There’s a few different ways you could measure the first four matchups between Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer on the scorecard. The obvious one is to go by wins and losses, in which case Meyer would have results like 10-8, 10-9 or 10-10, and then 10-9 in the first three contests. Meyer has had better teams going into this game than Harbaugh in most years. Certainly in round one, arguably in round two although that was closer, and then definitely in round three when Ohio State was rotating through J.T. Barrett and then Dwayne Haskins after injury while Michigan had already lost their two best quarterbacks and were trusting their hopes in the hands of John O’Korn.
At any rate, on the scoreboard where it matters Ohio State has maintained near total dominance over Michigan this century and Harbaugh has been unable to change that fact. But at last the Wolverines have the sort of balanced offense AND elite defense they’ve lacked in previous matchups while the Buckeyes have been reeling, so if Ohio State has any kind of magical or coaching edge it’ll need to show big in this game.
Meyer loses his right hand
The big game in 2016 between two top five ranked teams was won by Ohio State in large part due to the play of J.T. Barrett. While his passing wasn’t terribly effective that day, the straight and RPO QB run game was the difference on many big Ohio State plays. The field goal that forced overtime was set up by by a scramble. The first overtime TD came on a QB power RPO...
...and fourth and one was picked up (barely) on a QB split zone play before a stretch-read handoff finished off the Wolverines.
That QB power RPO GIF’d above well illustrates the problem that Michigan had in that game, the five-man blitzes that Don Brown was bringing don’t account for the QB as a runner. All of the defenders are either on a blitz path, covering a particular skill player, or in deep zone and the RB swing option cleared out the box for Barrett to run free.
Even in 2017 the Buckeyes leaned heavily first on Barrett’s legs and then on the legs of Dwayne Haskins, at least for one big 22-yard scramble that took Ohio State down to the one and allowed them to permanently take the lead late in the third quarter.
Urban’s Buckeyes haven’t had that dimension to their offense this year and it’s been a yearlong struggle for them to try and work out how to mitigate that issue. In the meantime, they don’t really have the same kinds of answers available for when Michigan brings five on the pass-rush except to hopefully block it effectively and beat coverage with a good pass. On top of that, the 2018 Wolverines are also much more effective than previous years when only bringing four pass-rushers:
While Meyer has lost his QB run game and had to adjust (slowly) to utilizing some other tactics, Harbaugh finally has a playmaking QB at the helm of his offense that he can lean on to both execute his offense and to add some off-schedule playmaking in Shea Patterson.
It’s made a significant difference to the Michigan offense to have a QB that can consistently hit the throws that their passing game and personnel packaging creates. For instance:
Normally when a team puts two TEs on the field loaded to one side of the field with twin receivers stacked opposite, you want to get your better pass defenders on the twin receivers and your run stoppers over the tight ends so you don’t get beat down the field by the receivers or run over by the tight ends.
But Michigan plays pass-catching TEs. The first TE up the field on the inside is Zach Gentry, who’s the second leading receiver on the team with 30 catches for 475 yards and a couple of TDs. Indiana picks him up downfield but then the next TE is young Nick Eubanks who switches down the field with Gentry and breaks across the middle on a post route.
Harbaugh has always been good at using bigger personnel sets and versatile FBs and TEs to create problems for defenses and busts or matchups down the field, but not all of his QBs have been able to consistently take advantage like Shea Patterson has this season.
Here’s another example from earlier in the same game and from the same formation:
This time it’s an RPO with the TEs blocking the edge on inside zone and expanding the width of the run surface while increasing the number of DL the Wolverines can double team. That’s a tough formation to stop the run against and all the more so if Michigan is taking vertical shots on pass options if your overhangs attack the run. Again Patterson sees the opening and has his feet set and the throw out on time. This looks easy for Patterson but it hasn’t been easy for everyone who’s played the position in Ann Arbor.
Spreading out the Buckeyes
Betting against the Buckeyes when they’ve played spread teams has been a good way to get rich this season. They’ve had big problems that first emerged against TCU that many dismissed as brilliance from the Horned Frogs before the same problems also emerged against multiple other opponents.
Here’s how Schiano’s Ohio State defense has performed against the spread oriented teams on the schedule this year:
TCU: 76 plays, 511 yards, 6.7 ypp, 28 points
Penn State: 76 plays, 492 yards, 6.5 ypp, 26 points
Indiana: 70 plays, 406 yards, 5.8 ypp, 26 points
Minnesota: 56 plays, 396 yards, 7.1 ypp, 14 points
Purdue: 72 plays, 539 yards, 7.5 ypp, 49 points
Nebraska: 82 plays, 450 yards, 5.5 ypp, 31 points
If you count Maryland, who have a spread-option philosophy but not necessarily spread formations, then add a day of 62 plays, 535 points, 8.6 ypp, and 51 points. Watching the Buckeyes defend standard spread plays against the Terrapins was jarring, even after watching them struggle with the spread all year...
It’s not obvious that Ohio State’s defenders even know what they’re supposed to be doing here...in week 12 of the season against a conference opponent after weeks and weeks presumably spent shoring up their defense because it’s not a newsflash that this team has struggled to fit plays properly. Their vaunted DL hasn’t done them many favors in these games either, often blowing slants or getting unexpectedly moved out of the way.
Now it’s possible that they were caught looking ahead to Michigan and simply didn’t devote the necessary time and energy to Matt Canada’s unique offense but again, they’ve given up a lot of yards all year to spread offenses that aren’t all that potent.
Naturally Michigan has been considerably more spread-oriented this season, mixing in a good deal more inside zone and shotgun formation into their formula. They tend to use a lot of double TE shotgun sets the most, especially down the stretch as Eubanks’ role has increased. With double TE sets they can create a lot of different angles and move people around to find soft edges to run tight zone, split zone, and zone-read schemes at opponents.
They can also run G-lead, a play they’ve used to tremendous effect this season, OR G-lead with a backside read for the QB:
They tend to be judicious on when and how much they run Shea Patterson, although this week it’ll probably be more than less. Yet even utilizing him on read schemes makes the angles better and easier for running the ball with Karan Higdon, who’s already well over 1k yards on the year.
This is a nightmare for a Ohio State team that has struggled to get run fits right this year, to tackle at safety, and who has been regularly gashed by running quarterbacks.
If Harbaugh is going to start winning some rounds in this rivalry against Urban Meyer it’s now or never. Michigan has the tools and the opportunity to win big and claim the B1G East division title and a clear path to the playoffs.