Michigan has closed the talent gap in the Ohio State rivalry in most areas except for one.
We need a quick aside before getting further into this.
One of the more frustrating media narratives of the Jim Harbaugh era is his supposed inability to develop a quarterback, despite that being his expertise.
It’s as if the first 22 games of his tenure in Ann Arbor don’t count. Despite inheriting three Al Borges quarterbacks in Shane Morris, Wilton Speight and the already-committed Alex Malzone, Harbaugh made Dalwhinnie Scotch out of moonshine dirt in his first two years.
His first band-aid was Jake Rudock, who transformed from a Kirk Ferentz reject to an NFL Draft pick in one season. In year two, Speight threw for over 2,000 yards with 5-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio before getting hurt that fateful night in Kinnick Stadium.
Year three is where the anti-Harbaugh story starts for some. Speight wobbled before hurting his spine against Purdue. John O’Korn sputtered before losing the job to redshirt freshman Brandon Peters and another injury forced O’Korn back.
It’s true, people slam the head coach for not succeeding with a failed Houston quarterback who eventually became his third choice.
In fairness, all this ceases to matter when quarterback play has undermined two potential wins over Urban Meyer — especially when his backup saved the day last year. Dwayne Haskins filled in for a balky J.T Barrett, and led a comeback to top the Wolverines once more.
Haskins showed how effective the Buckeye offense can be in his nearly 20-minute debut in the Big House. He showed Urban Meyer had his backups ready, where Jim Harbaugh’s staff couldn’t overcome O’Korn’s ineptitude.
As Sean Connery would say, he’s the man now, dog, and plenty of weapons surround him.
Ohio State pre-Haskins
Don Brown and Meyer have engaged in highly entertaining chess matches in the last two outings. Michigan’s front imposed its will in the first quarter, forcing the Buckeyes into -11 yards in three drives.
At 0:56 below, Mike McCray scrapes over to Chase Winovich’s gap, and it forces Barrett to tuck the ball on a read-option — right into Khaleke Hudson.
At 5:06, Hudson flies upfield to split two blocks, and Lavert Hill sheds a stock block on the perimeter to force a big first-down loss. Against an Ohio State line with multiple all-conference performers, Brown deploys an array of blitzes to slow down perimeter runs, thus giving the front-seven a chance to fend off blocks to gang tackle.
At 8:05, Barrett holds onto the ball for way too long, allowing Winovich to sack him. Whereas Haskins later finds mismatches between his speedy receivers and the Michigan safeties, Barrett lacks that confidence in his arm.
Meyer eventually adjusted, opting to run directly at Bryan Mone. Rising sophomore J.K. Dobbins — who finished with 101 yards on 15 carries — takes a quick hitter and spins out a Tyree Kinnel tackle for a first down at 10:15.
This is also a product of Meyer and co-offensive coordinators Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day — the latter now the acting head coach — isolating defenders against their athletes. They dial up a J.T. Barrett draw off a fake-swing pass, and Rashan Gary whiffs to keep the chains moving (10:56).
On its first touchdown, Ohio State puts Mike McCray and Lavert Hill in no man’s land, giving Barrett all the room he needs for a 21-yard touchdown scramble.
Michigan responded to the next Buckeye drive by devoting more resources to the box. Barrett hit his only downfield pass for the tying touchdown.
While Ohio State’s attack will vary with Haskins at the helm, this back-and-forth demonstrates some takeaways for Michigan in 2018.
One, every one of Michigan’s projected starters up front played significant snaps against the No. 2 S&P rush offense nationally. Gary and Winovich combined for 19 tackles and three sacks, while Bryan Mone chipped in five tackles with 0.5 for loss. Aubrey Solomon spotted Mo Hurst several times, as well.
With the Buckeyes losing Rimington Trophy winner Billy Price and all-conference tackle Jamarco Jones, Michigan has the early advantage in the trenches.
In addition, Don Brown kept moving his chess pieces to stonewall Meyer’s. Before Barrett’s departure, Ohio State managed just 17 second-half yards almost all the way through the third quarter.
Brown has shown in his two years at Michigan when he has the weapons in the front-seven, he can out-maneuver the offensive brain trust of Meyer, Wilson and Day.
Ohio State with Haskins
The unexpected curveball came when Haskins exhibited a true dual-threat to jumpstart a sagging offense.
