By Tony Gerdeman
For just the third time this season, Michigan's defense gave up 200 yards rushing to an opponent (248 yards), and for the second time in those three games, they still found a way to win.
In the Wolverines' 38-31 overtime win over Northwestern, the Michigan defense faced a spread offense that attacked the edges and exploited an apparent speed deficiency to the tune of 431 yards of total offense.
The point of Michigan Monday is to keep an eye on the Wolverines and then later extrapolate how their season of performances relates to how they will do against Ohio State.
After seeing the way the Wildcats ran the ball, and the way they had open receivers running around, it's hard to think the same shouldn't also happen for the Buckeyes when the Wolverines come to town.
Northwestern only averaged 4.3 yards per carry, but they were 8-16 on third down conversions, which allowed them to keep running the ball and picking up piecemeal yardage.
The Wildcats' longest play from scrimmage was a 30-yard run by tailback Venric Mark, but other than that, they mostly moved the ball through hard work and patience. Ohio State has that same type of patience, and they have a much better power running game.
Last week, I asked how Michigan would defend Ohio State. Would they go with five defensive backs, or would they prefer to stay in a base defense? Obviously, they will do a variety of things, but the budding brilliance of the Buckeye offense is that they can allow a defense to dictate what they do and be perfectly happy with that. That's been Ohio State's offense all season.
If a defense is intent on stopping the running game, then the offense attacks the edges and seams, forcing the defense to open up the middle. When the defense then spreads out, they leave their belly exposed for Carlos Hyde, who is quite happy to gash it. It may sound like a simple offense, but it's done well enough to have the Buckeyes scoring 41.3 points per game in conference play.
I expect the Wolverine defense to play at their absolute best against the Buckeyes, but I'm not sure how well they will be able to contain the Ohio State running game. However, as we have already seen, just because a team can run on Michigan doesn't mean they can beat them.
Basically, I believe that if Michigan is going to win in Columbus, they will need to make sure that quarterback Braxton Miller has a poor day throwing the ball, which is something that he doesn't always need help to do.
When Michigan Was On Offense
Quarterback Devin Gardner once again got the start for Denard Robinson, who is still out with the nerve injury to his throwing elbow. Once again, Gardner looked very comfortable, completing 16-29 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns. He threw an interception late in the game as well.
He also rushed for 47 yards and two touchdowns, gaining the majority of those yards scrambling to keep drives alive. His performance was good enough to earn him the Big Ten's co-Offensive Player of the Week Award.
He was far from perfect, throwing a couple of passes that were dropped by Northwestern, but his scrambling was fantastic and was probably the difference in the game.
When I say "difference in the game", I should first point out Roy Roundtree's tipped catch on Gardner's desperation throw in the final seconds of regulation, because that was the real difference in the game. It kept Michigan alive and put them in the position to send the game to overtime.
I don't know how Michigan fans felt watching that final drive, but it was hard not to think that a Wolverine receiver was going to make a play on a jump ball. We saw it all last year, and we saw it again this week. After two seasons of seeing it, I don't think you can call it luck anymore. Good fortune, possibly. But it was certainly more preparation and skill than good fortune.
Jeremy Gallon caught seven passes for 94 yards and Roundtree caught five for 139 yards. Roundtree was making grabs, making moves, and getting cornerbacks into trouble. He was partying like it was 2010.
I don't think the receivers have been able to build much confidence this season, but lately Gardner seems to give them that option. And in turn, Gardner has confidence in them.
The running game continues to be an issue, though once again Fitzgerald Toussaint had a big play on the ground. He had a 50-yard run on a sweep that didn't see him get touched until he was 14-yards downfield. Unfortunately, when the rest of the defense caught up to him, they punched the ball out of his arms and he turned it over inside the Northwestern 10-yard line.
Toussaint finished with a season-high 92 yards on 18 carries. I won't both mentioning that his other 17 carries went for 42 yards (2.5 ypc) because Michigan fans get mad at me when I do that.
Basically, if you can keep Toussaint from busting his one long run per game, he has yet to show that he can move the chains in any consistent manner.
Thomas Rawls carried the ball three times for a total of one yard.
Over the last four games, Michigan has been outrushed 648 yards (162 yards per game) to 546 yards (136.5). Denard Robinson's absence has played into that greatly, but right now there is no Robinson, so this is who the Wolverines are at the moment.
Michigan's offense ran the ball out of the I-Formation 16 times on Saturday for a total of 30 yards. In the first half, they ran it 11 times for just eight yards. They threw the ball eight times for 79 yards out of that same formation, with seven of those throws being play-action.
The play-action has always been a weapon for Michigan football, but Gardner was just 4-7 with it out of the I-Formation, and two of those incompletions were nearly intercepted. I can't help but wonder how much the play-action has been hindered this season by the lack of a viable handoff threat.
