The Game kicks off at Noon tomorrow and the No. 13 Michigan Wolverines will be taking on the No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes. We know Ohio State is good, perhaps great, but do they have any weaknesses Michigan can exploit? Do get some inside intel we spoke to Matt Tamanini from SB Nation’s Land Grant Holy Land in this edition of Behind Enemy Lines Q&A.
Q: The Buckeyes are undefeated, they are in the thick of the CFP race, both sides of the ball are playing at an extremely high clip. Obviously Urban Meyer provided the most solid of foundations for head coach Ryan Day to start out his head coaching career, but did you expect the team to be this good under Year 1 of Day?
I expected them to be good, because the talent wasn’t leaving with Urban Meyer, but I did not expect them to be as dominant as they have been. I hesitate to assign that specifically to Day, because the 2016, ‘17, and ‘18 recruiting classes ranked fourth, second, and second nationally, and those classes are all contributing significantly this year. So, having talent helps.
But, when Day took over during Meyer’s suspension to start the 2018 season, it was clear that he was up for the challenge. Obviously, we didn’t get to see what he was like in practices, but he handled the situation incredibly well publicly, and the team looked disciplined, well-prepared, and excited to play for him. He has a much different personality than Meyer does. Where Urban was high-intensity 24/7 (sometimes to his and his team’s detriment) Day is far more even-keel; something that I think might be more suited to potentially leading a team through an arduous 15-game season.
Q: One of the biggest improvements this season has been OSU’s defense, which ranks No. 1 in total defense. A few questions about the unit:
(A) Former Michigan DL coach Greg Mattison is now OSU’s co defensive coordinator. Has he made a major impact?
Absolutely. His co-coordinator Jeff Hafley has seemingly gotten most of the public credit, because he’s younger and more fiery, but whomever deserves the credit has brought a consistency and simplicity that has really turned around that side of the ball for OSU.
(B) Is the scheme any different from last season?
It is. With the old Greg Schiano scheme, the Buckeyes played press, man-to-man coverage on nearly every snap, with complicated coverage assignments for just about everybody. This year, they are mixing in a lot more zone principles, and simplifying the approach. Rather than having players handcuffed by attempting to diagnose and adjust to every variable in the offense, the defenders have been allowed to rely on their innate athleticism to make plays. It’s been a tremendous, positive change for the unit.
(C) Chase Young is the name everyone knows, and rightfully so, but is this truly a complete defense from top to bottom? Or does Young’s presence cover up certain flaws on the unit?
As they were last year, the linebackers are still the softest spot in the defense. But, they have dramatically improved thanks to the scheme changes, and a shift in the rotation. They are especially vulnerable covering tight ends and running backs coming out of the backfield (and even more so when Tuf Borland is playing middle linebacker instead of Baron Browning). However, this is where Young’s ability to pressure the passer comes into play.
Because he is able to get QBs off of schedule, that takes some pressure off of the linebackers in coverage. It also helps that the rest of the defensive line is very much able to get pressure on their own, whether Young is blowing up plays or not.
Q: Another difference between this year and last has been the style of quarterback play. Dwayne Haskins was amazing but he was a stationary QB, Justin Fields is the opposite of that. What are the pros of Fields game? Are there any cons?
Coming into the year, I think most people who follow Ohio State expected Fields to be far less developed as a passer, and much more of a threat as a runner. However, because of nearly non-existent depth at the QB position, Day has avoided allowing Fields to run the ball too much. However, Fields has shown just how electric he can be with his legs in scrambles and on the occasional option-keeper.
But, instead of relying on that too much Day has called upon his transfer QB to run an offense focused on J.K. Dobbins running the ball, and Fields being efficient with his throws.
Dating back to his days at UGA, and even into fall camp, there were rumors that Fields had a tendency to throw a few too many interceptions. However, he has been as proficient with taking care of the ball as any OSU quarterback perhaps in history. Coming into this game, he has thrown for 33 touchdowns, and has only thrown a single INT all season. So, on the pros side, I’d certainly say that he remains a significant threat to run the ball, but he is also almost surgically precise through the air.
However, those two pros perhaps contribute to his most significant con. Because he has the ability to make special plays with his leg, and he has a strong, accurate arm, he has the tendency to hold onto the ball too long — seemingly assuming that he will be able to make something out of nothing. Unfortunately for OSU, this can lead to him taking more hits and sacks than is necessary.
Q: Fields didn’t have his best game against Penn State, J.K. Dobbins powered the offense to a certain extent. Do the Buckeyes have the ability to switch from power football to spread passing in a somewhat effortless fashion in the middle of a game when the pass or run isn’t working? Basically, how multi-faceted is the offense?
Fields had two fumbles in the game against Penn State, but he otherwise had a fairly respectable game. He was 16-for-22 through the air, and that doesn’t factor in two or three drops from wide receivers. He is never going to be the volume passer that Dwayne Haskins was last year, but he is exceptionally efficient, as I mentioned before. That is how Day and company have used him this year; do enough throwing the ball to take a little pressure off of the running game, but be judicious when you throw. Now, much of that might have been dictated by the fact that OSU has mostly blown out all of their opponents this season. So, as games get tighter, Day might swing more to one extreme or another, but we really haven’t had an opportunity to see that thus far in the season.
Q: What’s the biggest strength of the team, and its biggest weakness?
The biggest weakness on the team is certainly the offensive line’s pass blocking. They’ve allowed 25 sacks this season, which is in the middle of the pack nationally, but Fields’ legs have allowed him to avoid other sacks as well. And while some of those scrambles certainly led to positive gains, they are just as likely to end up in throwaways. Ironically, in 2018, OSU’s run blocking was atrocious and their pas blocking was fantastic. That played perfectly into having a pocket-passer like Haskins. That has more or less flipped this season — thanks to losing four of the five starters on the line — to where the run blocking is great, and the pas blocking is weak.
As Ohio State starts playing the best of the best on their schedule, they will need to figure out how to block the pass rush if they want to be able to reach the goals that they have.
In terms of biggest strength, honestly, that is a far more difficult question to answer. They have been so proficient in almost all aspects of the game, singling one out seems impossible. However, I will pick an easy one and say running the ball. For my money, J.K. Dobbins is the best running back in the country. He has 1,446 rushing yards, but has only carried the ball 20 times in the fourth quarter this season. If you combine him with Master Teague III who has 751 yards and Fields (445), they make up a pretty potent rushing attacking that has gone for a combined 557 sack-adjusted rushing yards against two of the best rushing defenses in the country (Wisconsin and Penn State).
Q: How do you think Michigan stacks up against Ohio State overall? Can Michigan gain an advantage in any way?
I’ll be honest, I am not an expert on Michigan, but I’ve watched them enough throughout the season to know that they are playing tremendously better now than they did in the first month of the season. From a talent perspective, I don’t think that it is crazy to say that Ohio State has an advantage over everyone else in the Big Ten, because of those dominant recruiting classes that I mentioned earlier. But, with the changes that Don Brown and Josh Gattis have apparently been making throughout the season, I definitely think that Michigan can compete with — and even beat — Ohio State. Generally, I am not a “home-field advantage” guy, but in a rivalry like this, with so much on the line for both teams, I can certainly see it playing a factor.
Q: Feel free to give us some game predictions and how you feel The Game will unfold
If the current weather forecast holds, and there is rain and/or snow with strong winds during the game, I think that favors Ohio State, because of their running game and defensive line. So, while I can absolutely see the Wolverines having a chance to pull the upset, I do think that they’ve gotten healthy against some not great teams in recent weeks. So, I will stick with Ohio State in this one, and go Buckeyes 34, Wolverines 16.