Defensive end Mike Kudla is having his best season in an Ohio State uniform. The senior has 32 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks – all career highs.
But he’s also doing things that don’t show up in the stat book. Such as quarterback pressures and knockdowns, and forcing plays in different directions with his strength and speed.
“I feel I’m doing what this team needs out of me,” Kudla said. “We have a lot of good players on this defense and I’m just trying to do my job. I feel good about what I’m doing, but this is the week it really counts.”
Kudla will play in his fourth OSU-Michigan game on Saturday (1 p.m., ABC [ESPN on west coast]). He enjoys all the hype leading up to the game and is expecting a tight battle.
“That’s just the way it is,” Kudla said. “You kind of look at this week and say, ‘Hey, this is Michigan week.’ And regardless of what the past scores were, or what they did during the season, it’s always going to be the Ohio State-Michigan game no matter what. It’s that rivalry that just kind of fills the game up. You can throw pretty much everything out of the window about the statistics and all that. Whenever these two teams meet it’s always going to be a battle and we always know that. So, we just have to be fully ready for these guys because we know it’s going to be a tough game.”
Michigan has a pair of good offensive tackles in Jake Long (6-7, 330, Jr.) and Adam Stenavich (6-5, 321, Sr.). The 6-3, 265-pound Kudla will face both of them on Saturday and knows it will be a stiff challenge.
“We flop both sides,” Kudla said. “That’s the way we’ve always done it. I played against both of them last year and the year before.”
Long’s status is in question with an ankle injury – the same injury he’s been battling all season. But Kudla expects Long will play.
“He’s a good tackle,” Kudla said. “He’s got great size and his technique is really good. I just remember him from last year, it was a 60 minute battle with those guys. It’s just a hard-fought game and they gave great effort. It’s a great team to play against because you know you’re going up against the best.”
Kudla also commented on Stenavich.
“Same thing. Great size, great skill, uses his hands well,” he said. “They’re sound linemen. They’ve been there forever – they’ve got so much playing experience. They’ve all been in situations, so they kind of know how to react to stuff.”
As a senior, Kudla fully understands what “The Game” means to the people of Ohio. But a little reminder from the coaching staff never hurts.
“We came in yesterday and our whole locker room and all the meetings rooms were just covered with signs to remind you they call this ‘The Game,’ the rivalry game, a tradition unmatched. It puts it right into perspective. This is game is so special to be a part of and we don’t want to take it as any other week.”
Kudla is looking for his third pair of gold pants. Or, his first pair, depending on how you look at it.
“My first pair went to my mom and my second pair went to my dad,” he said. “So, I’m waiting for my own yet. I think it’s a special tradition. You look back at the history and what it means and to have a pair of pants like that, it means so much because you played a good team and you won. You look back at all the teams in history that have got them, it’s special to be a part of.”
Kudla was asked if gold pants would be his favorite piece of jewelry.
“Well yeah, except for my national championship ring,” he said.
Michigan sophomore tailback Mike Hart has been limited with injuries for much of the season. He is expected to play against Ohio State and will likely be close to 100 percent. He reportedly could have played last week against Indiana.
“He’s a smaller guy and he does a good job of sitting behind his blocks,” Kudla said. “He’s kind of just like (Tyrell) Sutton from Northwestern this last week. He’s able to sit behind those guys and make those shifty cuts. He does a good job of really finding that hole and waiting that extra second. So, for us, we have to control that line of scrimmage. We know it’s going to be a battle in the trenches and they’ve got a great offensive line.
“I think he’s just got great abilities. He’s secure with the ball. I don’t think he has ever fumbled. He runs hard. He has those big offensive linemen and he finds the hole. He comes out of the backfield and catches the ball. He has great skills and great talent and they use him well in their system.”
Kudla is also impressed with Michigan quarterback Chad Henne. The sophomore has a big arm, but some question his mobility and leadership.
But not Kudla.
“He’s definitely in the upper echelon,” Kudla said. “He’s been in that system for a while now. He’s got great weapons to go to. He’s been involved in some big games this year. He’s poised.
“We watched that Penn State game, where he was able to win it with one second to go. That takes a lot of poise to stand in there and find that receiver like that. You can definitely tell he’s one of those guys that’s improved.”
