Ohio State’s offense has been the best in the country through its first 11 games of the regular season, but it will face one of its toughest tests of the year in its final game of the regular season.
Going into this week’s rivalry game, Michigan ranks seventh in the nation in points allowed per game (16.3) and 10th in both yards allowed per game (306.7) and per play (4.67). Among the teams Ohio State has faced so far this season, only Minnesota has allowed fewer total yards while only Penn State has allowed fewer points per game and yards per play.
When Ryan Day was asked Tuesday if he thought Michigan’s defense would present the toughest challenge of the season to date, Day responded affirmatively.
“Yeah, this is a very good defense,” Day said. “I think they’re well-coached, and they have really good players. Playing with an edge, so we’ve gotta practice with an edge and we’ve gotta bring it.”
Michigan’s pass defense has been particularly strong this season, ranking seventh nationally in passing yards allowed per attempt (5.82) and eighth in passing yards allowed per game (178.4). The Wolverines haven’t allowed any opponent to throw for 300 yards yet this season, while they’ve held their opponents to just 11 passing touchdowns.
A big reason for that has been the Wolverines’ pass-rush, led by what might be the nation’s best duo of edge rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, who each have 10 sacks this season.
“They’re talented, they’re fast, they’re athletic, they’re strong, they’re everything that you would imagine a great defensive end would be,” said Ohio State left tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere. “They’re a great challenge for us.”
Across the board, Day believes Michigan’s defensive line is “by far the best front we’ll see this year,” also led by a pair of “really strong and powerful” defensive tackles in Mazi Smith and Chris Hinton.
The Wolverines also have an experienced and talented secondary led by a pair of third-year starting safeties in Brad Hawkins and Daxton Hill.
“They’re real good at every position,” Ohio State wide receiver Chris Olave said. “They’ve got a great front seven. Those pass-rushers are real good. And they’re solid in the back end too. They’ve got that safety, they got plenty of players around and a good scheme, so it’s gonna be a good challenge for us. But at the end of the day, we just gotta compete, have fun, go out there and see what happens on Saturday.”
While the Buckeyes are coming off a spectacular offensive performance in which they totaled a season-high 655 yards of offense – 500 of which came before halftime – in a 56-7 win over Michigan State, they know points and yards likely won’t come as easily this week as they did against the Spartans, who rank dead last nationally in passing yards allowed per game.
That said, the Buckeyes certainly don’t want to deviate too far from doing things the way they’ve been doing them, considering that they’re currently averaging more points (47.2) and more yards (559.5) per game than any other team in college football. So while Day and Ohio State’s offensive coaching staff surely have some schematic wrinkles planned for The Game, they also don’t want to overthink their game plan, knowing how successful they’ve been offensively.
“You can do different things, but at the end of the day, you don’t want to get crazy and start to deviate from what you do well,” Day said. “So there’s certain things you want to talk about, but there’s also things that you just gotta do what you’ve done all year and have confidence in that.”
Although Ohio State’s offense has dominated most of its opposition, the Buckeyes are still just a few weeks removed from scoring only two offensive touchdowns in back-to-back games against Penn State and Nebraska, so they’re not unstoppable. Michigan defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald and his staff will certainly be looking for any weaknesses they can exploit in Ohio State’s offense, and Day said the Wolverines’ defensive scheme is “significantly different” now than Don Brown’s defense the Buckeyes picked apart for 62 points in 2018 and 56 points in 2019.
“I think his style of defense is a little bit more NFL-oriented, the way that they’re structured,” Day said. “Coach Brown was a little bit more college-oriented. And they’re very good. They have very good personnel. They’ve done a good job.”
Day believes the most important key for Ohio State’s offense going into this matchup with a highly ranked defense, though, is to avoid the penalties and other execution errors that played a big role in the Buckeyes’ down games against the Nittany Lions and Cornhuskers. The Buckeyes had just one penalty and scored touchdowns on all but one of their trips inside the red zone last week, and they’ll need to avoid mistakes that could get them off-schedule and ruin promising drives this week.
“I think we’ve been cleaner. Just overall execution. The penalties have been down,” Day said. “We’ve gotta keep that up if we’re gonna win this game.”
As good as Ohio State’s offense has been, scoring more than 50 points in each of its last two games and six of its last eight games, this is a week where the Buckeyes have to be at their best, not only because of how successful the Wolverines have been defensively but also because of how big this game is, as both teams enter with 10-1 records but only one will end the game as the Big Ten East champion.
“I think it’s the biggest challenge because it’s the team up north,” Petit-Frere said. “This is one of the greatest rivalry games in all of sport. It’s called The Game for a reason ... we know that they’ve been preparing just like we have.”
But even against what might be the best defense Ohio State has faced all season, the Buckeyes have reason to be confident in their ability. Ohio State ranks third in the country in passing yards per attempt (10.01) and leads the entire country in rushing yards per attempt (5.82), and the Buckeyes’ offense has fired on all cylinders in each of their last two games.
With a Heisman Trophy frontrunner in quarterback C.J. Stroud, three elite wide receivers in Olave, Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Garrett Wilson, an explosive running back in TreVeyon Henderson and an offensive line that’s been mostly dominant, they know that they’re capable of putting up big numbers against any opponent if they prepare well during the week and execute well on Saturday.
“As an offense, we’ve got so many weapons, so much talent around the field at every position, I feel like when we go into a game the only person that can stop us is us,” Olave said. “So as long as we stay on schedule, keep spreading the ball around, I feel like that’s what it is.”