Ohio State’s dazzling offensive stars are about to run into one of the best defenses they’ve seen this season.
This year’s edition of The Game could come down to how well the revamped defense of No. 6 Michigan can slow down the prolific scoring march of quarterback C.J. Stroud and the No. 2 Buckeyes.
The Wolverines have held opponents this season to an average of 16.3 points per game. Ohio State scored 49 last week — in the first half.
Something’s got to give Saturday in the Big House.
“I think that’s something that all the coaches and players on both teams are trying to figure out right now,” said Jim Harbaugh, who is 0-5 against Ohio State as the Michigan head coach. “Been spending weeks, spending every minute they can to answer that same question.”
There are huge implications. The winner moves on to the Big Ten championship game on Dec. 4 and stays in contention for the College Football Playoff. The loser drops out of the spotlight.
Stroud, a Heisman Trophy hopeful, has the Buckeyes (10-1, 8-0 Big Ten) roaring. They’re averaging an FBS-leading 560 yards and 47.2 points per game.
The redshirt freshman, who threw his first pass in a college football game less than three months ago, tied a school record with six touchdowns — all in the first half — as Ohio State rolled up a season-high 655 yards in last week’s blowout of then-No. 7 Michigan State. He’s averaging 345.8 passing yards.
Receivers Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba have combined for nearly 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.
“Their route-running ability, their catching ability, their speed to all parts of the field — really outstanding,” Harbaugh said.
True freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson’s average carry of 7.32 yards is second-best in the nation.
“We’ve been confident the whole year, but being able to click on all cylinders these past few weeks has boosted our confidence a lot more,” Olave said. “I feel like we’re having a lot more fun, spreading the ball around.”
Said Buckeyes tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere: “The only thing that can stop us is ourselves.”
Michigan made changes at the top after last season’s pandemic-shortened 2-4 season, replacing defensive coordinator Don Brown with Mike Macdonald, the 34-year-old former Baltimore Ravens linebackers coach.
Macdonald has leaned on a pair of top-notch edge rushers, Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, and linebacker Josh Ross to help contain the run and Daxton Hill to lead the secondary.
The Buckeyes have not faced a better pass defense this season. The Wolverines (10-1, 7-1) have limited eight of their 11 opponents to fewer than 200 passing yards. After allowing a season-high 293 to Washington in Week 2, Michigan’s opponents have managed an average of just 164 through the air.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for our guys in protection and for (Stroud) and everybody,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “But, it’s also going to be the receivers, to make sure they’re getting open with separation. It’s everybody across the board. It’s the running backs picking up things. Very, very talented (defense). Very powerful on the edge. They mix up their rushes — big challenge.”
The Buckeyes have scored a combined 118 points in the last games against a rival they’ll refer to only as “the team up north.”
“None of that matters,” said Ross, the Michigan linebacker. “We’re tired of talking. None of the past matters. We know what happened in the past.”