On his first throw, at 24:47 below, he sailed it in front of Austin Mack, but a holding call on Brandon Watson kept the drive alive.
Two false starts on third-down made Gus Johnson wonder if Haskins was nervous. His next throw was an emphatic rebuttal.
Where O’Korn was missing wide-open running backs in Buckeye territory (skip to 32:08), Haskins was fitting throws into impossibly tight windows.
After showing off Barrett-esque legs to get to the doorstep, Dobbins punched it in to take the lead.
Ohio State called easy throws for him to execute in crunch-time, and he delivered. He hits two crossing routes to set up two field goal attempts (one is missed).
In the end, Haskins led the offense to nearly twice as many yards in one quarter as they had in the first three. With a full offseason of tutelage, expect him to blossom in his sophomore followup.
He has all the weapons in the world around him. Dobbins and Mike Weber combined for over 2,000 yards in 2017. The former is poised for an even bigger breakout after gaining over seven yards a pop and 1,403 yards in his freshman year.
Haskins possesses several elite targets at receiver, as the top-nine potential contributors all ranked as 4-stars or higher in high school. In particular, K.J. Hill and Parris Campbell combined for over 1,100 yards.
Moreover, Wilson probably prefers a dual-threat such as Haskins to the run-heavy Barrett. His Indiana and Oklahoma offenses were pass-happy, but Michigan fans remember how he utilized Tre Roberson in 2013.
Bill Connelly projects Ohio State’s offense at No. 2 this season. Don Brown has a whole season to adjust how he attacks in Columbus.
Brief notes on OSU’s defense
The numbers are strong on paper, but one can’t help but watch the Michigan game and think the Wolverines blew several scoring chances.
Greg Schiano’s unit ranked in the top 10 on S&P in 2017, and in the top five in 2016. However, Michigan manufactured 20 points with perhaps its worst quarterback since Nick Sheridan.
O’Korn killed two promising drives with dropped snaps, and completely submarined Michigan’s best scoring chance in the fourth quarter.
After a nine-yard Karan Higdon scamper brought the Wolverines to second-and-short, O’Korn simply fell over to force a second-and-medium (31:52).
Two plays later, he misses a wide-open Chris Evans for a first down and a trip to the red zone. With Michigan down four midway through the fourth quarter, this left three-to-seven points off the field in a crucial frame of the game.
He later clinched the loss by missing Kekoa Crawford AND Zach Gentry, instead finding Ohio State’s Jordan Fuller for a pick.
Both are streaking open around midfield, so a catch likely gets them within striking distance. In the fourth quarter, Michigan lets a potential 34-24 advantage turn into a 31-20 defeat.
O’Korn’s failures overshadowed some bright spots. If you take away his sacks, Hidgon and Evans paced a rushing attack that compiled 135 yards on 28 carries. The line created holes against a front with a stockpile of NFL talent.
While plenty of disruptive talent returns, including reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, Schiano returns about half of his production from 2017. While much is expected out of ends like Chase Young and Jonathan Cooper, or former 5-star linebacker Baron Browning, question marks exist for a defense that got torched by Oklahoma and Iowa for a combined 86 points.
Basically, the battle between the Michigan offense and the Ohio State defense is who answers the question marks sooner. Will Shea Patterson start to congeal the talent around him in time for the trip to Columbus, or will a bevy of former blue-chips turn into scarlet bullets for Schiano’s defense?
Who will grow more in 2018? The answer will come in 108 days.
It’s really too early for a prediction. Take out the possibility Meyer may not be the head coach this year.
It’s strength on strength between the Michigan defense and the Ohio State offense, while the other sides of the ball need to address some potential issues.
If one is going to pick Michigan’s first win in Columbus since 2000, they are projecting Michigan finally has a solution at quarterback in Patterson. Michigan lost in 2016 behind an injured Wilton Speight, and O’Korn’s struggles in 2017 are well-documented.
Harbaugh schemed around deficiencies in his signal-callers to find himself with second-half leads the last two meetings. If Patterson eliminates that gap between the quarterbacks, the Wolverines have a shot.
In Harbaugh’s first year, Urban Meyer deployed his most talented team in a 42-13 beatdown in Ann Arbor. Since then, the talent gap has shrunk to the point where Michigan has been one position away from ending the losing streak.
While there will be no score prediction, I’ll offer this: Michigan will win if Shea Patterson is as advertised.