Around the turn of the decade, the Big 10 was not getting just a ton of respect in the national media. Year after year we’d all see Michigan fall just short of elite status before completely going over the cliff and into the wilderness for seven years with Rich Rod and Brady Hoke at the helm. During that stretch the Wolverines went 46-42 and never found themselves in true contention for the national title.
Ohio State seemed to be just a tad behind the SEC powers, regularly winning the Big 10 but only to then head to the title game or other top bowls and be bested by southern teams. In 2007 they went to the national title game but were crushed by the Urban Meyer Florida Gators. In 2008 they returned but were crushed by the Les Miles LSU Tigers. In 2009 they settled for the Fiesta Bowl and lost a nail biter to the Mack Brown Texas Longhorns. Then Jim Tressel had to resign in disgrace and the program had to endure a postseason ban while they rebuilt with Urban Meyer.
Neither of those programs were willing to allow themselves to stay out of the national conversation for long and responded by hiring two of the best coaches of their generation, setting up an annual rivalry showdown that now has the (sometimes begrudging) interest of the whole country.
Two very different programs
One of the great ironies of the Urban Meyer legacy is that he regularly sends kids into the NFL in droves despite regularly employing college schemes. His offense is a modern take on the sorts of option attacks that have long defined the top college football programs. His defenses have always been stocked with great athletes but after a few years of wrestling with Michigan State’s vaunted press-quarters defense (designed to stuff college offenses) he hired Chris Ash to install it as THE system at Ohio State and then brought aboard Greg Schiano with instructions to maintain it.
Ohio State has always been about tough defense and running the football, Urban Meyer has just kept them current on the best practices for doing either with his usual eye for quality and details.
Jim Harbaugh is a totally different animal than Urban Meyer, as are his strategies. Harbaugh looks out into a college football landscape dominated by spread and option tactics and sees a vacuum waiting to be filled by a classical, I-formation style squad and a complicated, aggressive defense.
The Michigan offense is pro-style in the truest sense, involving under-center formations and West Coast passing concepts while relying on a lot of different looks and plays to create advantages for the Wolverines to either knock you over in the run game or to get a receiver open. Their defense under Don Brown is oriented around man coverage and an extensive package of blitzes and fronts intended to achieve similar results.
While Ohio State has always been a program that’s keen to maintain a reputation and standing as a premier squad nationally and in the midwest, they’ve tended to be simple and quality-control focused. Michigan often likes to do things with a little more of an eye towards branding and complexity, both of those styles are very evident in their current coaching staffs.
Harbaugh vs Meyer: Round I
Round I didn’t go well for the Wolverines.
In a 42-13 shellacking that knocked Michigan’s QB Jake Rudock out of the game and knocked the Michigan defenders to the ground (369 rushing yards for the Buckeyes!) Meyer won the first round on the score cards 10-8.
The key was that the Buckeyes took a page from Michigan’s own pro-style approach to the game and rolled out some double TE sets that landed crack back blocks on Michigan’s linebackers all day long. When Michigan DC D.J. Durkin left to become the HC at Maryland, Harbaugh replaced him with Don Brown, who has more of a knack for stuffing college run games.
Michigan also struggled with both Michigan State and Ohio State’s press-quarters defenses, which make it very easy to smother rushing attacks with extra defenders. Michigan showed a greater ability to attack this style in their contest with the Spartans this year and will likely have taken a lot of valuable lessons from round I into round II this Saturday.
The 2016 squads
The 2016 Ohio State Buckeyes have weaknesses, evidenced by their loss to Penn State and near defeats to Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Michigan State. However, their strategy makes them as difficult to knockout as it makes for them to blow out anyone else.
This Buckeye defense enjoys extraordinary cornerback play from Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore, who have combined for seven INTs and 16 pass break-ups on the year. The nature of their press-quarters defense is such that it seems that where offenses are at advantage is in throwing outside on these two players who are isolated in man coverage but...
Throwing on the 6-0, 192 pound Lattimore or 6-0, 195 pound Conley in press coverage is a low percentage play for all but the most accurate QBs and big, skilled WRs.
The interior five of their defensive backfield then focuses on dominating the middle of the field with bracket coverage vs drop back passing, aggressive LB play, and active safeties. It’s a tough beat.
