Jim Harbaugh, Michigan Players See Improved Buckeye Team That “Absolutely” Possesses Toughness: “They Definitely Look A Lot Better”

By Griffin Strom on November 23, 2022 at 8:35 am
Ohio State-Michigan
Kyle Robertson – Columbus Dispatch

A lot was said in the aftermath of Michigan’s first rivalry win in 10 years. And at least on the Ohio State side, it hasn’t been forgotten over the past 12 months.

Immediately following the Wolverines’ 42-27 win over the Buckeyes last November, Jim Harbaugh took a perceived shot at Ryan Day in his postgame interview when he said “sometimes people that are standing on third base think they hit a triple, but they didn’t.”

But perhaps what stuck in Ohio State’s collective craw the most was when then-Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis called the Buckeyes’ toughness into question.

"They're a finesse team, they're not a tough team," Gattis said on a Michigan radio show. "And we knew that going into the game that we can out-physical them, we can out-tough and that was going to be the key to the game, and that's what we prepared for all year long.”

As a result, Ohio State’s fielded questions about toughness all year. During his Skull Session speech before the Buckeyes’ Indiana matchup on Nov. 12, Zach Harrison said “nobody outside these walls thinks we're tough.” After Ohio State’s most recent win over Maryland this past weekend, C.J. Stroud admitted he’s “hearing all the laughing and everything that everybody's been saying” in regard to last year’s loss.

If any further verification was required, Harrison made it plain when asked Tuesday about the remarks out of Ann Arbor.

“Yeah, we heard it.”

Harbaugh didn’t double down on those notions in Monday’s press conference, though. The eighth-year Wolverine head coach said “that wasn’t me” who questioned Ohio State’s toughness last season, and called the third base comment “irrelevant” to this year’s matchup in Columbus.

“We know Ohio State's our toughest competition. This will be our toughest test to date … I think they're a really good team, improved team.”– Jim Harbaugh on Ohio State

In fact, Harbaugh had nothing but pleasant things to say about his archrival during his start-of-week presser. Harbaugh said the 2022 Ohio State team “absolutely” looks tough and said he’s seen an “improved” group on film as he prepares for the 118th edition of The Game.

“We know Ohio State's our toughest competition. This will be our toughest test to date. … I think they're a really good team, improved team. It's a tremendous team. And we're very grateful to be in this position to be playing in this game. Winner takes the East, you know, winner takes all right there. So, strong opponent. And it's the kind of situation that gives you the opportunity to display how strong our team is. There's no need to hate. Be grateful for the opponent. 

“It's like superheroes. It's through a strong opponent that you get to find out who you are. They have a lot of players that are really good. They got great players, we got great players. They have great coaches, we have great coaches. They have players with Heisman habits, we have players with Heisman habits. And congratulations. Be grateful for having the opportunity to play in this kind of big game.”

Ohio State’s improvement has particularly come on defense, where first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has Ohio State’s defense ranked ninth in the FBS in total defense and among the top 15 teams in every major statistical category through 11 games.

“I'd say the defense is really good. 17 takeaways, 10 interceptions, six recovered fumbles, 16 forced fumbles, three defensive touchdowns,” Harbaugh said. “Yeah, I think it's a very strong team defensively.”

Michigan’s offensive personnel has seen the same. The Wolverines ran for 297 yards and six touchdowns on the Buckeyes last year, but when left tackle Ryan Hayes was asked about Ohio State’s toughness, he concurred with Harbaugh’s sentiments.

“I would agree with that statement (that Ohio State is tougher). I mean they got the new defensive coordinator,” Hayes said. “We watch them on film every week a few plays, and just think they’re really flying to the ball, they’re playing together this year and they definitely look a lot better.”

Wolverine quarterback J.J. McCarthy will make his first start against Ohio State Saturday, but even he recognizes how much has changed on the Buckeye defense since the teams’ last meeting.

“They do a really good job with their safeties and their safety plays, disguising everything and getting down in run fits and stuff like that, which was different from last year,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “And it’s gonna be really awesome to see how they match up with our big boys up front. … Jim Knowles coming from the Big 12 is a totally different defense than playing Big Ten football. So, be very interesting to kind of test ourselves out against that.”

On the other side of the ball, Michigan turned Ohio State’s run game into a nonfactor in 2021. The Buckeyes rushed for just 64 yards on 30 carries in that matchup, which was the program’s lowest rushing yardage total and per-carry average in a single game since 2011.

“I really couldn’t give a shit what anybody else says about our toughness ... We know what we’ve got.”– Cade Stover

But even though the Buckeyes may look more physical on film in 2022, defensive lineman Mazi Smith said that can’t be properly assessed until play gets underway at Ohio Stadium.

“I’m just looking at the O-line. I’m looking at how they pass block and how they run block. I’m looking if they get movement or don’t,” Smith said. “I’m looking if they get stopped or don’t. I’m looking at perimeter players, I’m looking at downhill players, I’m looking at what type of pass plays they’re running. And it’s actually pretty hard to get a good bead on who somebody is through tape. You got to go out there, play the first three downs, either get a three-and-out or let them get an earned first, see where it goes. See what it turns into from there. 

“I just take about two or three plays. For me personally, if I’m putting my hands on somebody and they’re going backwards, we’ll be alright.”

Ohio State’s defensive staff overhaul and offensive line coach change over the offseason proved there was at least a shred of truth in Gattis’s 2021 comment, even if Day and company won’t admit it outright. Toughness has been a theme for the Buckeyes all season, and they’ll have a chance to show it’s paid dividends on Saturday.

Before then, though, at least one Buckeye couldn’t care less about the Wolverines’ perception of them.

“To be honest with you, I really couldn’t give a shit what anybody else says about our toughness,” Cade Stover said Tuesday. “We know what we’ve got. We know what we pride ourselves on.”

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