Kudla says he will leave every ounce of his energy on the field Saturday against the Wolverines. Now is the time to forget about little bumps and bruises.
“You'll have a little extra pep in your step just because you see what it means to everyone,” Kudla said. “It's a rivalry game. This is it. What else do you have left? It's a month before your next game in the bowl and ... our season rides on this. We need to get a share of that Big Ten title or that's it. It kind of means everything for us.”
Salley also looking for 3-1
The Ohio State seniors, like Kudla and safety Nate Salley are shooting for a 3-1 record against Michigan for their careers.
Head coach Jim Tressel is looking to do them one better. He is already 3-1 against UM and Salley was asked if Tressel’s success against Michigan gives OSU added confidence entering the game.
“I guess it can make us a little more confident, but I believe we’ve been a large part in those victories also,” he said. “So, we know it’s not just him, but we’re very happy to have him as our coach and it’s a lot of fun going into this game.”
But Tressel has stressed the importance of the game and his players have seemed to respond.
“Yeah, you definitely have to believe in your coach and what he’s preaching,” Salley said. “And he’s been doing some great preaching I guess. So, we definitely believe in what he says and we definitely follow his lead at all times.”
Salley has already told some of OSU’s younger players what to expect about Michigan Stadium and the game itself.
“You just tell them, ‘Get ready,’” Salley said. “I believe they feel it a little bit listening to (former OSU head coach Earle) Bruce speak (Sunday) and coming in and seeing all the signs around that aren’t usually here. I believe they’ve begun to feel it and once we go into practice and it’s very intense and once the week progresses on, I believe that they’ll see.”
One of the many things Salley will miss about Ohio State is hearing Bruce’s emotional speeches.
“Oh yeah, he’s a trip,” Salley said. “I love hearing him speak.”
Bruce says he used to practice for Michigan without his players knowing they were practicing for Michigan. Salley was asked if he thinks Tressel also does that from time to time.
“I believe to a certain extent,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s that serious, but I believe to a certain extent it is. No matter if we’re in the beginning of the year, even before camp starts, we’re watching Michigan film. We’ll watch the first three opponents, and then we’ll watch some Michigan film. So, we definitely key on them the whole year because we know that once it comes around this time it’s going to be a huge game and we have to come out with a victory. So, I think (Tressel) definitely prepares our minds and let’s us know how serious that game is from the beginning of camp.”
Salley has a lot of respect for Henne’s ability to throw the ball.
“He’s a good quarterback and he has good receivers to throw the ball to,” he said. “He’s a smart guy and he played well last year. I believe he is a very good quarterback. We’ve been playing against a lot of great ones this year and he’s definitely not a step down.”
Michigan has a pair of polished veteran receivers in junior Steve Breaston and senior Jason Avant. True freshman Mario Manningham – the latest player to leave the Warren area for Michigan, has also emerged this year as a big play target.
Salley thinks that Breaston is the gamebreaker of the group.
“Oh, he’s a great player,” he said. “He’s one of those guys that’s kind of sneaky. He’s very good, fast, slippery guy. He’s hard to tackle and he’s definitely been making huge plays for them ever since he’s been there.”
But Avant is still Henne’s go-to receiver with 70 catches.
“I believe that we know (Avant) is his main guy, but we have to realize they have other guys that are capable of making big plays also, like Breaston and Manningham,” Salley said. “They’re all capable of making big plays, but we know that when they get down to the clutch, for a huge situation, or on third downs, that’s the guy they’re probably going to try and throw to.”
Overall, Salley is most impressed with the way Michigan mixes up its offensive formations, schemes and plays.
“I believe they do a great job of keeping defenses on their toes,” he said. “They’ll run the ball, run the ball, run the ball and then they’ll throw it out to one of those great receivers and I believe that’s their game. They’re a hard-nosed football team that will try and ram it down your throat, and then they’ll throw a great pass here and there. I believe that’s what they do great is just try and stay balanced and not just be one-dimensional.”
Salley was asked which team “wants it more,” but he didn’t bite. (One reporter’s rationale was that Michigan might be the hungrier team since OSU has won three of the last four meetings.)
