on vertical routes that give him time to get over the top of defenders in coverage. The Buckeyes also attempt to maximize his speed by getting him the ball on quick-hitting throws and reverses.
The only way the Wolverines can avoid a breakdown in their defensive secondary in this game is to get a consistent and disciplined pass-rush on Smith. Generating pressure has not been a problem for Michigan this season, as its defense ranks second nationally in sacks (with 36). DE/OLB LaMarr Woodley is the team's top pass-rusher with 11 sacks, and he will be working against ROT Kirk Barton most of the game. Barton has great size and good experience, but he will struggle in pass protection versus Woodley's quick first step and athletic double move. The other matchup to watch is on the opposite side, where senior RDE Rondell Biggs will do battle against talented but hobbled LOT Alex Boone, who has missed back-to-back games due to a knee injury. If Boone can't hold up physically, it will force the Buckeyes to call upon Tim Schafer, a fifth-year senior who was benched after starting the first three games of this season at left guard.
While Ohio State owns a distinctive edge in the passing game, establishing a ground attack will be far more challenging versus Michigan's vaunted run defense. RB Antonio Pittman
is a bit undersized at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, but he runs much harder than his "measurables" would indicate. The Buckeyes' junior load-carrier is decisive and tough; he would rather run over defenders than attempt to run around them on the second level. Pittman rarely gets caught dancing in the backfield and he's at his best when he hits the hole hard as a north-south runner. He does not, however, possess the speed or elusiveness to generate yards on his own, which could prove to be a problem versus a Michigan defense that leads the nation (allowing just 29.9 rushing yards per contest).
The Wolverines are unlikely to get much help via their safeties cheating up versus the run, but their front seven is more than capable of shutting Pittman down on its own. NT Terrance Taylor has emerged as an unsung difference-maker in the middle, as he uses good initial quickness and power to tie up opposing centers. As a result, it really puts pressure on the right side of an offensive line to handle Woodley and DT Alan Branch one-on-one. Woodley is extremely active off the edge and will do a good job of protecting his body versus Barton. The even bigger concern for Ohio State has to be ROG T.J. Downing holding up versus the 330-pound Branch. Downing is a technically sound veteran but gives up 25 pounds in this matchup. If the Buckeyes are forced to give Downing help and use LOG Steve Rehring on down blocks versus Taylor, it will really limit what they can do from a play-calling standpoint in the running game. Regardless, the attention that Woodley, Branch, Taylor and Biggs will require up front will give ILB Dave Harris and WLB Prescott Burgess the room they need to pursue Pittman from sideline-to-sideline.