Their offense is very much a ball control unit that struggles to throw the ball effectively but can usually move the chains and get some points on the board thanks to J.T. Barrett’s skill and power in their option run game. He’s at 722 rushing yards at 4.4 yards per carry so far on the year and is most comfortable in their empty set, quick game passing attack that is similarly geared towards ball control. This team doesn’t score in a hurry but they’re hard to get off the field, especially when they’re willing to be aggressive on fourth and two (69% on the year on fourth down at 11 for 16).
The Wolverines are probably one of college football’s more underrated teams in 2016, as difficult as that may be to believe. Their secondary is every bit as dominant as Ohio State’s while their DL also includes several NFL prospects. Their offense is a ball-control unit, like Ohio State’s, and they also get there by changing up formations and angles for their run game. Unlike Ohio State, they don’t use the QB in the option game (save for those moments when Jabrill Peppers takes the field) and unlike Ohio State they can and will mix in ball control passing concepts from their big, run-focused formations.
Whereas Ohio State can always count on using J.T. Barrett to keep the chains moving on the ground, Michigan’s best feature is a WR corps that their QBs don’t always fully utilize. Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, and Jake Butt is a trio that even Ohio State’s secondary could struggle to keep under wraps if the Wolverines passing game was consistently managed by their QBs.
Their run game was almost similarly formidable but an injury to star LT Grant Newsome has limited the potency of their blocking game at the point of attack.
How round II could play out
The biggest question for this game is obviously Wilton Speight’s health. A few weeks ago there were reports that he’d broken his collarbone against Iowa, but now reports have him participating in practice. I wouldn’t put any degree of misinformation or spy games past Jim Harbaugh, especially heading into this game, so who knows what to expect?
Back-up John O’Korn struggled mightily last week but can add a little bit of a running dimension against most teams, although against Ohio State’s speed and athleticism there’s definitely some question of how that would translate.
The reason that this is the most important question is that Michigan’s best chance of winning this game comes from attacking the middle of the field with TE Jake Butt. In particular, via play-action that gets him isolated in the seams against Ohio State’s 5-10, 195 pound strong safety Damon Webb. Oklahoma’s flex TE Mark Andrews caught four balls for 57 yards and a TD against the Buckeyes early in the year and dropped a few more that would have resulted in a huge statistical day.
As I’ve long noted, this is where the press-quarters defense is vulnerable to getting attacked and even gashed. An alternative or supplementary approach is with the ultimate quarters-beater, the dig-post combination:
The challenge of dig/post for teams in quarters coverage is that the safety will always help the outside linebacker bracket the inside receiver and potentially leave the corner to fend for himself. A dig route to an inside receiver like Jake Butt is a challenge that can draw in the safety and leave the corner to defend the dreaded post route without help inside. I may make it an offseason project to calculate how many TD passes thrown in the Big 12 this season came on this combination (most teams in the B12 play quarters), my current guess is that it was at least 10%.
This is how you get after a quarters defense like Ohio State’s and it requires accuracy and aggressiveness from the QB, which Michigan may or may not have in this game.
On the Buckeyes’ end, they obviously have to hold their own against the Michigan DL but then they have to figure out how to account for the Wolverines’ Visa card, Jabrill Peppers (everywhere you want to be). Don Brown is going to deploy him very aggressively to account for the Buckeyes’ option run game and looking to punish the Michigan secondary with their own passing game is hardly going to be Urban Meyer’s first choice for how to respond, particularly if Michigan’s offense is struggling to light up the scoreboard.
The two paths to shutting down the Buckeyes’ offense are to either force passing downs with negative plays on standard downs, or else to have some kind of solution for when Ohio State runs single-wing style runs with J.T. Barrett on third/fourth and short. If you can’t present one of those solutions then you’re going to allow the Buckeyes to control the clock and score some points.
The game may very well come down to how well Michigan accounts for the ace up Meyer’s sleeve, the QB zone slice play. This is their top single-wing style run and it makes third or fourth and short a dreaded scenario:
As you can see, Urban can complement the play with a bubble screen outside if the defense sells out from the field or with a quick fade to big Noah Brown if the defense brings help from the boundary. It’s almost impossible to get adequate numbers to the point of attack against this play unless you play cover zero and dare the Buckeyes to beat you with the passing game...which is probably what Michigan will do.
Urban Meyer gave Jim Harbaugh a harsh refresher on the world of college football tactics last year and now the Michigan coach will need to hope for a healthy QB situation and some fresh answers on defense if he wants to avoid getting behind on the cards in this heavyweight bout.