“I’m not sure,” Salley said. “I believe both teams come into the game extremely prepared and ready to play ball. But I’m not very sure what the key is to why we’ve been winning more than them. I believe we just want it a whole lot. I know they want it too, but I’m not exactly sure what the key is. But we’ve just been going out there and playing hard and I know it’s a very emotional game for everybody here and we take it extremely serious. I don’t know how they take it over there, but I know we take it very serious on this side.
“I definitely believe we want it a whole lot. I don’t know how bad they want it, but I know we want it very bad. We’ve been working extremely hard and we have an opportunity to reach one of our goals and that’s to be Big Ten champs. And with that on the line – and it being the Ohio State-Michigan game anyway – it’s huge. To remember how we played last time we went up north, we definitely don’t want to go out there and do that again. We played hard, but I definitely feel we are capable of playing a much better game.”
Salley knows OSU-UM is the marquee game in college football and he wants to go out with a memorable experience.
“It’s just huge knowing on that day you’re going to be a part of history of a history that’s kind of unmatched across the whole nation,” he said. “You’re going to play in the biggest rivalry ever. There’s no other rivalry like it in the whole world and to be out there playing against Michigan, that’s just huge for you. You want to leave your mark on that game. Everybody says all the great players play well against Michigan and there’s a whole bunch of pressure put on you for that game, so you kind of want to leave your mark.”
Salley, who hails from Fort Lauderdale, was asked when it first hit him just how big the rivalry was for the state of Ohio.
“Well, me being from Florida, I was always a big Florida State-Miami guy,” he said. “That was my big rivalry that I paid attention to. And when I got up here and we played (Michigan) my freshman year with the national championship on the line and the Big Ten championship on the line and all that, I believe that’s when it hit me. After we won that game and the fans rushed the field and it was 14-9, a close game, a hard-fought battle and seeing how crazy everyone was that whole week, I think that opened my eyes to see how serious it was.
“And then to go to next year and have the same opportunity, but then lose, that just made me realize how serious it could be.”
Senior cornerback Tyler Everett played most of the game against Northwestern last week after recovering from a concussion and neck strain. Salley was glad to see Everett return to action and knows he will be a big part of the defense this Saturday.
“That was huge,” Salley said. “He’s a vet who’s been through a lot here. It was great for him to be back for senior day. I know he didn’t want to miss that. He played very well and it felt good having him out there. He knows the system and can play safety or corner. I was very happy to see that and see how well he played.”
Salley is known as a big hitter and the OSU-UM is the right game for him. The hitting is raised a level or two when the Buckeyes and Wolverines get together.
“It's definitely the most physical game,” Salley said. “The last time we went up there, I was banged up like crazy in the game. I had a swollen eye and my shoulder was all messed up. And we had to take that long bus ride back after that hard loss. But it was a lot of fun, definitely, a lot of fun. You go out there on Saturday, there's just a ton of emotions flying around. Especially now, it's my last game. It's our last game as seniors. It's Ohio State-Michigan. It makes me proud to be a part of this history, the greatest rivalry of them all, man. It's going to be a lot of fun.”
Not ‘Green’ to the rivalry
Senior defensive tackle Marcus Green is having a solid year with 31 tackles, four tackles for loss and one sack. But like Quinn Pitcock, and Tim Anderson a few years ago, OSU’s tackles are not going to put up big stats, no matter how good they are.
“I think I’ve done my job,” Green said. “I mean, a player looks at his stats and stuff and he always thinks he could have done a little more. But I guess that’s just how I am. I always think I can improve something.”
Green knows he is doing things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
“Yeah, we probably occupy a little more blockers and stuff,” he said. “So, that allows our linebackers to run around and make plays. I guess as long as we’re successful and the team is successful, it really doesn’t matter and I don’t care what my stats are.”
Green has played this season at a svelte 295 pounds. That’s a long way from the 340 he was pushing three years ago. Ohio State’s coaches told him he would have to lose the weight to play, and he did.
So we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask Green about Michigan defensive tackle Gabe Watson, all 350 pounds of him. Is Green surprised a player can play as well as Watson has lately at that weight?
“Yeah, because I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I had trouble running around at that weight. But whatever works for him.”
But Green could not care less about Michigan’s defensive line. His focus is on the big and physical UM offensive line, the group he’ll be facing.
