Michigan Football: Is the Wolverines Defense Ready for Ohio State?

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Michigan Football: Is the Wolverines Defense Ready for Ohio State?
Michigan's defense is not quite ready for Ohio State.

With its Big Ten Conference hopes all but extinguished, this season is on its way to being classified as a failure by Michigan football standards. Beating Ohio State on Nov. 30 could salvage what will inevitably go down as a mediocre campaign. Is the Wolverine defense ready to slow down the Buckeye offense, though?

On paper, not at all. It is not even close.

Take a look at where the Buckeyes rank among all Big Ten teams on the offensive side of the ball:

Scoring Offense Total Offense Rushing Offense Passing Offense
48.2 points (1st) 530.9 yards (1st) 301.1 yards (1st) 229.8 (5th)

Compare those impressive numbers against what Michigan has brought to the table defensively this year, and the thought of lining up against Ohio State is downright frightening.

Scoring Defense Total Defense Rushing Defense Passing Defense
27.0 points (8th) 360.1 yards (5th) 105.1 yards (4th) 255.0 yards (11th)

Thankfully, football games are not decided on paper. In order for the Wolverines to slow down this potent offense, though, they will have to play their best game of the entire season. 

Two areas on the defensive side of the ball are a major cause for concern when looking at how Ohio State likes to attack its opponents—a nearly non-existent pass rush and a secondary that is consistently getting picked apart by less than stellar quarterbacks.

Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports
Braxton Miller is one of the nation's best dual-threat quarterbacks.

Braxton Miller will be the best signal-caller Michigan faces all year long. He may not be a Heisman Trophy candidate this season, but the Huber Heights, Ohio native is as dangerous as ever. Miller's improvements as a passer have been remarkable as well. 

The junior is completing 72.5 percent of his passes and has racked up 1,726 total yards to go along with 17 total touchdowns. Those are eye-popping numbers considering Miller missed two full games and just about all of the San Diego State contest due to injury.

However, the Buckeyes are much more than just the Braxton Miller show. Bruising running back Carlos Hyde gives Ohio State a much-needed power presence between the tackles. The offensive line features four seniors and a true sophomore. Receivers Corey "Philly" Brown and Devin Smith are big-play threats that have to be accounted for at all times.

Player Receptions/Carries Yards Touchdowns
Carlos Hyde 96 701 7
Philly Brown 41 547 8
Devin Thomas 38 542 6

What is most remarkable about the Buckeyes are how balanced they are offensively.

For instance, Ohio State opened up with five consecutive passing plays in its Oct. 5 clash with Northwestern. This is because the Wildcats were laying back in coverage, which Miller took advantage of by hitting the underneath routes. The Buckeyes drove 65 yards on those five passes before settling for a 37-yard field goal.

Pay close attention to the linebackers. Photo courtesy of Watch ESPN.

On the very next drive, the results of the passing attack are apparent. Northwestern's linebackers are back on their heels. This is when Hyde can gash teams up the middle.

The linebackers are hanging back, which makes it easy for Ohio State's linemen to take them out of the play. Photo courtesy of Watch ESPN.

Notice the linebackers hanging back. The threat of Miller stretching runs to the outside is undoubtedly on their minds as well. 

The play ends in an 11-yard gain. Photo courtesy of Watch ESPN.

This allows Ohio State's offensive linemen to get to the second level and easily take the linebackers out of the play. You can see this in the screenshot above. The play results in an 11-yard gain for Hyde.

Another key part of the Buckeye offense is the read-option. Michigan will get a chance to see some of this against Nebraska this Saturday and versus Northwestern the following weekend. It must make the most of those opportunities.

The defensive ends and outside linebackers are the key to stopping or, at least, slowing down the read-option.

Watch the left linebacker and defensive end. Photo courtesy of Watch ESPN.

Pay attention to the outside linebacker and defensive end on the left half of this screenshot

Again, keep an eye on the linebacker and defensive end. Photo courtesy of Watch ESPN.

The defensive end, Deonte Gibson, gets into the backfield and forces Miller to pitch the ball. The outside linebacker, Collin Ellis, sheds the Ohio State lineman coming to block him. This leads to what you see below. Ellis is unable to make the tackle, but he slows Hyde down long enough for Gibson to finish the play off for a minimal gain.

Hyde is stopped. Photo courtesy of Watch ESPN.

Defensive ends Frank Clark, Brennen Beyer and Chris Wormley will have to make plays in the backfield or, at the very least, turn Ohio State's rushing attack back inside. Outside linebackers Jake Ryan and James Ross III need to contain the Buckeyes on the edges to give the Maize and Blue a chance to win.

Given how poor the Wolverines secondary has been this season, trying to press Ohio State's receivers would be a mistake. It will likely employ a strategy similar to Northwestern's.

Is Michigan's defense ready to face Ohio State's offense?

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Keep the safeties back to prevent big plays over the top and force Miller to hit checkdowns and underneath routes.

The key to this game for Michigan will be generating a pass rush. As dynamic as Miller has been, he is certainly not unflappable. The Wildcats managed to rattle him on the road, and the raucous environment in Ann Arbor will help, if the Wolverines can get some pressure on him. A comfortable Miller is bad news for defensive coordinator Greg Mattison.

Ryan's return will give this Michigan defense a different look down the stretch, especially when it comes to dialing up pressure.

This front seven has made some strides up front when it comes to stopping the run. Against Michigan State, the Wolverines gave up a mere 67 yards on 37 rushes, outside of two carries that totaled 75 yards. So, there is some reason for optimism. Ohio State's rushing attack is another animal entirely.

It is hard to believe Urban Meyer has never had a back rush for 1,000 yards. Had it not been for a three-game suspension, Hyde likely would have already surpassed that. That should give everyone an indication as to how dangerous this offense is.

Back to the original question. Is Michigan ready to face the Buckeyes' dynamic offense? Right now, it is not. Everyone will have a better idea of where the Wolverines stand defensively after the next two games.

If they struggle defending the read-option against Nebraska and Northwestern, it will be a long day for the Maize and Blue faithful come Nov. 30. 

Want to talk more Michigan football? Follow me on Twitter @Zach_Dirlam.

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