It has been nine full seasons since the Michigan Wolverines won the Big Ten title. Saturday night, the nation watched Michigan’s two biggest rivals compete for that honor in 2013.
Though the Wolverines nearly upset the Ohio State Buckeyes just a week before Michigan State did on Saturday, Michigan remains a clear step below its conference rivals as it struggles to complete the transition from Rich Rodriguez’s spread offense to Brady Hoke’s pro-style, more traditional offense.
After watching Michigan State’s 34-24 upset of second-ranked Ohio State, Michigan fans should have some faith in the current coaching staff, knowing it was these keys that led not only to a championship-caliber game on Saturday, but sustained success for both the Spartans and the Buckeyes all season long.
Defense, defense, defense
In a nutshell, Michigan State has been the best defensive team in the country this season.
The Spartans ranked first in total defense and fourth in points allowed, per USA Today and ESPN. They made key stops when they needed to on Saturday, shutting out Ohio State in the fourth quarter after the Buckeyes scored touchdowns on two of their first three possessions to start the second half.
Michigan, too, is trying to build a dominant defense.
Since Greg Mattison took over as defensive coordinator in 2011, the Wolverines’ defense ranked eighth nationally in 2011, 64th in 2012 and 38th in 2013. Mattison is also widely known for being one of the best recruiters in the Big Ten. With 2014 defensive signees Jabrill Peppers and Bryan Mone headlining the nation’s 17th-best recruiting class according to Rivals.com, the Wolverines’ defense should continue to improve next season.
The power of the ground game
Though the Buckeyes out-rushed the Spartans 273 yards to 134 yards, it was all Spartans on the ground in the fourth quarter when it mattered most.
In fact, the momentum of Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game was consistently dictated by the team controlling the ground game.
When the Buckeyes opened up the second half with two touchdowns in three drives, Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde combined for 103 yards rushing on the two scoring drives, accounting for 86 percent of the total offense with just their feet.
Despite all of the new offensive schemes and gimmicks introduced in the past nine years, Saturday’s Big Ten Championship game proved yet again that controlling the ground game leads to success in the Big Ten.
As Michigan transitions to a more pro-style offense, the tailback position will regain some of its lost value as future Michigan quarterbacks will be designated more for passing than running. Freshman Derrick Green could be the start of a new generation of Michigan backs to follow in the not-so-distant footsteps of Anthony Thomas, Chris Perry and Mike Hart.
Winning the turnover battle
The Spartans and Buckeyes both protect the football, ranking seventh and 27th, respectively, in turnover margin according to NCAAFootball.com.
Last night’s championship game featured just one total turnover when Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook was intercepted by Ohio State’s C.J. Barnett in the third quarter. Just one!
The Wolverines have struggled with turnovers since Rich Rodriguez took over in 2008, but that trend has improved under Brady Hoke’s watch. Michigan finished the regular season ranked 35th nationally in turnover margin in 2013 after ranking as high as 98th through six games this season.