“They come off the ball hard and if you’re high and looking up and trying to see what is going on in the backfield, you’re going to go for a ride, because they will knock you off the ball,” he said.
Green was asked why he thinks Tressel has been so successful thus far in the OSU-UM rivalry.
“I think he tries to get us to focus on attention to detail,” he said. “Just the little things. It’s not just going out there and playing the game, it’s going out there and practicing hard and making sure everybody thinks about every play and executing every play. I didn’t really know Coach (John) Cooper all that well, but I know Coach Tressel and he tries to get the assistants coaches to make sure that every player has attention to detail. That could be the difference.”
Green and Pitcock have formed a very good tandem inside for the Buckeyes this season.
“I think he’s playing real well,” Green said of Pitcock. “He has some things he was dealing with, some injuries, but I think he’s playing really well. I think the whole defensive line is playing real good.”
Green doesn’t want to hear about OSU “peaking” heading into the game. He is only concerned with how the Buckeyes will play this week.
“Well, we want to make sure we don’t level off,” he said. “We want to make sure we keep going up. I think as long as we are getting better and not just staying the same, we’ll be successful.”
And Green doesn’t care about bowl destinations either. Hey, they’re all meaningless except one, right?
“I want this one,” Green said. “I don’t care about bowls or nothing else. Beat Michigan.”
Green says he doesn’t hate the Wolverines. He’s actually grown to admire their program to a certain extent.
“I don’t know if it’s a hatred, it might be more of a respect,” he said. “Because every year you watch Michigan on film and you see they’re playing other teams and knocking guys down and blowing guys up. I think it’s more of a respect that I have for them, more than a hatred.”
Green knows the key for OSU’s defense will be to contain Hart and the rest of the running backs.
“We have to stop the run, first and foremost,” he said. “It's the same every week: stop the run. Force them to do something that's uncharacteristic. They've got a great OL, QB, RBs, receivers, they've got everything they need.”
Schlegel ready to knock heads
The harder hitting in the OSU-UM game fits right into the plans of OSU senior middle linebacker Anthony Schlegel. He loves to hit and he’s been impressed with how physical Michigan has looked on film this year.
“Their running backs run hard,” Schlegel said. “They are always motioning people around and trading the tight end and trying to get you off-balance. I just think they’re a physical team. I watched the Penn State game today and they were knocking linebackers on their back and running through some tackles.”
Schlegel knows that Hart is probably healthy and will be a big part of UM’s game plan.
“He’s going to be ready to play in this game,” Schlegel said. “That’s what we expect. No. 3 (Kevin Grady) is a load now. He broke some tackles last week and he’s a big guy. But Hart is their guy and he’s going to be ready to play in this game.
“I think he’s a special back because he can catch the ball out of the backfield and make people miss. Then, he can run inside extremely well for his size. In the Penn State game, he was dragging guys with him. He’s an all-around great back.”
The Buckeyes want to pressure Henne, but the first order of business is containing Hart.
“We always talk about affecting the quarterback, but our main goal is to stop the run,” Schlegel said. “Those are like the two primary goals. In 2003, we didn’t stop the run. (Chris Perry) had some big plays and he also caught some screen passes that they made big yards on. He beat us that day, and that opened up the passing game as well.”
It’s not his strong suit, but Schlegel will occasionally drop in coverage on Saturday to give UM a different look. He knows the Wolverines have a lot of talent at the receiver position.
“(Avant) has like 70 catches and Breaston is always a dangerous threat,” he said. “I just think they try to spread the ball. Whatever you give them, they are going to try and exploit. If they see a corner hanging back, they’ll throw a quick out route toward him. I see Henne (calling a lot of audibles) at the line.”
If the Buckeyes are able to stop the run, they will turn their focus to hitting Henne and throwing him off his game. Henne said he was beat up after last year’s contest in Columbus, a 37-21 OSU win.
“Like every week, we've got to affect him and we've got to hit him,” Schlegel said. “The same things we've been doing all year is what we have to do to him. We can't just let him sit back there and make those passes because he'll make those throws. If you're giving up the strong side flat, he'll make that 40-yard throw on you all day. He moves out of the pocket very well. You have to keep him contained and affect him.”