When Michigan Was On Defense
Northwestern moved the ball against this defense by making them run sideline to sideline, which is isn't necessarily a strength of the Michigan defense. They are solid in pursuit, but can't always get to the spot in time to make a play. It happened against Air Force, and it happened again this week.
The option pitch has given Michigan trouble this season, and they'll need to get that cleaned up by the 24th or else they will be ending their regular season with a loss.
Making the Wolverine defense play in space is a very good way to attack them, but you have to have the talent to do it. Northwestern did, so does Ohio State.
For instance, when middle linebacker Kenny Demens gets stuck covering a slot receiver, a safety has to help him. Against the Wildcats, Jordan Kovacs couldn't get over to help him in time and it led to Northwestern recapturing the lead in the fourth quarter.
Kovacs has had his own issues in the coverage department, and he can be beaten with above-average throws. He knocked down two passes this week, but I expect him to be quite busy over the next couple of weeks.
Even linebacker Jake Ryan had trouble defending Northwestern's spread. It was the most mortal that he has looked in months. He finished with only four tackles, and none of them came behind the line of scrimmage. He is much better when he gets to attack, as opposed to having to react.
Michigan played freshman linebacker James Ross quite a bit this week in favor of Desmond Morgan. They needed Ross' speed on the field, and he made several nice stops. He finished with six tackles.
Demens finished with nine tackles (eight solo), including the game-winning stop on fourth and two in overtime. Lined up in a three-man front, Demens stood behind Jake Ryan, who was also standing up, and Ryan blitzed, which essentially paved the way for Demens to follow right behind him and stop the Wildcats short of the marker.
Safety Thomas Gordon led the way with 11 tackles, which I would expect could also happen against the Buckeyes.
There were quite a few cutback lanes for quarterback Kain Colter on scrambles, and Braxton Miller should also be able to find those same lanes. Colter finished with 82 yards rushing on 24 carries, though he lost 21 yards via sacks.
Essentially, Venric Mark and Colter each carried the ball for 100 yards, and if Miller and Carlos Hyde do that same thing against Michigan, it's hard to imagine the Wolverines coming away with the win.
For the most part, however, I thought they defended the interior runs fairly well, though Ohio State's power running game is a vastly different animal than Northwestern's.
On running downs, Michigan goes with William Campbell and Quinton Washington at tackle. At times on passing downs, they bring in Jibreel Black at tackle and move Craig Roh inside. It will be interesting to see how they choose to rotate against Ohio State's power spread offense.
The Special Teams
Will Hagerup punted it three times for a 51.3-yard average, which is much better than where he was a week ago. Jeremy Gallon had a 23-yard punt return, and Dennis Norfleet added a 37-yard kickoff return.
Venric Mark had a kickoff return for a touchdown, but it took a couple of holdings to get it done, though only one was called. Mark still averaged over 30 yards per kickoff return in four attempts, however.
There were a couple of instances when Northwestern could have given themselves a better shot to win the game, and one came on their final punt. Brandon Williams could have punted the ball into the endzone, but instead booted it only 34 yards and directly to Gallon, who returned it 23 yards to set up Gardner's completion to Roundtree at the Northwestern nine-yard line.
What Does It All Mean
It means that there are a lot of different ways for Ohio State to attack this defense, but if they get bad quarterback play from Braxton Miller, it won't mean much.
As long as they don't give the game away repeatedly (see: Notre Dame), Michigan has shown that they know how to win games that maybe they shouldn't.
Ohio State has shown that same skill, as their 4-0 record in games decided by seven points or less indicates.
It also means that Michigan has no worries this weekend against Iowa. Sure, the Hawkeyes come into this game having won three in a row over the Wolverines, but that was a different Iowa program than the one you see now.
Everything that Iowa does on offense and defense – which isn't much – plays right into Michigan's hands. Feel free to expect some type of 31-0 win with Fitzgerald Toussaint rushing for 125 yards.
Rest assured, the Wolverines will come out of next week's game feeling very good about themselves.
How long that feeling lasts, however, will be up to Ohio State to decide.
The Road to the Big One
Sept 1 Alabama 41 - Michigan 14 (0-1)
Sept 8 Michigan 31 - Air Force 26 (1-1)
Sept 15 Michigan 63 - Massachusetts 13 (2-1)
Sept 22 Notre Dame 13 - Michigan 6 (2-2)
Sept 29 Bye
Oct 6 Michigan 44 - Purdue 13 (3-2, 1-0)
Oct 13 Michigan 45 - Illinois 0 (4-2, 2-0)
Oct 20 Michigan 12 - Michigan State 10 (5-2, 3-0)
Oct 27 Nebraska 23 - Michigan 9 (5-3, 3-1)
Nov 3 Michigan 35 - Minnesota 13 (6-3, 4-1)
Nov 10 Michigan 38 - Northwestern 31 (OT) (7-3, 5-1)
Nov 17 Iowa
Nov 24 at Ohio State
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