One of the many distinctive aspects of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is that it always comes at the end of the season.
When the Big Ten stupidly put Ohio State and Michigan in opposite divisions and the athletics directors at each school were sending out signals that we should prepare for a midseason clash between the Buckeyes and Wolverines, I argued that was one of the things that would be lost. Maybe I’m extra conditioned to appreciate this because we played our high school rival at the end of the season so it just seemed like the way things are done, but I am a big believer in how that sets The Game apart from some other big ones across the country.
At any rate, keeping an eye on the rival and getting a chance to see them on multiple crossover films is a great resource, and so I’d like to think this will be the most accurate scouting report on the year.
We all know, of course, that rivalry games bring out the best in many a player, and the guys filling each team’s jerseys might not look like the ones who were for most of the first 11 games of the season. Nonetheless, let’s take a stab at previewing the Wolverines, shall we?
First things first: Brady Hoke can talk all he wants about a lack of execution (ironically the go-to explanation from Jim Tressel and Jim Bollman when their offenses would misfire at various times over the year), but the problem is mostly physical. That is, Michigan has a really hard time getting physical, which is particularly noteworthy since that’s the No. 1 thing Hoke wants the Wolverines to do.
The interior of the offensive line is just weak. I can only conclude they haven’t been able to find a working combination in there because they just don’t have anyone ready to play, which should not be entirely surprising given the age of the players on the depth chart at guard and center. The oldest is starting center Graham Glasgow, a third-year sophomore who was originally set to walk on at Ohio State before deciding to do so at Michigan instead.
This is a big problem because the guards are needed to execute the “power” play that is supposed to be the center piece of the offense (a.k.a., “Dave” in Jim Tressel’s world), and they struggle to do so. Michigan has veterans at both tackles, but it’s not hard to see that they were both recruited to play in a spread offense because neither of them are really physical, either. I have always assumed Taylor Lewan’s high regard among media draft analysts (who are much different than actual scouts who work for NFL teams) has to do with his athleticism more than his play because he looks better dropping into a pass set than pushing people around.
The poor support of the offensive line has neutered the running game and hindered the development of Devin Gardner, a super-talented quarterback who is plagued by frequent mistakes that are no doubt influenced by his lack of confidence in his blocking.
When Gardner has time to throw, he has a sensational arm. He’s also very elusive in the pocket and a dangerous scrambler. He is definitely capable of putting up big numbers if he gets in a rhythm, and he can keep drives alive in a multitude of ways.
Jeremy Gallon is an elite receiver despite his lack of height. He has great ball skills, can run and will go up and get the ball against tight coverage. Tight end Devin Funchess gives Gardner a second major playmaker in the passing game. He is a matchup nightmare because of his size and speed and ability to go get the ball as well. Those guys will be the focus of the Ohio State defensive game plan, one would have to assume. No one else has emerged to take the pressure off Gallon outside, though freshman Jake Butt has flashed some potential as another tight end.
Running back is a question mark as Fitzgerald Toussaint has not looked the same since his gruesome leg injury, though I’m not as down on him as some others who have watched Michigan a lot this season. The coaches seem high on the potential of freshmen Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, but neither has proven to be a bell cow back as youngsters.
Michigan’s defense is a little harder to pin down.
With the variety of offenses in the Big Ten, it can be harder to scout.
Up front the defensive line as a unit does not really wow you, but rush end Frank Clark and is without a doubt a standout talent. He is a big, impressive athlete who is dangerous as a rusher. I also like the play-making ability of Jibreel Black as an undersized 3-technique tackle. Nose tackle Quinton Washington doesn’t look any different than he did when he was powerless to stop Ohio State’s inside running game last season, and Brennen Beyer has never really looked like a difference-maker despite his right-place, right-time pick-6 at Iowa. They’re still waiting for some guys from their highly regarded recruiting classes to step up, and I have been impressed with Willie Henry inside at times while Chris Wormley has flashed a few times as well.
Michigan’s linebackers are very impressive, especially against the run. Desmond Morgan is much improved this year and looks like a solid all-around player while James Ross III is a great run-and-hit guy at the Will ‘backer. Jake Ryan is a natural playmaker coming off an ACL injury, and he was back to his play-making self against the Hawkeyes. This group could still be vulnerable against the pass, though, especially over the middle.
Cam Gordon is an interesting fifth-year senior who has moved around the defense against different offensive schemes and with Ryan out of the lineup earlier. He can rush the passer and make plays in space. It will be interesting to see how they use him against Ohio State as defensive coordinator Greg Mattison seems to excel at finding spots for guys who can play aggressively.
What about the secondary? That’s a good question. It was wildly overrated last year from a numbers standpoint because the defensive front was so weak against the run teams preferred to attack there. Also the state of passing games in the Big Ten was beyond abysmal, so they weren’t really challenged much. It’s no wonder then that they were bombed by South Carolina in their bowl game.
The corners are both hit-or-miss and I still haven’t seen fifth-year senior Thomas Gordon really round into much, but sophomore Jarrod Wilson is one guy who jumps off the screen frequently. He is a big hitter who seems to have a nose for the ball, though he is listed as a co-starter with senior Courtney Avery (See Thomas Gordon write-up).
Of note: In three straight weeks Ohio State could be said to have faced the worst Big Ten defensive line I’ve seen, the worst run-supporting safeties I’ve seen and now the worst offensive line I have seen in the conference.
Additionally, Dennis Norfleet presents a dangerous return man who can perhaps pop one or at least provide some hidden yards for the beleaguered offense.
It remains to be seen how exactly how much talent this Michigan team has, but youth has certainly and to a certain extent understandably held Hoke’s troops back this season.
If they can create one-on-one matchups in space – something they have tried to do less frequently than they should have up to this point – they can make big plays on offense, but making more big plays than mistakes has proven difficult for the Wolverines.
There is enough there on defense to make things difficult for the Buckeyes, but stopping them all day figures to be a pretty big task for Michigan, as it is for most teams.