Football is a physical sport, and that physicality is only intensified during rivalry games. The same holds true for the Ohio State – Michigan rivalry.
For decades, former Buckeyes and former Wolverines have said that this is the hardest-hitting game that they played in every season, and they said those words with reverence while rubbing a shoulder or craning their neck in living memory.
This Saturday’s game is obviously going to be no different, and it is entirely expected by both sides. There seems to be some questions on Michigan’s side about just how well the Buckeyes will be able to hold up to that physicality, however.
Citing underwhelming performances against physical teams like Wisconsin, Penn State, and Northwestern, linebacker Jabrill Peppers is interested in seeing how the Buckeyes like being pushed around.
“We’re going to see how they respond to physicality,” he said this week. “Just come with bad intentions. It’s never our intention to hurt anyone. But when we hit you, we want you to feel it.”
Michigan’s defense may have no intentions to hurt anybody, but they have knocked out five quarterbacks this season and they lead the Big Ten with 36 sacks. They also have the No. 1 total defense and No. 1 scoring defense in the nation.
“Our mindset is we don’t care who you played, who you lost to, who you beat, you guys haven’t played us yet,” Peppers said. “We like to think we have one of the best defenses in America who’s going to run to the ball, who’s going to hit. We bend but we don’t break.”
The Ohio State offense, meanwhile, is No. 5 in the nation in scoring, averaging 43.8 points per game, and No. 1 in the B1G in total offense, averaging 493.1 yards per game.
Quarterback J.T. Barrett leads the conference with 24 touchdown passes, and his four interceptions are the fewest by a B1G quarterback who has played in every game this season.
Part of the plan to be physical with the Buckeyes centers around Barrett and keeping him as uncomfortable as can be.
“We’ve been watching a lot of tape, we’ll get after the quarterback,” Peppers. “Just hitting him, making him flustered, that’s really it. Making him read coverages, trying to make him beat us with his arm.”
Physicality is no stranger to Barrett, who has carried the ball 164 times, which is just two fewer carries than teammate Mike Weber, four fewer carries than Michigan State’s L.J. Scott, and 20 more carries than Michigan’s De’Veon Smith.
One player that Michigan doesn’t believe has been hit much this season is H-back Curtis Samuel. Samuel has rushed for 650 yards and caught 61 passes for 790 yards, scoring 14 times total. He is Ohio State’s most explosive player and Michigan has some plans for him as well.
“I’ve been watching Curtis for a while,” the New Jersey native Peppers said of Brooklyn’s Samuel. “He’s a phenomenal athlete, strong guy, great hands. But you go into it like you’re going to cover anybody else, you got to line up, be fundamental, trust your technique and let your athleticism make plays.
“But a phenomenal athlete, definitely has a lot of respect from us. At the same time, we feel he hasn’t been hit a lot either.”
Peppers, who does not rank in the top 50 tacklers in the conference during B1G play, isn’t saying anything unexpected. Physicality, after all, is the name of The Game.
“That’s just our mindset, we’re just going to bring our hardhat and lunch boxes,” Peppers said. “You know we’re going to be physical with those guys.”
Physicality is a two-way street, however.
In 2015 at Michigan, Ohio State rushed for 369 yards. In 2014, Ohio State rushed for 233 yards against Michigan. In 2013 at Michigan, the Buckeyes rushed for 393 yards. In 2012 against the Wolverines, Ohio State rushed for 207 yards.
Can the Buckeyes do it again? Jabrill Peppers will be doing his damnedest to make sure they don’t. It will take more than that, however, to actually get it done.